Injustice: Gods Among Us
Platforms: Xbox 360 / PS3 / Wii U
Reviewed On: PS3
Of all the trusty game styles, the spit-and-sawdust fighter has arguably been the most ignored over the past few years. While next-gen platforms have been a shot in the arm for certain genres - immersive sandbox worlds being a boon for RPG and FPS developers especially - the old close-combat, whites-of-the-eyes brawler has fallen slightly from favour. Long standing franchises have entered the fray (what are we on now, Tekken 17?) offering sleek presentation and presentable gameplay, but they’re just flyweights squaring up to the heavyweight of history and expectation. Street Fighter IV is a case in point - the defining title for the current console generation, its success is largely based on its own reputation. It was good, but still felt naggingly perfunctory, plugging a perceived gap in the market rather than being justifiable in and of itself.
The problem is the all-pervading feeling that the format was nigh-on perfected in the halcyon days of the early 1990s. If the genre’s your thing, and especially if you were gaming at the time, you’ll probably still covet a copy of Street Fighter 2 as much now as you ever have. It’s a title that doesn’t have retro appeal, despite being 2D and one-on-one, it simply still appeals. Its purity is both a blessing and a curse, keeping it impervious to dewy-eyed nostalgia, yet it also makes it a curiously staid model, one difficult to improve on. In a world where gameplay drivers are now slaves to experience - championing easy interaction, regular autosaves, difficulty dialled down so as to not tax exploration - the notions of carefully mastering a character’s combos, discovering their most effective strategies and patiently battling a tricky foe again and again can feel a little anachronistic. It’s as outdated as the idea of actually going to an arcade to play a coin-op. (If you’re under 22, ask your parents).
This all makes the arrival of Injustice: Gods Among Us a prospect that, frankly, is a little underwhelming, superficially at least. Whilst not a sequel per se it certainly feels like one, building on the now-defunct Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe title from 2008, one that didn’t exactly put the genre in an unbreakable stranglehold. This time the action is set purely in the DC Comics Universe, seeing the studio’s household names – Batman, Superman, Green Lantern - go toe-to-toe with what, to many, are the lesser lights in the galaxy – bonus point if you know Hawkgirl. Ares? Deathstroke? Pay attention, there’s a quiz at the end. But with a roster of 24 characters, and more to follow with DLC, there’s plenty to satisfy anyone, from casual fans to die-hards.
Anyway so far, so ordinary. A raft of officially endorsed characters is no guarantee of success; the much vaunted addition of Star Wars characters didn’t do all that much for Soul Calibur IV, after all. But even a cursory scrap on Injustice quickly shows that its treatment of the genre, one with a rare insight, boundless devotion and a good dollop of élan, makes it a delight, and not one limited to just comic book devotees. If you’re after a fresh, comprehensive fighter then your ship has come in.
So, what does it do well? First, the basics, and the absolute necessities for a brawler, are really nailed down and NetherRealm Studios should be commended for making such a satisfying game engine. It’s fluid, sharp and responsive, meaning that balletic combos and special moves integrate seamlessly and satisfyingly into the experience via a standard four button system and are really nicely balanced in their range and damage. Characters are generally organised into two classes: traditional superheroes with unearthly attributes and the more prosaic humans with gadgets and gizmos to give them the edge in combat. Matches are a timed single round, but dual health bars mean they feel like a flowing contest, fighters taunting their opponent when they drop to their energy reserves. Before too long you’ll get to grips with an introductory character and will be able to deal out some beatings on standard difficulty. This eases the beginner in, as does the comprehensive training mode, covering the basic controls to the more involved fighting strategies including countering and breaking combos.
