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Injustice: Gods Among Us review: From Outworld to Elseworlds

Jordan Mallory

Comic books and fighting games have a lot in common. Both are known for featuring absurd, contrived premises, overly sexualized women and mythology so complicated even Tolkien couldn't reconcile all the pre-Crisis continuity issues. It's strange then, that up until now there's never been a solid fighting game set in the DC universe.

Injustice: Gods Among Us is Mortal Kombat developer NetherRealm Studios' alternative take on DC's heroes, hooligans and thieves. Its dark thematic overtones and mature ideas explore the psychological dangers of power, the temptations of absolute authority and the effects of grief on the psyche of metahumans, all while delivering a polished, thrilling fighting game experience. No, really.

Gallery: Injustice: Gods Among Us | 8 Photos

Injustice: Gods Among Us' story mode follows the same architecture established by Mortal Kombat, in that one overarching narrative is broken into chapters, each of which places the player in control of a story-relevant member of the Justice League. Unlike Mortal Kombat, however, no premise for combat ever felt contrived or forced. In fact, Injustice goes to remarkable lengths (for a fighting game, at least) to give reasonable explanations for some of the more inexplicable eventualities all fighting games share, such as why Batman can fight himself, or why Harley Quinn can get punched through the core of the Earth and come out relatively okay.

Story mode's script is about on par with the Justice League animated films that have been populating Netflix for the last few years, and that isn't a bad thing. Sure, a few heroic monologues fall on the goofy side of the spectrum, but that comes with the territory. Every melodramatic speech about truth/justice is counterbalanced by a genuinely stirring exchange elsewhere in the experience, which as a whole is positively phenomenal. This is due in no small part to the game's incredible voice cast: Kevin Conroy, George Newbern, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Jennifer Hale, et al.

Beyond story mode, a wealth of other worthwhile single-player activities abound. Over a dozen different arcade modes keep things interesting by tweaking the experience in one way or another: Limiting opponents to only heroes, for instance, or creating a randomized playlist of mirror matches.

Meanwhile, S.T.A.R. Labs missions fill the role of Mortal Kombat's Challenge Tower, imposing tasks anywhere between the expected ("your health is slowly draining, beat up this dude"), to more interesting affairs like a jerry-rigged Shazam shmup, or a button-mashing race around the world between Flash and Superman. Successfully completing any single-player objective, whether in S.T.A.R. Labs or arcade mode, grants experience that, upon leveling, grants currency that can then be spent on more modes, secondary costumes, concept art and the like.

Injustice Gods Among Us review From Outworld to Elseworlds
Of course, having one of the few worthwhile fighting game story modes in existence doesn't amount to a hill of super-powered, Kryptonian beans if there isn't a solid game stringing all those cutscenes together. Injustice delivers on this front as well, using a modified version of the engine that powered Mortal Kombat, though similarities between the two are primarily skin deep.

Injustice retains Mortal Kombat's staccato rhythm, with characters that disregard newtonian notions like momentum and gravity in favor of truncated dashes and juggle physics. Characters feel awkward at first, though this quickly fades as the player learns the love language of Injustice's control scheme. Beyond that though, Injustice's combat mechanics are universally more varied and complex than the Enhanced moves and X-Ray combos seen in Mortal Kombat.

"Bounce Cancels," for instance, allow the player to cancel out of a combo and into a move that bounces the opponent into the air, at the cost of two sections of super meter. Additionally, one section of meter can be spent on a "Block Escape," which is essentially an advancing guard with a price tag. Both of these mechanics add depth to the meta-game of meter management – moreover, Bounce Cancels open up an entire realm of strategic possibilities and combo-building/theory-crafting experimentation for the hardcore fighting game community to tool around with.

For as much effort has been put into building systems that will appeal to the EVO2k crowd, an equal (or greater) amount of focus has been spent on ensuring that Injustice is a universally entertaining game for the layperson. Environmental hazards, which range from the mundane (Nightwing stealing an assault rifle from a robot) to the insane (Bane throwing an entire missile at Solomon Grundy), vary in effect depending on the fighters selected. Generally speaking though, they provide a grand sense of spectacle befitting a bout between Earth's greatest heroes and villains, as does the new "Clash" mechanic.

Injustice Gods Among Us review From Outworld to Elseworlds
Making proper use of these new mechanics requires patience and practice, so it helps that Injustice's Practice mode is such an exemplary, feature-filled toolbox. Frame data is provided for every move, right there in the command list, and while that may not sound like much to most folks, it's a Certified Big Deal™ for fighting game enthusiasts. The user can bookmark any move in the command list and have its input sequence overlaid on the in-fight UI, so multiple combos can be practiced without continuously having to pause and recheck the list. Practice mode also works online, which is a helpful creature comfort to a degree, though even the most minuscule amounts of lag will result in a less-than-ideal environment for serious combo practice.

