Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Content! So much content! That seems to be the theme of Injustice 2, NetherRealm’s new DC Comics-based fighting game. Simply put, there is more stuff to do here than in any fighting game that has come before it, and that’s a huge medal of honor to tag onto Injustice 2’s spandex superhero suit. In a vacuum, this would make Injustice 2 a major contender for best fighting game of all time.
But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a world where fighting games are judged by their mechanics and gameplay, and in that respect Injustice 2 kind of stumbles. Still, the rest of its single-player content is so good it makes you wonder if a fighting game can be a hit without focusing on multiplayer gameplay.
Strength in Storytelling
Five years after the events of Injustice. Superman is in jail, half the Justice League is dead, and Batman is doing his best to return civilization to Metropolis and Gotham. Unfortunately, Gorilla Grodd has used this chaotic period to rise to power, forming an alliance of super-villains who are seeking revenge on Superman and his Regime. Meanwhile, Superman’s imprisonment has drawn the attention of Brainiac, who views his existence as his last opportunity to study the effects of a yellow sun on Kryptonian biology. Batman’s rag-tag group of surviving heroes is nowhere near enough to handle the combined threat of Grodd and Brainiac, so he finds himself needing to work together with Superman and his totalitarian Regime once more in one last hurrah for the world’s greatest heroes. Will they settle their differences, or will the conflict between Batman’s morality and Superman’s limitless power prove to be a bigger threat than anything the supervillains can cook up?
This story is amazing! It’s easily the best part of Injustice 2. It feels like an episode of the old Justice League animated series gone super dark. This is partially because NetherRealm went to great lengths to get as many of the classic DC animated series voice actors as possible. Hearing Kevin Conroy take up the role of Batman again is music to my ears.
But of course it’s not just the audio; everything in Injustice 2’s story mode oozes polish. The animation, especially on the faces, is some of the best we have seen in modern games, period. The pacing is perfect. The way cinematic scenes transition seamlessly and stylishly into fights keeps the player constantly invested in the action. There are even small points where the plot branches depending on whom you choose to fight with, and even multiple endings with vastly different narrative outcomes. This is a love letter to longtime fans of the DC universe, and it shows.
With so many Modes, who needs multiplayer?
Of course, jumping right into the action is a good way to get curb-stomped by the A.I. Luckily, Injustice 2 also comes with an extensive tutorial mode, which teaches you all of the base mechanics of the game. It also comes with character tutorials, but these are a little disappointing. They teach you a few special moves and some of the character’s basic combos, but that’s not near enough to get a feel for which characters you like or to become competitive with characters you want to improve with.
The game’s practice mode is far more deep and complex. It has a ton of training options, from dummy recording to auto-blocking. It also has a comprehensive move list complete with extensive frame data for the kind of people who like to pick apart characters move by move. This is definitely the place to go if you want to level-up your game and it’s easy to spend hours here figuring out new combos and strategies.
Once you have your fundamentals refined, you might want to stop over at the Multiverse challenges. Here, players will be tasked with taking on special battles with unique conditions in order to earn a reward. You might fight a Robin who later transforms into Nightwing. You might have to fight in an arena where the lights keep flickering on and off. You might have to fight a gauntlet of enemies without a chance to heal. The challenges are endless… literally! New Multiverse challenges are constantly being created and updated, keeping new content flowing as long as NetherRealm supports the game.
And that’s not all. Injustice 2 also brings you daily challenges, which task you with playing certain characters or using certain moves and strategies. It brings you online guilds with gigantic multiplayer raid-like tasks. It brings you arcade modes which allow you to play through yet more expertly crafted story scenarios, and all of this will keep you playing for hours, days, maybe even weeks before you even get to the core multiplayer content.
