Injustice: Gods Among Us Review
As fighting games go, few have had the longevity and hype that the Marvel vs Capcom series has generated over the last decade. Even Capcom themselves have had a hard time recreating the excitement generated in the ups and downs of a comeback-heavy night of Marvel tournament streaming, but that didn't stop NetherRealm from trying to dethrone the king with the closest, biggest license they could get: DC Comics. The result is Injustice: Gods Among Us, a fighting game firmly set in the DC universe with all of the comic juggernaut's big heroes and villains along with plenty of smaller ones that only comics fans will know and love.
So is Injustice going to top Mahvel as far as hype with the Twitch.tv stream monsters? It seems unlikely, but I'm not really sure they need to, because even though the tournament scene is a big deal, there are still millions of potential (and actual!) fighting game players that never get online, never enter a tournament, and haven't watched a single stream. What they're looking for is a fun offline experience, maybe with their friends, maybe without, and the simple fact is that most fighting game developers aren't really working to deepen the single player experience. NetherRealm's formula - which they established with 2011's Mortal Kombat remake - works nicely for a light-hearted, silly story, but the game does work online pretty well, too. They've improved on their work with Mortal Kombat in many ways, but admittedly, their storytelling is still missing something.
It's fun for the ride, though - in the single player mode, which I'd say is probably the game's premier mode for most players, you'll go through chapters where you play one character for several fights, and then switch to another in a rather long, mildly convoluted story about an alternate universe where tragedy has struck Superman's life and in getting revenge, he's gone a little crazy with power and has made himself the king of the superheroes. I'm sure there's a real comic series this is following, but I'm not really a fan myself and I felt like the game needed to stand on its own without the backing of DC themselves,so I purposely avoided doing too much research on this. I spent the time in-game instead, and luckily, I feel like that time was very well spent.
One of the issues I had with MK9 was that the game had a few clear villains and heroes, but many of them were sort of neutral characters, so players didn't really care about the balance of power shifting back and forth - especially when it was Shang Tsung pulling the strings anyway. Here, characters identify a little more closely with hero and villain archetypes, and when the game does start playing around with allegiances back and forth, mostly by having guys like Green Lantern acting more like villains in alternate universes, it feels a little more natural. Sure, the whole universe-swapping can get a little tiring, but you'll find that the many decades' worth of banter and history between these DC arch-enemies creates a richer environment for fighting than MK9 could have done.
The fighting mechanics in Injustice have some interesting bits and pieces, too. The action is a little choppy and disjointed at first, although I'm not talking about the frame rate. It's more about the smoothness of a fighter's movements, and while you get very beefy hit feedback in this game, it makes for something a little less fluid than the best from Capcom or Namco - even if the fighting still runs at a solid 60fps. You've got special moves along with your character's powers that recharge over time, and then there's the super meter which you can use to power up regular moves or to unleash a big super attack. All of these feel hard-hitting alongside even the regular attacks, and while Injustice is Teen-rated without any gore and hardly any blood, I think you'll still find the action is still exciting and satisfying.
As far as new features, Injustice does innovate, but it's not all substance. There's a lot of flashiness to it, too, which might be the right move for a game so dependent on a rich comic history. Stage transitions allow characters to physically smash each other into different parts of a city; these add eye candy and flavor to the environments, but they don't really add that much damage to your combos. Still, they're still a blast to see because they look so brutal. The Wager system allows players that have lost the first half of their life bar and are getting combo'd by their opponent to give up a chunk of their super meter to break the combo, get a portion of health back, and push a hard knockdown on the opponent, but it only works if you're willing to give up more of your meter than the other guy. Finally, there are environmental hazards and things you can make use of in each stage, including something on the ends of most arena corners. These are designed to help players stuck in the corner to get out, but they still need to time their use of these things - and they won't help you against a relentless player that's timing meaty attacks properly. I think the point of all of this was to allow for a few mildly-useful comeback mechanics, but there's still nothing here that's quite as immensely game-changing as Marvel's X-Factor system or even Street Fighter IV's Ultra combos.
