Note: This review will attempt to avoid any major plot spoilers, but read at your own risk.
Injustice 2 has a superheroic weight upon its shoulders. The DC Universe just underwent a second reboot in its comics, its television shows are bleeding viewers, and its movies are suffering from critical bashing. Warner Bros. Interactive has a history of delivering loyal and interesting depictions of the legendary characters through video games like Batman: Arkham City and DC Universe Online, but even the 2013 title Injustice: Gods Among Us left fans wanting a bit more. Now, in the DC’s blackest night, the studio needs a victory over the villainy of studio bureaucracy and internet trolls. Thankfully, despite this troubled history, Injustice 2 defies the odds and improves upon every issue with the first game, delivering an experience worthy of the DC legacy.
Concept and Execution:
Like its predecessor, Injustice 2 pits the heroes and villains of the DC Universe against each other in one-on-one duels in a brutal 2D fighting game. The developers at NetherRealm Studios are famed for their Mortal Kombat series, and influences from said franchise are apparent in the Injustice formula. Characters are matched against each other in unique ways, establishing their circumstances and relationships through a few lines of dialogue before squaring up for intense battles, and the executions of these fights help the game explore the DC Universe and expand upon its storyline. Batman is forced to turn on a traitorous family member during an excursion to Arkham Asylum. Harley Quinn battles her fears in a twisted encounter with Scarecrow. The Flash and Green Lantern have a misunderstanding and only learn to communicate after whaling on each other for a couple minutes (yes, I know, that one doesn’t sound great on paper, but it was still a blast to play).
In the original Injustice, Superman was tricked into killing Lois Lane and detonating a bomb in Metropolis while under the influence of The Joker’s mind-altering toxins. After the traumatic experience, the last son of Krypton formed a fascist regime to prevent evil before it occurred, even if it meant holding the world at gunpoint. Under Batman’s rebellion, the regime was toppled and Superman found himself behind kryptonite bars. At the beginning of Injustice 2, alliances are decimated, members of the Justice League are scattered around the globe, and the lines between good and evil are blurred. An invading alien conqueror, Brainiac, seizes upon Earth’s defenselessness and attacks with an intent to destroy, and Batman has to grapple with what preventing worldwide destruction requires.
The four-to-five-hour story mode is an impressive experience. Characters are presented in such a genuine way, so loyal to their comic book counterparts that their story feels honest and focused. The heroes are challenged, deconstructed, and juxtaposed against each other, and they’re each fleshed out through their personal issues. Green Lantern seeks redemption after falling under Superman’s misguidance in the first game, and he struggles against his inner (and outer) demons to reclaim his power of will. Aquaman battles to find a balance between being an effective ruler for his people and helping the other heroes fight seemingly foreign threats. A young, naïve Supergirl strives to inspire hope in others, even when her mentors aren’t nearly as benevolent. They may be gods among humans, but these types of complicated inner conflicts make many of them more relatable and multi-dimensional than ever. Only a few DC legends—Wonder Woman and The Joker, most notably—are short-changed for time and don’t receive the development they deserve. Otherwise, the characters are extremely well-realized.
While the narrative is strong, it does run into some problems. Other than nitpicky plot holes (The Flash’s ability to time travel ruins everything), the story is limited by its length. The game incites philosophical themes upon numerous occasions, but barely scratches the surface of their true complexity, and thus their inclusion feels shallow. In just a few hours, the game tries to explore the causes of toxic relationships, the consequences of utilitarian ethics, the implementation of indoctrination, the shattering of familial ties, and the use of delayed evil to defeat immediate evil. These concepts definitely have an influence on the story, but the narrative fails to capitalize upon their full potential, and their presence often feels like a missed opportunity. However, a fighting game can only establish so many duels before the pace starts to drag. Therefore, it makes sense for the story to be shortened, even if its underdevelopment is a little disappointing. Borrow some of these ideas, Warner Bros. filmmakers!
