Coming from NetherRealm, the team behind Mortal Kombat (up to and including the wonderful reboot released in 2011), expectations for Injustice: Gods Among Us are understandably high. Injustice aims high with a robust number of ways to experience it, but it’s held back by some small issues that conspire together to take the game down a notch or two.
Like Mortal Kombat, Injustice: Gods Among Us features a slick Story Mode that will only add to NetherRealm’s reputation as genre trailblazers in this area. The Story Mode takes players through a 6-8 hour journey and it offers a good primer on the fighters that Injustice offers. Players will control almost every character in the game throughout the course of the campaign, with some odd omissions that are disappointing when considering how clever most of the mode is. Some characters are woefully underserved, while others get full chapters dedicated to seemingly minor arcs (Green Arrow being one) that don’t contribute to the overall story. The amount of time spent with each character is welcome and contributes to familiarity with the fighters and the fighting systems, but it feels like that 6-8 hour playtime should have been stretched closer to 10 to fully take advantage of the roster.
The narrative itself is boilerplate superhero melodrama, with some notable divergences. The narrative does a good job twisting itself around in order to allow multiple combinations of fighters to go against each other in ways that make sense. Friends are turned against each other in this dimension-hopping yarn, and some of the matchups are inspired. However, the combat scenarios themselves aren’t, with each fight being a straightforward match, unlike some of Mortal Kombat‘s tag and handicap scenarios. There are some attempts to add variety to the proceedings in the form of mini-games, but these sequences are boring to play and run way too long. Tapping out button combinations to shoot down cars being thrown at you is interesting for about 30 seconds, but in Injustice the palate cleansing winds up lasting about as long as a couple of fights, which shows how shallow the mini-games are.
There’s also a strange issue with the cutscenes. In short, they look awful. The lighting is flat and the compression is way overdone, making what should be a visual highlight of the game look like an HD remake of a last-generation game. It’s a shame, because the spectacle of the cutscenes is quite nice, but they look so bad that it drags the whole experience down by making it look cheap. The voice acting is solid but unspectacular, and the narrative itself can be hard to follow sometimes, especially at the beginning if one has not read the preceding comics. Transmedia is a great trend in gaming, but developers need to keep in mind that the primary way most of their audience will interact with their property is by playing it, so the narrative of the game itself has to stand on its own. Injustice assumes that players are already up to speed at the outset, which causes the narrative to gloss over critical details, such as the villain’s motivation for action.
The fighting itself is a fun departure from what genre veterans are used to. Despite many on the Injustice roster being superheroes, the combat feels oddly grounded and physical, not to mention deliberate. This isn’t Marvel vs Capcom, with that game’s over-the-top special attacks and reliance on visually-impressive moves. Injustice is much more personal, with a lot of the special attacks being enhanced versions of normal attacks, as opposed to projectiles materializing out of thin air or attacks that freeze your opponent in place. It’s also very combo heavy, with bouts playing out in three-or-four-move flourishes as players search for an opening. Combat is enhanced by the interactive backgrounds, which add a unique strategic element to fights. Most of the environments have elements of the backgrounds that fighters can use to hurt each other with, as well as another area that can be accessed via an entertaining (and painful) transitional attack. The characters are modular, meaning that most of them use similar actions, allowing for easy pick-up-and-playability, but the homogenizing also takes away a bit of the fun. After playing through the campaign, I wasn’t sure that I found a character that I really connected with, despite feeling as though I understood how to fight with most of them. There isn’t anything as unique or iconic as Street Fighter‘s “hadouken” or Mortal Kombat‘s “Get over here!” This is a missed opportunity, as the license should have lent itself to iconic moments for every character.
The one place where Injustice really shines is in the super attacks, which are activated in much the same way as Mortal Kombat‘s X-Ray attacks (have a full special bar and tap both triggers). However, unlike in Mortal Kombat, where some of the X-Rays had unique activations (Johnny Cage’s was defensive in nature, as an example), the implementation of Injustice‘s super moves is all the same. The opening few seconds is just about the same for each character. As the moves progress, however, they’re entertaining to watch and occasionally funny. It’s the only part of the game that really makes full-use of the license and characters afforded to it.
Rounding out the combat options is the Wager system, which is poorly-explained and feels unnecessary. I never willingly triggered one, and I often felt that the CPU utilized them in unfair circumstances, typically as a byproduct of mismanaging its super bar. See, when a Wager is triggered, each player has to “bet” chunks of his or her super bar as the characters fly towards each other for a true superhero clash. The problem is that there’s no strategy to it. Simply bet the most you can and hope you have a bigger bar than your opponent. There’s not much else to it.
Mortal Kombat had a robust selection of things to do outside of the primary fighting, and this approach holds true in Injustice. Outside of the primary story mode, there’s an arcade mode that allows players to control one fighter throughout multiple battles against a variety of different ladders (you can choose to fight only villains, for example).
Additionally, there’s a S.T.A.R. Labs mode that replaces Mortal Kombat‘s challenges with its own set of 350 specialized challenges spread out over all of the characters the game has to offer. Of course, there’s also an online mode (that works this time!) for anyone willing to test his or her skills.
There’s a lot of game in Injustice, but the package could be even better with some key improvements in the visuals and combat design. NetherRealms proves again that it is at the forefront of how to integrate narrative design into fighting games, but the execution (particularly in the awful cutscenes) undoes some of that good work. The battles themselves are a fun departure from what other fighting games do, but there’s a sense of “samey-ness” to the combatants that makes them hard to distinguish.
With a few flaws buffed away, Injustice would be a slam-dunk recommendation. As it stands, it’s a game that reaches for the stars, but never quite gets there.
A copy of Injustice: Gods Among Us was purchased on the Xbox 360 for the purposes of this review.