You’ll notice that each time you complete a fight you’ll get a whole heap of rewards. Several different types of currency, loot boxes, shaders, and XP flow freely, and these are the core of Injustice 2’s “gear” system. Gear not only alters your favorite character’s appearance but also affects their stats. You can upgrade strength, ability, defense, and health, and these boosts can be absolutely massive. Gear is sorted by level and rarity, and playing a character using level 1 gear against a character with a level 20 loadout feels like the most unfair boss fight you have ever faced. Meanwhile rare gear gives you other interesting boosts, including rewards for playing in a certain style, and even new special moves!
Of course, you have to be the right level for the gear you want to use, and that means grinding. You earn XP in every fight, getting higher rewards for flashier play. Just playing the story is enough to get most characters to level 3, Superman to level 6, and Batman to level 9, but you’ll want to invest the time to max out every character to level 20 eventually.
The issue with this level-up system is it very quickly invalidates any gear you might receive. When you earn a loot box it becomes locked to the level you were when you earned it. Earn it at level 1 and you’ll only get level 1 gear. Get a rare or epic piece of gear at level 1, and it will be invalidated in just a few fights. To fix this, you have to earn and spend regeneration tokens to regenerate the gear at your current level. However, that still randomizes the gear’s stats to an extent and you may end up with a piece of gear that just doesn’t work for your build.
Then there’s the costume issue. Each piece of gear actively alters your character’s costume, and as is the case in most RPGs, this usually ends up making you look like you got dressed while drunk in a dark closet. Not to worry, you can spend yet MORE resources on swapping the stats on one piece of equipment with the stats on another, making sure your costume looks exactly how you want it to.
Once again, this system can keep you playing Injustice 2 for hours. The recursive loot game of opening more loot packs to search for the perfect statted gear, and then the perfect looking gear, and then getting all the right stats matched with the right aesthetics, at the right level, in the right color, before you fight more matches and inevitably earn more loot packs, will give you nearly infinite tasks to complete for each of the game's characters. You’ll easily have a year’s worth of tasks if you want to perfectly customize every character in the game.
Flawed Mechanics and Inefficient Gear System
With all this content, it’s a shame then that the actual gameplay of Injustice 2 is only…alright.
Not much has changed here from the first Injustice. Characters still control with a combination of light, medium, and heavy attacks, along with their special superhero trait, each mapped to a face button. You also use the triggers to throw, burn meter, interact with the environment, and use super attacks. Using attacks in combination will allow you to perform simple hit-strings, much like you would expect from a 3D fighter, and combinations of joystick or d-pad movements and buttons allow you to use special moves, much like you would expect from a 2D fighter.
Juggling is the main way you will put together combos in Injustice 2, because hit-stun is basically non-existent. A combo either naturally strings together, in which case each hit will connect with the opponent, or it doesn’t, in which case the opponent can block it after the first hit. The only way to extend combos is to A) use a special hit state such as Captain Cold’s freeze state, or Batman’s grapple stagger, or B) knock the enemy into the air. Once an enemy is in the air, each hit will make them fall faster and faster until they eventually hit the ground and the combo ends. However, as long as you can keep your opponent in the air your combo can extend pseudo-infinitely.
This is where your special hero trait and super meter come in. Burning a stock of meter allows you to enhance special moves, and these enhanced moves usually knock the opponent high, bounce them off the ground or the wall, or put them in a special hit-state to let you extend your juggle. Many super hero traits also produce similar effects, such as the Flash’s ability to slow down time, or Green Arrow’s ability to shoot his opponents with an ice-arrow.
Thus the general flow of battle has you attacking your opponent with a series of high and low strings, canceling a hit into a meter-burned special move, and then continuing on with a pre-canned set of combo strings that produces the highest damage output. It’s a decent system, but it is held back by the game’s stiff controls, which usually stem from buffer issues.
A buffer is the amount of time a game will wait in order to see if you are performing a move correctly. This is what allows you to press a button slightly before the end of a quarter circle motion and still get a fireball out. Injustice 2’s buffer is simultaneously too strict and too loose, which is a bad combination of mechanics.