Other than this, the narrative does an exceptional job pitting these icons against each other, and its relatable characters are the backbone for this expansive DC story. The narrative sees epic conflicts in a multi-faceted war for Earth’s fate. The story does incorporate some of the tired superhero tropes of recent memory, but it twists them in intriguing ways, and the story refuses to go where most players were probably expecting. It even allows us, the players, to dictate the direction of the plot, as a multiple-choice mechanic allows us to each pick one of two endings, both of which are unique, interesting, and—most importantly—earned by the narrative that heralds them.
According to multiverse theory, no two alternate Earths are the same, and DC takes this to heart. The Multiverse is a section of Injustice 2 akin to Mortal Kombat X’s Living Towers; it’s a system of fighting challenges with varying difficulty levels and quirky modifiers to help players hone their skills as fighters. These conflicts take place in the DC Universe’s infinite number of realities, meaning that new challenges are generated weekly, daily, or even hourly, all with differently designed opponents and trials. Thus, the Multiverse is a dynamic playground for casual and hardcore players alike.
As is usually the case for fighting games, Injustice 2 offers a tried-and-true system for multiplayer. Two players select their fighters from an impressive base roster of 28 characters and duke it out against each other either locally or online. The traditional local setup is robust and familiar, electing not to experiment with the setup in any way. It’s not particularly original, but the familiar framework can help attract casual players for social couch multiplayer. The typical foundation helps keep things simplistic, which is great if a newer player is using that second controller. In contrast, online play is varied a bit more, and this introduces more options for hardcore fans. Online fights can be fought in normal player matches, during which ordinary fights or king-of-the-hill group competitions can take place or be declined during matchmaking. Ranked matches are stricter setups that cannot be declined, and these competitive games affect global standings. Finally, the fairly-balanced matchmaking can be foregone for player rooms, within which any fighter of any skill level can be challenged to a duel. All three options are reliable entertainment, depending upon the level of competition for which players are searching.
Concept and Execution Score: 22/25
Considering that Ed Boon’s first Mortal Kombat game launched in 1993, it would be reasonable to assume he and the team at NetherRealm understand the mechanics of a fighting game. Like the most recent titles from the team’s repertoire, Injustice 2 combines accessibility with depth to establish fast-paced, competitive matches. Special moves and combos make their return, once again serving as excellent ways for characters to knock each other down and throw each other around. Character powers also see a comeback, along with some balancing updates. Additionally, the ultimate super moves appear once again, but their role is diminished. While the attacks are accompanied by overblown cinematic animations and they deal huge damage, the game encourages utilizing the super meter for other means.
Players can spend meter on stronger special moves (“specialer moves?”) and break combos, just like in previous NetherRealm titles, but this entry provides even more options. Characters can now bounce out of combos, launching into the air to escape chains. They can also add armor to some of their heavy attacks—making them impossible to counter—and they can perform escape rolls to cross the stage or dodge oncoming opponents. The final meter burn ability is the clash, a tactic that allows characters to “wager” sections of their super meter against each other to either recover some health or deal extra damage. While the others all feel like tactical contributions to the foundations of the game, the clash is an intriguing idea that often fails to work in practice. In my entire online experience between both Injustice titles, the clash has never turned the tide of a match. The character with the longest meter usually wins, so there’s no strategy involved. This is particularly true of the game’s AI opponents, because they almost always activate the clash as a last-ditch effort and bet everything they have, delaying the match only to lose just a few moments later. It might look nicer than it did in the first game and the character banter might sound significantly less annoying in this entry, but the clash rarely seems to add to the tactical nature of Injustice 2.
For the most part, the DC characters are evenly matched, mainly varying in play style rather than varying in degrees of straightforward efficiency. For example, Deadshot has spectacular range, but if Catwoman gets close enough, he’s a goner. Batman has damaging combos, but he’s overly reliant on them, and a changeup from a tricky character like Supergirl can easily break his chain. There are a handful of stray characters that feel over- or under-powered (I pity Bane fans; his clumsy moveset is rocking the bottom of tier lists everywhere), but for the most part, the lineup is a great example of checks and balances. Player success is usually based upon mastery of both the style of the character they’ve chosen and the excellent combat system of Injustice described earlier. It might take some time, but freshman players will find themselves experimenting with meter burns and juggle combos before they know it.
