A year or so ago, I reviewed Injustice 2. While I loved its core gameplay and the concept at the heart of it, I had some serious reservations about the needlessly malignant and dark story and the hideous profligacy of microtransactions; now that the original game was released for free for a brief period of time on PS4 I took the time to replay it, but does it stand taller than its great-but-flawed sequel?
Injustice: Gods Among Us (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360)
Released Apr 2013 | Developed: NetherRealm | Published: Warner Bros.
Injustice begins by immediately putting us in the darkest timeline. The Joker reclines in a cell in Gotham, screaming with hysterical laughter; outside, the world looks on in stupefied shock at the news unfurling around the world: Metropolis is gone, leveled by a nuclear explosion. With a roar the entire wall of the building is ripped apart as a furious Superman launches into the clown prince of crime; in his rage he explains to a stunned Batman that the Joker had drugged him and the vision of Doomsday he thought he’d been fighting had in reality been his pregnant wife Lois Lane. As she died at Superman’s hands the bomb linked to her failing heartbeat triggered and wiped Metropolis from the face of the Earth. Superman, lost in his heartbroken wrath, finally breaks the golden rule of all heroes. Batman can only watch in horror as his friend flies out of the building, away from him, justice, and the sad smiling corpse of the Joker.
We cut to the very same events unfurling in a different universe, that of the “prime” versions of our heroes. As the moment of tragedy edges closer, suddenly there is a mighty flash of light and several members of the Justice League find themselves in a strange new version of Metropolis, one characterised by empty, dank streets above which fly banners of a totalitarian regime lead by none other than the now-tyrannical Superman. They band up with the Injustice-universe’s Batman, the final remaining hero of old – the others are dead or allied with the omnipotent Superman – and launch into a desperate bid to depose the villainous Kryptonian and save both universes.
The plot no doubt sounds like a cliche storm to many, but I can’t see that being a problem for most who play the game. Comic fans will I’m sure be used to a solid alternate-dimension, evil-Superman story (what else can you do with his character after all?), while any casual consumers of the DC universe – perhaps those who have watched the occasional film or played a game or two – will probably find themselves enjoying a decently told superhero story. Crucially, this game avoids a mistake that NetherRealm would find themselves making in the sequel.
I criticised the second Injustice game for the utterly miserable way it treated its characters, and I stand firmly by that. Stories in which heroes turn bad are fun, but the real joy comes in seeing them defeated and especially from the redemption arc they undergo to at least in some way see the hero they used to be. Injustice 2 fails in this by refusing to redeem its core characters, which is difficult to stomach, but gratifyingly the first game is much more capable in that regard. Obviously the tyrant Superman is the main baddie to take on, but he’s surrounded by both known villains and former heroes as his accomplices. The villains are fine, but the interesting bit is the heroes who join him. I feel like it’s quite telling that the super-powered monarchs on his side – Aquaman and Wonder Woman mainly – seem to wholly buy into Superman’s controlling regime, whereas the lesser humans, such as the Flash, Shazam, and Green Lantern are kept in line due to fear and experience more moments of humanity. These are necessary to keep the story from sinking into inducing apathy in its audiences; little victories happen everywhere to keep up invested, both in the sense of winning fights, but also in the sense of character arcs getting small positive movements as we progress through the campaign.
Outside of the story mode, there’s a solid core of content to keep players invested over time. An extensive battle mode gives players access to not just the fighting game standard of an arcade mode to be completed with each character, but also a set of themed challenge battles, such as fighting all the heroes, or having mystery buffs or debuffs happening at random. On top of that, Injustice gives us the S.T.A.R. Labs, which are a vast (at least 300) set of special themed missions. Each character has their own bevy of missions, and completing specific objectives on them earns players up to 3 stars. These are probably where the bulk of the single-player replayability can come from, and they’re also at times quite inventive, though they can of course be fiendishly tough. Like any fighting game worth its salt, there’s also a very robust practice mode and tutorial as well as an extensive multiplayer mode with both local and online options. The recent remaster for the PS4 means that there’s a greater chance of finding matches again after it stagnated a little over time and with the release of the sequel.
Injustice also features lots of unlockables, most of which are things with which to customise your in-game gamertag, which frankly holds bugger all appeal to me but then again I don’t do much online play. You can also unlock special costumes though, and these I love. There’s clearly been lots of work put into them, and most of them depict classic costumes from some of DC’s most well-known stories. Both costumes and 6 additional characters are available as DLC, though the remaster and game of the year editions include it all for free – if you want to play it and you can get either the game of the year or the remaster, I’d highly recommend them for that alone.
Also it means you can play as Michael Shannon’s Zod and punch Superman through the moon. So that’s good.
Injustice has quite a substantial roster. Obvious favourites show up like Batman, Superman, and much of the rest of the Justice League, and there are also some Titans such as Cyborg, Nightwing and Raven rounding out the heroes. The villain selection is okay; some characters have appropriate counterparts – the Joker for Batman, Sinestro for Green Lantern, Black Adam for Shazam – but the villain side of the roster feels like it got filled out a little purely by casting a swift eye over the Bat-Gallery or other C-list characters and picking whoever looked like they might fill up a character archetype, and so we get less interesting choices like Solomon Grundy and Killer Frost.
The meat of Injustice is, of course, the fighting, and in that regard the game absolutely excels. It’s a brilliant example of a system which is accessible enough to muddle your way through and the commands are simple enough that beginners can feel powerful enough to pull off basic combos and signature attacks but putting some time into it is worth it for mastery over the game’s more versatile intricacies.
Serious work has been put into making each character feel unique to play. Each comes with a set of special attacks which make use of their abilities or equipment, and they all have a unique character power. Some of these are simple powerups like Superman or Green Lantern, while others are a little more specialised. The most interesting are definitely the characters who can switch stances though; Wonder Woman can change out her Lasso of Truth for a sword and shield at the push of a button and Nightwing can fuse his Escrima sticks into a staff, both of which significantly alter the character’s movesets and movement. Successful attacks (and being hit) fills up a special meter, which can be spent to unleash more powerful versions of special attacks, like extending Superman’s laser vision and ending it with a blast of power. Alternatively, the special meter can be filled to utilise a cinematic super attack. If attacks meet head-on, it can also be leveraged in the game’s Clash mechanic, in which whichever player spends more of their meter gets a bonus – either extra damage if they are the aggressor or recovered health if they are defending.
Though it has definitely aged somewhat, Injustice still holds its own visually. Character models are a bit dated as you might expect from a PS3-era release, but the stages are filled with exciting detail for eagle-eyed fans to pick up on, and they visibly degrade and collapse as you deal more damage. Elements of each stage are interactable; quicker characters can bounce off walls and swing off fixtures to gain a more advantageous position, while others simply rip them down and swat opponents with them. Injustice also features stage transitions between linked levels, such as the two tiers of the Batcave; these transitions are the source of some utterly perfect slapstick moments, and though they might see them quite a bit they rarely get old.
It’s hard not to be aware of the fact that Injustice has aged. In some ways it’s surpassed by its sequel, especially mechanically. Still, the core of each game is identical and it is surprisingly easy to look past the effects of time and get totally absorbed in the fighting, which is tip-top quality. I put at least a hundred hours into Injustice back on the PS3; it was without a doubt my favourite fighter of that entire generation, and I was extremely happy to get the chance to revisit it here. It remains a fantastic game, and one absolutely worth playing.
6/7 – EXCELLENT
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.