Over twenty years ago, in the grunge-soaked America of the early nineties, a fighting game changed the entertainment industry forever. It was called Mortal Kombat, and besides being insanely fun to play, it was also extraordinarily violent. As you’ve likely already heard, the title garnered a maelstrom of media controversy. Electronic Gaming Monthly declared it “The Most Controversial Game of 1993,” adding to a storm of scandalous press over the fighter’s blood-spurting special effects. This was a time before Mature-ratings, before the ESRB, and even before games were protected under the first amendment. This was a time when 2D fighting tournaments drew crowds at arcades, and when Mortal Kombat was actually worth spending your hard-earned quarters on.
Two decades later, the world is a very different place, but the fighting genre hasn’t changed a bit. NetherRealm Studios’ latest, Injustice: Gods Among Us, attempts to bring the competitive magic of the arcade home to consoles, while also lacing the established formula with the introduction of a DC Comics license. Unfortunately, the title’s incessant reliance on conventional genre tropes makes it difficult to justify the sixty-dollar price point. This is the same Mortal Kombat with a new coat of paint.
Injustice: Gods Among Us, when judged outside the scope of NetherRealm’s previous work, is escapist, sleek, repetitive, engaging, tongue-tied, competitive, low-brow, and mechanically deep. It’s the type of game that allows you to ram the batmobile into Aquaman, or smash a Gotham City subway car right through Lex Luthor’s mechanical combat suit. There’s something to be said for a game that exists almost solely as fan service, and NetherRealm’s newest surely fits the bill. If you’ve grown up amongst any of these heroes, it’s hard not to smile at the spectacle provided here. Character models are drop-dead gorgeous, environments are modeled off the comics, there’s some kind of topsy-turvy canon-irrelevant story mode, and the developers have included enough content (albeit exceptionally repetitive) to last you until they release a new Mortal Kombat reboot on PS4 or Xbox One. This all comes together to create an entertaining experience, but it’s not one that isn’t already available elsewhere. After all, the practically identical Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe shipped for the same consoles just a few years ago.
In a recent article published on the media-news-jumble-site Buzzfeed, a staff reporter lamented that fighting games are going extinct. It’s a bold statement, for sure, but not one without a wealth of relevant evidence behind it. Looking at Injustice in comparison to 1992’s Mortal Kombat, the resemblances are as jarring as they are irrefutable. It’s been two decades since the former reigned as king of the arcade, but the title’s underlying mechanics haven’t budged an inch. At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter that Injustice’s heroes and villains are rendered in high-gougingly high definition; nor does it matter that the stages are now slightly more interactive than before. You’re still a muscled champion facing off in hand-to-hand combat along a 2D plane. Even more grating, you’re still eroding the same health bars and mashing the same buttons. Even taking the game’s flawless visual treatment into full consideration, this is an identical experience. If you’ve purchased a 2D fighting game in the past twenty years, you already own Gods Among Us.
Speaking optimistically, we live in a pretty diverse world. There are plenty of gamers that are gratified to buy the same product year after year. From Madden to Call of Duty to Magic: The Gathering, there are limitless industry examples of successful retreads. Shooters tend to add new narratives, new multiplayers options, and most importantly, new servers. Sports titles, despite annual releases, often provide new gameplay mechanics alongside updated rosters and soundtracks. Fighting games, on the other hand, don’t seem to change at all. This might be fine for a niche market of comic collectors and genre zealots, but it crafts a pretty redundant experience for the rest of us.
To be perfectly clear, Injustice: Gods Among Us is a completely passable, acceptable, even polished game. It’s undoubtedly fun, and easily worth a rental. Yet, despite all that, it’s difficult to decipher what the title brings to the table that 2011’s Mortal Kombat reboot didn’t already. Awkwardly enough, the answer seems dangerously close to ‘nothing.’ There’s a half-hearted story mode, online multiplayer, unlockable concept art, and about two decades worth of new combat scenarios to try out. The issue, then, is that NetherRealm’s former title provided all of the same content, with just as many hours of gameplay. In 2013, you can snag it on Amazon for the unassuming price of fifteen dollars, and it even comes with all four of the DLC characters.
So what’s the main selling point for Injustice, anyway? We’re left with new characters, new settings, a new story, and… interactive object prompts. If you were hoping the game’s narrative would be its saving grace, you couldn’t be more wrong. The unbelievably convoluted plot contrives that Joker has duped Superman into killing his wife and unborn child, which then motivates him to institute a totalitarian world government run by superheroes.
In the vein of many contemporary game narratives, Injustice’s cast members are flat, perplexing, and one-dimensional. They seem to be capable of only two moral standpoints: good and evil, and they make sure to flip that switch regularly. If you were hoping the title’s writing and voice-acting could hold together this quivering plot foundation, you guessed it, wrong again. The story takes place in twin dimensions, essentially forcing players to exchange their suspension of disbelief for a mentality grounded in the faith that anything can and will happen. Even more discordant, character motivations are practically nonexistent, and the title features more one-liners than the entirety of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lifetime filmography. This isn’t camp for the sake of satire, this is just poor craftsmanship.
Ultimately, it’s up to players to decide whether or not a fighting game really needs a good story. More importantly, to decide if fighting games will die at the hands of stagnation. Joseph Bernstein, the man behind the Buzzfeed editorial, has proposed that consumers respond to innovation, and the numbers seem to back him up.
[quote]“There was not a single traditional fighting game among the top 100 best-selling video games of 2012 (although the wrestling game WWE ‘13 came in at #97); in 2011 and 2010 there were only two apiece (the highest ranking of which was a Mortal Kombat reboot at #55).” [/quote]
Injustice: Gods Among Us doesn’t try to innovate, it doesn’t even manage to improve on an existing formula. When you combine that knowledge with the fact that many of the game’s most entertaining battles are presented in the form of cutscenes, you might start to feel nostalgic for the glory days of downtown arcades. NetherRealm’s 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot did well to revitalize the franchise, but it begs the question of why the characters and stages of Injustice couldn’t have just come in the form of some new downloadable content packs. Instead, the company throws money at advertisers, GameStop stocks their shelves, and we’re told there’s an exciting new fighting game on the market. If we’re to believe that the genre really is slowly dying, then what’s Injustice: Gods Among Us but a violent, well-executed fatality?
- The game features gorgeous character models and detailed environments
- There’s a pretty sizable roster of heroes and villains
- You’ll have more content than you have time to finish
- Deathstroke refers to Wonder Woman as “Superman’s rebound girl”
- The title’s narrative aspects are laughable, and the writing is downright terrible
- Many of the most entertaining battles take place in cutscenes
- The single-player content gets repetitive pretty quickly
- The game does little to innovate or improve upon past iterations
Boston-based writer, artist, designer, critic, loser & storyteller. Focused on the intersection of games, culture, narrative, and art. KillerStrokes on XBL, Steam, PSN. @Wherbit on Twitter. http://willpowerarts.com/