Friday, April 26, 2013

Injustice: Gods Among Us - Doesn't Pull Any Punches

When you hear the name Midway Games, there's a chance you'll be thinking of the Mortal Kombat franchise, known for its extreme gore and single-handedly leading to the creation of the ESRB (that rating system that parents don't seem to pay attention to). In 2008, the franchise saw an installment known as Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, its purpose being self-explanatory, which was achieved by having Warner Bros. and DC partnering with Midway to license certain characters for use in the game. While the game had mixed reception, it would turn out to be the company's last project before going bankrupt. At this point in time, Mortal Kombat creator and director Ed Boon formed NetherRealm Studios and immediately began working on a Mortal Kombat reboot, simply titled Mortal Kombat, released in 2011 to universal acclaim. Now it seems that history has decided to repeat itself, with Warner Bros.' ownership of NetherRealm leading to the creation of the subject of this review, Injustice: Gods Among Us, a fighting game with a roster made entirely of DC characters. The idea intrigued me when I first heard about it and so I decided to give it a shot. The end result is something that could be considered a new high for NetherRealm.

Before I begin, I'd like to mention that I feel my review of the Mortal Kombat reboot is inadequate and didn't do the game any real justice (then again I wrote it in the fifth month of this blog's existence). Similarly, I feel my review of Marvel vs Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds to be poorly written. With this review of Injustice, I plan to make up for these earlier reviews in spades and cover it more completely with the style I have developed from writing reviews for over two years. So, without further delay, I'd like to present my review of Injustice: Gods Among Us.

This can't end well.

Just like Mortal Kombat, Injustice comes with a Story Mode featuring an actual plot, something that doesn't appear all that often in fighting games. The premise is thus: As the Justice League are fighting various DC villains for no discernible reason, Batman is close to stopping The Joker from completing his latest scheme. Joker's plan?: to blow up Metropolis with a nuke planted at the base of a Superman statue. When the caped crusader finally arrives, the clown prince of crime has already armed the device, detonation now a single button push away. With the presence of the Dark Knight, Joker alters his scheme to include two more in the body count and inches his finger closer to the trigger. As Batman jumps to stop him, the Justice League are all on their way to Joker's location and are a split second away from converging when balls of light suddenly appear around most everyone there. Within that same time frame, everyone taken by the light ends up in a dystopian version of Metropolis with a strange symbol visible everywhere; The Joker is annoyed by the fact that his detonator is now completely useless as it simply clicks with no reaction. Now in what appears to be a different dimension entirely, Batman and everyone else involved have to figure out what's going on, why they are there and how they can return safely home.

At first I was confused by the initial fight between the Justice League and various villains, but as the plot went on it felt surprisingly coherent and I think the end result was actually pretty good. The story switches off between playable characters within the narrative based on what's going on at the moment, which actually helps with the game giving the player an opportunity to play as roughly half the cast while still transitioning between events seamlessly. Characters are also pretty quick to figure out what's going on, which makes sense considering that the DC universe has had the characters visit alternate realities a few times, this being no exception, and everyone seems to react realistically to the situation they are in. I thought the pacing was pretty good and I was able to get more into it as it went along. Although the way the story ends is a little predictable, it's still handled well enough to feel like a well-written DC story anyway.

Superman, ruler of the Regime.

In a rather unique move, there would also sometimes be a brief mini-game between story segments. These usually consisted of throwing/firing something, like Batarangs or eye lasers, via button prompts in order to fulfill a specific condition. What I liked about these mini-games was that they were not only inserted in a way that didn't disrupt the flow of the story, but they could also be used as a way to determine starting health once the next battle began. This is a nice touch that makes a story mode for a fighting game more immersive and, along with the story treatment in general, raises the mere idea of a Story Mode in the genre to new heights that will be difficult to surpass.

Speaking of difficulty, I think it would be good to mention that the difficulty of Injustice's story is mercifully toned down compared to the Mortal Kombat reboot. In Mortal Kombat, the difficulty would naturally increase as it went along, but it would always get to the point where I'd actually have to lower the difficulty to even stand a chance against an AI that is more likely to cheat, reading controller inputs for instance, especially if I wanted a remote probability of taking down the final boss, Shao Khan. In Injustice, I was able to stay on the Normal difficulty for the whole game and while I did have to eventually attempt a fight multiple times, I was still able to overcome the enemy by employing the right strategy. That isn't to say the AI isn't above using dirty tactics however, as the AI is capable of stringing attacks together in a way that's too quick for a human to pull off in real life, even going so far as to string multiples of the same attack together in an impossibly small window (I'm looking at you, Green Lantern). Still, I like that NetherRealm lowered the difficulty and I hope they apply this to the next Mortal Kombat, should they decide to make one.

