If your only exposure to DC Comics’ characters is Injustice: Gods Among Us, you may understandably come away from the game thinking Aquaman is the toughest superhero there is. That’s okay, just make sure you don’t engage in any debates on the topic with actual comic book fans. They’ll laugh themselves silly. But it’s all true. The sub-marine superhero, long mocked because his main power involves talking to dolphins, kicks serious butt in NetherRealms Studios’ latest fighting game. Not only does he singlehandedly take down a swath of traitorous soldiers in the main story mode, he also has perhaps the most bad-ass super move in the game where, after repeatedly stabbing his opponent with his trident, he summons a killer shark to finish the job. The message is clear: you don’t want to mess with the king of fishes.
Fortunately, this incongruous unrealism is the only real hiccup, if it can even be considered that, with Injustice. This is as good a fighting game as there is, with over-powered characters a necessity for achieving overall balance. Otherwise, why wouldn’t everyone just play as Superman?
Injustice continues with the same easy-to-pick-up, difficult-to-master philosophy of Mortal Kombat games, which NetherRealms’ creative director Ed Boon has been busy perfecting over the past 20 years. It takes virtually no skill to pick a character from Injustice’s 24-person roster, jump right in and mash some buttons.
The only thing the beginner player needs to know to enjoy the game is how to press the controller’s two triggers simultaneously. Doing so once a character’s energy meter is fully charged activates his or her super attack, which is usually a highly enjoyable, over-the-top animation that can make you cringe in pain or howl with victory, depending on whether you’re giving or receiving. Superman, for example, launches his opponent into the stratosphere before pounding him or her back down to earth. The Flash goes for the ultimate punch wind-up by running all the way around the world at super speed before socking it to his enemy.
Also adding to the fun are the highly interactive environments. Characters can wrench an overhead pipe loose to spray freezing chemicals on their opponents, throw a nearby car at them, or even jump on a motorcycle and ram them head on. Most of the arenas also have transitions – if you wallop your opponent near the edge of an arena, they go flying into an entirely new one. The interactive elements and transitions combine to make the fights feel alive and dynamic.
All of that aside, rookies will quickly get trounced by players who take the time to learn the careful button and thumbstick combinations that enable other special moves. Fortunately, Injustice has a number of ways to instruct players in this more complex fighting style.
The one most players are likely to start with is the single-player story mode, which also does the best job of rationalizing fighting game match-ups that I’ve seen. It turns out that an alternate dimension Joker has somehow wired Lois Lane with a nuclear device and tricked Superman into killing her. Understandably traumatized, Supes goes off the deep end and kills the Joker, after which he sets up a quasi-fascist regime where anyone and everyone answers to him.
Then an insurrection sprouts up and Batman, naturally, is at the heart of it. The dissenters open a doorway to our dimension and transport our heroes over to help in the fight against evil Superman and his legion of super-hero – and villain – followers. That sets the stage for all manner of otherwise impossible fights, like Batman versus Batman and Green Lantern versus Green Lantern and so on.
Players take on different characters throughout the story – you step into Aquaman’s water-proof shoes, for example, as he journeys to Atlantis in an effort to drum up aid against Superman. The switching provides a nice sampling of the characters, giving you a good idea of which ones you’d like to come back to and master once the main story is over. The plot works to logically rationalize the match-ups for the most part, with only a few incidents of confusion over which Batman or Cyborg or Wonder Woman is which.
The story is also helped by beautifully animated cut-scenes and some great voice acting. Kevin Conroy, the actor who has voiced Batman in animated cartoons and games for what seems like forever is back on familiar territory here, but the absence of Mark Hamill as his foil, the Joker, is unfortunate. It’s come to the point where it’s weird hearing anyone else voicing the Clown Prince of Crime.
Ultimately, getting through the main story isn’t that difficult. Opponents get tougher the deeper into the plot you get, but the game noticeably lowers its difficulty if you’re having too hard a time. It got a little silly toward the end where, despite controlling Superman, I had my butt handed to me by – you guessed it – Aquaman. Fortunately, the difficulty eventually ramped down, allowing me to get my revenge and move on.
The STAR Labs mode is inevitably the next stop for most players. These are quick, one-off battles that have certain conditions for success. Players must perform certain manoeuvres or beat an opponent within a certain time limit, for example, to earn stars, which then unlock further challenges. There are 240 of these and it’s safe to say that going through all of them will dramatically boost any player’s skill level.
At that point, you can jump into beating on your friends, either locally or online. Basic pairing with strangers online works on the experience points gathered throughout the game’s other modes, which doesn’t necessarily reflect your skill level. I found that to be a bit of a problem, since I repeatedly got matched up with similarly levelled players who were clearly way ahead of me in the skill department. It goes without saying that you don’t really want to delve into online fights until you know what you’re doing, regardless of what level you’re at.
That said, there’s an intriguing online King of the Hill mode, where you join a group of players who are jockeying to be the leader of their particular lobby. As you wait your turn to fight the reigning king, you can spectate and bet experience points on the participants in the intervening matches. It’s a fun way to gamble, but also to pick up tricks and tips from other players. Those experience points, which accrue in every fight in the game, by the way, translate into unlockable costumes, concept art and other bonus content.
Over all, Injustice: Gods Among Us is as complete a fighting game as I’ve played. It’s set up to cater to both beginner and experienced players and has a story mode that manages to almost completely hide its contrivances. Top-notch animation, voice acting and multiplayer options round out the offering. It’s also a great homage to DC superheroes that comic book fans are sure to love.
While fighting games aren’t for everyone, this is easily a game that anyone can enjoy, if even for a just a little while. Until that guy with the trident shows up, that is.