The 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot may have come first, but we suspect Injustice: Gods Among Us was the game NetherRealm wanted to make all along. The DC Comics licence is certainly a better fit for the studio’s template: accessible fighting games with a wealth of singleplayer content, including lengthy story modes. Yet where Mortal Kombat’s bloodlust left a bad taste in many mouths, Injustice’s cartoonish slapstick aims for the funny bone. And while NetherRealm was previously bound to mechanics that are almost two decades old, here it’s freer to experiment. The studio’s previous game might not have been a pitch to Warner Bros – its publisher and owner of the DC licence – for Injustice, but it was certainly a dress rehearsal.
Even the story lends itself well to a fighting game. Joker’s thumb is hovering over a detonator that’s set to blow Metropolis sky high when both he and the gang of superheroes that are bearing down on him find themselves sucked into a parallel dimension. In this reality, Superman, driven mad by the deaths of Lois Lane and his son, has taken over the world and rules it with quite the iron fist. Batman leads the insurgency against him, and it was he who lit the interdimensional bat-signal. It’s a smart setup for a fighting game that blurs the lines between good and evil, and provides a handy narrative justification for when combatants face their own selves in mirror matches. The pacing is great, and you’re rarely more than a couple of minutes away from a fight. And with a well-chosen voice cast drawn from the Justice League cartoon and other DC games and media, plus battle loads hidden in cutscenes and vice versa, it’s slickly produced and well worth the four or so hours it will take you to see the credits.
Mechanically, Injustice is clearly from the same studio as Mortal Kombat. Combo inputs should be done at speed, rather than perfectly timed, and projectiles go through one another instead of cancelling each other out. Yet there are departures from the formula, chief of which is the casting aside of the block button, with players now holding back or down on the stick to guard against high and low attacks respectively. Those uncomfortable with the Mortal Kombat-style directional special move inputs can change them to stick rotations in the options menu, too, a welcome nod to players more accustomed to Street Fighter controls. Light, medium and heavy attacks are mapped to the face buttons, with the fourth performing a fighter’s Trait, their individual hero power, most of which are limited by cooldown timers to prevent overuse. Batman’s sees him surrounded by three bats, which can be fired off as projectiles; Superman’s increases the damage of his attacks; Flash’s slows an opponent down, as if the speedster is moving impossibly fast. They’re a smart addition, differentiating the cast in more obvious ways than a genre-standard set of special moves and, of course, a logical fit in a game about superheroes.
Fighters’ super moves – performed by squeezing both triggers simultaneously – are also consistent with the fiction. Forget Mortal Kombat’s torture-porn X-ray attacks. Here, getting caught with a super move means being uppercut into the sky by Superman, or shot point blank in the face with Joker’s rocket launcher. Aquaman summons a vast tidal wave, then holds his opponent aloft on the end of his trident for a passing shark to snack on. But spectacle isn’t limited to those with a full super meter – tilt the stick away from your opponent and press the heavy attack button at a certain point in a stage and you’ll send your foe flying to a different area. It’s an idea cribbed from Dead Or Alive, but being knocked off a bridge to the ravine below seems like small fry after you see a hero sent flying through walls, ceilings, water towers and helicopters. By the time the dust settles, the character on the receiving end has lost a third of their health.
Players can also make use of the immediate environment, with a flashing button prompt next to each fighter’s life bar signalling when such a move is available. You can bounce an opponent off a piece of scenery in the background, rip open a nearby pipe and freeze or burn your foe, and pick up and throw all kinds of ordnance – grenades, barrels, even cars. Some are useful when you’re on the defensive, a handily placed car serving as a platform to backflip to safety when trapped in the corner. Like any other fighting game, spacing (maintaining a favourable distance between you and your foe) is key, but now you also have to pay close attention to where you are onscreen, because there’s danger everywhere. Injustice is about more than stage corners and the acres of space in between.
This welcome focus on spectacle – and the highly recognisable cast – makes Injustice more accessible than most modern fighting games, but there’s plenty to appeal to seasoned players. The pause menu contains the usual list of special moves, sure, but also every combo, as well as frame data (showing the advantage or disadvantage of an attack hitting, missing or being blocked) for your entire movelist. The Wager system, which lets players bet a percentage of their super meters in a bid to regain up to a third of their health or dole out a hefty chunk of damage, was surely designed for beginners, but serves as a new kind of metagame in competitive play. Fights move along at a cracking pace, and reward offensive play over keeping your enemy at a distance with projectiles. And it’s all presented in a playful, over-the-top Saturday morning cartoon sort of way, with fights playing out much as you’d expect a rumble between superheroes would. Injustice is a sensitive use of the DC licence, and it’s also a fine fighting game in its own right.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is available on Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii U. PS3 version tested.