All heroes are not created equal, especially when it comes to the expanded universes of comic book titans Marvel and DC.
From The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy to lesser-known but equally potent stars like Ant Man and Doctor Strange (an original Defender, back in the day), Marvel’s mightiest have outmuscled DC’s potent roster cinematically. “Suicide Squad” somehow won an Oscar, but it also nabbed two Razzie nominations. “Batman Vs. Superman” scored eight (and won four).
When it comes to video games, however, DC has fared a bit better. DC franchises — mostly Batman, honestly — have carried the torch for console superhero games. That includes 2013’s excellent fighting game “Injustice.” And though it failed to match the success of developer NetherRealm Studios’ more famous series, “Mortal Kombat,” it served as a fine thirst quencher for comic book gamers.
The sequel is, in just about every sense, an improvement. It’s a bigger game in both character and mechanics, playful but intense and absolutely packed with clever ways to maim the members of “The Superfriends.” It’s also pretty addictive thanks to a new loot system that’s as much “Diablo” as it is DC.
We could be heroes
True to form, NetherRealm has given “Injustice 2” a full Story mode right out of the box. Picking up where the original left off, “Injustice 2” envisions a future torn apart by Superman, now captured after going full tyrant in the first game. As Batman wrestles with rebuilding the world in Superman’s wake, the Kryptonian’s nemesis, Brainiac, shows up hell-bent on destroying Earth. A few thousand plot twists later, and the gang has to save multiple universes while figuring out, once and for all, what to do with a power-mad Clark Kent.
There’s a bit more agency here — you occasionally choose between two characters as you navigate through the linear narrative — but this is not NetherRealm’s best work. It relies too heavily on overused reasons to get superheroes to beat each other up (lots of inexplicable mind control … again), and full play through takes just about four hours. The stress between Batman and Superman, once novel, is a little played out at this point, and if you didn’t play the first game or possess at least a BA in Superhero Lore, the ins and outs of the drama can be tough to follow. It’s a brief, somewhat disjointed tale.
That said, the voice work and cinematics are top notch. And Story Mode does ultimately what it sets out to do: introduce you to the game’s mechanics and offer a veneer of justification for socking Robin in the head as Swamp Thing.
Get in gear
“Injustice 2” keeps the basics of “Injustice” (which itself felt a bit like a retooled “Mortal Kombat”) pretty much intact. You can still knock enemies into different stage areas, engage strategic “clashes” to swing the tide of a battle, trigger temporary character buffs, and, most memorably, unleash hysterically awesome Super Moves. I will never, ever get tired of watching Flash grab an enemy by the collar and literally drag them through time to smash their face into a feeding Tyrannosaurus. This is a thing you can do in this video game.
New this time around is the ability to burn your super meter on evasive maneuvers and blocks. Advanced tactics like move cancelling are also baked in, though most players will get by just fine with the intuitive combo system and merciless “Mortal Kombat” style juggling. “Injustice 2” is at once accessible and deep, a game easy to jump into but packed with subtleties begging for your time and attention.
The biggest new addition, however, isn’t in what you do while fighting, but what you get when you win. A new Gear System doles out loot after every match (you can also buy boxes of loot with in-game currency); like a traditional RPG, each piece of loot works with a specific character. You might win an exciting new bow for Green Arrow, for instance, or a fresh new head for Blue Beetle. The more you play as a character, the higher their level and the more potent the gear they can equip. This is crucial, because it’s not just for show: the gear tweaks stats for each of the game’s 28 characters, increasing strength, resilience, and other qualities.
It’s a bold move. Most fighting games rely on obsessively tight balancing to ensure that no one character outshines the rest. The gear throws that off, making your character faster, stronger, or stouter than the standard version. Cosmetic changes occur as well, too, making “Injustice 2” one of the most customizable fighting games ever made.
Gear is, unfortunately, marred by a baffling, overly complicated array of resources to gather and manage. You’ll acquire various kinds of credits and tokens (one of which can be purchased with real-world funds) to spend on gear, upgrades, and more. While you never feel pressured to spend cash, it’s an inelegant system that feels weirdly fussy for a full-priced game. Expect to grind a lot.
But in case you were concerned about gear and competition, put down your red flag – the gear system won’t ruin competitive play, as Warner Bros. wisely created a separate, official tournament mode that resets all characters to their standard versions in order to ensure a level playing field.
Of course, hopping online feels anything but level. As good as you get with your offline Aquaman, playing online opponents, with or without gear, is the real test. And since the “Injustice” core remains largely intact, expect to meet more than a few extremely talented amateurs online.
The good news is that “Injustice 2” includes a Practice mode that offers a window into pro considerations, including detailed character frame and move data for really dialing in moves. This is a game well aware of its esports aspirations; even before release, the game was added to the roster of titles at the upcoming Evo 2017 fighting game tournament.
Sadly, it doesn’t go the full distance getting amateur players up to speed, failing to include deeper character-specific training to help newcomers learn more advanced tactics. But it’s clear that there’s a lot to dig into here, and since fighting games these days function more as long-term competitive platforms than one-off games, “Injustice 2’s” depth, even if a little opaque, should serve it well in the long run.
If getting pummeled by other players is too much, you can hand the reigns to the game’s AI, building teams of heroes to take on other computer-controlled teams and watching them duke it out online. You even gain some loot from these battles, giving you yet another avenue for earning precious Super Pants.
Worlds within worlds
Even if you never test your mettle against other players, “Injustice 2” offers plenty to do. The game takes a cue from “Mortal Kombat X’s” Living Towers with the Multiverse, a constantly changing, timed set of matches that yield big rewards and often feature curious modifiers. You might play a series of matches in low-gravity or collect health-boosting hearts.
Multiverse battles dole out some of the game’s best gear and loot boxes, ensuring repeat visits. It’s a nice way to extend the solo game beyond the Story and Single Fight modes, and though it feels a little derivative, it delivers a wealth of variety that will undoubtedly keep players coming back.
And at least until “Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite” steps into the fight, you’ll want to come back to “Injustice 2.” It’s the complete package — beautiful, nuanced, and inviting — and though it trips up a little with its short, uninspired Story, it more than makes up for it with the most rewarding superhero power fantasy this side of Batkid.
Platform reviewed: PS4
What’s hot: Accessible yet deep; wildly creative super moves; addictive gear system; plenty of ways to play
What’s not: Story mode is a disappointment; resource mania
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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.