Game Review: Injustice: Gods Among Us [Xbox 360/PS3/WiiU]
NetherRealm brought themselves back into the foray for good with Mortal Kombat 9. Proving that they were listening to what players wanted on both ends of the spectrum with some little touches that made all the difference, like periodic balance patching and facilities for picking a character blind which helped a tournament scene grow and evolve, and the flowing, engaging story that propelled single-player fighting games into a whole new level. In Injustice, they expand further in both directions: the offer of frame data about every move in the move list means players who strive to be the best have the data they need to build combos and strings, whereas the story mode functions as a sort of tutorial through the roster, encouraging players of all levels to get used to every hero and villain on some level. As well as attracting the fighting game scene effectively, it dabbles in the required fanservice for the DC fans coming to the game on the license alone. Offering outlandish supers that highlight a character’s powers in an over the top and comical (sorry, I couldn’t resist) fashion as well as the various costume options that link back to past and present character storylines, the diehard is indulged somewhat. It does feel like more could be done, but the spirit of the license is never ignored.
Mortal Kombat and Injustice certainly converge in their feel, but diverge in terms of systems and the nitty gritty. While the developer’s stamp is firmly pressed onto the DC fighter, it manages to create it’s own identity thanks to the varied yet established cast and unique, lush environments. It still lacks a certain amount of visual polish, but makes up for that in sheer playability.
Injustice uses a three button attack system of light, medium and heavy attacks, with a special Trait button that is unique to each character. These traits allow some extra creativity in representing a character’s power: Flash can speed up which manifests as slowing the opponent down; Deathstroke can make his bullets unblockable; and Green Arrow can infuse arrows with different elemental effects, to name but a few. More importantly in terms of making Injustice feel foreign to an MK player is the lack of a block button. Instead, you simply hold back to block. This may seem trivial to the casual player, but in actuality it is quite revelatory and informs the player’s complete approach to defence.
All playstyles are represented well, with zoners who have a range of projectile and runaway tactics, grapplers who utilise armour and slow movement to scoop up opponent and slam them into the ground, and rushdown characters that get in your face, press lots of buttons and play high-low with you until you die. Combos are satisfying, if still a little dial-a-combo in feel, with the canned strings not being particularly smooth but with the juggling and wall-bouncing feeling weighty and precise. It also makes you work for your damage, with anything past 25% usually requiring you to spend your meter to lengthen your assault.
The other big new innovation is in the gameplay environments. Each has various parts of the background that you can interact with at the touch of a button. This goes anywhere from sliding along a rail to hoisting and throwing the bat signal at an opponent. It’s also possible to knock them off the edge of the screen, triggering an outlandish transition where the character is flung great distances, be it via a crashing helicopter, a lift or a drugging from Scarecrow. It makes the corner a more jeapordising position to be in, and affords strategy for the attacking player where he needs to decide whether to risk going headfirst for it – after all, the universal move that triggers the transition is cumbersome – or simply keep it as a threat. The environment as part of combat has generally been frowned upon in fighting games due it adding a layer of randomness to proceedings, as evidenced by those who take Smash Brothers too seriously and refuse to play on the faster-paced stages. This may continue into Injustice, but so far the feedback from these interactive structures has been positive across the board, as well it should be; the interactive elements of the background are clearly marked by a button prompt next to your health bar when available, and instead add a layer of complexity to the importance of positioning in a bout.
An altogether less successful, but still quite clever, mechanic is the Wager system. Acting like a combo breaker, it asks you to bet your meter against the opponent’s. If you win as the defender, you gain some life. If you win as the attacker, you do some damage. It seems simple and pretty intelligent, but the major issue is that it grinds the match to a halt. It’s mechanically sound and offers some strategic clout to meter management, but in practice its stop-start nature makes it clumsy. Also quite clumsy at times is the animation, which while much improved from NetherRealm’s previous game, remains too wooden and canned, lacking some fluidity which would just add that final layer of polish to an already pretty accomplished game.
DC love to reboot things and play around with multiple dimensions. Injustice’s story is no exception, with Bizarro Superman being part of a takeover of earth in one dimension, which Batman has dragged heroes from another dimension into to save the day. It’s shlocky and hammy at times, exercising comic book logic wherever possible, but it never feels ludicrous in an awful way. Instead, it encourages you to just go with it, and hopes you don’t lose track of who from where is doing what. If you let it, it delivers an entertaining superhero spectacle, resplendent with its own twists and turns.
STAR Labs acts like a Challenge Tower, mixing conditioned fights with minigames and other distractions in order to stretch the capabilities of your skills in fair or devious ways. Honestly, I haven’t delved too far, but with 250+ challenges covering every individual character in the game, you can be sure there’s some longevity to be had in here alone.
Online is varied and pretty stable, which is vital in the modern age, as a fighting game lives and dies on the quality of its netcode. King Of The Hill is certainly the star of the show, where up to eight people pack into one room and play in a standard lobby format of winner stays on. It engages spectators, though, by allowing them to vote on the winner to gain XP, and it also encourages the King to stay at the top by giving XP multipliers for streaks. XP is universal through the entire game, offering the ability to unlock artwork and customes among other bits and pieces, reminiscent of many a gallery mode.
NetherRealm are the leading force in fighting games in the West, and as such it’s always good to see them succeed in getting people playing. A combination of a strong previous game, a colourful cast of varied, mechanically intriguing characters and a sound single-player experience make Injustice well worth a try.