This review was originally written for Reset Games, a video game store in the Pacific Northwest, and received an update when posted on a website I briefly served as Senior Editor.
The first fighting game I ever played that managed to hold my interest for any pronounced amount of time was the original Mortal Kombat. When it came out, I was six years old, and really had no business whatsoever playing the hyper-violent gore-fest that the original MK released onto my fragile little mind. My mother was immediately appalled when she saw me playing it at a hotel lobby in Oregon during a family vacation a few years later, repeatedly telling me: “garbage in, garbage out.” As soon as she had left, I pulled out another quarter and played for a little while longer.
You might be surprised to learn that I’m not a sadistic psychopath having grown up playing a game like that, but it’s true! Maybe it’s because my heart and mind wasn’t exactly with the likes of Scorpion and Liu Kang. No, instead, the icons I looked up to were primarily the heroes of DC Comics, particularly the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. As a lifelong comics fan, particularly of the DC variety, I was pretty astonished when the soon-dead Midway Games released Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe in 2008, a bizarre hybrid of my favorite fighting game franchise along with my favorite comics characters.
I kind of thought that this outing would be the last we’d see of the DC characters in such a game for a while, but when the newly incorporated NetherRealm Studios announced a game called Injustice: Gods Among Us, I was very interested in the prospects. The creators of MK making a new, dedicated fighting franchise for DC Comics characters? I was skeptical, but anxious to see some how it would shake out.
Design and Story
The first bit of excitement came after learning the details of the story mode. After he was tricked into murdering his wife and unborn son by the Joker, Superman kills the maniacal clown by shoving his bare fist through the cackling chest of Batman's nemesis and sets about forcefully remaking the world to be more peaceful. He forces nations to disarm themselves and get in line with his new “One Earth Regime,” and functions as the sole ruler of the planet as a result. While some heroes align surprisingly easily behind Superman and his newfound taste for megalomania, several heroes go underground and join an insurgency headed by none other than the Dark Knight himself, Batman.
While on the outside it looks as if the story takes heavy liberties with characterizations of longstanding DC heroes and villains, we soon find out that the world headed by the Regime is in an alternate universe. When heroes from the “true” DC Universe arrive on this twisted reflection of their own world, they’re shocked to see what some of their counterparts are doing, and vow to help the insurgency put an end to Superman’s reign quickly and decisively. The entire story is character-driven and intriguing, all the way up to the minute that Superman looks into his own eyes, and is appalled and frightened by what he sees.
All in all, this is the single best story mode I’ve ever seen from a fighting game — ever. There’s nuance, rewarding character interactions and explorations, and a really good reason why they’re all duking it out. If you don’t expect much from the game’s story, then I can guarantee this: it will surprise you.
Single Player Modes
The single player campaign is littered with several small mini-games that can break up the monotony of moving from one fight to another. In one, you’re Green Arrow, shooting trick arrows at Solomon Grundy as he advances on you (“GRUNDY KILL ARROW MAN!”). In another, you’re Wonder Woman, deflecting bullets from a machine gun Bane has trained on you. There’s even a great one near the end of the story where you’re Superman, destroying cars that Black Adam is throwing furiously in your direction (though, hopefully there aren't any people in them).
The solo fun doesn’t stop at the story, though. The classic arcade ladder from Mortal Kombat returns in the game’s one-player “Battle Mode.” If you like, you can play a traditional ladder, but there are also more than a dozen special modifier battles that you can also complete, with an achievement/trophy waiting for you if you finish all of them. Some of the options include heroes or villains only, endurance (where you play through the entire cast of the game), poison (where you have to win while overcoming a slow dock on your own hit points), mirror (where you go through eight or ten characters playing as your opponent for every round),and “impossible” (where you try to beat the whole cast again, but this time with only one life bar for the entirety of the battle).
There are also small missions for each character in a mode called “S.T.A.R. Labs Missions.” Named for the foremost scientific authority in Superman’s hometown of Metropolis, in these missions you play as a particular character with a small set of fun, but challenging goals you have to meet. The first 10 missions are devoted to Superman, where you’re either dodging Kryptonite batarangs in an attempt to knock out a mind-controlled Batman, or trying to save a civilian from being bombarded with explosives by Lex Luthor.