One mechanic that concerned me prior to the game’s release was the ambitious gear system. The cosmetic aspect of earning and equipping gear to change your character’s look seemed exciting, but I was mainly worried that adding stat bonuses, passive perks, and ability changes would throw off the balance of the fighting formula. Thankfully, while the equipment does alter the matches, there are plenty of tweaks that help balance out fighters in competitive play. First of all, the default match settings equalize character levels, bringing their stats to similar levels. Next, the game’s online matchmaking attempts to only pair players of similar profile levels, meaning that the in-game accomplishments and gear collections should be of similar forms. And finally, each match offers a competitive mode, in which all gear effects are disabled and characters duel at the base level without any modifications.
With that issue out of the way, the gear system’s ambition absolutely pays off. Characters can be customized to specialize in different play styles, focus on fighting certain enemies, and look as stylish as your heart desires. Characters can look radically different and some of their special moves can take on unique twists, allowing players to refine their favorite DC legends precisely to their liking, both strategically and aesthetically. Loot boxes and character-specific unlocks are obtained at a reasonable rate—it only takes a handful of fights to get a loot box, and both character and profile level-ups earn gear pieces directly. The rewards are plenty and as a result, the customization is a deep pool of loadout variants. Other franchises seriously should be taking notes, since this is one of the best loot-based gear systems I’ve experienced in a non-RPG. With this alteration, the game again manages to throw in yet another new twist that improves the overall experience, giving players even more motivation to play Injustice 2 all day long
Mechanics Score: 23/25
I never hesitate to say that I think Injustice: Gods Among Us was one of the ugliest late-stage PlayStation 3 games. I can even name a game or two from the PlayStation 1 with graphical superiority. While the first title had its genuinely interesting story, the quality of the tale was limited by its wonky visuals. Animations were stiff and edges were rough, giving many characters inhuman movements each time they appeared onscreen. The stages were dull and generic, providing only the nearest obstacles for object interactions and simply painting a static picture in the background. Most egregious of all, the character designs were a hot mess, since many of them look disturbingly dis-proportioned to the point of losing their humanity. The only impressive technical aspect of the graphics was the lighting, which organically filled in dark spaces and gave the environment depth. But in the end, there wasn’t much to love beyond that, and the DC heroes failed to receive a proper visual representation back in 2013. Thankfully, NetherRealm takes the criticism in stride with Injustice 2, and the atmosphere is much stronger than just good lighting. Not only does the world look spectacularly detailed, but the cinematography has improved enough to showcase its visual quality from every possible angle. Movement is fluid and believable throughout the entirety of the gameplay experience. The animations are more natural, with each frame refined to the point of perfection. The environments are lovingly detailed with Easter eggs and worldbuilding props to help fill in the hollow space of the stages. And most exciting of all, the characters actually look like human beings!
Character designs are brilliant in this title; they’re each simultaneously practical and flamboyant iterations of their comic book drawings. Scarecrow looks wonderfully menacing in his nightmare form, and some of his scenes even include his appearance as a simple doctor. Every piece of Blue Beetle’s armor reflects that excellent lighting (I can’t send enough compliments to that department). Even the human-animal hybrid villain, Cheetah, has bright yellowish fur with little brown spots that highlights the extent of her animalistic mutation. These outfits are beautifully showy and colorful, but in contrast, their character models are designed for seriousness. Each smooth facial animation looks as if it were painstakingly developed with time and consideration. Wrinkles are apparent in the faces of aging characters like Green Arrow, and The Flash’s remorse for his actions can be found in his troubled eyes. This level of effort and the realistic resemblance of emotion easily allows the animations to express themselves in subtler ways. This grounds the story, and it helps the players relate to the characters much more easily.
Injustice 2 has an obvious visual upgrade, but I did note some odd issues. For example, while the lip-synching is timed appropriately in close-up shots, there were some mistimed lines and syllables in more distant ones. This distracting—and somewhat hilarious—issue is apparent mostly during the actual matches when characters banter between rounds. Another issue that shatters my immersion with a sledgehammer comes with the villain Black Adam. I’m a huge fan of every character’s design except for his, because he appears to be modeled after former President Richard Nixon. Why? We’ll never know. But it’s the most distracting choice NetherRealm could’ve made.
