Review: Injustice: Gods Among Us

InjusticeGodsAmongUs

Most of us already know it’s a terrible idea to tug on Superman’s cape. It oughtta be obvious that tricking him into killing his own girlfriend and obliterating his beloved city in a nuclear blast isn’t such a great idea, either.

But hey, that’s never stopped the Joker before.

Self-inflicted apocalyptic destruction’s the starting point of Injustice: Gods Among Us, a DC Heroes-specific brawler brought to us by the guys who gave us the most recent Mortal Kombat. NetherRealm already has gamers’ undying respect for yanking the Mortal Kombat series out of the carnival clown tent and giving it both a sheen of respectability and a compelling storyline. The same formula’s on display here, bolstered by some intriguing mechanical tweaks and a huge amount of DC fanboy service.

Spurred by the Joker’s homicidal little prank, Supes becomes what humanity always feared he would—an unstoppable dictator who decides little things like free will are now beyond our pay grade. Where the plot of DC vs. Mortal Kombat—the last time Batman and the gang suited up for digital fisticuffs–had to contort in some pretty silly directions to seem even remotely plausible, Injustice’s tale is more firmly rooted in comic-book lore—specifically, the concept of alternate universes. In this case, a troupe of heroes from the Justice League Universe gets sucked into the not-so-super Superman universe, and NetherRealm doesn’t hesitate to toy with the comical clichés. At one point, Aquaman—the classic version—is confronted with his bearded doppelganger. “Ah,” he deadpans. “Parallel universes it is.”

Speaking of Aquaman, DC’s perennial doormat/punchline is one of several characters who get to lay a little more beatdown than you’d expect. That’s fun to see, as are the videogame debuts of characters like Killer Frost and Solomon Grundy, each of whom, like the rest of the cast, has specialized attacks that totally fit in with what we’ve seen them do in the comic books.

The character modeling is mostly amazing, with a couple of cover-your-eyes exceptions that slightly spoil the party. Wonder Woman’s the biggest say-what? clunker here. There’s no other way to describe the look she’s been given other than to say that Dude Looks Like a Lady. In fact, most of the female characters suffer in comparison to their male counterparts—Raven looks like she just escaped from Madame Tussauds, while Harley Quinn looks like an Indian princess who had an unfortunate accident at the makeup factory. Sometimes, the backgrounds in the cutscenes suffer a similar fate, but it’s never enough to become a huge problem, and luckily, it doesn’t crop up where it matters most–the battles themselves.

The environment’s a key part of the battle, in Injustice, too. Opportunities to pick up or activate objects that can be used to pummel or evade your opponents abound in every stage, to the point where it’s possible to unbalance a match just by stringing together a combo and a timely right shoulder button push. It’s also possible for the stronger characters–think Superman, Ares and Doomsday—to simply destroy all the environmental objects before weaker characters like Green Arrow and Hawkgirl can even use them. Does unbalanced plus unbalanced equal balanced? Bonus points for the creative math, guys, but the answer’s a resounding “no.” Good thing the feature can be turned off when it becomes too close to game-breaking.

NetherRealm has much more success with a new mechanic called The Clash. Once per battle, after your first health bar has evaporated, it’s possible to break your opponent’s attack combo by initiating it: Each combatant has a few seconds to tab a button and wager a chunk of their super-move meter. Whichever one bets the heaviest wins the ensuing smashup, and either a health boost (if you’re defending) or a damage boost (if you’re attacking). This adds additional depth to decisions you make about your meter use–should you hold it or bet the house now?–and also makes it possible to turn the battle even if your meter’s only half full.

Of course, if you’d rather just fill it and unleash the supers, prepare to enjoy some more fan-service fireworks. These moves are even more cinematic than the literally bone-crushing X-ray closeups that featured so prominently in Mortal Kombat 9. Batman summons the Batmobile to pancake an opponent, Supes drags his unlucky foe into the stratosphere for a gravity smashdown, and Bane, of course, does his backbreaking routine. Getting to see (and control) all of these is one of several reasons you’ll find a way to play all of the 24 characters in Injustice’s main roster.

The non-single player story modes are a great place to start. Instead of a Tower to climb, there’s a ridiculously deep list of S.T.A.R. Lab missions or battle challenges. These function as a very (emphasis on the very) rudimentary introduction/tutorial to each characters’ move sets and special attacks, but don’t expect any more hand-holding than this. Like Mortal Kombat 9, Injustice assumes you know your way around a juggle combo and a reverse grapple move. The steepness of the learning curve is likely to be off-putting to comic fans who haven’t spent time honing their fighting-game chops.

Those who have will spend weeks gleefully chasing the mountains of unlockables tucked away in every corner of the game. There are the ones you expect, that come with completing in-game objectives. There are the ones that come by ponying up for the game’s season pass. And then there are the ones tied to achievements in the iOS version of the game (a freemium special with some mondo IAP). Again, some of these unlocks are awesome and totally worth your time to acquire (Oliver Queen’s getup from the TV show Arrow) and some of them are just silly (Prison-suit Superman? Really?). And we haven’t even mentioned the DLC yet. Lobo’s already been made available to purchase and Batgirl’s next up to join the roster, but the list will surely increase before the year’s done. Bottom line? Nobody, not even the whiny Silver-Age Robin, can complain about the lack of content here.

We’ve been arguing about whether Superman would clobber Shazam in a straight-up fight since we were hanging on the monkeybars in second grade. For those who already know their way around a fighting game, Injustice gives us a chance to get some answers. Even with a few nagging tech issues and unbalanced game mechanics clogging the wheels, the action never suffers. A clash of heroes this superpowered ought to feel ridiculously epic, and to its credit, Injustice: Gods Among Us often does.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Ridiculously large pile of characters/costumes/unlockables
+ Powerful super attacks really make you feel super
+ Clash system gives you something to do with that not-quite-full super meter
+ The most fan service this side of Super Smash Bros.

Cons:
– Quite possibly the least attractive rendition of Wonder Woman ever
– Some graphics shine while others look blocky and waxy
– New environmental objects are an unbalance waiting to happen
– Newbies need not apply

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3 and Wii U
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Release Date: 4/16/2013
Genre: Fighting
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.