Next, I'd like to discuss one of the most important elements of a fighting game: the character roster. Before I get into any specifics however, I'd like you to look at the following image:

Before you ask, no, Bane is not voiced by Tom Hardy.

There are a total of 24 characters. I'd like to point out a certain ratio, which is that of Batman characters versus literally everyone else. Out of those 24 characters, seven of them, if we count Solomon Grundy, are from the Batman comics; that's about a third of the roster dedicated to Batman. I don't have a problem with this as a Batman fan, and I understand that the property is the best thing Warner Bros. has going for them right now, but at the same time I understand any complaints about how the other franchises are underrepresented.

As for how I feel about the roster itself, I think it perfectly highlights what DC is trying to push at the moment. The inclusion of everyone from the current Justice League as of the New 52 (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman and Green Lantern) makes the most sense, as with the inclusion of major villains or arch enemies from their universes, like Doomsday or Sinestro. What's more interesting however are the second-tier characters they decided to include for roster depth and exposure. The presence of Raven and Deathstroke for instance provides some great fanservice for fans of the Teen Titans cartoon and they are welcome additions to the lineup. Shazam (directly under Aquaman in the above image) is a hero that DC has been pushing through the current run of Justice League, but due to him not really being in the public conscious, I have a feeling that not very many outside of those reading the book or watching the DC cartoons would know who he is, as with the villain Black Adam (to the left of Bane). The villain Ares (below Lex Luthor) is also a much lesser-known character and, due to my lack of knowledge on Wonder Woman lore, this is pretty much the first time I've seen him. There are two characters who I can't understand why they are there however, one being the character Hawkgirl, who I have sort of heard of and seen, but I'm sure that at this point only those paying attention to the cartoons would know who she is. As for the other one, I think I'll get some flak from Young Justice fans for asking this, but I feel it must be done:

Who the hell is Killer Frost (between Ares and Doomsday)? Thanks to my casual knowledge of the overall DC universe, this is literally the first time I have ever heard of the character, let alone as a villain, so I have no basis for her personality and will just have to assume that her portrayal here did her any justice. I'm betting that NetherRealm included her to fill in the "Ice Guy" slot they are used to having in their games (think Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat), but that doesn't make her inclusion any less questionable to me.

Pictured: literally everything I know about Killer Frost.

Another important fighting game aspect is its controls, which Injustice succeeds at very well. Its control scheme is very intuitive and easy to pick up and play. This probably has to do with it being lifted directly from Mortal Kombat, but that should show just how NetherRealm has nailed a great layout. While controlling the action is very fluid, I have a couple of complaints about the overall mapping. First of all, I actually dislike having to use a directional button to control my blocking. While I'm sure this is what most fighting game fans like, I've had it where I'm blocking a series of attacks and then I'm backed into a corner, which creates a situation where I'm totally screwed if I miss the timing, especially against an AI. If there was a dedicated button, then I'd be able to stay in one spot and remove the risk of self-cornering. The other thing is the timing window for nailing a three-four button combo. I think this window is a little too small, since I can't just tap the buttons in rapid succession to pull off what I want to or am prompted to. To give an example, one combo requires that (on PS3) I press Square and then Triangle before pressing two other buttons simultaneously. Rather than just tap Square and then Triangle, I have to swipe or roll my thumb across both buttons for it to actually count before pressing another two button combo. It got frustrating after a while and so I depended more on clever maneuvering and special move use to get by (it worked surprisingly well).

Pictured: Clever Maneuvering.

The move list for each character is also very well constructed. Everyone has the same basic combos, creating ease of use, as well as unique combo strings and special attacks that match their attack styles very closely. By not relying on long pre-determined combos, success is determined by how well the player can chain various combos and special moves together, which is a nice way of creating a bit of depth. On top of this, each character also seems suited for a different playstyle, such as long-range attacks or getting up close and personal to interrupt plans, which ensures that players will find a favorite in no time (for me, that would be Green Arrow, Deathstroke and Batman). What's rather unique for this game however is the ability to activate a character power with the press of a button. Character powers are different for each character, obviously, which can provide a power buff, shielding, or an alternative means of attack, such as firing an arrow or switching weapon stances. I enjoyed this feature, as it helped stay true to each character and provided an opportunity to mix things up.

