STAFF REVIEW of Injustice: Gods Among Us (Xbox 360)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013.
by Khari Taylor

Injustice: Gods Among Us Box art What I'm about to say is probably not going to surprise you. Injustice: Gods Among Us is easily the best fighting game based on the DC Universe in existence. Now, given that the actual number of fighting games starring DC characters that are actually considered to be good can probably be counted on one hand, the above comment may seem like shallow praise, but trust me, it isn't. Much like its spiritual predecessor, Mortal Kombat (9), Injustice not only raises the bar once again for narrative in fighting games, but it also shatters and rebuilds the concept of what a superhero- based fighting game should be while simultaneously nailing the essence of what makes the DC Universe and its characters so compelling. To break so much ground in any medium is no small feat, but in the realm of videogames, it’s a monumental accomplishment. If it were not for a few nagging issues, Injustice would be superhero fisticuff perfection.

Injustice's story focuses on the efforts of our world's Justice League to thwart the overreaching tyranny of a dictator Superman and his cadre of like-minded superheroes and super-villains from another dimension who have all but subjugated humanity in their universe, and for reasons later revealed in the plot, plan to invade and take over our own as well. Just as NetherRealms did with Mortal Kombat, Injustice’s campaign does away with the multiple storyline, ladder-style progression of typical fighting games, instead opting to feature a single narrative broken up into 12 chapters, each one featuring a different superhero or super- villain who plays a key role in the plot, and thus whom the player must gain basic mastery of and win battles with in order to progress the story to its dramatic conclusion. On the downside, this means that first-time players will be forced to switch to a new character just as they have become accustomed to another and start from scratch with each new chapter, but the overall narrative and gameplay benefits far outweigh this inconvenience. Consequently, the cutscenes that bookend each fight not only keep the story moving forward, but also provide dramatic context as to why certain fights are happening (e.g. why would allies such as Green Lantern and The Flash ever come to blows) and provide some semblance of logic when required (e.g. how in the world could Green Arrow survive being knocked about by Solomon Grundy, much less defeat him?). Even dialogue flows more seamlessly throughout the story campaign as a result, as snappy one-liners, boasts and threats made by characters before a fight pay off at the conclusion with a follow-up line or joke by the winner, making each fight seem more like a riveting conversation. That said, NetherRealms also wants you to pay attention to the hard work they’ve put into their story cutscenes as well, so they’ve occasionally infused a few of them with interesting QTE-style mini-games to keep players engaged. While not particularly difficult, success or failure in these sections will reward the player with an advantage or penalize them with a handicap in the next fight. It’s a clever way of allowing the player to feel more involved in some of the action outside of the one-on- one fights themselves while also indirectly adding variation to the core experience.

When Superman and Lex Luthor clash in Metropolis or Batman and The Joker throw down on the streets of Gotham, there’s no referee, and developer NetherRealms has adapted Mortal Kombat’s fight system to reflect this reality of the Injustice Universe. Fight rounds have been completely eliminated, replaced with a two-layer health bar system. Depleting the first layer of an opponent's health bar results in the opponent collapsing temporarily while the assailant pauses to gloat or taunt him or her, forcing a momentary "break" in the action. Likewise, if the downed player manages to deplete the other player's health bar, another break ensues as the roles are reversed. There is no fade to black or resetting of character position during these breaks, so fights in Injustice move at a much quicker pace than in most other 2.5D fighters. Nonetheless, a couple of gameplay staples from Street Fighter have found their way into the game as the “Super Meter” and the “Meter Burn”. Just as it sounds, when filled, the Super Meter allows players to deal out flashy, devastating attacks intended to finish their opponent (by pressing LT + RT together), while the Meter Burn (special move + RT) is a modifier that allows players to consume part of their Super Meter to increase the attack power, duration or end state of certain special attacks. These are essentially the Injustice equivalents of Street Fighter’s Ultras and Supers, and they work more or less work the same, unfortunately with some unfortunate control caveats, which I’ll get to later.

The Wager/Clash, a new system intended to make fights more epic and unpredictable in nature, occurs when a player whose health has been reduced to the second layer and is on the receiving end of a combo presses Forward + RT, interrupting the combo with a shockwave that separates the players and then initiates the wager. Both players are then prompted to secretly wager single, multiple or all sections of their Super Meter against each other by pressing a corresponding face button. The characters then rush towards each other in a super-charged rage and collide in an even larger explosion from which the highest bidder emerges victorious and the loser is rewarded with an embarrassing case of road rash as he or she skids and tumbles backwards across the pavement. The clashes in particular are fun to watch, as the exchange of insults between the characters right before the collision is different for every possible match-up and is often The system can only be used once per player per match and is somewhat flawed (more on that in a bit), but it’s still an entertaining way to shake things up a bit when the fight is in its final minutes.

