Friday, 23 June 2017

Injustice 2 - Review

Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

“Press X to purchase Darkseid”. It’s happening all over again. In my review of Mortal Kombat X I wrote how any appreciation of the game was always going to be overshadowed by the fact that it blatantly and shamelessly marketed its micro-transactions right there on the character screen. It seems nothing has been learned with Injustice 2.

It’s not the only fighting game to do this. Both Killer Instinct and Street Fighter V do something similar. Although at least in those cases there’s something to ameliorate the sense that you’re essentially being advertised to buy more of the game you’ve already paid for. For Killer Instinct it’s that the game is carved up in a free-to-play fashion, with people investing however much money they like, and in Street Fighter V’s case, there’s at least the notion that you can eventually unlock all of its extra characters and other DLC for free provided you invest enough time.

There’s no such luxury when it comes to Injustice 2, however. After avoiding the on-screen image of Darkseid, stuck smack dab in the centre of the character select screen just in case you might have missed him, you’re left with game where so many of its design decisions seeming to have been included, not just on whether they improve the core gameplay, but on whether they can be foisted upon the player base as more paid content.

Functionally, Injustice 2 is what you’d expect from a sequel. The original Injustice was a smartly designed and tightly constructed fighting game. It took its structure from NetherRealm’s revival of their classic Mortal Kombat formula, but with enough changes that it didn’t feel like a reskinned version of their flagship series, only with Batman and Superman shoehorned in.

Injustice 2 expands on the basic mechanics of the original games. Compared to other modern fighters, something that’s particularly noticeable with this game is its focus on meter management. Balancing resources is something that just about any fighting game has, but NetherRealm double down on this aspect when it comes to Injustice 2.

Meter can be spent on powered up moves, as you’d expect, but can also be used in just about any scenario, be it recovering from a mid-air juggle by the opponent, or extending one of your own combos to eke out as much damage as possible. The sheer range of uses that your resources have in Injustice 2 is one of its most interesting features. You don’t have the ability to spend it on everything in the heat of a match, so there’s the tactical strain of choosing what to save it for.

Likewise, clashes make their return unchanged. These cinematic head-to-head close-ups make for a decent catch-up mechanic, allowing players falling behind in a fight to regain some health, or an attacker to push there advantage. Again, it’s all governed by bidding meter, adding one more thing to save that special bar for.

Given that the game itself has changed relatively little, it’s the characters that make for the most interesting additions to the sequel. The returning cast members have received some minor changes, such as Batman, Superman and Aquaman, whilst being familiar enough to series verterans.

It’s the new characters that are potentially the most interesting however, because they highlight in many instances NetherRealms commitment to experiment with character playstyles. No where is this more apparent than with a character like Swamp Thing. It’s difficult to pin down where Swamp Thing sits as a character. He’s kind of a grappler, able to use three different attacks from his command grab, which, when coupled with his already hefty damage output, makes him an instant threat up close. Yet, he also has another command grab that’s available from almost all the way across the screen, making him far more of a threat that the typical “walking wall” kind of fighter.

Other new characters, likewise, experiment rather than being copy-pastes of previous character archtypes. Atrocitus and his cat Dex-Starr are the closest NetherRealms have come to making a genuine “puppet” style of character, similar to what’s more common in most anime fighters. Meanwhile, Dr Fate is an interesting take on a zoner; with his powers enabling him to heal when he’s on certain portions of the screen, forcing him to actively occupy different spaces during the fight, rather than idly sit there and just lob projectiles.

It’s hard to pick out any major dud in the new roster. Other characters have been craftily tweaked to cash-in on the recent movies. Joker has been given a significant emo overhaul to tie in with Jared Leto’s (horrible) Hot Topic take on the clown prince, whilst Harley Quinn has been remodelled to almost look exactly like Margot Robbie. Deathstroke meanwhile, has been dropped from the roster in favour of Deadshot, in order to maximise on the Suicide Squad cross-over appeal.

NetherRealms have kept up there commitment to offering a solid collection of single player offerings, too. Whilst the multiplayer options are threadbare, consisting of mainly ranked or unranked play with no current option for a rematch, the solo game modes are much better.

The story is as daft and weirdly enjoyable as it’s always been. Acting as a direct sequel to the previous game, it follows Batman and the evil version of Superman from an alternate universe. It’s a fun gimmick that’s self-consciously cheesy but worth the time it takes to see it through to the end. There’s even two different endings this time around as well, for those committed to completing everything the game has to offer.

It’s the Multiverse mode that gives the game more staying power, however. Rather than the typical challenge towers of Mortal Kombat, Injustice 2 has a series of generated challenges that change every day, or even several times a day. There’s a lot on offer here, with numerous themed fight lists that have players taking on different A.I. opponents of varying difficulty and under unique conditions such as reduced gravity. It’s nice to see a fighting game developer acknowledge that not everyone that plays fighting games necessarily wants to play online competitively, and in this instance it’s an embarrassment of riches when compared to Street Fighter V’s threadbare single player content.

It’s here where the quibbles start to rise, though. You see, rewards for the multiverse portion of the game see players receive reward “cubes” which unlock different costume pieces of varying rarity. As a collectathon concept, it would be a gimmick but little else, but NetherRealm tie it directly in to how your character performs, with better equipment influencing stats in every game mode except for ranked play.

Along with the aggressive “press X to purchase...” moments, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Equipment cubes explode with the tactile feel of a pack of Hearthstone cards (the rarities are even colour-coded the same), and it smacks of a developer trying to awkwardly cram in as many free-to-play gimmicks into a game that people have already bought.

There’s nothing precisely wrong with Injustice 2. It’s a solid fighting game, one that builds on the mechanics of the original whilst introducing enough new elements in its character roster to keep things interesting, and it’s a gorgeous game to boot.

As with Mortal Kombat X, the problems lie in the aspects that surround the game. The business decisions that lead to a game that’s already being sold at retail, to be bogged down with nickel and dime aspects which push players to purchase even more stuff, less than a month after its initial release are what ultimately hurt the game. It begs the question, was the equipment selection added to Injustice 2 added to the game because the developers thought it was a good idea, or because it was an easy aspect of the game to monetize?

Either way, it certainly didn’t need it.


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