I can only imagine what was on the list of dos and don’ts that Ed Boon and the team at NetherRealm got handed to them when work began on Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe before it launched in 2008. Understandably, Warner Brothers are particularly cautious when putting some of their star players, such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman out on loan to a beat-em-up crossover. Demanding that the gore factor be lowered and bone-breaking fatalities be kept to a minimum, the whole concept seem like one great big trust exercise that - nearly ten years later - we’re now finally seeing come full circle.
Picking up five years after the events of the first game, trust also plays a big part in Injustice 2. Set in one of DC Comics infinite universes, a suspicious and isolated Bruce Wayne has managed to restore peace on Earth after putting an end to the authoritarian regime of a grieving Superman. While former allies of Supes, such as The Flash and Green Arrow, work to restore the public’s confidence in costumed heroes, others, like Wonder Woman and Black Adam plot in secret to free Kal El from his red sun prison and re-establish themselves as Gods amongst men.
As if a civil war between the most powerful beings on Earth wasn’t enough to keep Batman occupied, the extraterrestrial braggart Brainiac rolls into town in search of the last son of Krypton. As he tears the planet apart with an army of robotic soldiers and a roster of worshipful super villains, a fractured Justice League is all that stands between him and global annihilation - so long as they can put aside their ideological differences and learn to trust each other first.
As predictable as the story is, it’s told with all the fantastical excessiveness and scenery-chewing bravado of a comic book event series. Committed vocal performances and some of the most spectacular facial animations ever seen in a game elevate what would normally be seen as throwaway backstory up to an engaging page-turner of a visual graphic novel with twists and turns at every corner. Sure, the inclusion of some characters - such as Green Lantern villain Atrocitus, grotesque eco-warrior Swamp Thing, and the omniscient Doctor Fate - is somewhat contrived in nature, but you roll with the punches just to see which way this Easter Egg-laden road will take you next.
Unfolding over twelve chapters, Injustice 2’s Story mode is a great introduction to the game’s impressive twenty-five character roster. Within each chapter, you’ll have to put a designated DC character through their paces and win three or four different matches in order to propel the plot forward. Not content in crafting just a stellar beat-em-up, NetherRealm in recent years have gone out of their way to make sure the stories that they tell act as more than just a simple backdrop and Injustice 2 is no exception. Each fight feels like it serves a purpose in the narrative, raising the stakes even higher as defeat means a lot more than just a simple black mark on your record of wins and losses.
Conversely, the Story mode doesn’t interfere with what Injustice 2 strives to be at heart - an impeccable, accessible beat-em-up. As far as the fighting mechanics are concerned, not much has changed since the first game, with the big new addition being that you can burn your special meter in exchange for super-powered attacks or tide-turning counter attacks. But this is more than just an finely tuned skin swap of Mortal Kombat X. Each member of the game’s impressively strong character roster brings their own unique set of abilities and fighting styles to the table. Brawlers such as Bane or Swamp Thing exchange speed for bone-breaking strikes, while Robin and Black Canary are much lighter on their feet, making it easier for them to rapidly chip away at their opponent's health thanks to some fast-paced combo action. While the Story mode gives you a taste of what these characters can do, learning the tricks up each one of their spandex sleeves is arguably just as alluring as finding out what happens next in the plot.
What makes Injustice 2 even more appealing, even to the greenest of beat-em-up novices, is that combos don’t require a photographic memory or lightning fast reflexes in order to be executed. A handful of button commands is all it takes to unleash moves such as Harley Quinn’s Pistol Fury or Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin and while the option is always there to delve deeper into a character’s move list, it doesn’t take a black belt in fighting games to pull them off. Even the cinematic devastating character special attacks, which return from the first game, simply require nothing more than a full special meter and a simultaneous pressing of the controller’s trigger buttons. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching your opponent helplessly succumb to match defining finisher moves such as The Flash’s time travelling punch-up or Batman’s jet-powered rampage.
Also returning from the first game is the Clash system, which allows players to make astonishing comebacks from even the most life-threatening situations. When prompted, players can interrupt their opponent’s attacks and trigger a quick cut-scene where the two combatants will hurl insults at one another before being asked to place a wager on the outcome of this close quarters tie-break. The results will depend on how much of your special meter you’re willing to forfeit, with a small health regen bonus or a few additional hit points being granted to whoever wins. A minor criticism of this system, particular when playing the single-player modes, is that the AI almost always triggers just when you’ve just used up the last of your special juice, meaning that your wager options are generally limited and coming back from these tête-à-têtes is near impossible.
