This sequel is great at everything except teaching you how not to get beaten.
That permissiveness begins with Injustice 2’s single-player campaign, which just might set a new gold standard for such modes in fighting games. Granted, that’s a low bar to clear, and NetherRealm is mostly competing with itself. But the cinematic unfolding of alternate-universe comic-book antics in Injustice 2 is wildly fun in its own right.
In the Injustice-verse, Superman is a villain. The first Injustice ended with the last son of Krypton locked up and awaiting trial for murdering both criminals and “potential” wrongdoers without hearings of their own. Just as Batman and his “no-kill club” allies are returning things to normal, a Superman-level threat invades Earth in the form of Brainiac. The alien machine-man wants the Kryptonian for his own personal collection, and perhaps the only one that can stop the invasion is Superman himself. Punching ensues.
The previous Injustice saw this “alternate” universe calling in help from a more recognizable DC Comics world. With Injustice 2, NetherRealm is going all-in on its own Elseworld fiction. New battle lines and factions are drawn as familiar characters pop out of the woodwork to express how they feel about preemptive justice and, when it comes down to it, whether killing is ever justifiable.
Some of this is glossed over in the game, partially because an Injustice comic book has been filling in those gaps since the first Injustice game. At points, it feels like the developers simply needed to throw in at least a token story-mode appearance for some fighters to justify their inclusion in the roster of fighters. Characters like Doctor Fate, Swamp Thing, Atrocitus, and The Joker feel more like cameos than plotline movers and shakers. That makes the first hour of Injustice 2’s story feel a bit rushed.
Once Brainiac hits the scene, though, the campaign picks up hefty, if familiar, weight. Comic book readers have seen the “What if Superman was bad?” story at least a half-dozen times now, but it’s hard to think of any adaptation that presents it with this much cinematic flair and attention to detail.
As in previous NetherRealm games, cutscenes seamlessly transition into fights, and vice versa, with a twirl of the camera. Combatants trade faithful, often shockingly obscure quips around every fight, both in and out of the story mode (Swamp Thing-on-Swamp Thing mirror matches start with one of them claiming to be Alec Holland, which was very gratifying for me, personally). And even with the lightning pace, NetherRealm shows how to condense years of recent character development into its sideline continuity. Harley Quinn’s severance from her famously abusive ex-boyfriend, for instance, is concise but a standout moment for the character.
The fighting itself is just as impactful. The most basic jab in Injustice 2 sounds like a 100-pound punching bag hitting another, slightly larger punching bag. That’s to say nothing of the absolutely insane super-moves that drill opponents into the core of the Earth or send them flying past the Sun.
The concussive blows and exceptional nonsense make sense, given Injustice 2 comes from the makers of the hard-hitting (and much bloodier) Mortal Kombat series. Just like the game’s sister series, combos and special moves in Injustice 2 send opponents bouncing up, down, and all around the screen.
This inherent bounciness and the generous timing windows make juggling opponents through combos relatively easy even when playing on a standard gamepad. The same basic button combinations are used for different special moves between characters, too, meaning there aren’t a lot of complex strings to memorize.
This is a double-edged sword, however. Delivering endless strings of loud, thumping blows is tremendously satisfying and easy to pick up. But that means your opponent is going to get those combos on you, too. Doing the bouncing ends up being much more gratifying than getting bounced.
Even a few days after launch, most of my time playing online multiplayer has been spent not playing at all. Instead, I watch my poorly handled Swamp Thing hurtle sideways across the screen for long seconds that feel like minutes. I’m functionally helpless to do anything but watch the carnage until the virtual referee mercifully calls the match. Often, I lose after barely standing up for long enough to throw a punch.
Losing isn’t the problem: I expected my relative lack of fighting-game skill to cause me to lose to online players coming off of months or years of practice from the first game. But the amount of time spent airborne when I was really losing in Injustice 2 was infuriatingly passive.
A dense tutorial explains how to get out of such situations. Once per match, you can wager chunks of your super meter to start a “Clash” that can interrupt combos and potentially regain health, as well. Then there are quick as well as delayed wake-ups, roll escapes, and reversal attacks to get out of hairy situations, too.
As easy as Injustice 2’s offense is to learn, I wish these escape mechanisms had some more comprehensive training options. You can always “tag” combos and special moves so their command strings display on-screen during matches, for example. But there’s no easy way to even remind yourself what all your defensive options are mid-match. That’s fine for players who have already internalized concepts like “wake-up attacks,” but it puts the onus of learning on easily juggled (and/or frustrated) newcomers…
Thankfully, the Multiverse has some far less savage opponents than flesh-and-blood humans to play against. Similar to Mortal Kombat X’s “Living Towers,” the Multiverse is a hub for time-limited strings of player-vs-AI fights with unique modifiers. Maybe you’ll start every match with one-percent health. Maybe a buzzsaw periodically appears on the stage floor. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can periodically summon allies like Gorilla Grodd or Harley Quinn to do extra attacks on your behalf.
Not every modifier is “fun,” exactly (I seriously hate those buzzsaws… ). But you can usually leverage them into useful skills. Starting with almost no health, for instance, can teach you the importance of distancing yourself from opponents. Even the saws force you to think about jumping, both for offensive and defensive purposes.
The Multiverse provides an interesting “do or die” method of learning the ropes. But without concrete tactical examples outside of the tutorials, I still needed to bump back and forth between menus and modes more than I liked. On the upside, just like nearly everything else in Injustice 2, the Multiverse is a good source of loot.
Yeah, loot, as in armor and items that modify stats for every character. Loot is an odd, even slightly worrisome concept for a fighting game—which should, ostensibly at least, try to put players on even footing in the interest of fairness. Thankfully, Injustice 2 sidesteps the worst of that by simply turning stat bonuses off during ranked matches.
But the random drops always work in the Multiverse. That means, even if every player in the world up and decides to only play loot-less ranked matches, you’ll always have a place to play where your gear matters.
Of course, an extra 23 hit points doesn’t make you any better at setting up or escaping those seemingly endless series of combos. That just takes cold, hard practice. Injustice 2 has diffuse, but still approachable, methods of teaching. Flitting between tutorials to learn, the Multiverse to practice, multiplayer to prove yourself, and character customization to tweak the numbers just so isn’t the most convenient approach, no. But the game’s flashy fights and flashier story mode help ease you into the concepts enough that they will help you commit to this more easily than most other fighting games.
Just try not to rage-quit when you feel like you’ve spend 80 percent of your first few matches as a human basketball.
Verdict: Injustice 2 continues NetherRealm’s tradition of best-in-class story modes with solid, complex fighting to back it up. Learning the ropes could just be a little more convenient. Buy it.