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“Well is it better than Marvel vs Capcom?” my friend eventually asked. He had started off asking me, “So how is Injustice?” But until I’ve played enough to write a review, I never know how to answer so open a question. So I just stammered noncommittally. But with his more pointed question, I was suddenly floored. I’d certainly thought a lot about Marvel vs Capcom while learning and playing Injustice, and obviously the developers at NetherRealm have thought about it as well. But I hadn’t yet considered the simple matter of which is the better game.

I have a strange complex relationship with the Marvel vs Capcom series. Marvel vs Capcom 3 was both one of my favorite and most disappointing games of 2011, mostly because I liked it as much as I did and Capcom Capcommed it as much as they did. It taught me a lot about fighting games, including how to actually play them. After all these years, that was the game that truly introduced me to the genre.

But given the choice, would I rather play Injustice: Gods Among Us or Marvel vs Capcom 3? And why?

After the jump, who wins in a fight between The Avengers and Batman?

Discussing NetherRealm’s Injustice through the lens of Marvel vs Capcom isn’t entirely fair, because Injustice arguably has more in common with NetherRealm’s spirited Mortal Kombat reboot. It features the same basic gameplay concepts, the same style, the same pacing, and the same splashy accessibility. It features the same story mode, heavy with goofball cutscenes and occasional QTEs of minor consequence. It features lots of single-player challenges, easily enough unlocked, but unlocked all the same for that sense of “yay, I unlocked this!” satisfaction. It’s even got Mortal Kombat’s silly grit. If you punch Lex Luthor, does he not bleed? Or at least spurt a little splash of strawberry jam?

This earnestly grim tone is one of the most immediate differences from Marvel vs Capcom. NetherRealm opts for a darker palette, both in artwork and overall tone. They begin by nuking an entire city and killing millions. They follow up with a torture scene in which the good guys are doing the torture. Marvel vs Capcom 3, which is gloriously colorful and bright, would never do such a thing. It’s often festive and alive with miscellaneous activity. It features the clean clear lines of a traditional comic book instead of the dark Unreal plastic of a videogame about comic books. It’s a cheerful game, as befits the Silver Age or an Avengers movie. One of the levels is a parade for superheroes. But Injustice wallows in the gloom of its Mortal Kombat roots. Poor Superman and Wonder Woman, with their costumes appropriately desaturated, as if Batman passed out a memo about how superheroes should dress. “Welcome to Arkham fight club,” he wrote at the bottom of the memo.

But I’d much rather play Injustice than Mortal Kombat for the same basic reason that I’d much rather play Marvel vs Capcom than Street Fighter. For starters, I don’t pretend to have the fighting game chops to make any sort of informed comments about Street Fighter. The conventional wisdom is that it’s the technical fighting game of champions, but I find it an insufferable bore in which too many buttons make too little happen. And I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Chun Li or Ken beyond the fact that they frequently punch each other. I also feel this way about Mortal Kombat. And Soulcalibur. And Tekken. I don’t know those characters and I mostly don’t care about them.

But when a fighting game expresses characters like Thor, Spiderman, or Captain America, it actually means something to me. Ryu’s fireball and Captain America’s shield are functionally equivalent. Angry fighting game nerds can explain in the comments section the differences of speed and shot blocking and animation frames, as well as how Captain America’s shield hits a second time when it returns. To which I will respond, “Son, just don’t”. But to me, a dude in a karate robe casting a level three magic-user spell is just cognitive dissonance. I’ve seen Captain America’s vibranium shield in movies. Two of them. Similarly, I’ve already got a mental framework for Spiderman using his webs to traverse the screen, or The Hulk having more health than anyone else, or even Jill Valentine zipping around like a crack-addled spider. I guess my point here is that licensing works. Duh.

