The Joker detonates a nuclear device in the heart of Metropolis, leaving millions of people dead and the city in ruin. Two of the casualties are Superman's family: Lois Lane and the son they brought into the world. Joker's maniacal laughter echoes through the halls of Gotham City's police department. “First Krypton, now Metropolis. People you love tend to blow up,” The Joker says derisively to Superman. “I know it's soon, but think you'll ever love again? Maybe you won't kill your next family.” Superman's eyes ignite, turning a hellish red. He raises his hand and plunges it into Joker's chest. As the screen fades to black, The Joker laughs maniacally, but not loud enough to bury the sound of Superman ripping out his heart.
This is how “Injustice: Gods Among Us” begins. For NetherRealm Studios, the developer behind all of the decapitations and spinal injuries in the long-running “Mortal Kombat” series, Superman's heart-crushing descent into madness is a routine event. For DC Comics, this is a side of an iconic hero rarely seen. The event turns heroes against heroes and generates a universe-spanning war.
Joker's final stand has NetherRealm's bloody fingerprint all over it, but it isn't indicative of “Injustice's” overall tone. Outside of this shocking incident, the game plays out like a DC comic book, with little blood and gore. The famed capes and cowls of the DC Universe take center stage, and NetherRealm pays homage to their legends both in the arena and through extensive comic book-related fan service.
Whether Doomsday is knocking Superman into the core of the planet or Bane is breaking Batman's back, a stratospheric level of violence accompanies almost every fight. The carnage towers greatly in scope over the combat seen in NetherRealm's previous venture in spandex, 2009's “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.”
“Injustice” nails the spectacle of a superhero brawl. If Superman punches an opponent with all of his might, that character is rightfully launched into space. NetherRealm treats this gawk-worthy blow as an event, stopping the fight so the player can sit back and view a cinematic shot of planet Earth jettisoning a small speck from its atmosphere.
Over the course of each fight, buildings crumble, statues are obliterated, vehicles are routinely used as weapons, and most arenas look dramatically different by the match's end. Environmental destruction doesn't just come at the hands of the two combatants — the world behind them is often being torn asunder by warring heroes. I didn't catch all of the little touches NetherRealm gave the backdrops until I watched other people play the game. Being a spectator is just as fun as it is to be in the ring.
The combat mechanics follow NetherRealm's well-worn blueprint. If you aren't familiar with DC's characters, you'd probably think it was another “Mortal Kombat” game. In a way, it is. The combatants move the exact same way as they would in “Mortal Kombat,” and players access their superpowers by tapping two directions followed by a button press. Sweeps, uppercuts, the ability to knock opponents into hidden arenas, and Batman saying “Get down here” when shooting his grappling hook all bring back memories of “MK” games. Regardless of the familiarity, the combat is frantic, fun and loaded with depth.
NetherRealm does a fantastic job of balancing the strength, speed and ranges of each character. Superman can land blows from any range, whereas someone like Catwoman is bound to mid- and close-range attacks.
Environmental interaction generates a surprising amount of depth for the different character classes. Shazam can easily lift a missile and throw it across the arena, but Nightwing doesn't possess that kind of strength and can only use the missile as an object he can flip off of, potentially to catch a foe off guard. This little differentiation can make you feel like a godlike character, or just an ordinary person in tights who wants to fight crime.
NetherRealm always includes a wealth of content in each of its games, and “Injustice” is no different, offering four lengthy modes each consisting of unique challenges and rewards. Story mode serves as a great introduction to “Injustice's” crazed combat. The opening moment shared by Superman and Joker made me think the plot would be as cerebral and dark as a David S. Goyer's and Christopher Nolan's Batman treatment, but everything that happens after it is simply an excuse for getting heroes and villains to fight.
NetherRealm clearly had a blast creating “Injustice.” The team's appreciation of the DC Universe blends nicely with their well-worn “Mortal Kombat” formula to create an experience that is a success on both fighting and comic book levels.