‘Injustice: Gods Among Us': Surprisingly Fun, Astonishingly Stupid
This week finally saw the release of Injustice: Gods Among Us, the new game from the creators of Mortal Kombat in which DC's most popular characters (and Aquaman) wage a brutal battle for the fate of a dystopian parallel universe. Regular ComicsAlliance readers may already be aware that I've had my issues with the plot of the game, but despite that, Warner Bros. Interactive was kind enough to provide us with a review copy so that I could see whether the game itself made it all worth it.
The short version? As a game, stripped of every shred of context and story, it's actually a pretty solid, highly enjoyable fighting game. The second any attempt at a story creeps into things, though, it becomes astoundingly bad in record time.Let's start with the good stuff: In terms of gameplay, Injustice is a hell of a lot better than I expected. I like fighting games a lot, and the ones I tend to enjoy the most have controls that are simple to learn but lend themselves to complex variations and strategies. That's actually one of the reasons I never really liked Mortal Kombat to begin with -- I have never in my life had the coordination or memory for button combinations to pull off a Fatality, and once that's not an option, MK loses a lot of its appeal. Injustice, however, keeps things pretty simple. Most of the special attacks are easy to pull off; almost all of them rely on the simple quarter-circle + attack or back, forward + attack moves that are the foundation of the genre.
Best of all, the coolest moves are the easiest to pull off. The big Super Attacks are just pulling both triggers at the same time once you've got the special meter full, and the big attacks that send your opponent flying into other areas of the stage are as simple as they could possibly be. You just need to move to the right place and press Back + Strong Attack.
The simplicity of the controls keeps the fights moving in a pretty frantic, fast-paced style, and it helps that almost all of the characters are pretty fun to play with. It might be the biggest failing of the gameplay that it's pretty easy to tell which characters had a ton of thought put into how they work, and which were just sort of put there to fill out the roster. The Joker's a particularly good example of the former, with a very distinctive fighting style that's funny and sinister at the same time, based around pulling different comically huge weapons like a bazooka and a crowbar out of his pockets and using them to bash his opponent. He's definitely loaded with visual references to big Batman stories, but it's the sort of thing that really works in a fighting game. At the other end of the scale, you have Shazam, who's really just generic and boring in this game, the Flash, who doesn't really translate well to a fighting game, and Aquaman, who is apparently best known for stabbing people with a magic pitchfork. Most of the other characters fall into the middle, and while it's kind of surprising that Batman's as bland as he is (outside of a pretty great super attack), the good tends to outweigh the bad.
Where the game really shines, though, is level design. One of the big selling points of the game is that there are a ton of objects in each stage that you can interact with, and it really does deliver in some fun, clever ways. It's even set up so that different characters interact with objects in different ways: Smaller, quicker characters bounce off of things or move them around, while the ones with super-strength just rip them out of the background and hit you with them. Throw in the transitions to other parts of the level, which occasionally take detours through the Phantom Zone or a fight between Atom Smasher and Giganta, and it all combines to make things really dynamic.
The best level for this, hands down, is the Hall of Justice. It's full of background Easter eggs and cameos from other DC characters, including a transition where you can kick your opponents into a Boom Tube that leads right to Darkseid's throne room, where Darkseid takes a few seconds to beat the living crap out of them and then blast them back onto the roof with the Omega Effect. Then you can clobber them with a statue of Orion. It's a fun time.
The voice acting's a little hit or miss, but again, the good outweighs the bad. Kevin Conroy and George Newburn reprise their roles as Batman and Superman from Justice League (and, in Conroy's case, most Batman stuff from the past two decades), and they do a predictably solid job. I do not envy Richard Epcar for having to take over the Joker after Mark Hamill retired from the role, and he definitely suffers by comparison. Still, it's a solid cast.
So that's what's good about it.
Here's what's bad: Everything else.
