Do superheroes just always hit each other these days or what?
On average, the DC Comics slate of characters often affords itself better to the concept of a multiverse than others. DC’s pantheon is just that – many of their characters are far more transcendent than the competition. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all exist rightfully as cultural icons beyond their comic origins. Not just as film or TV stars but as proper members of the cultural zeitgeist, much more like mythological beings. It is this ubiquity that makes the prospect of the “What If?” story so alluring.
That allure is what gave way to the world of Injustice 2, a reality where tragedy turns Superman into a proper fascist dictator. Both this game and its 2013 predecessor aren’t really concerned with the details of a fascist Superman (though there is a pretty good comic book series for that), as much as making the point that this is not a normal role for Superman and the DC Universe as a whole. For the first game, this was highlighted by bringing in a more traditional version of the cast across the universes for a contrast. For this follow up, the contrast is created by introducing very familiar and classic comic plots into this unfamiliar world.
All of this is really just an excuse to make superheroes hit each other and if you aren’t a dedicated reader of the funny books, you can be forgiven for thinking that this is all heroes do given recent media releases. Now, the upside here is that superheroes do in fact lend themselves quite well to brawlers, and Injustice 2 ends up feeling like a very powerful contender in the vast competition of fighting game titles.
Injustice 2 is incredibly well polished, even more so than what is expected of the long time developers of the Mortal Kombat franchise. While playing, it really does feel like NetherRealm took to heart the critiques of the previous Injustice. Characters are rendered so beautifully that it starts to feel uncanny, and that also means movement is cleaner than ever before. Arenas are also well designed and hazards are easier to identify and utilize. Those arenas are also surprising well-lit, given the modern interpretations of the DC Universe. The high selling points of super moves and area transitions are back, but the related cut scenes are shorter and presented at a faster pace. Every fighter has different sets of banter ready for their opponents, reminding us that these characters actually do have relationships to each other that go beyond hitting. All of these factors help make each show down feel alive and more entertaining. These showdowns are why we’re all there in the first place, and making them feel more detailed and enjoyable is a strong step in the right direction.
Mechanically, matches are a fine-tuned mix of position control. Players have various combos and abilities available to them, with a handful of useful ones mapped to familiar three to four button combinations to allow players to ease into playing different characters. One button is dedicated to a special ability based on a particular character’s powers or skills; for example The Flash can speed himself up and slow everything else down and Green Arrow pulls trick arrows from his quiver. While battles continue, a power bar charges up. When fully charged, characters can call upon the aforementioned super move, which enters into a cinematic powerful attack. Players can also use parts of the bar to increase combo strings or escape from a tight situation. When the right conditions are met, characters can have a clash, which leads to more banter and can either heal or deal damage based on how the wager of power goes.
Combat is the point of the game, but these heroes still need a reason to fight. Much like Mortal Kombat, Injustice 2 has a single player campaign that will put players in the shoes of various heroes throughout the story. As I said before, this all centers around telling a familiar story in the world of Injustice. In this case, we see the arrival of Supergirl on Earth, quickly followed by great Superman villain Brainiac, who here is credited with the destruction of Krypton and is looking to do the same to Earth. From there, the question becomes whether or not the former protectors of the planet can see past their grievances to try to stop this threat and what might happen after. There really isn’t much here that isn’t hard to predict or not feel familiar, but with Injustice 2 being a fighting game, time isn’t wasted fighting Brainiac’s goons, but instead clashes coming out of deeply personal and critical conflicts among the cast. Despite the stakes being global, Injustice 2 is very much about the relationships these characters have with each other, which gets highlighted by the banter the characters have in battles. The story mode isn’t too long, but is worth a revisit for a second go-the alternate ending is quite chilling and frankly better, even if you can tell which one you’re supposed to like.
All of this sounds much like a well polished version of the first game, and it basically is. That’s where Injustice 2 introduces the glue being used to hold all of this together; the new Gear system. On paper, the concept is pretty straightforward, while playing Injustice 2, players pick up boxes containing various equipment pieces and color shaders that can be used to customize up the roster of characters to one’s individual liking. In practice, the Gear system is a little bit more complicated. Some pieces are merely cosmetic, others give powerful stat boosts and/or gives indirect buffs in certain modes. If you’ve ever played a competitive game, much less a fighting game, then some alarms should probably being going off regarding the premise of balance. For most gear pieces, characters have to be certain levels to even equip, adding a level of required challenge. In my online matches, I found that just slapping various pieces of gear on doesn’t grant that much of an advantage against a player that knows enough about what their doing to maintain combos. That’s good, but the fact remains that a Wonder Woman wearing upgrades is technically more powerful that the base character, and I’ll be curious to see what the wide consensus is among whatever competitive scene forms around this game.