Here are a few examples. Let’s say you had a combo that requires you to cancel back+heavy attack into a special move executed with back-forward light attack. In any other fighting game, you can simply hold back, press heavy attack, then press forward, and then press light attack, in order to simplify the general input. In Injustice 2, however, you have to press back+heavy attack, release all buttons, then press back again, then forward, and then light attack. It’s a level of strict finger gymnastics that is not needed.
On the flip side, there is a trial with Harley Quinn which requires you to press back and a button, and then down back and a separate button, except if you do it with anything other than a very specific timing the game won’t register the second button press. Instead it will just assume you are pressing the first button twice!
It’s impossible to tell whether you need to input combos as fast as possible, delay them, tap them out with a rhythm, or do them in one fluid motion. It’s all just trial and error, and that trial and error is immensely frustrating. You can get used to the strange input mechanics, but why should you? We have fixed this problem several times over in fighting games. There’s no excuse for this style of control in a modern day fighting game.
The trials unfortunately don’t help much in teaching you gameplay mechanics because they too are either too strict or too lenient. They have a serious flaw in that they force you to complete combos in very specific ways. Cross-up trials are particularly frustrating, forcing you to hit a very specific point on a character’s head for the combo to count. You could literally execute the combo perfectly in a match and it wouldn’t be good enough for the trial. Meanwhile some trials completed without me even inputting the combo correctly and I have no idea why.
The incredible gear system also has some incredible flaws. For example, there is no way to take you gear over to a friend’s house for local multiplayer, and local multiplayer is the backbone of the fighting game genre. You can use it online, but only in casual matches, and you are far more likely to be out geared and out leveled there. Unfortunately, this also means that there is no way to use the new special moves you receive from the gear system in ranked, which are one of the coolest parts of the system!
Another flaw in the gear system is that earning gear in the most efficient way possible isn’t very fun. Since gear boxes always spawn gear of your current level, it’s correct to grind to level 20 before you earn any of them. Unfortunately, this means you have to grind to level 20 before taking on any of the cool content like the story mode, Multiverse challenges, or even the tutorial! You can, of course, ignore this and play the game at your own pace, but then you’ll find yourself underleveled and underprepared compared to players who went for maximum efficiency.
The Single-Player Fighting Game
This all brings me to my thesis regarding Injustice 2 as a multiplayer game, and that is… it’s not really very fun, if you want to approach it from a serious or competitive point of view. There are definitely things to like about it. The roster is full of unique characters. I love the newcomers like Atrocitus and Swamp Thing, and even the returning favorites have had their move-lists seriously revamped, some to the point of barely resembling their Injustice counterparts. But the core gameplay makes it difficult to enjoy these characters.
It’s hard to get on a decent competitive level, and so much harder to do so with a custom set of gear, and even if you do manage to refine your gameplay to a professional level, it requires blatantly ignoring some of the game’s most innovative features. Quickly after I picked up the game I knew that I never wanted to play this with another human being.
That being said… I still want to play this. I don’t want to stop playing this. I want to take on every Multiverse challenge. I hope that NetherRealm comes out with new story DLC. I’ll probably buy every character and maybe even invest some money in microtransactions to get the right color gear. I am addicted to Injustice 2.
This makes Injustice 2 perhaps the first example of a primarily single-player fighting game, which sounds weird, but…is it? Lots of award-winning games had multiplayer modes no one cared about. Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us are just two I can name off the top of my head. Games with fantastic campaigns but lackluster multiplayer are actually pretty common. We just haven’t seen a fighting game go down this path before.
And that’s the path that Injustice 2 walks. I frankly can’t recommend its multiplayer when compared to games like Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, and even NetherRealm’s own Mortal Kombat. It just doesn’t match up. But the single-player experience is so good and there’s so much content that it’s worth playing Injustice 2 anyway. When fighting against the A.I. you don’t have to execute combos perfectly, or focus on mix-ups. You can just exploit your over-powered gear and have fun with it!
This is a game that you purchase explicitly for the single-player, and every so often get some use out of the multiplayer at a party. And that’s okay, because the single-player content is perfect. NetherRealm is a master of the craft of single-player fighting game content, and all other developers should take note.