Comic book characters have so far struggled to score a smash hit on a mobile platform, with few titles proving worthy of the Marvel and DC Comics’ names. But Injustice: Gods Among Us for iOS hopes to change all that with a huge cast of iconic characters, a savvy trading card game mechanic, and an enticing price of free. While Injustice still feels like a cheapened version of the console game it’s based off of, Warner Brothers has at least produced an addictive and fun title that will appeal to its younger fan base.
The game is billed as a collectable card game first and a fighting game second, and Injustice definitely feels more like Pokémon than Mortal Kombat. The fighting gameplay is a no-frills combination of one-touch mashing and gesture-based special moves—the real way to succeed in the game is to collect cards that unlock additional characters or moves. The ten-year-old card collector in your family might love this mechanic, but the seasoned fighting gamer will find the actual three-versus-three combat laborious, predictable, and as thin as Aquaman’s appeal.
The plot has something to do with parallel dimensions: Superman has turned fascist and rules the world with the help of “meta humans” like Green Lantern and the Flash. There are also “Insurgent” heroes from the regular DC universe that try to save this world, but none of this is explained in text or in the core campaign. Really, it’s a fighting game, so the plot doesn’t matter: you see someone; you try to beat them up.
Cards can be collected in a number of ways; you earn certain cards by beating bosses and progressing through the game’s hours and hours of combat. But such cards are sporadic and rarely given, so the preferred way to unlock cards is to use the in-game currency to purchase them in the store. Buying special moves or upgrades are fairly cheap, but new character cards (especially the desirable ones) are exceptionally expensive. Unlocking Superman or Batman, for example, costs north of 90,000 coins or dozens of hours of gameplay. Or, you can roll the dice and purchase a booster pack, which will have a randomized assortment of tiered character and upgrade cards.
Injustice incorporates a freemium-pricing model: it’s an initially free install with the ability to purchase in-game currency and energy using real money. Thankfully, unlike Real Racing 3, you won’t have to put the game down to rest very often, as you’ll likely have plenty of characters to rotate onto your team. In fact, I kept accruing energy cards throughout the game and found I could play for hours on end without interruption. (I’d like to pause and thank Warner Brothers for getting the balance right.)
In terms of gameplay progression, you start with a selection of characters that you can level up through combat, and you can utilize in-game currency or upgrade cards to augment their power moves. Despite a pretty hefty roster of DC luminaries, the characters perform largely the same: everyone has a fast attack, a slow attack, and three power moves that do significant damage. Certain moves are easier to execute than others and have nice nods to the console game; For example, Catwoman’s claws cause bleeding damage, and Green Arrow’s electric arrow knocks out the opponent’s power meter. Still, the mobile version seems to get a disproportionate number of white men in masks, while more unique characters like Raven and Killer Frost are nowhere to be seen.
Each three-by-three battle lasts just over a minute, and it’s easy to switch out characters if one gets injured and needs to recharge. The campaign doesn’t have much to offer you other than many, many of these experiences, with timely mini-bosses that are just more powerful versions of the same guys you’ve already been fighting.
Injustice utilizes the Unreal Engine and looks pretty exceptional on my iPhone 4. The characters are all recognizable, the moves all have sufficient wow-factors to them, and the environments are varied from the comic source material, yet still familiar. The first time I used Green Arrow’s volley of arrows to take down Sinestro, for example, I knew I’d be spending the majority of my time pumping coins into that upgrade to make it even more powerful.
But to borrow a Green Arrow pun, Injustice: Gods Among Us misses the mark because many of the best aspects of the console game—the bizarre plot, the deep roster, and the strong core fighting mechanics—are largely neutered in the iOS version. True, the trappings and trim are all outstanding; from the graphics to the in-app store to the way you earn new characters and powers. But all of the best costumery in the world can’t hide what’s behind Injustice’s cape: a shallow, exceptionally repetitive fighting game.
For such a shallow game, Warner Brothers provides just enough unlockable moves, characters, and upgrades to keep players coming back for more. This isn’t the flag-waving, triumphant debut of DC Comics on the iOS platform, but it’s way more fun than it ought to be.