NetherRealm has been on a roll since 2011's Mortal Kombat reboot, and with the release of Injustice 2, it's come one step closer to perfecting its particular brand of fighting game. Injustice 2 is dense, deep, and refined, but also accessible to newcomers thanks to relatively simple move lists and a variety of rewarding new gameplay opportunities. The addition of gear makes the biggest splash in this regard, allowing you to craft a personalized hero or villain, both inside (with stat boosts) and outside (with elaborate costume upgrades)--all while maintaining the game's balanced roster. There are some complications to gear management that may frustrate, but minor gripes aside, character growth and customization proves to be the biggest boon for an already strong fighting game set in a fractured DC Comics universe.
It may sound unusual for a fighting game, but Injustice 2's story is a prominent feature, told through a multi-hour campaign filled with NetherRealm's most impressive cutscenes to date. An ideological gulf divides the Justice League; Superman's desire to execute criminals is at odds with Batman's non-lethal approach to justice. This conflict is woven throughout the story, but the arrival of Brainiac temporarily unites the League against a common enemy. Though some interactions and events come off forced as you battle mind-controlled allies and true enemies alike, these narrative shortcuts are ultimately there to introduce you to the large and eccentric character roster.
The cast sees the return of familiar faces--the likes of The Flash and Green Lantern--but also introduces unlikely fan favorites such as the blood-barfing Red Lantern Atrocitus and the plant-based behemoth, Swamp Thing. The nearly 30 characters offer a broad range of super powers and fighting styles, and each has a distinct trait that can instantly trigger a status buff or summon an underling in the middle of a fight.
DC's famous faces have never looked better, but the real star of the show is the fighting system, which consists of a mix of hand-to-hand combat, super powers, weapons, and environmental hazards. How characters fit into these styles of combat differs, but as is the norm for NetherRealm's games, most attacks feel hefty and deliberate at first. Special moves and combos are easy enough to learn, but it takes time and practice to get combo timing under your skin--to move fluidly from one attack to the next.
Still, newcomers can easily impress each other with simple two-button Super moves that pause the action for an absurd and cinematic combo attack, or halt an incoming combo attack by activating Clash--a move that forces players to gamble segments of their Super meter in hopes of regaining health or inflicting damage. In the hands of a new player, clashing can provide an escape plan. In the hands of a pro, it opens up a mind game that can drastically alter the playing field.
With AI battles, online and local versus matches, the diverse and ever-changing Multiverse, and an impressive story mode, Injustice 2 offers numerous ways of engaging with its characters and testing your abilities without feeling repetitive.
Injustice 2 provides basic, practical tutorials for every mechanic and each character's notable attacks, though neither avenue goes in-depth enough to satisfy prolonged research. The most specific info you can find pertains to frame data for each attack, but this will only be helpful if you already understand the esoteric terms therein and how their measurements apply in action.
Ultimately there's no better teacher for a new player than experience. In this sense, Injustice 2 is packed with learning opportunities in the Multiverse, a mode that benefits from randomly generated battle modifiers and the temptation of gear-based rewards. Not all Multiverse challenges are enjoyable, like the modifier that causes the screen to black out every few seconds. But sometimes you get a satisfying leg-up over the competition, such as the ability to summon an off-screen assist character. Regardless of whether modifiers make the act of fighting more or less difficult, they nevertheless serve as a valuable opportunity to see your character's abilities under a different lens and study their potential.
Perhaps more importantly, depending on your love for loot, the Multiverse is your primary means of acquiring gear, item boxes, and experience points--though most modes will allow you to earn a little of each. Specific types of gear are often teased before you choose a mission, and a shiny new helmet for Dr. Fate or a sword for Wonder Woman (for example) can often prove to be tempting enough to walk into the game's more troublesome modifiers. Otherwise, random gear drops after individual battles, and blind loot boxes are rewarded based on a score derived from how efficiently and dominantly you fight.
With five gear slots, two extra ability slots, and custom shading unlocks for each fighter, there's a lot of character-specific gear to collect. By default, gear is distributed in the Multiverse with a slight bias towards the character you're playing. Regardless, you will ultimately earn items for other characters, practically to the point that you rarely get what you're looking for. Even when that unexpected epic-grade item drops for your favorite hero, you may still find that it's temporarily out of reach, as all gear is level locked--the current cap is level 20. It's not uncommon to earn items that are one to ten levels higher than your assigned character. That is, unless you have enough funds to get around this pesky rule.
Watching a character's traditional outfit transform into something fresh or unexpected, and seeing their stats grow through leveling up and equipping gear, grants a satisfying sense of ownership over your accomplishments and possessions.
Injustice 2's currency system has many layers but can be broken down into two use-cases: Spending relatively common credits, guild credits, and regen coins to earn random gear; and trading in source crystals (which can cost real-world money) to have total control over the items in your inventory. In the latter scenario, you are spending large amounts of a valuable resource to use or manipulate items that you already own. Though you can earn some source crystals by playing Injustice 2 over dozens of hours, they come few and far between to seemingly make spending real money seem like a necessary evil.
This misgiving aside, you can still get a lot of enjoyment out of collecting gear and outfitting characters without spending additional money. Watching a character's traditional outfit transform into something fresh or unexpected, and seeing their stats grow through leveling up and equipping gear, grants a satisfying sense of ownership over your accomplishments and possessions. Your character's appearance will carry over to every mode, from the Multiverse to online battles. Gear stat boosts, however, will only count in unranked online matches when both players agree to do so, and never in ranked matches. This allows Multiverse to serve as the anything-goes variety show without negatively impacting the balanced roster for the competitive community, all the while preserving the use of expressive custom costumes.
The introduction of automated AI battles is a nice touch for people who want a taste of online competition without the pressure to train and master a character, and an easy way to earn free item boxes every day. After creating a team of three fighters--who retain any and all stat boosts--you pit them against another player's online team and watch fights play out in front of you. Because these fights are simulated, they can be sped up to four times their normal speed. While you can pick fights manually, you can also rely on other players to fight your AI team while you're away from the game. You retain a win-loss record and are often treated to item boxes whenever you login--an occurrence that will fluctuate based on how often your team defeats incoming challenges while you're offline.
With AI battles, online and local versus matches, the diverse and ever-changing Multiverse, and an impressive story mode, Injustice 2 offers numerous ways of engaging with its characters and testing your abilities without feeling repetitive. This variety is further bolstered by gear. Despite the needlessly complex economy tied to item management, the value of customization and expression that comes with gear ultimately makes up for it. And with over 25 characters to explore, it's easy to look forward to watching your next character grow while your understanding of the game continues to expand. NetherRealm has delivered a fighting game that can be enjoyed by new players and pros alike in ways that go beyond pure competition. It's a bar that every fighting game should meet, but one that has up until now seemed out of reach.