Developers: Netherrealm Studios
Publishers: Warner Bros. Interactive
Every time we review a fighting game, we do so with the understanding that fighting games are not there to be judged by their singleplayer content. The narrative in a fighting game has always been one of the least important components, fading into obscurity as a purity of mechanics is pushed to the fore. This is a genre all about deep, responsive, and strategic combat systems, not telling a good story.
But someone forgot to remind Netherrealm when it came to their Mortal Kombat reboot. ISPs could have pulled the plug for a week and we would still have been happy going through the rather excellent story mode, unlocking things in the Krypt, and getting our behinds handed to us in the Challenge Tower. Ed Boon and his team gave us so many reasons for keeping that disc in the tray, even when our friends had left the building.
And they've raised the bar on themselves with Injustice.
The story is terrible, of course, but almost deliciously macabre. Lex Luthor and the Joker team up, they rig a nuclear bomb up to Lois Lane's heart (she has a really bad day), then convince Superman that Lane is actually his one-time killer Doomsday, then Superman goes bonkers and kills her in hilariously over the top fashion, then he murders the Joker, and finally he sets up a super-dictatorship where his world is law. Eventually, the heroes from the "real" DC Universe turn up and try to put a stop to his warped tyranny.
Oh, and Lois was pregnant.
You see as a guy who always found DC to be fairly rubbish and a bit staid in comparison to Marvel, I absolutely loved this set up, but given that it takes some rather large liberties with Superman's character (What character?! - Ed.) there may well be fans who find this something of a turn off. Yes, Netherrealm abuse dimension jumping to have a roster of 24 DC heroes and villains smacking tens tons of hell out of one another and battling their own evil doppelgangers, but as an excuse for providing the final word on whether Batman can kick Supes' ass or not, it's gloriously silly.
Aside from the main story, which features around 50 fights or so and took us around 8 hours to get through, there's a wealth of content elsewhere to get stuck into as well. Battles forms your basic Arcade Mode, but with a few variations on a theme and challenges to test your mettle, such as beating every character in the game with a single health bar. There's a training mode where yu can hone your skills too, but we spent most of our time grinding through the S.T.A.R. Labs: essentially Injustice's take on the Challenge Tower, presenting players with 240 bite-sized missions that each come with a primary victory condition, and two supplemental objectives.
Netherrealm proved with Mortal Kombat that content-stuffed fighters didn't have to skimp on the mechanics, and the same is true of Injustice. It's important, though, to manage one's expectations. Much like Mortal Kombat - in fact one might consider this title's systems as something of an evolution on MK's - this is a fighter designed to be relatively accessible, yet competitive. There've already been tournaments using Injustice, but don't expect anything as involved as Skullgirls.
The three main attack buttons - low, mid, high - are complimented by a special trait button that changes play rather more than a cheap attack might. Superman, for example, can give himself a limited, temporary stat boost; Wonder Woman changes her stance to accommodate both offensive and defensive play styles; the Flash can slow down time. There are pros and cons, of course, and varying cooldown speeds. Bane can unleash hell at the press of a button as his attack power spikes, but you'd better have the right moment to use it, and you'll be waiting a while for another opportunity.
The block button is gone, in favour of holding Back as one might in Street Fighter, making aerial attacks a little harder to defend against when players perform cross-ups, but the Super Meter makes a return, allowing you to expend parts of it to enhance your special abilities, counter enemies, or save it all up to unleash your most powerful attack. But there are further nuances to be found here that MK was not privy to. "Bounce Cancels" allow the player to break out of a combo and smoothly and swiftly transition into a move that bounces the opponent into the air for a wee juggle, which comes at the cost of two sections of Super Meter. Fighters feel a little clunky and clumsy to begin with, lacking in the fluidity that one might witness in Japanese fighting titles, but once you're comfortable with Injustice's somewhat staccatoed rhythm and have a few combos memorised, the potential for hardcore competition is very pleasing.
That being said, Injustice excels at providing for a range of interested parties, and it's the Environmental Hazards that will please the slew of casual fans who might be interested in superheroes smashing the tits off of one another. Working out exactly how certain characters will use certain hazards is largely a matter of trial and error, which led to some rather amusing online battles where players had clearly leapt into the fray without really knowing what they were doing. I won't spoil things here, because finding out how each of the characters makes use of the surroundings is part of the fun, but I will say that plucking a live nuke out of the area with Bane and lobbing it at Batman makes for lots of fun, as does smacking Superman's stupid square face into the Bat-Signal.
The feeling of being super-powered is written into every line of code. Walls shake, dust falls, enemies can be smashed through walls as if they were made of paper. As a games critic who now has to play a plethora of games throughout the year, and therefore no longer has time to specialise in a genre such as this, I suck much harder at fighting games than I used to a few years ago. But Injustice makes me feel awesome regardless. You need a little bit of timing, and a dash of Super Meter management, but Netherrealm hasn't restricted the awesome stuff to those who can memorise a 20-step combo. See that rocket-powered motorbike over there? Chances are you can leap atop it and drive it straight into the Flash's gurning mug. Or just chuck it at him. And no, you don't need Mozart's dexterity to do so.
The visual spectacle of it all is enough to make local parties and online matches chuckle-filled affairs for the casual fans, but it's Netherrealm's attention to detail that really impresses. Little things such as providing frame data for every move you can learn in training, not to mention being able to bookmark a move and have the instructions for it overlaid on the screen back in-game, they make the whole experience better. It's a tiny thing, not having to constantly skip between playing and pausing to scroll through the menu move list for the fiftieth time, but it makes a difference.
Thankfully, when it comes to online play, Injustice handles better than Mortal Kombat, though that's not saying much. The latter had a disgusting amount of lag when battling across the internet. It's still a bit of a problem here, truth be told, and the netcode isn't perfect, but it's a damn sight more playable than Netherrealm's past effort, and we had precious little difficulty in the thirty or so matches we had, mainly playing against European adversaries. The few matches we played with US opponents did suffer a little bit, it has to be said.
The fighting genre is notorious for adhering to relatively strict rules, for being rather conservative and stubborn in its ways, and for being alienating because of it. But Netherrealm haven't concerned themselves with vying with the Street Fighters or the Tekkens of the world. Instead they've taken an approach that builds upon the work they did with Mortal Kombat: providing a fighting title that entertains as much as it challenges, one that allows for both the casual and the competitive. It's made the "is it better?" question redundant. It's big, brash, completely over the top, and utterly ridiculous, and it totally works.
Plus, Netherrealm managed to make Aquaman cool. Aquaman! Hats off.
- A hearty spectacle
- Caters well to both casual fans, comic obsessives, and competitive fighters
- Whether online, offline, with friends or solo, there's so much to do
- Aquaman literally feeds his opponents to a massive shark!
- Not quite as fluid as some fighters out there
- Netcode not quite perfect
The Short Version: Have you ever wanted to punch Harley Quinn into the Earth's Core? Or smack Bruce Wayne upside the head with his own Batmobile? Or feed Superman to a massive shark? Well Injustice let's you do all of those things and more. You don't need to be a huge DC fan to enjoy this game, and you don't need to be a fighting game veteran either. Injustice may not be a perfect game, but it's an entertaining spectacle, packed with content, and it'll leave with a big, goofy grin on your face.