The folks at NetherRealm have given us a taste. With Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe they gave us just a touch of what a game based on the DC comic world would be like, and we loved it. Mixing the freshly-rebuilt Mortal Kombat franchise with the heroes of many worlds made for a compelling story, but it served to be an amuse-bouche – we eagerly awaited the meal to come. Unfortunately with the collapse of Midway, it looked like that might never come to pass. When the dust cleared and Warner Bros. stood partner to NetherRealm studios, opportunity presented itself. As Warner Bros. owns DC Comics, it was an easy handshake to bring a full DC Universe title to life – welcome to the worlds of Injustice: Gods Among Us.
Parallels between the Mortal Kombat series and Injustice: Gods Among Us are easy to draw. NetherRealm excels at making some of the deepest and most engaging fighting engines but until recently the stories have made little to no sense, even taking into account the crazy otherworldy fiction. The most recent MK title sought to correct some of that with a lengthy story thread that at least semi-connected the backgrounds of the dozens of characters that populate that universe. With Injustice: Gods Among Us they faced a similar challenge, but with backgrounds that run all the way back to 1934. Coupling the team with Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmoitti (of Jonah Hex comic fame, and also contributors to the expanded storyline of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe) with the team at NetherRealm gives us a story of tragedy triggering devastating and unparalleled destruction upon humanity at the hands of these Gods Among Us.
The story opens with the culmination of The Joker’s most bold plan – the destruction of Metropolis and Lex Luthor’s postulation that there are many worlds, all the same save but one or two major events. When that event destroys the lives of millions the inevitable clash of the Gods of the DC Universe sets the stage for a war of galactic proportions that could only occur in the comics.
“Maybe this is all connected to that guy in Metropolis.” – Green Lantern in Justice League #1
[singlepic id=6865 w=320 h=240 float=left]The team at NetherRealm know their fighting games, but they are pushing into new territory – they couldn’t simply pallet swap out Sindel for Raven and call it a day. To that end, the team went all the way down to the bare metal on their fighting engine and rebuilt it completely. The game features 24 characters from the expanded universe, and each of them are completely unique. They all fight differently, move differently, attack at different angles, and otherwise handle with no two characters sharing a common moveset. That isn’t to say that they’ve thrown out all the tricks either.
One of the best parts about the Mortal Kombat series was the level transitions. Finding a way to knock your enemy through a wall and then pouncing on them was part of really digging out all of the secrets in a level. This time around you’ll get multiple transitions, along with something new – the ability to go back up to the previous one. I’ve not discovered but two of them thus far, but beating up The Flash as you keep him pinned in an elevator is one of them. It’s not a huge change, but it’s neat to see transitions not being one-way.
Special moves have been reserved for fatalities in the past, but Injustice takes a different path. A segmented meter charges up with attacks and blocks and can be spent a number of ways. You can power up nearly all of your attacks for additional damage, but holding onto it yields something far better – the Super Move. A fully charged meter allows you to unleash the character-specific attack that you can use to drop a real hurting on your enemies. The great part is that this is executed by simply pulling both triggers. This means you don’t have to have GameFaqs open to the game page while you play, nor do you only see specials on rare occasion. They are the best part of the game, why shouldn’t you see them often? These cinematic attacks are completely in character for the hero or villain unleashing them. Harley Quinn drops an explosive on her enemies, The Flash winds up his punch with a quick dash around the entire planet, and Batman unleashes his bevy of toys. I won’t spoil any of them, but I was surprised to see that Aquaman’s Super Move was far and away the best of them (though Ares is a close second, and almost every one of them is pretty damned cool).
Juggling and throws are a major part of fighting games, and they are equally well represented here. Throws are unbreakable other than being countered by a throw of your own. Juggling lets you launch enemies and keep them airborne for maximum combination damage. You can also unleash non-offensive items like Batman’s Cape-Parry which allows him to block and counter incoming strikes. The great part is that all of this is explained with a deep tutorial system that goes over everything from basic movement to the most advanced of combinations, removing the barrier for new players entirely. There are two new mechanics that also make an appearance in multiplayer and the campaign – Wagers and interactive minigames.[singlepic id=6866 w=320 h=240 float=right]
The system is very simple – you can initiate a “Wager” which allows you to ‘bet’ an amount of your Super Meter. You bet by indicating with your face buttons, and the person who bets the most of their gauge wins. The question of whether to bet it all or to be more conservative comes into play, as does betting nothing and holding onto your meter at the risk of the randomly unleashed side effect. This can be a portion of health restored, additional regeneration, or additional damage as examples.
