With the recent release of BioShock Infinite, alternate universes have become something of a hot topic. The idea that there might be a million million equally handsome and charming versions of me flitting about the multiverse is somehow existentially reassuring, but what if some of them are unaccountably bearded and evil?
The possibilities for hirsute debauchery and remixed biographies are endless, and these infinite variations have been exploited to great effect by the comic book industry. DC Comics, whose heroes and villains populate the new fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us, has often used the multiverse to great effect. One of my favorites of these is Red Son, a tale written by Mark Millar that has a certain Kryptonian baby crash-landing in the Ukraine instead of Kansas. Instead of “truth, justice, and the American way,” Soviet Superman fights for “Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.” (Apparently there’s a downloadable Red Son costume for the Superman in Injustice, but I have not yet donned the hammer and sickle tights.)
The Superman of Injustice: Gods Among Us is not really a communist super-proletarian or an American freedom fighter. He’s more of an all-powerful fascist overlord. The Joker somehow tricks the Man Of Steel into killing Lois Lane and their unborn child, and a nuclear weapon is detonated in the process, leveling Metropolis. Superman, unable to come to grips with what he has done, vows to bring order to the planet by any means necessary. In Superman’s utopia, there is no crime, because humanity lives in paralyzing fear. Questioning Superman’s order—or even littering, probably—is a sin met with excessive force.
Assault is definitely not allowed, but it’s pretty difficult to avoid in a fighting game. Injustice, developed by the same studio that did the successful 2011 reboot of Mortal Kombat, follows the same general structure—two-dimensional, one-on-one fights between pissed off titans. But the violence here is somewhat restrained, at least by the standards of Kombat. Joker might pummel Wonder Woman with a tire iron, but there are no disembowelings or decapitations. Instead, the combatants just beat each other senseless—doing plenty of collateral damage to the surrounding environment—until one or the other runs out of stamina.
But where, in this perfectly conflict-less world, does the conflict come in? After all, the heroes (and some of the villains) have flocked to Superman’s banner. Except one. Batman is nobody’s slave, and he becomes the de facto leader of an insurgency to depose the despotic Reichmaster Kent. He needs help, though, and he’s not going to get it from his own dimension. There is an alternate world where the Joker’s device didn’t go off, and Lois is alive. It’s from there that Batman pulls heroes in to help fight for freedom in his own world.
As the story progresses, you at times control most of the “good” guys and some of the “bad” guys. The line between who is who is often blurred. In Hitler-Superman world, Lex Luthor is a hero. The multiple dimensions thing has always felt contrived and lazy, but it’s difficult to otherwise create a plausible scenario where Superman might have to fight himself. For all its space-time complications, however, the game’s interface is surprisingly simple. Most of Injustice’s primary moves are some variation on the time-honored quarter-circle thumb slide that launches Ryu’s “hadouken” attack in Street Fighter, or the back-forward directional pad move that would facilitate Raiden’s “Superman” charge in Mortal Kombat.
Injustice does add a few wrinkles. Each level has its own environment that can be used as weapons. Punching holes in tankers gives opponents a bracing chemical shower. You can smash foes with statues or set them on fire with a jet engine. It’s all there to be discovered and destroyed.
The game makes a sporting attempt to explain how a normal human like Batman or the Joker could stand toe-to-toe with Superman or the musclebound murder monster Doomsday, but one of the more disappointing developments stems, in a way, from this human-superhuman divide. The tutorial puts you in control of Batman, and one of his techniques is a counter—if you time it right, you can redirect an opponent’s attack back on them. Countering like this is a crucial move in the Arkham Batman games, so it’s good to see something like it included here. Soon enough, though, you learn that most characters don’t have this ability. It’s more or less specific to Batman. While I understand why someone who can punch through buildings doesn’t need basic jiu-jitsu training, the lack of creative defensive options—especially after learning with Batman—is a missed opportunity.
One of Injustice’s more pleasant surprises is the emergence of Aquaman. Now, I have in these pages had a little fun at the expense of the Atlantean scion. But it turns out he’s one of the best characters in this game. First of all, his evil alter ego unabashedly sports a full-on chin strap. Malignant doppelgängers often display questionable facial hair, but the Brigham Young is a bold move on any plane of existence. Secondly, Aquaman’s super move is incredible. He summons the ocean, fills the room with water, skewers his opponent with a trident, and calls his good buddy Giant Shark to take a bite out of crime! And by crime I mean your opponent! I take back everything I said about this subaquatic hero, because in Atlantis, every week is Shark Week.
These super moves are pretty spectacular, in the best worst Michael Bay sense. I wish there were more of them. It’s indicative of the only real injustice here—that the story ends up feeling too small to contain such huge characters in such an immense conflict. This is a product of the format—the mano-a-mano style is inherently limiting. Near the end of the game, for instance, there’s a cutscene pitting the Amazon army against the hordes of Atlantis. It’s impressive, but it’s also frustrating in the sense that you can’t directly involve yourself beyond a few well-timed strikes on bizarro Aquaman’s grill.
The game’s secondary modes are something of a balm to the main story’s shortcomings. There are 240 unlockable “challenges” that insert novel conditions into normal fights. In one mission, Superman must do his best internet cat impression, powering up by frolicking in a sun beam. Another mission has him dodging kryptonite batarangs. It’s the perfect thing to play right after story mode, just when you might be bored with the usual fisticuffs and find yourself with the desire to overcome truly heroic odds.