Of course, the other option is to create vividly imaginative new characters, but not every fighting game can be a BlazBlue or Skullgirls. So this familiarity, these concepts I already understand, these mental hooks for game design hats, are a big draw in Injustice, just as they were a big draw in Marvel vs Capcom. I want to discover and then use Harley Quinn’s Joker portrait, Bane’s poison, not-Hawkeye’s arrows, Green Lantern’s constructs, Aquaman turning slippery, Wonder Woman’s lasso, and Robin’s fighting sticks. They all make more sense to me than a chick in a blue kimono who happens to have the world’s most powerful thighs. And as with Marvel vs Capcom, this is the perfect foundation for me to learn characters I don’t know.

For instance, when I played locally with a bunch of friends as woefully casual as me — I will most likely never play Injustice online against random people — one of them chose Flash. Flash is a great pick for someone who just wants to button mash. He’s not complicated. He’s just fast. Every character in Injustice has a unique special ability tied to a power button (Dear BlazBlue, Thinking of you, Love, Tom). Flash’s unique special ability is basically a rechargeable boost that makes him faster. I know this because, unlike Marvel vs Capcom, these powers are clearly documented in the game. When I go into the move list, I can see exactly how Flash works, complete with descriptive text where necessary. This is one of my favorite things about Injustice, although heck if I can figure out how to set up Solomon Grundy’s grappling buffs. Someone explain that to me in the comments section please. Sorry about the “son, just don’t” crack earlier.

So how do you deal with someone just spazzing out with a fast character? Distance, of course. I don’t care how fast Flash is if he can’t get within striking distance. I have no idea who Deathstroke is in the context of the DC universe — I’m not the only person in my house to say, ‘Oh, like Deadpool’ — but I know that he’s carrying a couple of guns and therefore gets some ranged special moves. I check these moves. Down and towards, light attack. And down and towards, medium attack. Now it’s a trivial matter to beat my friend’s spazzy Flash. This isn’t because Injustice is somehow special as a fighting game. If you have ranged attacks and your opponents hasn’t figured out how to deal with ranged attacks, you’re going to win if you can maintain separation. But what’s unique about Injustice is how easily you can see what the characters do and precisely how to play them. I had to buy a $20 strategy guide for that in Marvel vs Capcom 3.

I can’t stress enough what a relief it is to only have a single character when I play Injustice. Marvel vs Capcom 3 has a whole other level of gameplay by giving you three characters, all of whom can affect the battle, whether they’re active or not. It’s a lot to learn in a game that has so little interest in helping you learn. But Injustice’s traditional one-on-one structure, coupled with its thorough ingame documentation, is a casual player’s dream. We want to play fighting games, too. It’s nice to see a developer recognize that.

Not to say Injustice is aimed solely at casual players. I see a lot of content here that will always be beyond me. The ingame documentation also includes move speeds expressed as frame data. Some of the harder challenges are ridiculously hard, which befits harder challenges. The badge shenanigans from Call of Duty are clearly for people who want to go online and “pwn” each other. Injustice is no Street Fighter, but not for lack of trying to appeal to Capcom’s fans.

NetherRealm also throws in some new features that I haven’t seen in other fighting games. For instance, a bidding system interrupts the fighting when one of the characters pulls off a well timed parry. An entirely cerebral gamble pops up, all in your face with its unique demands on each player’s risk/reward threshold. Interactive level gimmicks give the locations personality that isn’t just aesthetic. When Catwoman actually mounts one of Bruce Wayne’s motorcycles parked in front of Wayne Manor and rides it into Aquaman’s face, Wayne Manor suddenly has a lot more personality than anyplace I’ve fought in more serious fighting games, where the levels sit entirely in the background because it not very fair to let someone ride a motorcycle into someone else’s face if it’s not one of her special moves.

So is Injustice better than Marvel vs Capcom 3? Who can say? I’ll leave that sort of judgment to people more serious about fighting games. But I can say that Marvel vs Capcom 3 got me to the point where I can truly appreciate Injustice. And now that I’m at that point, I’d much rather play Injustice.

4 stars
Xbox 360