Each character in Injustice has a unique, rechargeable ability that they can use multiple times during a match to give him or her a potential edge in battle simply by pressing the B button. For example, Batman's ability summons three drone batarangs that he can spin around his body and damage nearby opponents, or send them flying at enemies in a swarm that explodes on contact. For Lex Luthor, his ability creates an energy field that increases his power suit's resilience and damage output. For Wonder Woman, her ability switches her stance from flight and lasso-based attacks to an Amazonian walking stance with sword and shield, and so on. These abilities, in addition to each character's unique moves, combos, specials and aforementioned Super Attacks further distinguish each DC character from one another and encourage players to experiment with each and every one of them.

Finally, the most lethal tools available to every character in the game are the stages themselves. Each of Injustice’s environments are filled with interactive objects that players can use as instant weapons against their opponents by pressing RB when close to them. The way in which certain characters use these objects will differ however, depending on that character's style. For example, highly agile characters such as Nightwing can use large background objects such as the Bat Signal to leap out of and back into the foreground in order to get behind his opponent. Meanwhile, brawny characters such as Superman, Lex Luthor or Black Adam will rip the Bat Signal from its foundations and hurl it down at ground-based enemies. Green Lantern will do the same with a flying car, while Catwoman will quickly light the fuselage of the same vehicle and cause it to explode with an area of effect radius. Some interactables can only be used once by some characters (such as Superman and the Bat Signal) while others can be reused or are replaced frequently during the match, such as a garbage dumpster that can be tossed or kicked back and forth along the ground. And when you get tired of your immediate surroundings, connecting a heavy attack with an opponent near the edge of most stages will knock him or her right out of the arena and into a “level transition” that will treat him or her to a violent guided tour of the location and then spit them out in a different area to continue the fight. These sequences are incredible and must be seen to be believed.

From an audio and visual standpoint, Injustice has quality and attention to detail stamped all over it. Every super attack, every interactable object, every level transition and destructible environment is built to showcase and immerse the player in NetherRealm's over-the-top take on the DC universe, and the effect is pulled off brilliantly -- and surprisingly -- without having to push the boundaries of gratuitous violence to the level of the Mortal Kombat games. DC fans will still have to work a bit harder than usual to suspend their disbelief as they witness their favorite DC heroes and villains being viciously stabbed by knives and swords, impaled on tridents and racks of ice spikes, crushed like a walnut between asteroids, riddled with bullets or arrows, flattened by the hand of a god, mangled by the jaws of a great white, and suffering all sorts of wounds and accidents that even Superman himself should have no right to survive, much less get up from and keep on fighting only seconds later. Particularly nasty battles will occasionally leave the victor with large chunks of flesh missing from their limbs and torso, an obvious wink to Mortal Kombat fans, but a bit off-putting to DC fans who prefer their heroes to look a little more…invincible. However, dealing out the same damage to your opponents is just as deliciously satisfying as it is disturbing and humiliating on the receiving end, and right around the 30th time you’ve run the Joker over with the Batmobile you’ll learn to accept that you’re playing a game starring imaginary super-beings. Don’t worry, they can take it.

There are 15 arenas in Injustice, and almost all of them feature a second level that can be reached via the game’s destructively cinematic level transitions (at the brutal expense of you or your opponent). But even when you are pounding the tar out of one another in just one stage, witnessing the amount of destruction your battles wreak on the environment is simply jaw-dropping. Aside from interactive objects that you can destroy, the impact of your strikes can cause the walls of buildings to crumble and expose their metal girders underneath, dislodge the Daily Planet globe from its titular office building and send it crashing atop the rooftops towards you, topple enormous statues and monuments, and even black out an entire city for several seconds. Without a doubt, each stage is just as much a character in the game as the superheroes and villains fighting within them. Speaking of characters, NetherRealm’s visual take on DC’s finest and most villainous isn’t too shabby either. Most of their unique character designs are hits, with Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Sinestro and Lex Luthor looking like they have leapt right out of the comic books and into the game sporting snazzy new duds. Some on the other hand are puzzling misses, with Superman and Wonder Woman resembling poseable action figures more than people and a skinny-necked Batman whose costumes seem to draw more inspiration from Mortal Kombat and the rabbit from Donnie Darko than the myriad of awesome batsuits found in Batman: Arkham City. Thankfully, there’s some pretty good-looking DLC incoming.