Of course, when playing against human opponents, don’t expect any sympathy should such an occurrence put an end to your winning streak. Injustice 2 features plenty of online and offline multiplayer modes that show the game at its most ruthless. Online match-ups are relatively smooth, with dips in speed only ever happening during some of the more complex combo attacks, so forget about blaming your defeats on poor connections, frame rate dips or lag. And while the beat-em-up genre is one of the few bastions of offline multiplayer left standing, it’s worth venturing online just for the eight-player battle royale King of the Hill mode if you really want to test your limits.
However, there’s more to Injustice 2 than the usual selection of online and offline options. Taking inspiration from one of DC Comics’ most notorious tropes, the Multiverse mode is one of the most engaging additions to an already meaty game. Similar to the Living Towers of Mortal Kombat X, these dynamic challenge towers are updated hourly, daily, and even weekly, meaning that there are always new ways to test your might and keep the game feeling fresh. With a never-ending series of universes at their disposal, the Multiverse allows for new stories to be told, albeit without the cinematic flair of the main campaign, and giving you the perfect opportunity to take full advantage of the customisation options that the game has to offer.
Each alternative world has a handful of challenge towers to get through, all with their own modifiers and tasks that add an extra level of difficulty to proceedings. Some modifiers, such as the ability to summon Teen Titan Raven, work in your favour by adding some additional hit points to your combo streak. Others, such as lightning bolts or exploding penguins can be both a hindrance and a helping hand, adding an extra obstacle that both you and your opponent must overcome while pummelling each other. If that wasn’t enough to keep you on your toes, some matches contain additional parameters that, if completed, will grant you additional experience points that play a significant role in unlocking additional apparel, shaders and even finishing moves for your characters. Landing a prespecified number of heavy attacks, winning a match with a specific character or completing your objectives within an allocated time limit are just some of the ways in which this mode keeps things exciting and vibrant.
Whether you’re completing chapters of the story mode, venturing off into the Multiverse or just taking out your aggression against another player, just about everything you do in Injustice 2 merits reward. While these prize winnings may be known as Mother Boxes to the residents of the DC universe, we in the real world have come to know them by another name - loot crates. Unlocking loot crates will give you a number of character specific items to choose from that range in statistical variety and collectable value. You only get to pick one item at a time however, so deciding between focusing on your best fighters or snatching up the rarest items can be tricky. At least, it would be if loot boxes weren’t so prolific throughout the game.
While this reward system is a nice touch that keeps the game relevant and takes the beat-em-up genre into bold new territory, there are a number of drawbacks that stop it from being the defining element in Injustice 2. For starters, these items offer more than just cosmetic changes. They can boost the strength, heath, defensive and special attributes of your character. On paper, it’s a nice idea, but in practice it makes what is a relatively straightforward fighting game more complicated than it ought to be. And aside from stumbling upon a rare piece of loot that gives access to a new special attack, you’ll more often be looking for apparel that will change the appearance of your character ahead of what it may offer statistically.
Furthermore, some loot requires your character to have gained a certain amount of experience points before allowing you to equip it. That’s all well and good when you’ve spent a good few hours levelling up fan favourites such as Batman or Superman, but when you’ve earned a rare piece of armor for Gorilla Grodd that can only be used when he reaches level twenty, that’s when the whole system really becomes frustrating. During our time with the campaign, we unlocked a cool new outfit for Wonder Woman, only to be told she was too low a level to use it. The core gameplay may be unmatched in terms of balance, but the reward system needs to be brought into line if it intends to keep players coming back well into the future.
Minor inconveniences aside, Injustice 2 surpasses not only its predecessor but most fighting games on the market today. Boasting a vibrant roster of characters, plenty of replayability and some of the smoothest gameplay we’ve ever seen from the genre, it makes for a superb beat-em-up whether you’re a button basher or a combo king. To think, we would never have been treated to such a well-made fighter if not for the marriage of seemingly unrelated franchises all those years ago.