The interactive minigames statement likely made you cringe, but rest assured it’s not what you think. Rather than just peppering the game with eye-rolling quicktime events, the game gives you a little more context. Shooting down incoming projectiles with button presses using the heat vision of Superman, or taking control of the bow of Green Lantern to shoot at Solomon Grundy as he charges at you flinging objects are storyline examples. These minigames only occur during the single player game.
“You think I need a ‘team?’” – Deathstroke in Deathstroke #1
The most recent Mortal Kombat title featured a more cinematic approach to storytelling, but NetherRealm has taken that to a higher level this time around. There are a total of 50 missions in the single player campaign, splitting the game into chapters. Each chapter represents an individual character, starting with Batman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, The Joker, and so forth. In all you’ll tackle 11 playable characters in the single player game, giving you an additional 13 (beyond any pre-order or DLC bonuses) characters to experience outside of the main story. The storyline moves from cutscene directly into combat and then back to cutscene again without any loading at all – it’s is as seamless as it is well-executed. When coupled with the comedic writing style, it makes for about 10 hours of fully-immersive storyline worth playing.
In terms of presentation beyond the story, this game is a graphical powerhouse. Injustice wrings every drop of power out of the Unreal Engine 3 while still holding a rock-solid framerate. Each character is painstakingly rendered with incredible detail paid to the backgrounds as well. As before, character models take damage, cloth rips, and everyone looks a little worse for wear at the end of the round. Lighting has been vastly improved as well, but it is the connection to the background that surprised me the most.
[singlepic id=10032 w=320 h=240 float=left]Since the early days of fighting games you’ve always had something interesting going on in the background while you fight. Soon we had some minor interactions with these backgrounds, giving players a chance to nab a weapon or do something to trigger a change in venue, but Injustice takes this to an entirely new level. Throwing enemies to the ground or bashing them into a wall can cause overhead chains to drop cargo, glass to break, flooding to occur, and far more. The levels are teeming with life, and nearly all of it is interactive. Reaching to the background to throw a trashcan at an enemy, pulling a nearby chain to cause a statue to unleash fire on your enemies, or even grabbing Wonder Woman’s invisible jet to fling across the map is not only possible but very much encouraged.
As fantastic as the presentation in the game is, it should win awards for sound. The orchestral soundtrack ebbs and flows with the combined talents of 11 different artists including Killer Mike, Rise Against, Minus the Bear, MSTRKRFT, and Depeche Mode to name a few. The voice work is equally up to task as big-name actors lend their voice work to the product. Stephen Amell from the TV show by the same name gives a performance as Green Arrow, Kevin Conroy tackles his usual role as The Batman, Susan Eisenberg reprises her role as Wonder Woman, and George Newbern tackles Superman once again. While Mark Hamill didn’t return for his role as The Joker, Richard Epcar hands in a rock-solid rendition of the Clown Prince of Crime. The same care and detail has also been paid to the sound effects in Injustice. Guns clatter against the ground, punches and kicks land with a resounding thud, the clang of a Joker toy banging against a skull, and super powers sound exactly as you might expect them to.
