Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: "Injustice: Gods Among Us"

Video Game_injustice- gods among us_269953Since the beginning of time itself, since the first words of recorded history; since man first stepped, blinking, naked, and scared from the darkness of nonexistence, and a bunch of grubby-fingered children clamoured around a magazine parlour reading comic books, realizing that different superheroes existed in similar continuities, a singular question has prevailed – a question consistently on every living being’s breath, continuing to drive scholars and plebeians alike to the edge of madness and beyond: “COULD BATMAN BEAT SUPERMAN??”
Yes, there’s something so very appealing about comic book heroes fighting each other. Notjust fighting – no, they do plenty of fighting - but fighting each other. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to a buzz of excitement when in, say, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Iron Man squares off against Thor. But they’re both Avengers, right? They’re not supposed to be fighting. It is, for all intents and purposes, a “what if” scenario – and yet, it’s the kind of scenario which has prevailed and stuck with popular culture and its audience for generations. More than heroes fighting villains, we clamour at the chance to see heroes fighting other heroes. So, here’s Injustice: Gods Among Us – an entire game dedicated to the notion of heroes fighting other heroes.

Coming to us by way of NetherRealm Studios, Injustice: Gods Among Us is a 2D fighting game that takes liberal influence from NetherRealm’s previous works – the crossover game, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, and the 2011 reboot of Mortal Kombat. It is the latter product which won them the most acclaim, putting Mortal Kombat back on the map with a gratuitous, balls-to-the-wall retelling of the original three games’ plots. It didn’t last long on the pro circuit, but it stuck with those that played it as an admirable, well-presented and polished remake indeed. Oh, and violent. Needlessly, wince-inducingly violent.
Naturally, a follow-up fighting game from the studio will be met with comparisons to Mortal Kombat. So let’s get that out of the way first: Injustice is not Mortal Kombat with a DC Comics-flavoured twist. It is something quite else, and while the engine feels inherently familiar and matches play out in a similar fashion, the controls and playstyles are revamped completely. Ed Boon has voiced his intentions to separate Injustice from NetherRealm’s other properties, and for the most part they’ve succeeded in doing just that. A familiar feature set is perhaps the most immediate parallel to Mortal Kombat – in playing the game, there is quite a palpable difference, and a welcome one at that.
injustice-gods-among-us[1]The removal of a dedicated block button (you hold back to block now), and replacing the one-face-button-per-limb system with a light, medium, and heavy-attack control scheme instead are just a few of the more immediate differences. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Mortal Kombat to death, but variety is the spice of life and DC’s heroes deserved something more than just a half-hearted retread of the already half-hearted MK vs DCU. It looks like they got that.
The story mode was the most impressive portion of Mortal Kombat, and a similar experience is available in Injustice. A chapter-based affair with cutscenes that flow seamlessly into combat and back again, Injustice’s main campaign will see you take control of 12 of the 24 character roster for a roller coaster ride of a narrative filled with fun, laughs, twists, surprises, and prizes. For about six hours, anyway.
If you are a DC purist (somehow, after all those retcons), you’ll probably be left disappointed. Despite this technically being an Elseworld’s tale, there is still little justification for why, for example, Harley Quinn can beat up Doomsday. Why The Joker can stand face-to-face with Black Adam. Why people can not only catch up to, but punch and hit The Flash, supposedly the fastest man on the planet. There is a very small story explanation in the form of a throwaway line regarding magic pills (no…really), but otherwise it’s just a bunch of DC characters fighting each other – regardless of their being utterly outclassed or not.
