While Marvel carves out an Avengers-sized hole in the cinema trade, DC has struggled to find a cohesive identity beyond Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Things are quite the opposite, however, when you examine the videogame output from both studios. While Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was an energetic visual feast it’s been two years since that licensing highpoint, diluted since with paltry cash-grabs for Thor and Captain America. While the last DC fighting game doesn’t inspire fond memories – Mortal Kombat vs. DC a shadow of both franchises – Warner Bros. Interactive has since developed a strong identity in games thanks to Rocksteady’s Arkham games. Returning to the fighting arena in a post-Batman world allows NetherRealm another attempt at a DC-brawler – one that is far more successful.
Draping a story around the skeleton of a series of fights can be hit-or-miss but the plot of Injustice: Gods Among Us not only works as a narrative but also serves to explain away some of the quirks of the genre. The tone of Injustice lies somewhere between the gritty violence of recent Batman properties and the flights of fancy more commonly found in the direct-to-DVD animated movies. A tragic event, instigated by the Joker but fulfilled by Superman, serves as the point from which two alternate timelines diverge. In one, events continue where the balance of villainy and power remains the same as it always has been; in the other, Superman – enraged by his catastrophic actions – uses his power to form a world dictatorship, enlisting other superheroes to his cause and destroying those who refuse to join. It creates an elegant solution to one of the hard-to-explain niggles of fighting games – specifically, when a character inevitably has to fight themselves. Within parallel dimensions, fighting a counterpart wearing a slightly different outfit can be logically explained away thanks to science (or an approximation of it, anyway!).
If there’s one criticism of the main campaign it’s that it does feel like one giant cutscene peppered with the occasional battle or quicktime event. On the other hand, that it feels at times like watching a movie is a testament to the strength of the story. This isn’t a rosy, kitsch version of the DC Universe. The violence is brutal (albeit not to the gory standards of Mortal Kombat), the occasional bad word crops up and the thematic material plumbs new depths of darkness unseen outside of a few standalone graphic novels. In the five to seven hours it takes to complete the campaign it’s hard to recall a dull moment. Each of the twelve chapters focuses on a single character, usually resulting in four or five fisticuffs before moving on to a different superhero. Every so often a quicktime event will be triggered, seeing your timed button presses keep an enemy at bay while deflecting incoming projectiles.
But enough about the plot – this is a fighting game so the real question is how does it play? Injustice is a different breed to its closest counterpart Marvel vs. Capcom. Whereas the latter is a blisteringly fast visual feast, Injustice feels much slower and more deliberate than Ryu and friends. It’s much the same comparison between Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Capcom’s finest is all about finesse and lightning fast reactions whereas Mortal Kombat goes more for the immediate payoff – the gore and violence. Injustice transposes that gore into destructible environments, sparing the censors a motive to whack the age rating sky high but giving players the explosive feedback for successful hits. Arenas are varied and detailed ranging from the Batcave to the Fortress of Solitude and feature plenty of incidental detail and spectacular destruction; scattered throughout the arenas are interactive props that can be used in combat. Some are simply heavy objects to be slammed into an opponent whereas others, such as firing the Batmobile’s rockets, will elicit a smirk from DC fans. The detail is such that different superheroes interact with the objects dependent on their abilities – whereas Superman can heft a car at his opponent, any superhero lacking superstrength might use the car as a springboard for a quick evade. Most environments are multi-tiered – initiating a heavy attack near the perimeter of the stage will likely see one unlucky character plowed through a painful transition to the next level. The Metropolis arena alone features three tiers to punch your opponent through, further increasing the replayability and fascination imbued in each environment.
Each character has a set of moves dictated by a series of combos lifted from the Mortal Kombat book of complicated button presses - light, heavy and grab moves are assigned to the face buttons with combinations of each result in better attacks. It’s almost exactly the Mortal Kombat scheme with none of the multiple button repeats from Street Fighter. Tutorials ease beginners into the basics of the game but the real professionals will memorise combos to pull off some spectacular acrobatics. Special moves, however, are far easier to trigger and offer the greatest ratio of complicated combo to pyrotechnics. A simple press of both triggers – as long as the special move meter has been filled – will initiate an always astounding strike. One such example, familiar to those who have played the demo, sees Batman Batarang his opponent, stun them with a taser and then call in the Batmobile to run them over, all in the space of one move. This level of fan-service detail applies to nearly every playable fighter, enticing players to jump between characters rather than stick with the same one, if only to see their special move in action.