Audio is where Injustice absolutely hits it out of the park. Every punch, kick, slash, bone crack, grunt, scream and explosion resonates with satisfying and glorious detail when enjoyed in surround sound -- so much so that you'll find yourself wanting to successfully execute each character's Specials, Super Attacks and crazy Level Transitions over and over so that your ears can be massaged repeatedly by the aural carnage. And If the sound of Superman breaking the sound barrier as he punches an opponent through the atmosphere doesn't sell you on the epic magnitude of this DC Universe experience, the superb voice talents behind this game absolutely will, as many of them are veteran voice actors that have portrayed the same characters in other DC media, such as the animated features. These talents notably include the iconic Kevin Conroy (the signature voice of Batman for over 20 years), the chameleon-tongued Phil Lamarr (Aquaman), as well as Superman and Wonder Woman vets George Newbern and Susan Eisenberg (who have voiced the Man of Steel and the Amazon princess respectively in various DC features since the original Justice League cartoons of over a decade ago). Every voice in the game hits its mark dead on, making one’s immersion in the Injustice fiction complete.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review however, there are some small but not insignificant problems that keep Injustice from achieving true greatness. The first, while not a complete deal-breaker, are the control options. It's been known for years that the default Xbox 360 controller has never been the best option for fighting games, and NetherRealms has been thoughtful in addressing the problem by allowing players to create their own custom setups (helpful for those who prefer to use one of the many fightstick options available out there instead of the stock controller) and they’ve even provided an "alternate" (a.k.a. Street Fighter-style) control option that makes certain moves easier to perform for players from the Ken/Ryu school of martial arts. Unfortunately, the concessions didn't go far enough, as there are elements of Injustice's controls that are still rigid and unforgiving. One example is the execution of each character's Super Move, which can only be performed by pressing LT and RT together, regardless of where those buttons are on the stick or what commands have been assigned to them. This means that if you are using a joystick or fightpad, this crucial part of your arsenal is still tailored to the default controller setup, which depending on the control method in use may require the players using an alternate control scheme to perform awkward and uncomfortable finger-gymnastics to pull off Supers in the heat of battle. Two-button grapples and Meter Burns (select special moves + RT) are similarly difficult to execute reliably for the similar reasons. Meanwhile, two buttons in the control scheme must always be assigned to the commands "Flip Stance" (a move so seemingly pointless that it was left out of the game's tutorial) and grapple (which is also achieved by pressing the weak and strong attack buttons together), making its mandatory inclusion in the button layout utterly redundant. Freeing up those buttons so that they could be reprogrammed for shortcuts along with allowing players to reassign the Supers to whatever combination of two buttons they like would have gone a long way to make the game more attractive to serious fighting fans with dedicated sticks and pads (including those who bought the Injustice-branded Fightstick). As they are, Injustice's controls are hardly a deal-breaker, but hardcore fighting fans might find themselves frustrated by the amount of compromises they'll have to make to play with their peripheral of choice.

The second issue is the above discussed Wager system, which while flashy and fun to watch, could not be more inappropriately named, as hardly any element of chance or gambling plays into the system whatsoever. Victory in a clash always goes to the player who wagers a larger amount of their Super Meter, so unless both players have the same amount of Meter, it is always obvious who will come out on the losing end even if you don't know how much your opponent is wagering, because most people will bet it all. Even stranger is that the only player positively or negatively affected by the wager is the player who instigates it (i.e. the one who is already on the receiving end of a combo and interrupts it) -- the other player loses no health from the clash, only the amount of Meter that they wagered, while the instigator either gains or loses a percentage of health based on the difference between wagers in addition to amount of Meter wagered. So unless the player who initiates the wager has more Meter than their opponent, instigating a wager in the first place is almost a pointless exercise. Such a system would be far more interesting if the outcome were completely random and that both characters stood to lose something, which would make entering wager mode a riskier yet far more tense and exciting proposition.

Finally, there's the online. At the time of this writing, Injustice's online netcode suffers from noticeable button input lag, so while the game visually appears to run smoothly over a fast, wired internet connection, the inability to perform moves with the precise timing that the game requires means that the game is hardly playable online unless you can re-wire your brain for the slower response of online play. Hopefully future patches will resolve this issue, but for the time being, multiplayer in Injustice is best enjoyed with friends sitting next to you on the couch.

Despite these annoyances, Injustice: Gods Among Us still manages to deliver a solid, enjoyable fighting game experience, not to mention one of the most entertaining DC Universe adventures outside of the Batman: Arkham games that you can experience on a console. If you're a fan of DC comics in general and have an appreciation for fighting games, then Injustice is definitely for you.

- Offer more advanced control customization options (e.g. shortcuts, macros)
- Outcome of Wager/Clashes are too predictable - make them more random
- Improve the online netcode
- Bring the Injustice iOS app to Android/Windows

Phone/Blackberry Z10 devices so we can unlock goodies in the
console version as well! Not everyone owns an iPhone!

Overall: 8.6 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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