Sound design is as satisfying as ever, with enough “Zap!” “Blam!” and “Pow!” sound effects to fill up a season of 1960s Batman episodes, but updated for this century. The sounds of punching impacts, swishing capes, and whizzing bullets feel both appropriately modernized and lovably campy. Nothing breaks the tone of the less-than-serious superhero source material, but nothing feels too wacky either. DC soundtrack veteran Christopher Drake and company excellently composed the score, capturing the gritty, slow-burn tone and the high suspense of the better DC films. However, I found the music to be surprisingly muted at the default setting, and it could afford to be cranked up a few notches to fully support the rest of the game’s sound.
Iconic voice actors make their return for characters and they fit the expressive character models like a glove. Kevin Conroy’s Batman sounds as grizzled as ever. I actually think he’s improving with age, since he sounds even better in this entry than he does in Arkham Asylum. The multi-talented voice actress Tara Strong fills the tights of Harley Quinn once again and brings some gravitas to the zaniness. Grey Griffin does a brilliant job as Catwoman, sounding like the sly femme fatale the character was meant to be. Aside from the classics, the best newcomer is Infamous: Second Son’s Laura Bailey as Supergirl, who plays a heartfelt and innocent character with a sense of underlying strength, which perfectly fits the role. The only actor that misses the mark for me is returning Superman voice actor George Newbern. A few of his lines felt extremely inauthentic and very little about his performance felt matched to the overly-masculine Kal-El. Instead, the depth of his voice feels forced, and the character’s representation suffers for it.
One of the biggest problems I have with Injustice 2’s atmosphere is with the stages. There are only twelve settings for all the battles in the game, ranging from The Fortress of Solitude to the kingdom of Atlantis. While the locations are chock-full of DC lore and gorgeous environments, they get old fast, especially considering that matches fly by quickly and you’ll be seeing the same places sometimes four or five times an hour. I found myself usually hitting the “randomize” button during multiplayer, since none of the stages are particularly special or varied in any unique way. They’re better-looking backdrops than what the original had, but after the novelty wears off, they fade away.
Atmosphere Score: 21/25
Not only is Injustice 2 a fun game, it’s a replayable one. Thanks to a generous array of rewards in its progression system, a competitive online community, and a never-ending series of evolving challenge modes, the game likely has a long lifetime ahead of it. Additionally, the title is fleshed out with a casual offline multiplayer and an enjoyable DC story. The atmosphere is beautifully fit for the current era of next-generation consoles with some classic comic book icons thrown in for nostalgia. Fight mechanics are robust, reliable, (mostly) balanced, and deep, but the whole gameplay premise still manages to be accessible for those unfamiliar with the franchise or game type. Thanks to its well-rounded, dynamic experience, Injustice 2 is a great purchase for any occasion.
I’ve already stated numerous times that this title is a massive improvement over its predecessor, but this title even outclasses Mortal Kombat X. Injustice 2 is the best NetherRealm fighting game since Mortal Kombat (2011). The title does have its flaws, but its limitations are fairly minor, never souring my experience.
One audience that might have some compatibility issues with the game are the players that dislike the Mortal Kombat fighting style. Other fight franchises like Tekken, Street Fighter, and Smash Bros. play so differently than this title that anyone well-adjusted to the others may have some difficulty changing their style. This might be a very specific group of people, but it’s worth noting nonetheless, since there are always crowds to which certain games can never appeal, regardless of their quality.
Injustice 2 is an excellent sequel. It’s enjoyable as an improvement on Gods Among Us, a standalone title, or even a viewing experience for hardcore DC fans, since it’s such a creative media representation of these legendary characters. The title is an absolute thrill for almost every audience, and it’s a phenomenal piece of entertainment for most next-gen console players everywhere. Despite the massive weight on its shoulders, the title pulled through for the fans and delivered an amazing game. When all’s said and done, Injustice 2 is as super as its heroes.
Entertainment Value Score: 23/25
Final Score: 89/100
Some screenshots kindly provided for NLGO use by Trevor Hunt (PSN user McNubb1ns).