The fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us gave us a world torn apart by conflict between between two of comics' greatest heroes. Now brutal murderer Superman and "I don't want to fight you" Batman are back, joining forces against the most diabolical foe the DC Universe has ever faced -- loot boxes.
When we last left our courageous heroes, a good half of them weren't courageous heroes anymore. Netherealm Studios' hit 2013 fighting game saw Superman driven by grief over the death of Lois Lane and their unborn son by the hands of the Joker. He had become the sort of heavy-handed world dictator Batman has nightmares about in bad live-action movies.
Believing the only way to truly save humanity from itself was to control it, Superman's "my way or heat vision to the brain" style of rule divided the heroes of Earth and beyond, leading to an all-out civil war that left the world severely screwed up.
Injustice 2 picks up five years after Superman's fall in the first game. While Supes rots away in a special red sun prison cell, Batman attempts to restore civilisation to something resembling normalcy. Former Superman cronies like The Flash and Green Lantern work toward redemption.
Freed from the Joker's thrall for good, Harley Quinn works a computer in Bruce Wayne's hideout, wearing a bat symbol on the back of her jacket. On the other side of the world, Wonder Woman and Black Adam plot Superman's comeback, armed with a secret weapon from another world -- Kara Zor-El. You know, Supergirl.
Supergirl's introduction in the opening moments of Injustice 2's story mode also serves as the introduction of Brainiac, the green-skinned, space-faring super-villain with a penchant for collecting cities and destroying planets in the process.
With her world about to be destroyed, Kara's mother sends her off in a rocket of similar design to the one carrying her infant cousin Kal-El. Kara is to be his protector, as long as she doesn't get knocked off course and forced into cryosleep for several decades. Whoops.
Kara arrives on an Earth divided by her cousin's furious angst and soon something even more sinister. As if the planet didn't have enough problems, Brainiac arrives to finish off his Kryptonian collection.
The fate of the Earth and the resolution of the superhero conflict established in the first Injustice game plays out in Injustice 2's rather lengthy story mode. Split up into 12 chapters, each putting players in control of one or two DC Comics icons, it's a major comic book crossover event in playable form.
The beats are predictable -- it's obvious from the get-go that some sort of coming together against a common foe is going to happen -- but even the trite bits are carried wonderfully, thanks to a stellar voice cast and outstanding facial animations. Just watch Harley's mouth as she chews bubblegum and scenery in one of the game's earlier chapters.
As staging for a series of superhero skirmishes go, it's top-notch stuff. Between the original Injustice, Mortal Kombat X and now Injustice 2, no other fighting game studio tells a story as well as Netherrealm.
They're not too bad at the actual fighting bits, either. The fighting system in Injustice 2 hasn't been modified much from the first game, outside of players being able to spend a portion of their super meter to utilise special abilities or break out of sticky situations via rolls or air recovery.
Black Canary is so hardcore.
The Clash system returns, allowing players to bet a portion of their super meter against their opponent in order to regain some of their health or do a little damage. And those super moves are just as super as they were the first time around, if not more so. It's Netherrealm's signature combo-heavy combat with a fine layer of cinematic superhero flair, and that recipe really works for me.
A fresh injection of characters with distinct fighting styles help keep the slightly-modified fighting system feeling fresh. Characters like the graceful close-quarters combatant Black Canary or the Wolverine-like Cheetah add spice to the roster, and the old-timers get some new tricks of their own.
The mix of new moves for old characters and a healthy injection of fresh talent -- there are 15 new characters in Injustice 2, not counting DLC fighters -- leads to a more even playing field for online play. I'm not very good against seasoned fighting game players online, but in these early days I feel like I have a chance to get a few wins under my belt, lag-willing.
Witness my first attempt at online play below. Not only did I win, I even blocked once or twice. Considering my normal play style, this is progress.
Admittedly I did not have much time for online multiplayer before writing this review, though the few matches I did engage in ran pretty well. The lag monster did strike during the Flash vs. Flash match above, which may explain my win.
The thing is, while online multiplayer is doubtlessly an important aspect of Injustice 2, there's just so much single-player content available that I don't have to engage in online multiplayer to enjoy the game.
For solo players, the game has its extensive campaign, featuring some of the best cinematic storytelling in any fighting game. For those looking to battle others without worrying about relative skill levels there is AI Battle mode. Players create a team of three characters for others to face-off against in computer controlled battles, complete with a comical fast-forward feature.
Then there's the Multiverse, a series of ever-changing timed challenges similar to Mortal Kombat X's Living Towers. Each Multiverse event presents a series of battles with special modifiers. Sometimes healing items randomly appear during battles, or the floor becomes electrified at random intervals, damaging any character touching it.
The events are timed, sometimes days, sometimes hours, and when the time is up it's out with the old and in with the new, resulting in a constant stream of new content to keep solo players occupied.
So many Earths. So many crises.
Completing a Multiverse event rewards the players in loot boxes and gear. Completing story chapters rewards the player with loot boxes and gear. Everything players do in Injustice 2 rewards them with loot boxes and gear, all in the name of furthering the game's most-hyped feature, character customisation.
The ability to change the appearance of these comic book icons, let alone enhance their stats and customise their play style, is a pretty big deal. It takes a lot to get a popular character like Harley Quinn into a video game in the first place, let alone allowing players to change her from this:
Harley Quinn's biggest heist yet: Destiny's shader system.
Creating my own custom version of The Flash or Wonder Woman or Gorilla Grodd is quite satisfying, but it would be better if the gear system weren't so damn complicated.
Different pieces for different characters are obtained through winning fights or opening loot boxes acquired through gameplay or purchased with in-game currency. While players can purchase certain colour-changing shaders in the customisation menu, equipment is largely the result of random chance. Sometimes random chance really sucks.
Three pairs of Harley Quinn leggings in one box? Great.
Players have to hope to get the parts they want amidst a flurry of random nonsense. Then they have got to make sure their character is at the right level to use the equipment. There's a system in place to allow players to pay tokens to bring lower-level items up to par with higher level characters, as well as a means to swap the look of a piece of equipment with the stats of another. It's making my head hurt just thinking about it.
Wanna buy some source crystals?
While others might enjoy the depth, creating special items sets to maximise certain stats over others, I've found the character customisation system works best when you don't think about it too much. Open the loot boxes you get, make your character look as cool as you can, and move on. It's still an awesome feature, even if it could have been so much more.
This is the third DC Comics fighting game overseen by Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon. The first, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, was a solid if awkward attempt to marry two properties that didn't have very much in common. Building upon that clumsy beginning, Boon and company have created a fighting game franchise that's right up there with the Arkham series in the ranks of the best DC Comics games of all-time.
Netherrealm Studios stumbling while adding an innovative new feature to Injustice 2 would have been much more tragic if the bits they normally excel at, fighting and storytelling, weren't so spectacular this time around.
Where follow-ups to traditional comic book event often fail, Injustice 2 is a worthy successor to the original in almost every way.