The greatest comic book battles aren't between heroes and villains. You can catch Batman punching out the Joker's magically regenerating teeth any day, but the Caped Crusader versus Green Lantern, or Superman, or Raven "We Need More Women in the Game" Roth? That's something special, even if the excuses for those battles are completely ridiculous. That's Injustice: Gods Among Us — stupidly exceptional.
The reason heroes are doling out equal-opportunity ass-kickings in Injustice isn't as silly as, say, Batman not recognizing Superman with a new haircut or Hostess Fruit Pies. There is a dark impetus to the tarnishing of Superman's halo, but it's a darkness so deep and horrific that it slides right past chilling into clown shoes territory. See, the Joker tricks Superman into killing Lois Lane. He does this by making Superman see her as his once-killer, Doomsday. Supes beats the hell out of her and then flies her into space, where she dies, because one Doomsday-level punch from him wouldn't have mashed her into paste or anything.
Oh, and Lois was pregnant with his child.
That last bit is the tipping point. It's just short of having Lois in a school bus filled with orphans and puppies. It reminds me of the 2004 film based on Marvel's Punisher, where instead of Thomas Jane's wife and child being gunned down, mobsters visit the annual Castle family reunion and slaughter his entire extended family. I laughed and laughed. More tragedy isn't better tragedy.
Cut to several years later. Superman has taken over the world. Green Lantern has taken up the yellow ring of fear, fighting alongside Sinestro. Raven "No Really, Why am I Here?" Roth has succumbed to her father's evil influence and Cyborg uses his hacking skills for evil. All seems lost, until the heroes of the real DC Universe arrive in the alternate reality to have a fighting game.
The overarching plot, told through a series of character-focused chapters à la the most recent Mortal Kombat, would be an utterly painful experience if not for the smaller, more intimate interactions between both versions of the iconic characters. You want me to sit through Superman's textbook megalomaniacal dictator rant? Fine, as long as you've got Green Arrow and the Flash bantering about being men among gods, Green Lantern saying, "I'm gonna kick my ass," and the patented "none of your damn business alarm."
Besides, when it comes right down to it all of this exposition is just an excuse for titans to go toe-to-toe, and damn if Netherrealm Studios hasn't completely made up for the limp Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe from a couple years back. Those tussles were sissy slap-fights compared to earth-shaking struggles of Injustice.
These are Earth's mightiest heroes (take that, Marvel) and villains, and when they meet in battle the entire world trembles. The ground heaves, windows shatter, and vehicles explode. Filled with interactive objects, the environments in Injustice are equal parts weapon and arena, adding a weight to the stage select screen that's never really been there before. It's all about the spectacle — in fact, there's even a combat mechanic dedicated to furthering it.
The Clashing system, which allows opponents to wager a portion of their power bar for a chance at a health bump, is mainly good for a couple of choice character quotes and a massive shockwave that rocks the scenery. It's a neat idea, but I generally wager nothing at all, so I can pull off an implausible super move and steal whatever health my opponent might have gained. Still, completely worth it for the big boom.
The sound and fury is nearly enough to overshadow the combat system entirely, but this is Ed Boon and company at their most heroic. Mortal Kombat-style fighting hasn't felt this fluid and natural in... ever. There's never an awkward or stilted animation. You can feel the power behind every blow, and burning your super meter to make your special moves that much more special is a gratifying use of your skills.
It's the sort of fighting system that makes every player, whether seasoned veteran or shaky novice still working through the game's 240 S.T.A.R. Labs challenge missions, feel as if they're only a move or two away from victory. You fall, you dust yourself off and keep playing. There's always hope.
There's also always balance issues, which are hard to avoid when you're pitting Superman-level heroes against the likes of Catwoman. Even enhanced by Kryptonian nanotechnology pills (there's that silly plot again) there are bound to be discrepancies, and no amount of twisted, alternate-reality bullshit can explain why I get beaten by Aquaman every single time I face him online. Seriously, Arthur. Quit it.
After being disappointed by Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe, I wasn't expecting much from Injustice: Gods Among Us. I grew even more concerned as the release date arrived and I still hadn't received my review copy of the game — generally not a good sign. Now, having played through the entire story mode, tasted triumph in the surprisingly smooth online multiplayer and slowly working my way through the S.T.A.R. Labs challenges, I could almost be convinced the entire delay was for the purposes of building dramatic tension. That is, if my faith in Netherrealm's ability to construct a dramatic plot weren't on the same level as my faith in them creating a female character with realistic hair. Either way, this was a game worth waiting for.
In retrospect, perhaps the silly, slap-dashed plot is one of Injustice: Gods Among Us' greatest strengths. Without having to worry about creating a cohesive, sensible narrative, Netherrealm Studios was free to create one of the best comic-based fighting games ever made. If Lois Lane had to die to get it done, then so be it.