It’s dark outside. I don’t know what time it is. I am Green Arrow, and I’m fighting Solomon Grundy who is trying to prevent me from staging a daring raid on the Batcave. I suddenly become aware that I am experiencing one of the most engrossing video game narratives in ages from a game I had all but written off a year ago. These are the sort of moments that keep me playing games.
I would never have bought Injustice. Oh it tempted me, with its siren song of a strong license, cool artwork and a plot that borrows heavily from my favourite Justice League episode. It was the game made just for me in so many ways, except it wasn’t. I don’t play fighting games. I try to be open minded, really I do, but fighters and I just don’t get along. We should, I suppose. Mine is the generation of Street Fighter II, passionate debates about Mortal Kombat’s green blood on Sega and the golden age of Arcade fighters. I’m terrible at all of them. The last fighter I bought was Super Street Fighter IV on the 3DS. It came bundled with the console and I was terrible at that too.
Now, before you start imagining me as some hideous five thumbed mutant with the dexterity of a tricycle, I’m fairly sure this is mostly about patience. Fighting games are about timing, memorising button sequences and going face to face against a skilled opponent. I can pick up a controller, blast against the CPU or a friend and have some fun, but I just don’t enjoy the games enough to really take time on any kind of mastery. I like my games, I like ’em a lot, but learning combos bores me to tears. I’m the guy who plays Spider-Man games by loading all my upgrade points into health and mashing the punch button. (Yes, that applies to pretty much every Spider-Man game since 2000.) There’s a place for intricacy in game design, but if it were up to me, button sequences isn’t where you’d find it.
This is a subjective thing, of course. I’m the guy who mashes buttons in Spider-Man but I’m also the guy who spends hours mastering the perfect swinging technique. I’m the guy who liked the sailing in Zelda. I’m the guy who keeps playing a park in Rollercoaster Tycoon after the level has been won. I’m the guy who plays Halo for the story. (C’mon, you knew we existed. Why else would they keep putting it in there.) Fighting games lose me because for all the attention to detail they put in character design and traits, the gameplay strips all that back to mechanics. Narrative is limited to opening and closing cutscenes, character motivation and behaviour is largely irrelevant, setting is little more than an excuse to include something better than a blank screen. They offer an experience that is about learning the game’s functions and exploiting them in the most efficient sequence. It is challenging, it is a great platform for competition, and I’m sure it’s a lot of fun, but it’s not an experience that I’m interested in.
Which is why Injustice has been such a surprise. Arriving as one of this month’s Playstation Plus games on PS4, I finally got a chance to try it out without risking £40 on a game I might only play for five minutes. Going in, I had some expectations. I knew I would see a wide roster of well designed DC characters, I knew I’d see familiar settings reproduced as detailed stages. I got all that, but there’s a lot more too. This is a fighter that is every bit as challenging and intricate at its core but it comes in a package that transcends its mechanics. It’s clear the developers have spent a lot of time making the game competitive to other modern fighters, but they also understand that the DC license gives them an opportunity to bring in a wider audience. Injustice’s story mode plays a big part in that.
Unlike other fighters, the core single player experience places a big emphasis on story in this game. After a quick tutorial, the game begins on an intricate story that plays out like one of DC’s own straight-to-DVD animated features. The plot involves a small group of heroes from the Justice League transported to a parallel dimension in which Superman has declared himself ruler of Earth. Joining up with Batman’s resistance, they fight to free this alternate earth from the Man of Steel’s iron grip. The story plays out through some exceptionally well voiced cutscenes, that feel deliberately paced to absorb you into the plot, not just carry you to the next battle. When a fight does break out, you take control and duke it out. It’s a compelling format that transformed the experience for me. I enjoyed watching the cutscenes as much as I enjoyed actually fighting, and it succeeded in removing that sense of detachment fighters usually create in me. It was everything I needed to keep me invested, keep me playing to the end, and I can safely say that I am now more adept at this game than any other fighter I have played. I actually beat someone online; that was a big moment for me! It took me right back to being nine years old and being the only kid who could use a special power in Mortal Kombat II. (It was Baraka’s knifey arm slash thing. Lame, I know.)
There’s more to this than just the story though, so much of Injustice seems to be tweaked towards drawing new players in. The S.T.A.R Labs missions, for example, are a sequence of smaller, objective based battles for each character that push you to learn a lot more about each of the fighters in order to accomplish specific tasks, while the Battle Mode includes options like Classic Battle which is a more traditional campaign through a sequence of more difficult opponents.
Injustice is still a fighter, of course. It will never be my favourite genre, and Injustice will never be my favourite game, but this is one of those very rare games that has real cross market appeal. It uses the DC license as an inspiration for its mechanics, but it respects that audience by making sure fans of the comics are all welcome regardless of their experience with the gameplay. Why do I love Injustice? Because it was a game I should have hated, but it went to such great lengths to make me feel included. At every step of the way, Injustice reminded me that this was a game for me too. And it didn’t do it by simplifying the gameplay or by changing the format, it did it by reinforcing strong core gameplay with a presentation that kept me wanting to play. I think I would play any fighter that offered me the same.