Arguments over which superhero could beat another are as old as comic books and have given rise to movies like Batman vs. Superman and Captain America: Civil War. It’s nothing new in video games, either, with the Marvel vs. Capcom series reaching back to the 1990s. But NetherRealm Studios, creators of the ultra-popular and ultra-gory Mortal Kombat games, may have set a new standard, not just in superhero combat but fighting games in general, with their return to the DC Universe.
Injustice 2 pits players as characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, Deadshot, and Scarecrow in one-on-one combat to see who can punch, kick, and batarang the other into submission. Like the first game, the fighting takes place on a 2-D field with 3-D graphics, using combos of special moves and light, medium, and heavy attacks. It’s the story, presentation, and variety of gameplay modes, though, that set Injustice 2 apart.
In the first game, Superman transformed the Justice League into a world-ruling regime in the name of eradicating crime, which ended with the Man of Stalin imprisoned thanks to Batman and the assistance of a still-heroic parallel Superman. Now, just as Batman is rebuilding the free world, Brainiac has come to Earth, as has Supergirl, eager to free her cousin from prison. Will the heroes of Earth manage to put aside their differences to save the world, or will old wounds tear them apart?
Stellar voice acting helps, with Kevin Conroy, George Newbern, and more returning from classic DC cartoon shows like Justice League Unlimited, plus Alan Tudyk back from the first game as a lovably snarky Green Arrow, and excellent newcomers like the ingeniously cast Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger himself!) as the Scarecrow. This is to say nothing of the graphics, especially the startlingly realistic facial animations, bringing beloved heroes and villains to life right up to the edge of the uncanny.
With a roster of 28 available fighters, the sterling presentation makes them all the more enjoyable to play. More famous Justice Leaguers are joined by lesser-knowns like Black Canary and newer characters like the rage-filled Red Lantern Atrocious, each with unique moves that are a blast to try out thanks to precise gameplay.
Also new to the series is the “gear system,” in which players accrue costume and armor pieces, adjusting stats and getting a leg up in battle. You can also alter the look of your favorite hero or villain, something new to the fighting genre. Thankfully, gear can be turned off to ensure fair, skill-based fights in PvP. However, you largely acquire gear from randomized loot boxes, though they’re easily earned and bought in-game rather than sold via real cash.
The “multiverse” is yet another new feature: refreshing sets of single-player challenges to test your skills and gain new gear in fights with different modifiers, from being able to summon help from other characters to the lights randomly turning off and on. Of course, the heart of the game is still the combat, so you can freely ignore all that and just challenge players online or plug in a second controller and ruin your relationship because your girlfriend keeps whooping your ass by goddamn cheating and totally not because she’s better than you.
It’s just a shame then that all this great gameplay and graphics go to representing such a dour version of the DCU. With Superman, Wonder Woman, and other beloved heroes here ruthless despots, it can sour playing as your favorite character. The story mode also fails to live up to the heights of the previous game or to its own potential, and the whole thing comes across as pretty dispiriting. But a dour disposition for a handful of characters and annoyingly random gear drops don’t ruin the tight controls, flashy and fun gameplay, and sheer joy of showing others that, no, Batman can’t beat Superman. Just be prepared for them to show that Harley Quinn can beat Supes.
Injustice 2, Voices by Kevin Conroy, George Newbern, Laura Bailey, and Jeffrey Combs. PS4, Xbox One. Rated T.