Sometimes there are benefits to not keeping up with gaming news – like when you walk into the office one morning and find a game you’ve never heard of has been delivered to your desk. In this case, it was Injustice: Gods Among Us, which I only vaguely remembered seeing online, but had no idea what it was. Since I had to wait until I got home to play it, I quickly checked Wikipedia to see what it was all about – and suddenly 6:00pm couldn’t come fast enough.

The rest of you probably knew it was a versus fighter by NetherRealm Studios featuring a selection of heroes and villains from DC Comics, and if this brings to mind the indescribably awful Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe – don’t worry, this is way better than that. In fact, Injustice: Gods Among Us has more in common with NetherRealm’s excellent 2011 reboot of Mortal Kombat. It uses an enhanced version of the same engine and many of the same fighting mechanics, but don’t panic, it’s not just a re-skinning of Mortal Kombat either; it has a few tricks of its own.

Like any fighting game, Injustice has an overarching story to justify all the violence, and it’s a comic book-style story mixed with Mortal Kombat‘s usual kind of narrative – so brace yourselves. It turns out that Superman was tricked into killing Lois Lane by the Joker, so he totally flips his shit and becomes an evil dictator, thinking that he was wrong to try and guide the Earthlings with a gentle hand when the only thing they understand is violence. He then forces all the other superheroes and supervillains to join him – or die. The only one to resist was Batman, and in order to stand a chance, he creates a portal, probably with quantum physics or something, to a dimension in which Superman and the rest of the heroes were not corrupt and brings them through to help him take the evil Superman down. You follow? It’s comic book writing, what do you expect?

Actually, come to think of it, it’s a story about two opposed dimensions at war with each other… kind of like Mortal Kombat? No, surely that’s a coincidence. But wait, the evil Superman even decides he wants to step through the portal and rule the uncorrupted reality too… that’s what Shao Khan wanted to do! Way to mix it up, NetherRealm. Anyway, I’m just making fun, the story is silly but it’s well told and fun to follow throughout the game’s story mode to see how it turns out.

It’s the gameplay itself that makes Injustice quite special. Injustice uses a simple, four-button system: weak attack, medium attack, hard attack and the power button. It’s quite self-explanatory. Every character has a selection of “canned combos” using the three attack buttons, and a selection of special moves. They also have a launcher and a blow-away attack assigned to the right bumper, and a throw assigned to the left bumper. It took me a while to figure out that blocking is done by holding back on the d-pad, like a Japanese fighting game, as opposed to pressing a button to block, which is traditional for the series. At the bottom of the screen is a super-power meter divided into four segments. Players can expend one segment at a time to enhance one of their special moves, a-la Street Fighter IV‘s EX-moves, or three segments at once to perform a special cancel involving a launcher or blow-away attack.

If you want, you can also expend all four segments at once to perform a massively-damaging, visually stunning attack. Just like Mortal Kombat, each character’s ultra attack works differently, so you need to figure out the best way to land it. For instance, the Joker throws a pie across the screen, and if it hits, he wails on the opponent with a crowbar for a while before shooting them in the face with a rocket launcher. Batman throws a gas grenade at the ground a short space in front of him, and if the opponent is caught in it, he beats them up a bit and then summons the Batmobile to crash into them. My favourite, however, is Harley Quinn’s – she strikes at mid-level with a clown mallet and then throws it across the screen, technically giving her two chances to hit with it. If it does connect, the opponent is stunned and Harley rushes up to them with her fist poised for a serious haymaker – but instead, she slides between her opponent’s legs, lights a candle on a birthday cake underneath them, then turns away and covers her ears while it blows them sky high. And you can still juggle the falling opponent afterwards. Cool, huh?

The power button makes each hero/villain use their unique power. For instance, Superman goes into Kryptonite mode and deals more damage for a time; Batman summons a swarm of mechanical bats he can use as projectiles or a shield; Wonder Woman switches between her whip and her sword; Solomon Grundy charges forward to attempt a special command throw; Catwoman performs a progressively stronger auto-combo depending on how many stocks she’s charged up; Green Arrow fires his bow; and Harley Quinn opens a present which grants her one of several buffs. These abilities make for an interesting fight, because they’re not all outright offensive. Some of them grant abilities that take a bit of lateral thinking to make the most of.

There are two more unique features to the fighting system that need a mention. The first is that each arena is littered with background objects you can use in battle. It’s really easy to do – just move near one and press the right bumper, whether you’re throwing a barrel, activating a missile launcher in the batcave, knocking the opponent into a robot in the background, or hopping on a motorcycle and running over your opponent. These attacks are unblockable, but not unavoidable, and they add an interesting, opportunistic element to the combat.

The second unique feature is called the Clash, I think. Anyway, it works thusly: once you’ve been beaten down to your second health bar (all fights are one round only with two life bars), you can enter a command to knock your opponent away and initiate a cinematic segment in which you wager an amount of your super-power meter against your opponent. If you win, you gain an amount of life equal to the amount of your super-power meter. If you lose, you just wasted your super-power meter. The fact that they call it a “wager” might lead you to believe that the outcome is random, and weighted in favour of whoever “wagers” more super-power meter – but as far as I’ve seen, whoever wagers more always wins. So, that’s another reason you might not want to blow your entire super-power meter before the end of a fight.

Oh, geez, my bad. Make that three features. The third is a stage-transition feature. If you hit your opponent with a launcher or blow-away attack while they are in either corner of the arena, they’ll be knocked into an entirely new part of the arena, usually along a very painful path, taking a lot of damage along the way. It’s not exactly an original idea, but it is a hoot to watch, especially the one in the elevator and the one in the asylum.

Well, those are the core mechanics out of the way. Everything else is just padding, really. You can use all of these techniques in a variety of modes. Story mode is the one most players will probably go for first, and you have to control a handful of the available characters in cinematic fights – often with some kind of special condition you have to overcome. There’s another mode offering the classic arcade progression with the evil Superman boss waiting at the end, after which you see your chosen character’s unique ending, and another mode in which each character has to fight in ten or so matches with special conditions. There’s also online and offline versus modes, obviously. All of these modes reward the player with tickets they can use to buy concept art, ending movies and new outfits for each character.

It’s pretty standard versus fighting fare here. As for why you should play this as opposed to other fighters… well, it’s a matter of taste, I guess. If you liked 2011’s Mortal Kombat, you’ll probably find this very easy to get to grips with since it’s so similar. The combo system is slick and intuitive, and the juggle combos in particular have a weightier feel to them than in other games. Quick tip: make your juggle combos consist of fewer moves with higher damage – that way the damage-scaling won’t affect them too much.

If you want something that’s easier to play than, say, Street Fighter or King of Fighters, it’s also a good option, because the moves are simple and forgiving to execute and you don’t need the double-jointed thumbs of expert versus fighter players to pull off the ultra attacks. And if you’re a comic book fan, the characters all look amazing and have a fair amount of personality, and the story is fairly entertaining.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s a good, solid fighting game with enough depth to satisfy connoisseurs, but is accessible enough to be enjoyed by anyone. Make this your first fighting game of the year.

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