As a comic book and Mortal Kombat fan, I was closely watching the development of NetherRealm's Injustice: Gods Among Us with great anticipation. How could it go wrong? The combination of a roster of beloved DC superheroes and villains along with the brilliant fighting mechanics that defined the Mortal Kombat remake rightly had me drooling at the possibilities of taking on Green Lantern as Batman. It turns out that not only was my excitement warranted, Injustice is easily the best superhero-based fighting game since Marvel vs. Capcom 2 over a decade ago, and makes a strong case for best superhero fighting game ever.
Most fighting games are only worth the roster they bring to the fray, and Injustice features an enviable roster of 24 fighters from the storied pages of DC Comics' vault. From ultra-popular characters like Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor, Green Lantern, Harley Quinn, The Joker, Bane, Catwoman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman to more obscure characters like Shazam, Cyborg, Killer Frost and Deathstroke, you're bound to find a few favorite characters in this game. Best of all, unlike Mortal Kombat, which achieved roster balance by making all the characters move in similar (read: ninja fast) fashion, Injustice accomplishes the more difficult task of achieving character balance by mixing in lightning quick smaller characters like Harley Quinn with the more hulking and damaging characters like Bane. Each character seemed to move and attack as you'd expect. For example, Harley Quinn moved quickly and was more conducive to pulling off long combos, while the hulking Bane moved slower and did more damage with individual attacks. While the movements and over the top nature of the game are reminiscent of past NetherRealm titles, this is its own beast. The biggest difference this time around is that there is no block button. Blocking is accomplished by pressing back, like Street Fighter or countless other fighting games. Also, instead of assigning a face button to each limb, each character has a light, medium and heavy attack, along with a character specific button that activates powers unique to each character; this gives Injustice a unique feel amongst fighters without completely abandoning fighting game convention.
When landing attacks and taking damage, you'll fill a power meter in the bottom of the screen that give you a whole bunch of different options. You can augment your special moves and break combos by using parts of the meter. Every character has a devastating supermove they can use that are similar to Mortal Kombat's X-Ray moves as well. The unique addition are the clashes, that can only be used once the first energy bar is depleted on one fighter. These clashes have players wagering portions of their super meter against the other in order to heal themselves or deal massive damage. The clashes can really turn the tide of battle when used correctly, and it's great that the characters give off opponent-specific one-liners before the clash takes place.
Like MK before it, Injustice is a heavily combo-focused affair that is equally rewarding for newbies as it is for tournament-level players that demand more strategy and depth from their fighters. On the lower difficulties, less-experienced players will have a ball learning the easy to perform special moves and mashing buttons on their way to success. Medium difficulties and beyond will require some very quick reflexes and appreciation for how the combo system works. For those who want to delve even deeper, there's a slew of advanced techniques to learn such as bounce cancels and whatnot. Pausing the game even brings up a slew of menus that give you detailed information on every move, right down to the exact damage levels and number of frames in the animations. Injustice is every bit as deep as you want it to be, no more and no less, an admirable feat for a fighting game to accomplish. It's a little frustrating for those who want to get a little deeper into the game with the lackluster tutorial mode. It's mostly learning by trial and error which will work better for some players than others. Experience with Mortal Kombat will certainly help.
Injustice seems to concern itself with excessive bombast and cinematic fighting moves that truly bring these comic book battles to life, and the biggest reason why is the outstanding environments. The game is played on a 2D plane that allows for a staggering amount of environment interactivity. The backgrounds in the game are something to behold. Many of the backgrounds will be familiar to fans of DC fans of all stripes and franchises, but there's definitely a bit of a Batman slant here. Included in the level roster are Arkham Asylum, Wayne Manor, The Hall of Justice, The Watchtower, and Metropolis to name a few. What really sets the backgrounds apart is how incredibly interactive they are. There are background elements in the levels that different characters will interact with differently depending on their size and strength. Interacting with the background elements is as simple as positioning yourself or your opponent in the right place and hitting the right bumper. Almost all of the levels can take place on multiple tiers, with some wonderful transition effects that cause massive damage. In the case of the Arkham Asylum level, you can smash your opponent into a padded room with several Batman villains who each take a turn smacking your opponent around before tossing them into another part of the stage all together. It's a great way to combat the tedium that can set in on a one on one fighting game.
There's also an experience system that allows players to gain levels and access cards for a staggering amount of unlockable content.
There's a slew of modes to try out the fighting in, but the main attraction is certainly the story mode. Following in the footsteps of Mortal Kombat's wonderful story mode, the story mode makes a great excuse for all these heroes and villains to clash on an equal playing surface. Some DC purists may scoff at the alternate universe storyline that casts Superman as a murderous, dictatorial thug and the main villain. I thought the story was a unique twist that offered just the right levels of campiness, poignancy and necessary plot maneuvering to make sense. It's a blast, but it's a shame that it's over in about four hours, if not less.
The other two main single player attractions are Battle mode and S.T.A.R. Labs. Battle mode contains the classic ladder modes, along with a ton of unlockable modifiers for some significant challenges. For example, you can be poisoned and have your health constantly draining, trying to get through ladders on one energy bar, taking out the whole roster of characters and more. It's disappointing that you can only see a character's ending through the classic ladder mode, but there's plenty of challenges here for the devoted.
S.T.A.R. Labs is similar to Mortal Kombat's challenge tower in that there are hundreds of character specific challenges to take on that are equally fun and grinding. These mini-challenges have a distinct sense of humor, and really help players learn the ins and outs of each character. It can be a bit of a grind, and it's disappointing that you can't tackle the challenges in any order, meaning you might have to play some big challenges on characters you don't care about to play the ones you really want. Each challenge is ranked with a three star rating, and you'll definitely put some significant time in to get three stars on every one.
Multiplayer is well accounted for with a couple of modes both online and off. I was really bummed to see that the awesome 2-on-2 ladder mode from MK was given the axe, meaning there are no real co-op options to speak of. If you have like-minded friends at a similar skill level, this might not be a big deal, but I found the 2-on-2 mode to a great way to introduce less experienced friends to the game without having to slaughter them by being hours ahead on the learning curve. Definitely a missed opportunity for NetherRealm. Injustice also offers a slew of online options for fighting, including one on one matches, king of the hill modes, and a survivor mode that has your health carrying over from one opponent to the next.
The presentation in Injustice is top-tier for the fighting genre. Characters animate beautifully, the interactive environments are exquisitely detailed, the frame rate never dips, and special moves and explosions are appropriately bombastic. As great as Injustice looks, it probably sounds even better. Fantastic music with appropriate musical cues for specific moves and appropriately serious and cheesy voice acting completes a wonderful comic book package that will please any DC fan.
With the release of Injustice, I think it's safe to say that the folks at NetherRealm studios have made themselves the developer to beat when it comes to modern fighting games. The perfect balance of accessibility and depth, interactive environments, lighting fast gameplay, and an enviable roster of comic book legends makes this a must play for any DC fans and fighting games fans alike. If you're in both camps, you've got a game here that will keep you busy all summer.