I’ll be the first to say it – that’s fine, and I’m glad they didn’t go to lengths to either explain why lightweights can go toe-to-toe with heavyhitters, or just pick characters that could stand an equal chance in scrap together. Rather, it is knowingly ridiculous – and that’s perfect. It’s exactly what was needed of a game where every fight takes place on a two-dimensional plane. You can’t write yourself out of that logic hole, so the team doesn’t even try. As Deathstroke says, tongue-in-cheek: “your tactics are one-dimensional!”
injustice_gods_among_us_6[1]As for the plot? Well, I don’t want to spoil much – a lot of the joy comes from being surprised in the cameos and choice of who’s fighting who and so on. But if you’re a DC Comics fan – or a fan of these characters – you’ll find a lot to like. It feels like, to me at least, a sort of twisted amalgamation of Flashpoint and Superman: Red Son, taking place in an alternate dimension in which Superman has become a horrific dictator due to… events. “Our” universe’s heroes (and some villains) are teleported into this nightmarish dimension to assist the Insurgency fighting against Superman’s Regime. That’s all you need to know. Alternate universe, Superman evil. Bunch of heroes fight. It is, as I noted, utterly, knowingly stupid. It brushes a few intelligent topics, but only lightly – nevertheless, enough so that you know that the stupidity is by choice and necessity, not so much that these writers are just dumb.
The action, both in and out of fights, amps up the ridiculousness. In the story you’ll see armies going against each other, doppelgangers giving each other a punch up, and all that good stuff. But reserved for the gameplay is some of the truly awesome action. Every character has special moves and power moves and a “super move,” and they’re all pleasingly unique.
The power moves are relegated to a single button that does a character-related thing. Superman, for example, charges up with the power of the sun and gets more powerful, and Batman summons a swarm of bats. But Green Arrow shoots arrows (different kinds!), and Solomon Grundy grabs his foe, reciting the poem that recalls his life and death (“born on a Monday…”). And whatnot.
Truly devastating though are the super moves. Think of them like Mortal Kombat’s X-rays. When your super move gets filled up, you can hit LT and RT at the same time to unleash a ten second long canned animation, depicting all kinds of various pain-inflicting (and enemy health bar-diminishing) scenarios. Aquaman summons a giant wave filled with fish and man eating sharks. Bane snaps his opponent’s back over his knee, as he is wont to do. Raven pulls people into a hellish realm where her dad, a Satan Devil type beast, does mean things. And more! The game is worth playing to see all these cool animations, even if Youtube provides them all. Really. Doing these moves is less satisfying than watching them. Rarely has the term “bring the pain” been more apt for a videogame.
Joker_Greenlantern_Batcave_0[1]Perhaps the only gripes to be found are that the animations can get a little drawn out on repeat viewings, some of the moves are a little tricky to pull off for a not terribly thrilling reward, and that continuity of the matches can get a little warped – Doomsday’s move digs a hole through the center of the Earth, which is a little confusing if the stage you’re playing on is the in-orbit Watchtower satellite. Same, come to think of it, with Flash’s “running around the Earth to land a punch” move. Also, Batman can seemingly summon the Batmobile from anywhere. Even under the ocean, and in space. And in the Batcave where another Batmobile can clearly be seen in the background. Actually, the continuity is all kinds of weird – in one story match versus Doomsday in the Fortress of Solitude’s menagerie, Doomsday stood watching in the background. Eh. Multiple dimensions, amirite?
While we’re on animations, though, might need to bring up the graphical fidelity. It’s no secret – Injustice is not a pretty game. Far from ugly, but not exactly up to scratch for a 2013 release. It’s fine, though. The game runs a silky smooth frame rate during the fights (even if some canned animations like grabs and supers slow it down), and there is a good amount of stuff rendered. These maps are dense with interactable objects which you can kick enemies into, throw at enemies, or shove enemies through. Most stages have multiple transitions through which you can punch enemies, initiating a cinematic of them falling through spiked bits and getting set on fire or hit by a wrecking ball or flung through a building or hit by a train or helicopter, before landing with a crunch in the next arena. And the animations are all perfect; naturally flowing, a good indication of character, and a joy to look at, the fights play out with a distinct flavour – with characters reacting to hits as they would, staggering from falls, and… oh, as shockwaves and wayward projectiles cause the stage to collapse around the combatants. Buildings fall apart, machines sputter and fail, roofs collapse, the Daily Planet globe falls off of its sitting. The game is a dense one, with fancy effects, physics-driven collateral damage and awe-inspiring combos – it’s just when you start to inspect things more closely… the seams start to show.