Character designs show a willingness to remain universally faithful across Warner Bros. Studio titles, with Batman and other Arkham celebrities resembling their designs from Rocksteady’s DC contribution. It’s interesting to note the appearance of unseen DC heroes and villains, imagining the possibilities of future Batman villains in Arkham Origins or a Superman game that isn’t landfill fodder. Other characters recall their celluloid interpretations – Sinestro looks and sounds like Mark Strong and Superman’s suit is damn close to the Snyder style of tailoring from Man of Steel.
The combat system is at once deep and easy to comprehend – while there is plenty of scope for mastery, casual or beginner players will eke just as much fun from the surprising moves and game-changing Wagers. Wagers can be instigated once per match, pitting both superheroes against each other in a mix of quicktime event and betting scheme; up to four segments of the special-move meter can be gambled, resulting in a health-boost for the winner and health drain for the loser. It’s both a game of chance and a last-ditch stand but rarely feels unfair, fitting right in with the kinetic aesthetic of brutal beauty.
The satisfying main campaign is just the beginning of a deep Batcave of wonders, including the substantial Battle mode where each fighter goes toe-to-toe with ten opponents before an alternate, character-specific ending is unlocked. S.T.A.R.S. Labs – a challenge mode – pits superheroes in short skill-based vignettes, requiring a task to be completed. Some are as easy as defeating an enemy in a specific way while others are more inventive, involving draining health or fending off attack for a set amount of time. Completing any mode earns XP, levelling up your profile and unlocking concept art, new backgrounds, music and much more. Fighting games sometimes struggle to hold the attention in the weeks after release and Injustice goes the extra mile to keep you coming back for more.
If the extensive single-player modes aren’t enough to keep you entertained the multiplayer mode beckons players looking to test their skills against the wider world. There’s always somebody out there better than you are and while this prospect is disheartening the game modes alleviate the inevitability of failure at the hands of a pro. King of the Hill and Survivor mode join standard 1 v. 1 bouts, all accessed through a multiplayer hub that tracks XP and levels while offering daily challenges. Completing each challenge awards a hefty XP boost, shooting your overall level skywards. Aside from jumping into a ranked or quick match players can also join rooms where opponents can be selected from an easy-to-read list. Other than actually finding a player with the matchmaking system there is no discernible lag - heartening news for hardcore fighters. The roster seems to be one of the most balanced in years although there are certain characters - here’s looking at you, Deathstroke - who have easily spammed range attacks, knocking opponents to the floor each and every time. Find an opponent willing to fight fair and this won’t cause an issue but griefing can happen with unsporting types. Handily, the number of times your opponent has disconnected from a match is shown before the fight is confirmed giving you the option of denying them the pleasure to begin with.
Injustice does have a few shards of Kryptonite weakening its iron resolve; special moves can be overpowering to the extent that some may call them unfair. While the campaign is spectacular, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s actually just a movie interrupted by fights as opposed to the other way around. Finally, the scourge of fighting games – additional, paid DLC fighters – has already returned like some vengeful nemesis. To NetherRealm’s credit, these criticisms are far overshadowed by the tactful, adult story and real verve that propels the whole endeavour.
Injustice: Gods Among Us was a pleasant, if not grammatically correct, surprise that evidently holds great admiration for the source material. DC fans can count this as close to a Justice League game or movie as we’ll see for a good while and there are plenty of incidental details for aficionados to spot. While it doesn’t possess the finesse of established franchises, the spirit of Mortal Kombat can be felt through the visceral, blunt impact of every punch. The thrill of seeing a familiar location crumble to ruin over the course of a bout is unparalleled. It even manages to make Aquaman something of a badass which is saying something. While there’s still a while until DC sorts out the Justice League movie, fans and fighters shouldn’t worry too much: there’s plenty here to keep you occupied.