There are more than 200 of these missions, which definitely add to the game’s replay value, as well as being downright shockingly true to the DC Comics mythos. Speaking of that, this game is absolutely packed with references and nods to the larger DC Universe. From Scarecrow, Killer Croc, Riddler, Two-Face, and Penguin showing up in the Arkham Asylum stage, to Green Lantern's Saint Walker and Atrocitus flying around while doing battle in the skies of the Metropolis stage, it really feels authentic to the universe.
From a design perspective, NetherRealm keeps the primary visual language of the characters’ costumes intact, but takes some notable liberties with some of the specifics. While Superman and Wonder Woman sport costumes not too dissimilar from their “New 52” comic book counterparts, the design philosophy is also more detail-oriented for most of the characters. The alternate world costumes on characters belonging to Superman’s “regime” are a bit more lavish, representing their leadership positions.
The bombastic nature of the violence at play in the actual fighting mechanics is rewarding, though can tend to get a little repetitive. As I’m sure anyone who saw a commercial for the game knows, each character has a “super move” that functions similarly to an x-ray attack from the 2011's Mortal Kombat game. These super moves have insane scale and appropriately comic book-esque violence as a result, whether it’s Superman punching someone into up orbit before punching them back down to Earth, or Batman tasering an opponent in the face before he sends the Batmobile to run over them at high speeds. This frenetic energy also feeds into the level transitions: each stage has multiple tiers, and with a hard enough strike near one end of the map, you send your opponent crashing to the next part while also doing a fair amount of damage to them.
The only problem here is that there’s no variation. Each character’s super move is the same every time, and on repeat executions it can become monotonous, especially if your character of choice has a particularly long one. One of the reasons I chose my primary character, Superman, is because he has the fastest, and perhaps simplest super move in the game. So, I don’t really get tired of seeing it over and over again. If picking up the game, then you might want to do the same. Although wild and crazy to see, that’s pretty much the only drawback to the regular combat mechanics.
The game plays similarly to MK, but its higher level of speed and faster tempo is actually far more reminiscent of Street Fighter. Combos are pulled off in similar fashion to MK, but there’s definitely a higher reaction time and well-rounded knowledge of each move’s execution and recovery times needed in order to truly become a master. Some characters are easy to pick up and play, such as Aquaman (who is an extraordinary bad ass here) or Ares. Others take a lot of practice, particularly big guys like Solomon Grundy and Bane, or gadget/accessory characters like Green Arrow or the Joker. For that, the game is equipped with a practice mode similar to that of Mortal Kombat, but it also has an online practice mode where you can spar with friends over Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network.
Online play is varied, enjoyable, and at times unforgiving. Like MK (I seem to be saying that a lot), it has a “King of the Hill” mode where you can join a lobby with several players, and try to take down the current champion of the room for prestige. When this mode showed up in 2011’s MK entry, it was said that the intention was to emulate an old-school arcade feel of gathering around a cabinet and watching a couple players duke it out. It’s still fun to do here, but be ready to fight when it’s your turn: you dive right into the deep end.
Injustice is a pretty spectacular first outing for a new fighting game franchise, using some of the most timeless characters in all of fiction (except for maybe Killer Frost). This is definitely a game you should try if you’ve ever been a fan of 2D fighters or of DC Comics (and especially of both), and is easier to pick up now that there’s an “ultimate edition” that includes all previously released DLC, as well as a port released to the newer PlayStation 4. With a wealth of unlockable material, a rich story mode (the best in any fighting game ever, in my opinion), tons of multiplayer options, and some simply bad-ass moments (Aquaman feeding his opponent to a shark, for instance), this is definitely a game I’d encourage you to pick up.
Beyond the great mechanics and modes, though, is a truly superb story that utilizes most of the characters at play very well. In addition to painting a nightmare scenario with some of DC’s most powerful icons, it also paves the way for a solid path to victory by focusing on Superman in a way that accentuates his moral outlook as well as his physical abilities. Although people are often enamored with seeing what an evil Superman looks like, Injustice‘s story shows us why totalitarianism is territory that you don’t want to see the Man of Steel tread into. If that ever happens, the only thing in existence that can stop him is another Superman. All of the elements add up to the best use of narrative storytelling I’ve ever seen in a fighting game, and the very solid new fighting game franchise is just a thick helping of icing on top of an already superb cake.