Despite all this, there's a bit of smallness to the impact of many attacks in Capcom's Marvel games, where the best that that universe's biggest superheroes can do is just a lot of damage through hundreds of hits, and where each hit doesn't really seem like it's terribly hard-hitting. In Injustice, each attack has a bigger visual and aural impact than what we usually see in Capcom's fighters. Characters get smashed with massive force into objects, thrown through a dozen floors of a building, get tossed into the Earth's atmosphere, and lots more. It may not have many implications for balance or high-level strategy, but let's face it, people: for a game to have a long life online, the top players in fighting games still have a key role in a fighting game's lifespan and go a long way towards motivating everyone else to keep playing. And for those top players to pick up the game and get into the lab with it repeatedly, it needs to look good so it'll have a continuously good showing at tournaments. In that respect, NetherRealm has done a great job with Injustice.
Even though Injustice delivers one of the most impressive and entertaining single player modes in any fighting game ever made, we have to admit that so far, the bar hasn't exactly been set very high and there's still a ton of room for improvement here, especially for casual fighting game players. For one, Injustice offers basically no help for getting started, and with the rather unique control set and features this game has, it could have benefited greatly from a quick, skippable tutorial at the start of the story mode that at least teaches the player the basics of the attacks along with the Wager system, environmental attacks, and powers. It might have also been helpful to ask the player if they've played any fighting games before, and maybe adjust the tutorial to use the terminology and concepts from a few really popular games over the years, but I suppose that creates all kind of weird copyright and publisher issues (even if these issues make zero sense to actual gamers out there). Either way, I think fighting game developers still have miles to go in teaching most players how to enjoy these games to their full potential, and while NetherRealm certainly isn't doing worse than most studios, they're not doing any better, either. I'm not going to let up until mainstream fighting games are reliably teaching concepts like safe vs. punishable on block, option select, frame trap, and more. It's awesome that we have resources like UltraChenTV teaching players new concepts, but we shouldn't need them.
Update: A kind reader has reminded me that the game has a tutorial; I might have missed it because of my own excitement in button-mashing. The game does not explain much beyond the basics and I still think fighting game tutorials have a long way to go, but contrary to what I wrote above, the basics are explained here.
Online, Injustice plays pretty solidly with netcode that seems to be an improvement on Mortal Kombat, although it doesn't seem to be quite up to the standard Capcom has set with their best games' online modes. A bad connection to a player who lives in the sticks (or simply forgot to turn off his torrents) is still going to make for a choppy, nasty match with tons of jerks and skips, but if the connection's smooth, you can largely play like you would offline and do fine. The combos' timing seems to be roughly the same whether you're playing online or not, but I'm probably not the best judge of this.
As much as progress NetherRealm has made - and improving on MK9 was a difficult feat which I believe they succeeded in doing - the problem is that the face of fighting games has changed even just in the last year and a half that I'm not sure Injustice is a comparative step forwards when you look at everything else. I'm not good enough of a player to participate in the tournament scene, and the hectic timing of game reviewing means that very little high-level play can be observed or participated in before we're expected to stamp this game with a review and a score, but the conclusion I'm coming to is that even though Injustice is the most complete and entertaining fighting game to ever come out of the Mortal Kombat ecosystem, it probably won't take over the tournament scene. I'm happy to report that it's not a carbon copy of MK gameplay and it is still a blast to play offline and online, though, so casual players are still going to enjoy the game for what it delivers on the surface. It'll remain to be seen exactly how the game does in tournaments and what kind of technology the top players bring, but I believe Marvel still has a lot of life left in it for big-hype games, and SFIV isn't far behind, so Injustice might still be taking third (or fifth or eighth) wheel to the big names. It's kind of unfortunate that Warner Bros couldn't set up Injustice to be one of the 8 major games being played at EVO this summer, but hopefully they can still run a well-supported side tournament at the world's biggest stage for pro fighting game play. If that goes well, we could see Injustice living a long, comfortable life as a tourney mainstay and a constantly-evolving game online.
But even if that doesn't happen, at least the single player mode is pretty damn good.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy provided by the publisher.