To start with, there are the costumes, which are straight up hot garbage. The alternate-universe "Regime" and "Resistance" suits in particular -- seen above with Assassin's Creed Shazam and Bad Iron Man Cosplay The Flash -- have taken some of the most simple, elegant designs in comics and made them look as atrocious as they could. They're stupidly busy, covered in seams and spikes and hood ornaments and dyed black, to the point where I am 100% convinced that someone saw a bunch of '90s Total Justice toys and thought "oh, we can have worse designs than that." They look like someone did an entire line of bootleg flea market action figures based on a seventh grader's notebook.
Worse than the costumes, though, is the story that makes up the game's single-player campaign. This is, without question, one of the worst-written games I have ever played. The basics of the plot -- written by Brian Chard, Dominic Cianciolo, Jon Greenberg, and John Vogel with Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray brought in as consultants -- are that the Justice League goes to a parallel universe where everyone's an a**hole. Seems solid enough, right? If nothing else, it provides a framework for a bunch of characters who are usually pals to fight each other, and as an added bonus allows for there to be at least two Batmans involved. It's the sort of thing that we've seen time and time again in comics, and it's pretty hard to screw up. But somehow, against all odds, they managed.
When it's not mediocre, it's an eye-rolling cliché, and when it's neither one of those, it's insultingly stupid. The dialogue is genuinely awful, to a hilarious degree. My three favorite moments -- if "favorite" is the word I'm looking for here -- are as follows:
1) Hal Jordan (the good guy version) finishes beating up Raven and announces "Guess I won't be getting any more lip from her."
2) The Joker finishes beating up Nightwing and smirks "I'll have to tell Batman there's been... a death in the family."
3) Cyborg finishes beating up Lex Luthor and his post-win line is "Wardrobe malfunction," because Lex Luthor is wearing power armor. Please note that this game came out this year.
There's also a speech that Wonder Woman gives about beating people up with compassion that ought to be earmarked as an example of exactly how not to write the character, and an insane exchange between Batman and Catwoman about how she infiltrated Evil Superman's army in order to help him so that they could beat him up and go to the bone zone, but Batman thinks that's dumb and doesn't like her, so she calls him a bastard and they fight. It is nuts.
There is exactly one (1) good scene, when Good Superman finally shows up to help defeat his evil counterpart and ends up fighting Sinestro and Evil Hal Jordan. After winning, he takes Sinestro's ring, looks at Hal and says "Here's your chance to do the right thing," and Hal, after a long moment, takes off his ring and hands it over rather than fight Superman, finally realizing he's been wrong all these years. It's a really nice scene, and it's so frustrating, because it shows how right they could've gotten everything, and how far they went in the opposite direction.
Case in point: That very scene happens right after a quicktime event mini-game (joy) where Black Adam is scooping up cars off of a busy street and throwing them, drivers and all, at Good Superman. The object of the mini-game is to match buttons so that Superman can blow up the cars with his heat vision. You may have noticed a problem with this scenario, and if you have, congratulations: You thought about it one second longer than anyone who actually made this game.
Incidentally, it's worth noting that Superman's super attack is punching people into space, which is how he killed his wife and unborn son in the prequel comic. I'm not sure if that was intentional, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't crack me up. It's his signature move!
I can't imagine it's hard to come up with a story that allows for a bunch of characters to stand around hitting each other. That is, after all, what superhero comics have been doing for the past 70 years, and in a fighting game, you don't even need that. "Alternate Dimension bad guys" would've covered it, trust me. I'm not sure Marvel vs. Capcom 2 even had a story, and I've played that game for weeks on end. Unless it's the epic tale of someone who wants to take you for a ride, I'm pretty sure it's just about people beating each other up in interesting ways, and that's okay.
If this game was just "Classic" mode, the arcade-style version where you just fight your way through a bunch of random characters, end at Superman and get a quick (and occasionally mystifying) ending, it'd be fine. Instead, they went overboard trying to justify everything, including throwing in Kryptonian nanotech! to answer the question no one was asking, about why Harley Quinn could kick Doomsday through a building, and wound up burying a genuinely good game underneath an endless pile of complete and utter nonsense.
Is it worth playing? Yes, especially if you can pick it up on the cheap or get it for a few days with a rental. Is it worth paying attention to anything that happens on the screen beyond instructions on how to throw a batarang or use heat vision? Not at all.