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Injustice: Gods Among Us was one of the more surprising reveals at E3 2012, and the large banners dominating the pavilions of the Los Angeles Convention Centre certainly drew attention with the dark images of instantly-recognisable DC superheroes. But to be honest I was underwhelmed with the idea of yet another fighting game. Don't get me wrong, I loved Street Fighter 2, have spent plenty of time with Mortal Kombat on the arcade and had a major love affair with Tekken on the PS2, but I'm hardly a fighting game aficionado.
However, in an EBX presentation, developer Ed Boon detailed the innovation behind Injustice, and what sets it aside from the many other fighting games out there. This is clearly a take-home message for the entire marketing campaign, and there is a flavour of protesting too much. But despite my cynicism, I was convinced.
To begin with, Injustice reshapes the DC Universe into a new IP. So this is not just a crossover between Batman, Superman, The Flash and so on; it s a wholesale reimagining of the characters in a new context and with a new narrative drive. Although details so far are sketchy, we can surmise that all the world's superheroes have turned evil somehow, and simultaneously become each others enemies, a bit like an anti-Justice League. We are promised a Mortal Kombat-style story mode of 8-10 hours (with suggestions of a comic series and so on), which fleshes out this narrative and fills some gaps, like why Superman doesn't just vaporise his enemies with one flick of his impeccably-manicured index finger.
Clearly one of the points of interest here is the licensing aspect of the game. Boon suggested that DC was actually quite liberal with the developers, allowing them substantial autonomy in how they represented the characters. Some things were completely off-limits, like Superman's "S" chest, and Batman's avoidance of guns. Nonetheless, it sounds like the team has been able to exercise substantial creativity in how they represent the characters and weave them into the new world they are creating for them. Characters and abilities seem to have been developed explicitly along class-based lines, so that some prefer brute force (looking at you Superman), others favour gadgets (Batman, Harley Quinn), and others use speed and agility to get around their opponents (Flash, Nightwing).
Injustice also seeks to innovate within the genre through the fighting gameplay. Boon placed great stock in the Arena battles, which are not only based in the DC universe but aim to provide real diversity and interest in the fighting itself. It is much more than dynamic and cinematic damage on the environment, which is certainly plentiful and creates an atmosphere of epic battle. To start with, each arena has up to three separate zones, and a special move from one fighter will knock the enemy out of the current zone into the next one, to allow for new variations and strategic possibilities in combat. Sometimes there are standard hazards that can be used strategically, such as electrical wires hanging overhead.
However, the possibilities play out in various ways: Objects make for different possibilities based on character classes. For example, Nightwing, an agile character, might bounce off a nearby hovercraft whereas Superman prefers a more direct approach, grabbing the vehicle and bringing it down on his opponent's head. One arena had cases which, when broken, released grenades that are not available to characters normally. The variations made possible in the Arena design mean that players will need to adjust their strategy based on both the arena chosen as well as the character selected by the opponent, so that spamming an OP special move will not always prevail.
A hands-on with the game allowed us to experience up to eight characters in the current build. The controls felt just like a Mortal Kombat fighter, and the combos will certainly take some getting used to, but a bit of random button-mashing didn't go astray on this occasion. This meant that the moves were not always expected, but the effect was still impressive: The environment responded, the opponent crumpled, health bars diminished. It is quite clear that with ample opportunity to learn special moves through a well-designed story mode, a heightened sense of control will endow the player with a real sense of power. All as it should be. There is a chance that all this "innovation" will be underwhelimg to some (one questioner - ahem, heckler - in the audience implied that we were seeing nothing new here), but it is in the combination of elements with fine animations, outstanding art direction and solid backstory that the game seeks to impress.
There is certainly an aim to have broad appeal: The DC Universe is presented with enough detail to (hopefully) satisfy serious fans, but also interest newcomers. Similarly, the fighting mechanics are designed to appeal to hardcore players where relevant (with dynamic adaptations to combos) but this is something that should not alienate casual players, or newcomers to the genre. Of course thereis the danger of appealing to everyone and stisfying none, but ther is a lot of effort being put in to getting the balance right.
According to Ed Boon, Injustice: Gods Among Us aims to present the essence of a superhero fighting game, with hyper-real action, dynamic environmental effects and a sophisticated narrative superstructure. Having seen the presentation and had some hands-on time, my mind is changed and I'm quite interested in seeing Injustice edge closer to our consoles.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.