Having made such a success of the game mechanics, NetherRealm would be forgiven for just leaving things there. Instead they continue to draw on the rich mine of source material with care and humour. The main story, written in collaboration with DC writers (and improving on MK vs DC’s effort), weaves all the characters together in a fantastically pulpy comic book tale, with the main aim of pitting superheroes who would not normally be foes against one another. This was clearly not an easy narrative arc to pull off, but it is done via a wonderfully bewildering plot featuring parallel dimensions that characters travel between in an attempt to foil Superman who, after being tricked into killing a pregnant Lois Lane by the Joker, is now hell-bent on imposing a global dictatorship to bend the world to his will. He has his acolytes and is opposed by Batman, who brings in the Justice League to staff a rebellion. It is a tale still reliant on the good old trope of goodies vs baddies, but is one with a twist for fans with such a major character turning to evil. At times it makes less than no sense, and is one of those rare cases when it’s all the better for it. It’s uniformly well written - at times even laugh out loud funny with its pithy one-liners - where many attempts would have produced something reading like hapless fan fiction. Each chapter focuses on a different character, tension-building mini games are thrown in - successful completion of which give you an edge in the ensuing fights - and, with seamless integration of combat into the unfurling tale, it’s a satisfying experience.
Its over-the-top brilliance is replicated in the game world, which harnesses familiar comic-book visuals, all bold, slashing primary colours and fantastic overstatement. All the key locations from the DC Universe are present and correct, including the Batcave, the Fortress of Solitude, Atlantis and the Justice League Watchtower, all beautifully stylised and rendered. The environmental interaction - a well-timed button press sees your foe satisfyingly shocked, gassed, burnt or quickly and painfully dispatched into the scenery depending on your position – is lovingly and imaginatively integrated, and the levels tumble apart satisfyingly as the fights progress, underscoring the titanic tussles. Despite being a limited mechanic it’s never overbearing, nor ever feels too intrusive. Well, let’s face it, using a power character to smash a Ferrari carelessly parked outside Wayne Manor over an opponent’s head, watching it explode in a ball of flame, can’t ever really get boring. If this isn’t your thing though (umm...what?) it can be disabled. Special moves, and of course there’s a raft of them, are also brilliantly overblown. A quick mash of a couple of buttons once a character’s super meter - which rises by both doling out special moves and taking damage - is full will set it off, and if it connects the results are predictably gargantuan. Aquaman summons a tsunami, spears his opponent on his trident and lets a friendly giant shark do the rest of the work. Flash simply runs around the circumference of the globe, crossing continents and running across oceans, to build the momentum for a devastating uppercut. They always take a good few seconds to watch, but still never feel like they’re getting in the way of a contest.
So the casual scrapper and habitual button-masher are well served, but all this accessibility isn’t at the expense of any depth. The in game wager system introduces a nicely balanced tactical element whereby players secretly bet a certain amount of their super meter as characters charge at one another. The successful fighter (assuming they initiated, and they are only able do so once when on their second health bar) then regains some energy. When you’re taking a bit of a pounding it can swing the balance of power back in your favour, and it means that no fight is ever truly one sided. There’s also access to potentially ludicrous level of detail elsewhere. The move list in the combos menu, for instance, even has the frame data for every single attack, including hit and block advantage along with recovery rates - manna from heaven for the absolute purists out there. In terms of game modes there’s also the STAR Labs challenges, which are 240 character-specific fight scenarios to complete, varying in difficulty from the luridly simple to the utterly maddening. And if all that isn’t enough there’s comprehensive online play - mercifully lag free this time - allowing you to mix it with the best players in the world.
NetherRealm have realised that the fighter is a model with recognised, even sacrosanct, mechanics and steadfastly refuse to tinker with them. In taking the genre on from a previously flawed effort, they’ve realised that the focus for developing a successful brawler needs to be the development of its source material rather than the game engine. Jettisoning the Mortal Kombat franchise is sensible, and taking such rare care with the DC Universe results in a joy of a title, one that will delight seasoned brawlers, comic book aficionados and - surely the sternest test of any game aiming to revive a genre’s fortunes - will even bring lapsed players back for a scrap. And man, is it ever fun.