In 2008 Midway and Warner Bros. Games teamed up for one of the most bizarre mashups ever conceived- Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. While it had potential and certainly wasn’t a bad game it was still a misfire, a weird hodgepodge of styles that felt like it was holding back from what it really wanted to be. It sold incredibly well but it seemed more of a novelty than anything else, something that was confirmed when they threw the DC characters out for the ninth Mortal Kombat installment, simply titled Mortal Kombat. Created by newcomers NetherRealm Studios with the impact of a bomb packed with broken bones and spinal fluid, it revived the long-stagnant series in glorious fashion. The level of violence was cranked up higher than ever before, most famously with slow-motion X-ray vision sequences that allow you to see all the horrific internal carnage you caused, but best of all was how much more smoothly it played. The new pace flowed better but still felt feel absolutely brutal at the same time, like every single hit hurt.
So picking NetherRealm to bring back the DC characters for their own standalone fighting game with Injustice: Gods Among Us was a stroke of genius. If you’re going to have superheroes and supervillains duking it out, you want to FEEL it, and feel it you will. As in Mortal Kombat the fights might seem a bit stilted and slow when compared with the frenetic Capcom/Marvel battles we’ve all become used to but here your attacks have real power behind them. The entire stage will literally shake with the impact of each hit, with pieces of the background falling apart from the shockwaves as the battle rages on.
You might pause a second and wonder why Superman wouldn’t just punch the heads off of Harley Quinn or the Green Arrow in a fight, but a throwaway line in the (fun!) story mode gives an excuse (super pills, duh!) to use your full powers with no concern towards the weaker characters. You’ve got quite the variety as well, from heavies like Bane and Lex Luthor in a robot rig to fast little folks like Catwoman and The Flash. Classics like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Shazam are all here and ready to fight for the slightest infraction.
The controls are simple for anyone to pick up, with just three attack buttons (light, medium, heavy) and one button for each character's specific power- arrows for the Green Arrow, super-speed for The Flash. Special moves are performed with directional moves, either down-right or left-right presses followed by an attack button. It’s very accessible but there’s plenty of combos and air juggles and extra moves for people to learn and perfect if they want to.
The best thing is how truly powerful it makes you feel. Every stage has different objects like cars and crates in the background that can be thrown or smashed into enemies, and there are numerous trigger points that can be activated with the press of a button. Some will knock an enemy into a piece of background scenery and back again but there are plenty of stage-specific actions. The bat cave has a console with a button that fires the Batmobile’s missiles, while the walls of Atlantis can be cracked in order to let out a flood of water and knock foes down. Seeing what each level has to offer in the way of destruction is half the fun, and the level transitions are something else.
Each stage has two different levels you can fight on, and if you’re near the edge of the screen you have to be wary of getting knocked into the other one. It’s not so simple as falling down into the next stage like some other games (even Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe had that)- these are super-powered beings, after all. One transition sees you getting knocked from the roof of the Daily Planet down through every single floor on your way to the lobby. A fight in the outer space knocks you out into the voice and into a passing satellite, which explodes and knocks you into another space station. The best might be a room in Arkham Asylum that you get knocked into, where you subsequently get grabbed and juggled from one Batman villain to another- Riddler, Penguin, Two-Face, all getting their licks in before you’re kicked out the door and back into the fight. They’re all very fun to see and take off a decent chunk of life from your opponent’s health bar. Like throws they’re easily avoided and another thing to watch out for.
The over-the-top ridiculous nature of the game continues to the Super moves. They’re not fatalities- these are DC characters, after all- but they can get quite bloody while at the same time feeling cartoonish and entertaining as hell. Aquaman’s is probably one of the best.
As with everything else they’re very easy to unleash- just fill your super meter via combat and hit both triggers. They play out quickly but each character only has one specific one, and while it’s going to be hard to get tired of Superman uppercutting his foe into space before smashing him back down to the Earth like a meat comet, a little variety here would have been nice.
Of course, you’re really just here to see super-powered beings beat on each other, but there’s a decent story mode to experience. In an alternate Earth the Joker, trickster that he is, manages to make the Man of Steel accidentally kill Lois Lane and their unborn child and- oops- detonate a nuclear bomb over Metropolis. Lois might have evaded a worse fate thanks to this (you thought your kid kicked a lot in the womb?) but Superman snaps, viciously murdering Joker and then vowing to never be taken advantage of again. Superman sees no more need to curb his powers and decides to instead police the whole country, ushering in a new state of peace and terror under his Big Brother-ish government. Batman is one of the few people fighting back against him, as well as Lex Luthor, Supes’ friend in this world who’s working behind his back.
The heroes of our world (including the Superman who still fights for justice) are soon teleported into the alternate universe and band together with the rebels to help fight off Superman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the oppressors. This makes for lots of silly and cliched moments where one character fights himself (you’ll likely shake your head when you hear Green Arrow yell "Time to kick my ass!" when faced with his alter-ego) but the story is fun enough and well-voiced. It gives fans a little bit of that grim’n’gritty style they love so much without ever shucking its lighthearted comic book feel. It’s also done with absolutely no loading, with the story flowing right into the fights and back out again, like watching an animated show.
There’s not as much sheer content here as there was in Mortal Kombat but there’s plenty of modes to play through besides the story mode, which will take you a good five-six hours. You can play the game by advancing through a group of enemies, with conditions if you choose beforehand. You might want to only play Heroes, for instance, or play through while your life whittles away from poison. A STAR Lab mode offers tons of missions that give you new conditions to meet in order to earn up to three stars, which can unlock content in the game. And of course there’s mutliplayer, which is where fighting games are meant to be played. Online matches are seamless and fast and it doesn’t seem hard to jump in any kind of fight you like.
Marvel Vs. Capcom holds a near and dear place to my heart simply because of all the times I cut class to play it in the pizzeria near my high school, but it never felt like you were actually playing as superheroes. Injustice is really the first game that feels like it was created around the idea of super-powered matches, and while we’ll see how well it holds up over dozens of matches the sheer thrill of seeing all these powers collide makes the price of admission worth it. You’re two for two, NetherRealm Studios.
Injustice: Gods Among Us was reviewed from an Xbox 360 copy provided by the publisher. It’s also available for the PS3 and Wii U. Note that there's an iOS app that you can play in order to unlock new character outfits in the console version. The mobile game isn’t all that great- it’s freemium and the fights consist of just tapping over and over- but it’s worth it just to get the free stuff.