Clash of the (spandex) titans
No, Superman can’t just heat-vision enemies into gently smoking atoms, and Nether Realm wishes people would stop asking. “We have a reason for that,” chuckles the studio’s games marketing manager, Brian Goodman, when we ask how often the question comes up. “But we’re not revealing it yet.” He might not be willing to divulge details of Injustice’s story, but we’d guess that either magic or kryptonite – the Man of Steel’s classic vulnerabilities – have caused his power reduction.
It’s the central paradox of a superhero fighting game. On the one hand, weakening your strongest characters is the definitive way to address playground arguments like “Would Green Lantern beat the The Flash?” (and, for the record, of course he would), while also smoothing over any big inequities to give you a more balanced group of fighters. The challenge facing Mortal Kombat developer NetherRealm, of course, is to level the playing field while still making sure they capture the spirit of DC’s spectacular heroes and villains. It’s a challenge they’ve seized upon with evident passion – which isn’t surprising when you consider the fact that, for many of the team, this is their first escape from the world of icy ninjas and blood-soaked fatalities in well over a decade.
“It’s been great,” explains Goodman. “You know, it’s always refreshing creatively to start on something new, something fresh, and this has given us a great opportunity to reimagine and rethink some of the ways we’ve been doing things.” Strictly speaking, members of the team did work on crossover fighter Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe back in ’08, when the studio was still known as Midway Games, but that title was bound by the MK ruleset. Injustice is NetherRealm’s chance to unshackle the comic-book heroes from the gory series that until now has defined them.
Injustice isn’t just Mortal Kombat in spandex, then. It’s a genuinely new fighting game – the result of a team of veterans getting to craft new systems and design new rules. Beat-’em-up experts will understand the implications of a shift from a four-button attack system to a three-attack version, just as they’ll immediately grasp the significance of switching from a dedicated block button to a hold-back-to-defend system. Even if you’re not well-versed in the language of links, crossups, and launchers, though, you’ll probably still notice that one less attack makes combos easier to memorize than they were in last year’s Mortal Kombat. And yes, that means buttonmashing is a touch more effective too.
The biggest change, however, is the addition of the character-trait button, sitting happily on the control pad right where Mortal Kombat’s block used to be. This offers easy access to special moves themed around each character’s defining powers; it’s where Green Arrow keeps his arrows, for instance. And, in use, it’s an unapologetic concession to accessibility on par with Christopher Nolan’s sneaky redub of Bane’s voice. Activate it as The Flash and you’ll slow down time for your opponent, letting even amateur players dash in for a cheeky super powered combo or three.
“Changing up the control scheme is something that we wouldn’t have been able to do as easily or as fluidly if this was in the Mortal Kombat franchise,” explains Goodman. You only need to peek at Mortal Kombat fan forums to see why: segments of NetherRealm’s loyal community are eyeing the hold-back-to-block feature in particular as an unforgivable concession to the Street Fighter crowd. Still, the result of all these changes is a game where characters feel powerful from the moment you take control of them. And when you’re dealing with a cast of iconic demigods, that’s probably how things should be.
Our first match-up is straight out of The Dark Knight Returns: it’s Batman versus Superman, and we’re controlling the Caped Crusader. He’s precisely the gadgety martial artist you might expect: neat, tidy combos can be spliced together with crafty batarang throws, and you can summon actual bats with the character-trait but ton. He can’t fly, but if you need to move quickly a brutal grappling-hook attack (activated with the classic Hadoken quarter-circle forward and punch) lets him latch onto his opponent and zip across the screen. Supes, meanwhile, might not be able to pulverize Batman with a single punch, but there’s still a Herculean-looking oomph to his kicks and throws. Batman looks like a well trained ninja, in other words, while Superman just looks super. The team has tried to build two classes of character: “gadget” characters such as Batman and the joker, who use items and tools to battle, and “power” characters such as Superman, who rely on brute strength and innate abilities. In practice, combat feels very fluid – but it’s a reflection of the team’s desire to capture the spirit of every hero on the game’s roster.
As are the environmental moves. These context-sensitive maneuvers allow the cast lo use stage objects as impromptu weapons – slamming their opponent’s head into a car, for instance, or chucking the rather tacky giant globe in Lex Luthor’s evil lair right at them. In our battle against Superman, we happen upon the small spaceship that brought the Kryptonian uber-baby to Earth in the first place. A quick tap of RB and Batman slams the Man of Tomorrow face-first into the capsule. But when our opponent activates the context-sensitive prompt, Superman lifts up the entire thing and beats Batman around the head with it.
“Our designers took a lot of care in making sure there was a risk/reward element [to the environmental attacks],” explains Goodman. “Because each class of character uses them in different ways, some characters are going to use them more effectively than others. The giant globe in the Lex fight – as Batman, that’s actually something that takes quite a while to take down and roll at your opponent. Maybe you can sneak in on them during the animation if you’re playing a fast character. But Superman or Lex would be able to pick it up and [fling] it at you much quicker. It’s less of a risk for them.”
Like the character-trait button, the environmental moves can’t be found in Mortal Kombat, and they’re integral to Injustice’s combat. At first, we dismissed them as a gimmick; only after getting shot to pieces by Deathstroke during our first battle with the A.I. did we realize how crucial they are to success. In round two, we started bashing the villain into Arkham Asylum’s ornaments and fittings, and we fared much better.
One area where the team’s hewing more closely to their previous work is in the campaign, which, like the most recent Mortal Kombat, tells its story by flipping between characters and locations. By rights, it should feel epic and involving – and yet, perhaps as a side effect of the premise, all of the re-imagined superheroes do look somewhat alike, which is a bit disappointing. NetherRealm’s Joker, for instance, looks a lot like Rocksteady’s take on the character, although he’s swapped the waistcoat for some punch- absorbing kevlar, and he exudes less giggly, insane charm than conventional menace. Bane, meanwhile, is an unfortunate victim of poor timing – his pro wrestler’s mask and Columbian accent seem rather dull following Christopher Nolan’s transformation of the character into a brutish gentlemen brawler in Dark Knight Rises. Lex Luthor comes off well, however, stomping about the place in a giant suit of power armor, even if the lead-up to a battle against him is decidedly uninspiring. (Goodman’s careful not to use the phrase, but we know a quick-time event when we press B to not fail it.)
Still, if Mortal Kombat is anything to go by, Injustice’s campaign mode will be like glorified speed-dating: a series of quick get-to-know-you bouts allowing you to sample a broad range of characters. It’s once you complete the campaign and pick your favorites that commitment begins, and the multiplayer modes are where the robustness of NetherRealm’s rejigged combat engine will be put to the test.
“Wiping the slate clean has been invigorating, and a very nice challenge for us,” says Goodman. And it’s easy to see why: in DC’s character roster NetherRealm has a bunch of almighty eccentrics with rich histories that Sub-Zero and company can’t hope to match. In return, DC has an experienced studio that’s more than adept at making outlandish powers work in a 2D fighting game. It’ll take more time – and the attention of tournament pros – to figure out if Injustice will have the long-term appeal of Mortal Kombat, but it’s already clear that NetherRealm is prepared to stray from its well-honed formula to do justice to the justice League.