At last year’s E3, you couldn’t escape the Flash. I mean, you can’t really escape him normally but it was especially egregious wandering between halls in the Los Angeles Convention Center last June. Huge, spanning banners for Injustice: Gods Among Us dominated the entire airspace in the walkway between South and West Hall and all I could think was how much I disliked the character design for the ol’ Scarlet Speedster.
Nearly a year later and that much hasn’t changed, though after playing through the entire story, most of the side stuff, and a hefty amount of online multiplayer matches, I’ve decided to set aside my superficial qualms with the game and appreciate it for what it is: a rather fun and mostly unique fighting game with just enough hooks to keep you interested.
That shouldn’t be much of a surprise, though, given the pedigree of the game. Led by Ed Boon, the Chicago-based NetherRealm Studios put out the Mortal Kombat reboot from 2011, which makes sense seeing as how Boon was co-creator of the franchise so many years ago. That was a fantastic fighting game with enough quality content in it for perhaps another one or two releases. The question, then, was how NetherRealm planned on setting Injustice apart from the latest iteration of Mortal Kombat and 2008’s inbetweener Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
For starters, the roster is wildly different; they’re all DC comic book characters. A purely 2D fighter (with some brief background interactions), Injustice features a cross-dimensional war between a prime representation of the DC universe and an alternate one. They are, ostensibly, the same universe save for one crucial detail: the Joker. In the warped dimension, he succeeds in nuking Metropolis, shooting Jimmy Olsen, and tricking Superman into killing Lois and their unborn child. This causes the Man of Steel (and Less-Than-Steely Resolve) to lose it, killing the clown and establishing himself as High Chancellor over the One Earth government where his might guides his rule.
As far as wackadoo comic book stories go, it’s relatively acceptable and even borders on dark and thematically complex (absolute power and whatnot). The tie-in comic miniseries is kind of hard to swallow once you understand how the Joker managed to do all this, but at least they justify most things, even if the justification is a haphazardly explained pill that makes everyone super strong and super durable.
The problem with all the non-fighting stuff is the character designs and development. Personally, I’m not a fan of the armored look on superheroes (I think it makes them look over-the-top and clashes with the idea that all they need are their skills and smarts to succeed). The Flash has claws and Batman looks like Big Daddy from Kick-Ass. And the female characters are, um, salacious, I guess you could say. Sure it’s a trope for fantasy and comic book women to dress in garb ill-suited for combat, but this is kind of ridiculous. Wonder Woman has two bounce houses on her chest and Harley Quinn is basically wearing half a napkin.
Given the chance to reinvent some of these characters in a one-off and an alternate universe, they all feel a bit standard and stock. They seem to make a concerted effort to make Aquaman come off as more of a badass, but it never amounts to much more than some yelling and trident waving. Cyborg has always come across as a lazy character to me anyways and Injustice doesn’t do much to change my mind. The often muddy textures and flat-looking clothes and faces don’t help the matter, either, nor do the goofy monologues (the voice acting itself, however, is fantastic).
This is, however, a fighting game, so most of that is ancillary to the primary experience offered here. The story does have a nice, satisfying conclusion even if it is all the way predictable, but the gameplay is the meat, potatoes, and part of the dessert in fighting games and Injustice serves it all up rather well. It’s a three-button fighter with light, medium, and heavy attacks and, in a massive shift from Boon and Mortal Kombat‘s wheelhouse, uses back and crouch to block instead of a dedicated block button.
That little fact alone changes most of how the game feels compared to Mortal Kombat, though most of the special and combo moves feel very much like NetherRealm’s more gruesome offering. It’s a lot of down and back or back and forward with some stick presses tied in for combos, but it’s the speed that really makes Injustice go. It will look a lot like your average Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat match when everything is in motion, but it seems like Injustice wants its button inputs as fast as possible. Like, if you could put it in all at once, then it might be happy. This increase in speed on the player side translates to a massively different and much more hectic experience despite the commensurate output.
That’s not to say, however, it isn’t accessible. The mechanics are simple enough that even newcomers to the genre can pick it up and have fun. Button mashing is a totally viable option for most of the story and, I’m guessing, most of the beginner-only multiplayer lobbies. But the layers beyond that are where it gets interesting. You have unblockable throws that have to be countered with your own throw, overhead smashes for blocks, meter burns on special moves that increase damage, environmental attacks, bounce cancels, and, not least of all, your character power button.
With the simple press of the button, you activate your character’s special ability. For some, it’s simple like with Superman where he gets bonus damage for a little while or Deathstroke who gets longer bursts of gunfire. Others are complicated and introduce pleasant complexities to the proceedings. Green Arrow, for instance, will instantly fire off a shot, but depending on other inputs, could freeze your opponent or set them on fire. Wonder Woman switches from a lasso to a sword and shield and all of her combos and moves change along with them.
All of the inputs for Injustice are simple and straightforward but the interactions between them all make it endless interesting. The one thing that doesn’t work quite so well, though, is the clash system. As your meter fills, you can execute a super move à la Street Fighter, or you can interrupt someone’s ongoing combo with forward + medium attack to initiate a clash. At that point, you select how much of your meter you want to wager in the clash, and the difference in the bets determines how much health the defender gets back or damage the attacker does. It features a nice little cinematic with custom dialogue that matches each duo, but it doesn’t really make for much fun.
I’ve never had a match that hinged on a clash and instead frustrated me in either having to whittle an opponent’s health back down or charge back up my meter so I can do my super. And all I really want to do in each match is get out my super move because those are ridiculous. They may begin to wear on you after prolonged sessions, but that doesn’t stop them from being great. Aquaman has a shark come bite you in the god damn chest. Deathstroke kicks a freaking sword through your torso. It’s great.
The surrounding accoutrement mostly fits the previous Mortal Kombat template, which is pretty much a good thing. The S.T.A.R. Lab is a direct analogue to the Challenge Tower and is, for the most part, just as fun if lacking most of the ridiculousness. They get tricky, though, and to earn all three stars in the advanced challenges will definitely take skill and practice. Just don’t expect to get any of that in the tutorial.
And the online multiplayer stuff is solid and everything you would expect from a modern online fighting game. Eight players can band together to spectate and chat and fight amongst each other in either one-on-one, King of the Hill, or Survivor matches while an ESPN-like ticker of tidbits scrolls across the screen, detailing how many Nightwings have fought and how many suits of armor have been destroyed. There’s also a really neat little practice arena thing you can do so you can just dick around with other people that has onscreen frame data and favorited moves.
I’m not sure how much lasting power Injustice: Gods Among Us will have, but for the time you play, it is definitely a good game. It changes enough up to where it doesn’t feel like any other fighting game out there and adds enough NetherRealm flavor to the broth that it still has some heritage. It’s fun to jump in on a fighting game before things get figured out and solved (Deathstroke is a favorite online because no one has figured out how to consistently get past his interminable gunfire), and navigating those wrinkles in this game means a lot of the Flash running around the world to uppercut Sinestro and Batman running you over with his Batmobile, so this just might be one game you don’t want to escape from.
+ It moves fast and plays into skillful hands just as easily as it does clumsy ones
+ The intricacies of interacting mechanics opens up to more nuanced fighting
+ Super moves are ridiculous and I love them all
– Sloppy textures and bland story don’t do much to bolster confidence in the unfortunate character designs
– Clashes seem to only serve to slow down fights
Final Score: 8 out of 10