The big draw for each character however would be their Super Moves. Just like the X-Ray moves in Mortal Kombat, pressing the two trigger buttons when a meter is full allows one to perform a Super Move, which most often activates after an animation connects from a certain range. Once it hits however, it deals a lot of damage while a cinematic plays to demonstrate just how powerful it is. This can range from Green Arrow firing arrows in a very controlled fashion to Superman taking his opponent into space and then punching them back down to Earth. These moves are all very awesome and I love it when I get the opportunity to properly pull one off. While one can also use the Super Meter to power up special attacks, I find it more satisfying to wait for the Super Move.

And then Aquaman gets totally badass.

But what good is it to have characters and special moves if you don't have a place for them to duke it out? Before I go into significant detail however, I need you to look at another picture:

It's pronounced "Theh-mih-skih-ruh". You're welcome.

There are 15 stages, six of which are Batman-related. Two of them are different permutations of two others, with one of those just being literally the same stage but at night. Since about half of the stages are Batman, it can give the impression that they were very strapped for a good level selection and decided to just repaint or relight a couple to fill in the blanks. Every stage does get visited in the story so it becomes a little more justified, but those who skip that mode, which sadly quite a few will in their impatience to get to multiplayer, won't really see much of a difference. In fact, the permutations are pretty much identical, so what I'll say next will mean that there are a couple of duplicates that operate in the same way.

The 15 stages of the game are all designed and detailed very well, with a very good illusion of depth and opportunity for secondary characters to show up in the background. There may not be as many visual distractions as in Mortal Kombat, but that didn't stop me from wanting a really good view of the area. The highlight however is that the stages are very interactive. There are objects that combatants can press, throw, plant explosives onto or jump off of, among so many others. Combos can actually be extended or set up with these interactions, which shows just how much thought the developers put into the environments. The best things about these stages however are their stage transitions. By hitting an opponent at the correct side of the map, an animation is triggered in which the combatants transition to another section of the stage while the one on the receiving end of the blow takes a good amount of damage. This makes fights bigger and potentially more jaw dropping, and it's very satisfying to pull one off...unless you pick Atlantis or Ferris Aircraft, since they don't have a transition to begin with (aww...).

Like a pie in the face.

For some additional replay value, there are a couple of different Single Player modes to check out. One is a mission mode where players complete S.T.A.R. Labs mission objectives to earn stars that will unlock more missions to try out for more characters. These missions are all tailor made for each character and encompass a sort of very loose story for each set, which can cause it to sometimes become unintentionally amusing. Missions are a great way to get a good grasp of each character's abilities as well as test out the player's skills. I looked and saw a total of 240 character-specific missions, which I know would take a very long time to get through. I suppose that means they did a good job then, right?

The other mode to explore is the Battle mode, which contains a traditional Arcade fighting format for those who don't want to do single fights. However, there are several different ways to go about the mode as well, with multiple versions of the mode available that provide a different rule set or condition for the battle. For instance, there's one mode where you fight the entire Injustice roster, one where you're poisoned and lose health over time, and one where the character you use is randomly chosen for each individual fight. Each version provides a new kind of challenge, preventing things from getting dull. Keep in mind however that the AI will eventually begin to mercilessly cheat if you play long enough.

Like a bazooka to the face.

The game also features a universal leveling system, where no matter what mode you play on, you can gain experience points and increase your level, which seems to cap at 100. Leveling up earns such rewards as ways to customize your Hero ID along with Access Cards and Armory Keys to unlock more stuff in the Archive, like concept art or alternate costumes and battle modes. You might spend more time unlocking things than fighting, but the sheer amount of replay value put into this game is phenomenal and is a great incentive to keep coming back for more.

Finally, I'd like to point out the game's technical abilities. The graphics look very good for a fighting game and there is an amazing amount of detail in the characters and environments. During the story, the difference between the cut scene and gameplay graphics is a little different, but otherwise unnoticable if you don't pay attention to the change in smoothness. Characters can be highly expressive and the battles can be pretty colorful, you know, as colorful as it can get with the dark color palette. The music for each stage is also good, but the best sounds come from the voice acting. Everyone sounds good in their roles and the lineup is very well selected, with returning voices like Kevin Conroy as Batman and Grey DeLisle as Catwoman. Sadly The Joker is no longer voiced by Mark Hamill, but Richard Epcar has a very good voice and maintains the spirit of the character very well. I have no real complaints about any of the voice actors.

Injustice is a great example of what fighting games should be like. Its controls are very easy to use, its input language is easy to understand and the combat has a lot of depth to it without sacrificing quality. While I do have some problems with the combo timing window, costumes and story resolution, I still had a great time and would enjoy playing the game further when I get the opportunity. Fighting game veterans have probably already begun playing this game, but newcomers will enjoy the ease of access and those on the fence should definitely give it a whirl. NetherRealm has managed to make one of the best games of this year so far and I hope they continue to make great fighting games in the years to come.

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