The faces are perhaps the most obviously ugly. The animation, lip-synch, and overall fidelity are noticeably lacking, especially (and surprisingly) in the pre-rendered cut-scenes. There’s also something about everyone’s teeth. They’re too white, or their mouths are cut around the wrong portion or… something. It looks weird. It’s not horrible, but it’s far from impressive – even Mortal Kombat looked better than this.
Also, there’s a lot of suspicious sprite use which really baffled me. Not even animatedsprites, despite them being sprites of characters. One of the more egregious examples: Green Lantern’s victory screen sees him fly into space to join his corp… but they’re all floating sprites. All of them. It’s like someone (probably Sinestro) replaced the Green Lanterns with cardboard cut-outs. A fiendish plot t’be sure! One that has also affected Wonder Woman’s Athena, who passes her whip to her from the dreaded second dimension!…no, really. It’s weird. Why are they sprites. And if they had to be spirtes, why aren’t they moving. It’s creepy, guys.
Injustice__Gods_Among_Us_13618326235137[1]Graphical imperfection aside, the game more than makes up for it by being packed with stuff, and looking good when actually being played. To these ends, there are 24 characters. All your favourites are here! …and some of your not-favourites, certainly. If I must criticize the roster, I will do so thusly: too much Batman. Bats himself, Joker, Nightwing, Bane, Harley Quinn… few too many Batman characters. I’d actually be fine with it if Batman didn’t also dominate the stages – Gotham, the Batcave, Arkham Asylum, Joker’s Asylum, Wayne Manor during the day, Wayne Manor during the night. We get it. Batman’s popular. Can I travel to Bizarro maybe? That’d be fun? Eh? …no? Fine.
Anyway. This is where I’d usually comment on game balance. I’m… I don’t think I’m qualified. I’m assured by friends that know what they’re saying that Injustice is about on par with Mortal Kombat as far as tournament-ready depth goes, so I don’t expect professional longevity will be Injustice’s strong suit. As for the layman? …the characters all seem pretty well-rounded. None seem, at least from the outset, “overpowered,” and they all fill a pretty specific niche, and they all have varying playstyles. For a game to play with a buddy for a local 1v1 superhero action, Injustice is a perfectly well-tuned game. If you’re expecting to hop online for some more hardcore rounds, or if you’re thinking this game will be the next Street Fighter IV… don’t count on it. Maybe the game, under scrupulous and rigorous investigation, will surprise everyone and last for years in tournaments across the globe. From what I’ve seen of it, and from what I’ve heard of it, I very much doubt that.
The modes are all here that you’d expect, though. Injustice is a hefty game, packed with content. There’s the main campaign, there’s the S.T.A.R. Labs missions (more than 200 of them, equatable to Mortal Kombat’s challenge tower), a bevy of practice modes, an arcade mode with a ton of modifiers like Survival, Poisoned, fight-the-whole-roster, fight-the-whole-roster Survival. Then we enter online: there’s King of the Hill, ranked matches, player matches, practice with friends, practice with strangers. And online challenges, like “throw 10 monitors” and… yeah. Man, lot of stuff in this game!
