People love a good crossover. It’s just natural to get excited when two separate, sometimes wildly different pop culture icons start messing around with each other. NetherRealm, the makers of Mortal Kombat, figured that out when they helped save their beloved 2D fighting series from the status of arcade relic by doing a mash-up with one of the reigning kings of the crossover, DC Comics. After spending most of the ’00s putting out increasingly lukewarm regular installments of the main Mortal Kombat franchise – and one totally awesome brawler, Shaolin Monks - NetherRealm’s 2008 entry (and their last under the original Midway Games production title), Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, put enough juice back into the Mortal Kombat name to make it matter to this generation of consoles. One game later, NetherRealm is returning to the fanboy well with a new, all-DC character fighting game, Injustice: Gods Among Us.
It’s a confusing, and surprisingly brand-less title for something that would have better market recognition with a dumb name like DC Comics Super Fun Battle Extreme, but yes, after perfecting the Mortal Kombat half of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe equation back in 2011, NetherRealm has turned their full-attention to a stand-alone pugilism extravaganza starring some of your favorite comic book characters. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman (hipsters love him) are all in their very own fighting game, along with a surprisingly deep roster of other DC notables. There’s something strange about now being the time for Injustice, seeing as the logical chronology would be for a licensed game to save the studio, and then later be made into a promotable mixing of peanut butter and chocolate with the flagship series. You could easily envision a parallel universe where the release schedule was supposed to be Injustice, Mortal Kombat, and then MK vs. DC.
Speaking of which, the multiverse, every writer’s logical go-to point when they feel like saying, “Eff it, let’s have Catwoman fight Doomsday,” plays a big role in justifying the varied collection of 24 fighters available at release (a season pass offering four upcoming DLC characters is available for purchase). Setup in a prequel comic book series, Injustice: Gods Among Us sees the Superman of an alternate universe turning into a dictatorial titan following the destruction of Metropolis, rewriting the rosters of good guys and bad, after Superman kills roughly half their occupants. When a handful of Justice Leaguers get pulled over into the Super-Dictactor universe, almost any matchup for a brawl is possible, thanks to the new battle lines drawn, and a handy little pill that gives mortal workout enthusiasts like Green Arrow a shot at taking down the Man of Steel. You have to appreciate the effort NetherRealm put into building their conceit, because, come on, is anyone really going to care why it is their favorite panel pals are slugging it out?
Well, yeah, actually, but not for the obvious reason of comic book fans demanding a plot device. Thing is, NetherRealm’s last Mortal Kombat game stood out impressively for having what was pretty much the greatest story mode ever made in a fighting game, improving on a unique single-player mode first introduced in MK vs. DC. Injustice: Gods Among Us copies the same structure, wherein the player gets a good introduction to half the cast through a series of narratively driven fights, which are divided into a dozen chapters across the roughly 6-8 hour campaign. Mixing things up this time are mini games that occasionally show up between fights, and have you doing fan service-y stuff like countering an assault of oversized yellow projections from Sinestro, by using an equally imaginative series of defences with Green Lantern. The breaks are amusing distractions at first, but quickly grow old once you realize they’re mostly glorified quick-time events that have you hitting button prompts in order to delay your next opponent from taking away a big chunk of your life bar before the inevitable fight.
The story itself, though, is…disappointing. Thanks to the presence of a good and evil version of most every character, NetherRealm has a much easier time of contextualizing a fight between each combatant, but the tale’s progression itself is pretty weightless and cheesy. Two Batmans (Batmen?) working together to stop a power-hungry Justice League should offer a lot more material than what’s on display, and the overproduced cutscenes often have you watching more combat than actually enjoying it yourself. Again, this wouldn’t be an issue if NetherRealm hadn’t already proven they can spin a really great yarn using both the framework of a fighting game and a host of characters that aren’t exclusively their own. When the last DC fighting game had a melding of Darkseid and Shao Khan as the final boss, it’s hard not be a bit letdown by Injustice‘s climax, and a lot of what leads up to it.
But that’s burying the lede a little bit; the most important thing about any fighting game is the combat itself, and Injustice moves NetherRealm into some interesting new territory. Sure, you’ll recognize the pedigree whenever you see Batman doing a reverse-Scorpion hook, or have Shazam pounce on you with Raiden’s human torpedo lunge for the fifth time in a match, but Injustice shakes up a lot of the givens that come with your typical MK experience, while sampling ideas from other franchises. Fatalities are nowhere to be found, and there’s optional swirl-based button input modes that typify the likes of Street Fighter, instead of tap-based MK. There’s not even a block button for crying out loud – you have to hold back on the stick, like an animal.
