Since we last sat down and played Injustice: Gods Among Us, Warner Bros Interactive's upcoming DC Comics based fighting game, the roster has expanded, the moves list has been refined, but it is clear that NetherRealm's original vision for the game has remained steady throughout development. This is a brutal, hard-hitting game made to be accessible to casual DC fans while deep enough to make hardcore fighting game fans sweat.
Injustice already featured a deep roster, having shown off Batman, Lex Luthor, Green Arrow, The Joker, Green Lantern, Cyborg, The Flash, Harley Quinn, Nightwing, Solomon Grundy, Superman, Bane, Aquaman, Catwoman, Deathstroke, Hawkgirl, Shazam, Sinestro, and Wonder Woman. At a recent sit-down with NetherRealm in New York, NY, we got to see the official debuts of Raven and Black Adam (Shazam's villainous counterpart), as well as teases of Doomsday and a couple of characters who have appeared in trailers but are officially being kept under wraps.
The brutality in the game may surprise fans who played MK vs DCU, the previous attempt to bring DC characters into a Mortal Kombat style setting, but a NetherRealm spokesperson says DC Entertainment was "very amenable" to the violent nature of the game.
"They felt like, first off, this is officially the 'Injustice' universe of DC. With that established, we've been able to do things that in other universes wouldn't be allowed. DC was very supportive, and it was something that we were very cognizent of. There were even a few cases where DC told us we could push things further.
"We actually expected that those would be the bulk of a lot of our discussions, and it wasn't. We knew where the lines were drawn, what these characters do and what kind of values the uphold, and we didn't want to violate that."
Sitting down and playing the game, the combat is both easy to get into and also incredibly deep. A player who has never sat down with a fighting game before will be able to jump in and pull off enough special moves to make them feel like they've done more than just button mash. Those special moves, from simple grabs to the over-the-top power moves are incredibly cinematic. A throw move, or a quick teleport, or an environment interaction can all change the camera angle briefly to make you feel like you're - not playing a movie, but playing an alternate reality. You are the malevolent puppet master making these characters dance at your whims, and it is glorious. The depth is there as well, though, with combos, long move lists and the same kind of chaining fans expect from the company that revived Mortal Kombat, making it a premier fighting franchise once more.
And those special power moves? They will make fans of DC Comics squeal, laugh, and clap, and will make fighting games fans want to dive into the DC Universe. We saw Doomsday's super move for the first time, where he slams his opponent into the ground, then punches them repeatedly, tunneling them through the center of the Earth, out the other side, and back again. It is utterly ridiculous and ridiculously awesome to watch. What's best is the super moves were built with accessibility in mind, too: once you've built up enough power, it's a simple pair of buttons to press, rather than a complex 10 part sequence.
"We knew right away that we needed to implement something that showed off the over-the-top nature of these characters. The super moves came in very early. Everyone has seen the Superman one now, where he punches someone up into orbit, and that one has not changed. I remember being pulled into our viewing room and they showed us that, it was the first one, and it hasn't changed since."
The story has been the biggest secret to the game, and while we were able to play and view the first ten minutes or so during our press meeting, they wouldn't reveal much about comic writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray's tale, that they wrote with NetherRealm. The impetus for why the heroes are fighting each other, and how people like Green Arrow and Harley Quinn can fight against Superman, Sinestro, and Wonder Woman is still held back, but NetherRealm promises there is a reason and it will make at least as much sense as, say, characters who can punch a person through the center of the Earth without both being vaporized.
The game starts with the heroes losing. A great disaster befalls the world, and what remains is in tatters. As you play the story mode, you'll be taken into the roles of many characters, starting as Batman (who, amongst other characters, has a familiar voice) and moving between heroes and villains alike to reveal how the Injustice world changes and evolves. Throughout, you'll interact with not just the playable characters, but a large roster of cameos as well - everyone from Martian Manhunter to Hugo Strange to Kilowog can be found in the backgrounds of scenes (and some of them can help you out during battles). The story continues that cinematic feel found in the gameplay itself. You won't see big victory screens or round indicators; instead, when you've defeated your opponent, the game immediately jumps into a scripted scene, taking you into the next round with a brief cinematic interlude. It's a completely different and new way of presenting story in a fighting game, and makes you actually believe that the story is an integral part to the experience. That could, of course, change beyond the first 10-15 minutes, but seeing the early sections make that distinction instills great hope for the full package.
A new feature was shown as well, with replayability in mind. A huge challenge mode section called "STAR Labs," featuring over 200 missions, will allow players to experience characters in situations from "do these three special moves" to "timing challenges" to alternate reality short stories! This is likely where future downloadable content (DLC) will come mostly into play, as new characters and classic DC storylines will be able to play out without having to alter the main story. We saw challenges for every character in the game, including exciting mini-stories based on the acclaimed Elseworlds story Superman: Red Son, where Superman and Wonder Woman are playable in their Russian alternate-reality costumes and in situations directly out of the comics. With Blackest Night content promised for early DLC (revealed in European ads), that will likely play out in the challenge modes, and NetherRealm suggested there are more DC stories on the way there. It also provides some variety to the basic fight structure, and the developer knows a fighting game needs to be more.
"We wanted to just have some fun with the mechanics in the game. We found some joy in that in the challenge maps. The point of these is to do different stuff than you might find in the core gameplay. We have some that are pretty easy, some that are pretty difficult, and some that are aggressively difficult."
Those STAR Labs challenges will feature unlocks, allowing players to get new characters and costumes, as well as other challenges. There are three "sub-challenges" for each, as well, with three-stars unlocking new missions as well as in-game bits.
In both the challenges and the main gameplay, the level of interactivity with the background is impressive, and easy to access. A simple tap of the bumper (or top shoulder button on PS3), you can use lasers, cooling vents, globes, and even background characters to help you dominate your opponent. The levels also have multiple locations, where you can punch your enemy through a wall or into the background and move to another area and continue the brawl.
It's interesting that in all of this, we talked very little about the gameplay, but that speaks to NetherRealm's goal of making this far beyond other fighting games. Yes, the gameplay is there, and it is tight and accessible and deep all at once. But it's not the only focus, and that is what makes this game so much fun, even with only a taste of it.
That said, the new characters revealed, Raven, Black Adam, and Doomsday, all play as pumped-up over-the-top versions of their comic book selves. Raven and Black Adam are both pompous and heavily magical. The teen sorceress can teleport, disperse into a hundred of her eponymous birds, mystically grab her opponent from across the screen, and even summon her demonic brethren, topping off with her father Trigon's assistance. Black Adam's lighning strikes are more brutal than Shazams, giving brief stun effects. Doomsday can punch a character through the center of the Earth. So don't worry about him not being powerful enough to effectively kill Superman.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is NetherRealm's attempt at getting a superhero fighter right, and so far, it looks like they have. Making a fighting game with a story players can actually care about, a roster of characters that feels unique and varied while respecting their iconic nature, and still remembering to make the actual game mechanics work well is no easy task, but DC Comics and fighting game fans have a lot to look forward to here.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is due out April 16, 2013 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U.