By Kevin Kelly
DC Comics and NetherRealm have crossed paths before although their first meeting was when creative director Ed Boon was working at Midway Studios, and that meeting resulted derailed what would have been the next installment of "Mortal Kombat," and instead became the 2008 fighting game "Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe." While it might not feel like it set the world on fire, the game actually sold almost two million copies, and was on track to have a significant amount of DLC and would have been supported up until the release of "Mortal Kombat" from the then-renamed NetherRealm Studios, due to Midway's financial issues.
If you haven't played the game, the plot revolves around the Mortal Kombat and DC Comic universes colliding, and basically providing an excuse for these characters to fight each other. The fighting in the game was deep, as you would expect with the injection of Boon and his team's DNA, but it seemed to die a quick death after release, probably due again to the Midway issues. But the two teams are joining forces again, and the resulting game, "Injustice: Gods Among Us," is a much richer dive into the lore of DC Comics. Plus, there are no pesky Mortal Kombat characters butting in.
While we've been able to check the game out before, the build we played at GDC was new, and very close to final. Not all of the characters were unlocked (and we did see some unannounced characters that we can't talk about yet), but the arenas were all open, allowing us to cycle through locations like the Hall of Justice, Atlantis, Gotham City, Ferris Aircraft, the Batcave, the Fortress of Solitude, and others. You can also hit a button to cycle through different starting location on each level, which is a very welcome addition.
In fact, so much work and detail has been put into these levels, that it would be a shame not to let them be seen outside the heat of battle. Thankfully, the team has worked a level viewer into the game, allowing you free time to explore all of the tidbits from the comics that have made their way in. It's worth investigating things ranging from the smallest props to the largest characters that are peppered around each level. Take the Hall of Justice, for instance. While it's the meeting place of the Justice League of America, in the background of the meeting room, you can see the costumes of the original members of the Justice Society of America in cases.
And speaking of large characters, we mean that literally as two titanic characters from DC battle it out over the Hall of Justice, where one of the level transition moves will put you in the middle of their battle, before tossing you inside the structure itself. There are details like that throughout the levels, and with multiple tiers to each level, there's a lot to explore. Plus, gone is the Challenge Tower from "Mortal Kombat," replaced instead with S.T.A.R. Labs and missions that are more story driven. Each character will have ten unique missions here tied to their background, with the first one being a tutorial, and will involve tasks like flying baby Kal-El's rocket down to Russia in the Superman: Red Son DLC. According to the developers, If you three-star all ten missions, you will unlock "something cool" for each character.
Once we actually got our hands on the game, it was all too brief. With fighting games, unless you're well-versed in the normal patterns, you'll experience a learning curve where you learn your favorite characters' moves and combos. "Injustice" has a neat trick that allows you to mark the moves in the menu screens, and then hitting the back button during a match will show the moves on-screen, providing a sort of virtual cheat sheet. We didn't have enough time to memorize anything other than basic strikes, so there wasn't much air-juggling going on. But activating the "Character Powers" for each fighter was new, and very visual. These are simple add-ons, like bats for Batman, and revolving energy orbs for Black Adam, that add a bit of defense. They aren't that powerful, but are tied visually to character, providing a unique look and feel.
Combat was still fighting-game standard, relying on combos, counters, launches, grapples, and more. Plus, you can pull the environment into the game this time, pulling down steam pipse or kicking open water valves to douse your enemy. You can also do thing like bounce your opponent off of a helicopter in the sky, and you'll notice that things you do will have different destructive effects on the background. In Gotham City, fire escapes and building components crashed to the ground behind us, while the titans pummeled on. It's a nifty afterthought, but underscores the fact that these are larger-than-life characters that are going toe to toe with each other.
The super moves are still the highlight here, and when you fully max out your meter, the effects are visually stunning: Batman summons the Batmobile to flatten his victim, Wonder Woman calls in backup and lays you out with her sword, while Lex Luthor hits you with an orbital strike, with an explosion visible from space! Kaboom. We'll have to get the full game to try them all , and truly grasp the combat after learning moves for a few of the characters. Overall, the game feels completely different than "Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe," and much more on par with "Mortal Kombat."
In fact, the only thing that "Injustice" might suffer from is the storyline. We haven't gotten all of the details, but the cutscene we watched featured a vengeful Superman coming after The Joker, apparently emotionally distraught from having been tricked into killing his wife and son due to some scheme from the clown. Batman tries to stop him, but Superman easily stops him, sadly missing a possible callback or reference to The Dark Knight Returns. Supes apparently kills Joker just offscreen (putting his hand through his chest), but then we're caught up in a flashback, and there are missing puzzle pieces we need to get the full story.
At any rate, fans of DC Comics who are even just casual gamers will want to try out "Injustice: Gods Among US', and fighting game aficionados will want to jump in and see what NetherRealm has done in the wake of the success of "Mortal Kombat." This game is out on April 16 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo's Wii U.