Lag will obviously have a more serious, tangibly negative impact on Injustice's assorted online modes, though thankfully major spikes were seldom encountered and appeared to be related to the connection, not the netcode itself. Even under pristine conditions, however, playing online feels slightly different from playing offline, thanks to a less than a quarter second of input lag. It is by no means unplayable, and combos that work offline still work while connected, but tiny adjustments will be required to maintain maximum battle efficiency.

Massive, 100-player rooms return as NetherRealm's online lobby system of choice. A system like this is still the best, most efficient way to handle matchmaking, but Injustice's implementation of the concept is overall less user friendly than the incarnation seen in Mortal Kombat. Despite the much, much more attractive user interface, the list of players in a room can no longer be sorted by who is available to fight and who isn't – "alphabetical" and "reverse alphabetical" are the only two options. Since the player must manually challenge other players in the room to begin a battle, this feels like an odd, needless omission.

Injustice Gods Among Us review From Outworld to Elseworlds
Speaking of which, issuing challenges has also changed slightly. Challenging someone else will still lock up your system until they either accept, decline or the offer times out, as has been the case previously, though receiving a challenge no longer forces the player to respond immediately. Instead, received challenges appear as a notification that must be checked, and multiple challenges can queue up at once.

This allows someone with an attractive win:loss ratio to have their pick of the litter, but it also means that multiple challengers are actively engaged in not playing the game. Even if the player receiving the challenges does check their notifications and decide to fight one of the people in their queue, everyone else in the queue has effectively had their time wasted. This is inefficient. By requiring a response from both parties, as in Mortal Kombat's system, each player could only inconvenience one other person at any given time.

Additionally, I frequently encountered an error message that "the game session is no longer available." Roughly six out of ten matchmaking attempts resulted in the error, failing to establish a connection between both players. I wasn't able identify any specific cause or trigger for this error.

Still, even though Injustice's room system isn't the best version of this concept, it's still better than randomly stumbling through stranger-filled, eight-player lobby after stranger-filled, eight-player lobby.

Injustice Gods Among Us review From Outworld to Elseworlds
So as a game, as a pure vehicle for multidimensional, spandex-clad entertainment, Injustice's strengths far outweigh its minor inconveniences. As a platform for competitive gaming, however, there are somewhat more serious concerns.

Selecting a level is incredibly important in Injustice, as they contain different assortments of environmental hazards that your character may or may not be able to take full advantage of. As a result, it is imperative to select the stage that is best suited for your fighter. Your opponent, of course, will also be doing this, and the chances of you both selecting the same stage will become less likely as time goes on and stage/character pairing efficiency is closely examined.

After both players have selected a level, the game randomly selects one of the two chosen options and begins loading the match. A random system like this may sound like the only logical way for the decision to be made, but an impartial system does not automatically translate to a fair system. Impartiality, at least in this sense, doesn't take the need of either player into account when making its decision. It will be random and unbiased, but the neutrality of the random number generator's choice does not erase the fact that one player will be given a distinct advantage.

And yes, fighting games have been randomly selecting stages since time immemorial, but the key difference here lies in the fact that some characters make better use of hazards than others. While Harley Quinn can grab a statue's spear and do mild damage over a small area, Shazam can lift the entire statue and inflict great damage to a larger portion of the screen.

Injustice Gods Among Us review From Outworld to Elseworlds
It is therefore extremely important that Harley fight in stages with the fewest number of "big" hazards, as they pose a greater threat since environmental attacks are unblockable. Conversely, Shazam wants to surround himself with as many potentially-explosive things as possible. The decision is made by the players, and then again by the machine, and Lady Luck decides who gets the upper-hand. Currently, the only way to ensure absolute fairness at high-level play is to disable the hazards all together, which is as effective as it is inelegant.

Injustice also modified the concept of an "EX" or "Enhanced" move with its new Meter Burn system, which allows for a portion of meter to be spent on a better version of an existing move. Sounds pretty standard, but in most cases the "burn" is activated after an attack lands, rather than when inputting the command for the ability.

EX moves have historically been a major part of the meter-management meta game that competitive fighting games routinely develop. By spending a portion of highly valuable super meter on a move that may or may not connect, the player is entering a risk/reward situation. Success results in the opponent losing health, and failure results in wasted super meter without benefit. With Meter Burn, however, all of that psychology goes out the window – the player simply presses a button to exchange meter for extra damage on a move that has already connected.

Regardless, these philosophical quandaries hardly diminish what Injustice: Gods Among Us accomplishes through its incredible storytelling and fantastically executed single-player modes. Even its online offerings, which may not be NetherRealm's best work, are worlds better than the majority of other solutions being floated by Capcom and Namco Bandai. The game's characters are all unique and play with varied, consistently interesting styles, and despite the above reservations on the fairness of environmental hazards, smashing Aquaman with a car never ceases to be the best thing ever.

This review is based on a retail copy of he Xbox 360 version of Injustice: Gods Among Us, provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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