Even so, Gear is incredibly fun to collect and can become addictive, not unlike those various over the top accessories that used to come with 90’s action figures. Pieces have ridiculous names, with many of them being references to other characters and events across the DC Universe. Putting together various pieces can indeed drastically change the way a character appears in the game without destroying the character models. Thanks also to the Gear system, the character designs have gotten a lot better versus the first game. The Bad Iron Man Cosplay is long gone, and Injustice 2 gives us costumes that look reasonable at the very least. Though, the Joker doesn’t get off so easily. It seems he’s supposed to look like Jared Leto, but for some reason NetherRealm only had a 30 Seconds to Mars poster for reference.
However, the Gear system and the rest of the game is plagued by the real villain of Injustice 2. Not Brainiac or evil Superman, but Warner Brothers. Gear comes out of “Mother Boxes” (it’s a comic reference, don’t ask), but in reality they work just like loot boxes and other such tricks in other games. Now both boxes and gear items exist at different ranks and rarities, respectively. Rarer gear is of course more powerful and beneficial; with the chances of getting rare gear increased with a higher ranked box. And the game is more than happy to give you those boxes — for a price. But you won’t just pay a couple of bucks for a box, no. You’ll be giving up cash for some fictional in-game currency that you then use to purchase boxes. That’s right, WB shoehorned a mobile game currency and microtransactions into a full price, AAA title.
That’s scummy to do in a sixty dollar video game. Except Injustice 2 isn’t a sixty dollar video game, not really. It’s a hundred dollar video game.
Long before Injustice 2 was in anyone’s hands, including its beta, NetherRealm conveniently revealed that the game was going to include DLC that was going to be sold, meaning the game was going to include a $40 season pass right out of the gate. That season pass will include nine new characters (the first three being Starfire, Red Hood and Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero), and likely new customization options. Those characters will likely have their own gear to unlock via the boxes, and the cycle begins again. In addition to those nine, a tenth character, Darkseid, was held hostage for pre-orders and buying the season pass won’t give you him even now, meaning that you’ll have to shell out even more than to actually get a full and proper Injustice 2 experience; all of which is predicated on NetherRealm not doing what it did with the first game and make extra characters not covered by the season pass. That experience is still going to have microtransactions, by the way.
I realize it isn’t professional to put it this way: but this is shit behavior that doesn’t deserve to be met by anything other than absolute contempt equal to what Warner Brothers is clearly showing its audience.
Regardless of how positive this review is or how high the score ends up being, my personal recommendation is that you do not buy Injustice 2, or at least do not buy a new copy. You’ll be better served by waiting 9-12 months for a proper complete edition to be released like the first game and Mortal Kombat X got.
Red Lantern rage aside, there is still a lot within Injustice 2 to do after the story has concluded in online modes. My online experience has been incredibly solid, indicating a lot of thought has gone into making online lobbies enjoyable. There are only two available modes, 1v1 matches and a King of the Hill mode, and it’s fairly easy to indicate what you want to play. You’ll then be matched up with another player, whose win/loss record is displayed, along with a hypothetical percentage chance of winning. You can also see their network ping, meaning you can determine right away if you’re going to have a bad connection or get pummeled. You then have to accept the match, or you can just move right along. It’s a surprisingly friendly way to customize your experience. There are also various room gatherings where you can browse opponents and challenge them directly or they can challenge you, but this is less intuitive than just letting the matchmaker work. Of course, you can just sit on your own or play locally with friends too.
A final available mode, called The Multiverse, ends up being the secret weapon in Injustice 2. Multiverse plays a lot like Mortal Kombat’s tried and true Tower Mode, but with a comic book twist. Players are actually visiting other alternate universes and facing down various modifications of the roster, who will be decked out in all kinds of various gear pieces and colors. Other challenges will also come up through the fights, such as an increase in hazards, distorted camera framing, or even assistance from other DC characters, including ones that are not fighters. Each new version of Earth has an assortment of challenges at different difficulties that often reward in gear directly or more boxes to open. They’re only there for a limited time, as the Earths refresh to populate new challenges and give players something new every time they go into the game. Thanks to the loads of challenges and rewards, it almost feels like The Multiverse was designed to get around WB’s forced meddling in a way that benefits players. It’s been my favorite part of the game, going in every day to see what new challenges await and what new spin on the cast is going to appear. Your mileage is going to vary depending on how much actual fighting you’re going to want to do, but fans of the genre tend to want a lot, and this keeps things very fresh and rewarding, especially since it really feels like a middle finger to corporate.
These may not be the most familiar versions of the DC character slate, but yes, Injustice 2 is a good game. There is lot of well polished gameplay that is friendly to learn and satisfying to master, and plenty of reasons to come back. It is also massive shame that this game is shackled to such a mess of anti-consumer practices that continue to taint the Warner Brothers name and the games they put out. I’ve struggled with this quite a bit because good games, especially good licensed games, deserve to be celebrated. I’m obligated to score the game based on what it presents, and if you really feel like you can see past the very heavy weights tied around the neck of this one, I can’t really stop you. But please consider bookmarking this review and coming back to it when a complete version of the game comes around after a while. All the good things will still be there, and there will be less to have to excuse or ignore, and for less than $100.
In that respect, Injustice 2 might be the most honest comic book adaptation ever made.
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Released: May 16th, 2017
Copy Purchased By Reviewer