“Just when I’ve set up my new life, my old one comes back. Well played, Gotham.” – Dick Grayson in Nightwing #1
Not unlike using Krypt Koins in Mortal Kombat, Injustice: Gods Among Us features a full collectable system. Normally collectables, to be completely frank, kinda suck. In this case, I felt the same compulsion I did in Arkham Asylum – I had to unlock everything in this game. There are a total of 24 additional costumes, 37 concept art packs (each with at least 8, but some characters like Harley Quinn having 22 or Batman’s 35 individual art renders), 26 music pieces, 29 backgrounds, and a bevy of new battle modes to unlock. Playing through the single player game I hit level 32, but there are a total of 50 levels to knock down, giving this game some serious replay value. All of these levels or minor achievements unlock new bonus items (for instance, a hero card portrait unlocks when you’ve performed 100 power moves), and the game keeps track of everything you do. Story mode completion percentages, your favorite character, how many perfect rounds you’ve had, how often you level transition, win with a super move, as well as keeping track of your collectables just scratches the surface.[singlepic id=11409 w=320 h=240 float=right]
Pushing the game beyond the single or multiplayer, there are 5 “Battles” unlocked at the start of the game. These five are classic, heroes only, villains only, poisoned, and survivor. There are a total of 20 of these battle types that unlock via levels and collectable cards. These 10-round battle fights with each character are essentially the classic “tower” from Mortal Kombat. When you win you’ll be treated to a special ending for each character which also unlocks a few more hero cards, icons, and other collectible goodies. It also gives you a set of battle stats that show you the amount of time it took you to complete the story (each is around 20 minutes), difficulty level, how many matches you lost, how much total damage you took in the process and more. Once you beat the classic battle mode you can go back and re-watch that character’s ending from the Archives. It’s almost another game embedded within the game.
Oh, is that not enough? Well, the next option over in the menu is called S.T.A.R. Labs. These character-specific missions give you a variety of challenges with up to 3 stars to be earned for each one, very much reminding me of the challenges in Batman: Arkham Asylum. Mission objectives can be as simple as landing a 5-hit combination or as difficult as avoiding getting hit by a specific attack. These are gated, so you’ll start off with Superman’s objectives to ramp up to 7 stars to unlock Batman’s missions. At 20 stars you’ll unlock Catwoman’s missions and at 34 you’ll get access to The Flash. This continues on through all of the characters in the game, culminating in 350 stars needed to unlock Ares. All of the missions have a little sub-plot (i.e. the first is that Lois Lane has been kidnapped by Lex Luthor and Superman must save her) as well as a variety of win conditions or modifiers. For example, in the second mission Superman can stand in the sun rays (which move) to charge up his health as he fights.
[singlepic id=6872 w=320 h=240 float=left]With a nod to the Call of Duty franchise, you can also use your experience and unlocks for your “Hero Card”. This card gives you a background, icon, and portrait that you can use to represent your online profile. These are unlocked by going up levels, completing objectives, or even logging into the Injustice: Gods Among Us Mobile App a certain amount of times. There is even one background unlocked for doing over $1,000,000,000 worth of environmental damage!
I do want to take a moment to give a nod to some of the miscellaneous features that have made their way into Injustice. 4 controller layouts to fit your individual style, sound options that let you tweak every aspect to your personal preference, subtitles in story mode, 5 difficulty levels ranging from the brain-dead “very easy” setting to the sadomasochistic “very hard” setting give even the most novice of players a chance at victory. I was also absolutely stunned by the speed at which this game loads. Sure, there is no loading when you get into the story mode, but there is a short load between multiplayer matches. For basis of comparison, the load time is less than three seconds without an install and less than half of that if you’ve committed the game to your hard drive. Impressive hardly covers it – this is the fast loading fighting game I’ve played since the cartridge days.
You’ll notice that I’ve hardly touched on multiplayer in this review. In a game this massive the multiplayer mode comes across as the most plain of all the amazing features. It is simply versus online or off. It handles perfectly and without lag for all of the matches I played, giving you the chance to square off against your friends on the couch or across the planet. There are options that you can modify (turning off level transitions or interactive objects in the levels, or changing the starting area within the chosen arena) but otherwise plays exactly as you might expect.[singlepic id=9077 w=320 h=240 float=right]
“Do we look like ‘super-heroes’? We’re the professionals.” – Jack Hawksmoor in Stormwatch #1
This review sounds like it could have been written by a PR drone for WBIE, but I promise that’s not the case – it’s just that Injustice: Gods Among Us is that good. Gorgeous to look at, one of the fastest loading times I’ve seen in recent memory, and a well-oiled fighting engine that has been purpose-built from the ground up are just a small peek at this extremely polished product. The only thing I came across that frustrated me was that the difficulty level I chose was a bit more than I could easily chew – entirely my own fault and remedied with a setting adjustment should I choose to do so. Injustice: Gods Among us stands head and shoulders above any other fighting game on the market – it is without flaw.