Most interesting is the change from a 2-2, punch and kick button layout, to a light, medium, heavy, and “special” button scheme. Each character has a unique ability tied to a face button, and the abilities distinguish playstyles for each character in major ways. The Joker will gain movement bonuses for landing a parry, Hawkgirl has the ability to fly, and Green Lantern is basically useless until you charge his power ring up. While many of the abilities are just temporary steroids or style changes, they all significantly impact the flow and pace at which your character will want to fight. A mistimed block from your opponent can give you an opening to throw them around as Solomon Grundy, or change Green Arrow’s normally annoying, and spammable projectiles into deadly elemental arrows.
What does carry over from 2011’s MK is the emphasis on accessibility: the X-Rays, which let characters execute devastating, energy bar-clearing combos on command, return in the form of Super Moves, which are a quick way to even the odds, or blow an opponents life bar out of the water. They may not be fatalities, but almost all the flashy beatdowns are incredibly fun to watch, which is a must: if you have to watch the same 10-second cutscene every time you fight Doomsday, it might as well involve him punching you through the earth’s core, then taking the time to punch you back into the arena. Meter can also be expended in the new Clash System, a less successful addition, that has the fighters dramatically charging at each other while the players wager Super Meter, with the highest bidder either adding to their life bar, or depleting their opponents. It’s a novel idea, but one that usually doesn’t seem worth employing, as meter could be better spent dishing out a nasty combo, without putting a pause on combat for another ten seconds.
The new feature designed to ease casual fighting fans in, and give Injustice some added flavor in the gameplay department, is the environmental interaction system. At the tap of a button, players can use environmental background objects for a quick escape, or an improvised weapon, depending on what character they’re playing. Anyone, however, can initiate a scene transition, the awesome, and hilariously slapstick-y launchers that will send your opponent from the edge of the arena you’re currently fighting in, to a new stage entirely, one that’s linked to the original by its own transition. Like the Supers, the charmingly over-the-top insanity of the transitions means you’re unlikely to tire of them early, and they offer another easy way for less experienced players to dish out some damage and feel like their character is doing something cool.
This is a good thing, because the fighting system in Injustice is more tuned for genre enthusiasts, even going so far as to include frame counts on the movelist. The pace is slowed down slightly from MK, but there’s plenty of depth to the combat, and it’ll be interesting to see how the meta breaks out once the game has been in the hands of the fighting game community for awhile. Then again, it’s an odd decision to have the actual fighting play more toward the hardcore crowd, as the environmental interactions automatically create stages that will bias toward either player one, or player two, depending on starting positions. The stage-based flourishes can be turned off, but without them, Injustice loses a lot of the cartoonish silliness that makes it enjoyable.
While a quick cheat sheet of special move inputs is only a button press away, the game is reluctant to offer instruction on more elaborate combos, leaving them for the player to figure out, or have unleashed upon them in the game’s online arena. Among Injustice’s best differentiations from 2011’s MK is that its online isn’t completely broken at launch, letting you go Mano-a-Aquamano with other players in ranked and player matches, as well as arcade-style King of the Hill. But that’s about it: there are no spectating options outside of waiting for your turn in KotH, and there’s no way to save replays. The experience system lets your profile level up, and unlock new flairs and stickers for your online profile card, but meaningful unlocks from the online are non-existent.
And when you start looking at the whole Injustice package, it’s surprisingly thin. A classic ladder mode, complete with brief character endings, is available, as are a number of ladders with modified rulesets, though you earn nothing for completing those, save for more experience. The Challenge Tower returns from Mortal Kombat, retitled the S.T.A.R. Labs, but the challenges this time out are all too frequently a tedious game of Simon, or just a few seconds of button mashing. Worst of all, is that the game’s hardlocked “best of three” match tally means there’s no way to vary up local, or online play with different round counters, weird modifiers, or tag combat, all of which were in Mortal Kombat two years ago.
Leveling up your profile gives you access to key cards that unlock concept art and some story skins from the game’s Archives, but many of the wilder and more interesting costumes are locked behind iOS app integration, or DLC/pre-order nonsense. It’s a shame, because the character models are Injustice’s best graphical showcase (surprisingly, NetherRealm’s designs are relatively undersexualized compared to both comics and Mortal Kombat). The stages are all well produced, and have a lot going on in the background, but textures that look fine from a forced 2D perspective can appear really rough once cutscenes from different angles get involved. And it’s bad enough that characters don’t have more than a single entrance and win pose, but some of them are laughably poor in quality; apparently, Green Lantern likes to celebrate victory by hanging out with a bunch of cardboard cutouts of the Lantern Corps.
NetherRealm hasn’t lost its touch for developing solid core fighting game mechanics, and a number of Injustice: Gods Among Us’ experiments turn out to be a lot of fun, but the sparse features, and underwhelming story mode, leave you feeling like this was a holdover project, counting down the timer until a Mortal Kombat 2 can hit the scene on new hardware.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game, which we were provided with.