Curiously, the game has persistent XP and stat tracking (like in Call of Duty), complete with leveling up ‘n all. There’s no moves or characters you need to level up for, all your XP goes towards unlocking backgrounds and badges for your player ID thing (again, like in Call of Duty). You level up outside of multi-player though – pretty much everything you do nets you XP – which resulted in a very mean scenario: I thought that my Level 40 meant I was truly positively good at the game, so I proudly strolled into an online match, only to find… no. I’m not any good – and I got my ass kicked so hard by someone (30 levels below me that had nontheless mastered Deathstroke) that my teeth flew out of my nose.
injustice-gods-among-us-screenshots-9[1]What else to say. The voice acting is pretty neat! A lot of actors reprise their roles from the DC Animated Universe, like Kevin Conroy as Batman, Phil LaMarr as Aquaman, Khary Payton as the Teen Titan’s own Cyborg; and they’re playing out a witty, clever script that fits the depictions of these characters like a glove. Fan favourite Tara Long also reprises her role of Harley Quinn from Batman: Arkham City, and the lack of Mark Hamill as The Joker is a thorn… until the new guy proves himself a more than adequate replacement. The visual design is alright too – not presented brilliantly, as I mentioned, but these updates to classic heroes aren’t terrible at all – in fact, they’re pretty sweet, straddling the line between clean-line comic stylings and overtly detailed film costumes. Nightwing has never looked sexier, Superman has never looked more threatening. Raven looks like a proper demon and even Harley Quinn and Joker’s new attires are spiffing. If you don’t appreciate the NetherRealm touch, mind, there are also a lot of unlockable classic skins – and, well, this is perhaps where the fun starts to turn a bit sour.
A lot of unlockable skins you can get in the game, no problem. You get them by playing, gaining achievements… y’know. Game stuff. There’s a New 52 designed outfit for The Flash. There’s Hal Jordan as a Yellow Lantern. There’s a very Flashpoint-esque unmasked Deathstroke. But if you want, say, a Batman Beyond skin, you’ll need to be playing the iOS app. If you want New 52 Superman or Wonder Woman, you’ll need to buy the Season Pass for the four helpings of planned DLC.
Worst of all is pre-order bonuses. If you want to play through some Red Son missions, I hope you pre-ordered from Gamestop! If you want to play through a Blackest Night-inspired zombie mode, elsewhere! If you want some Arkham Asylum skins, again – another retailer! This, combined with the planned DLC, the iOS app integration, does make the otherwise bursting at the seams with content product feel… lacking. Incomplete. To have everything that is on the disc you buy, you’ll need an iPad, the Season Pass, and you’ll need to have pre-ordered from several places. That feels dirty. The game is fine out-of-the-box, no stages or movesets are being sold off, but damn it if some of the coolest stuff isn’t being held hostage behind a paygate. Like Lobo. I love Lobo! I want Lobo! Why is he relegated to DLCahead of Harley Quinn and Killer fucking Frost?
If you are a fan of these characters, this game is pure, unadulterated fun. It’s suitably brutal (not as much as Mortal Kombat, obviously, but there’s still plenty of blood-letting), and more than satisfyingly ridiculous. Characters you love and adore are here, redesigned in a way that makes sense. Too much Batman, perhaps, but hey – there’s fan service that more that makes up for it. Giganta and Atom Smasher fight in the background of one stage, beating each other as buildings collapse around them. Sweet! That’s probably a fight I’d rather be having, but whatever! There’s a lot of goodies in here for casual observers of fighting games and DC’s properties.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is, at its core, a bonkers fighting game that puts accessibility ahead of depth. If the idea of a fighting game you can enjoy sitting down with a drink and a mate for some 1v1 action appeals to you, and the idea of pitting DC’s finest against each other in increasingly audacious situations is your bag, your alley is the one which Injustice is up. If you’re looking for more beneath the surface of your fighting games, Injustice only offers the merest of potential in that area – I can always recommend you wait and see, but from the looks of things, just like Mortal Kombat, you’re out of luck with this one.
Know what you’re getting into, though, and Injustice more than delivers – a super-powered fan-service-packed uppercut right into the pleasure center of every comic nerd’s nostalgia-fueled brain. Or, in other words: this game might not provide a solid answer on who’d win in a fight between Batman and Superman, but it does reassure us that it is freakin’ sweet when they do.