Welcome to another round of GamerNode’s new ongoing column, Counterpoint.
coun·ter·point n \kaūn-tər-pōint\
1. The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.
2. A contrasting but parallel element, item, or theme.
If you missed our first edition wherein we debate the ending of Mass Effect 3, you can find it here. For this installment, the Node crew has gathered to discuss NetherRealm Studios’ upcoming fighting game, Injustice: Gods Among Us. From the studio primarily known for the Mortal Kombat franchise comes a new IP based solely around DC superheroes. Helping fuel our discussion is a piece written by IGN’s Greg Miller that is less than praising.
Can NetherRealm create a new fighting game after the middling reception of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe back in 2008? Will the lack of overt gore keep fans from lining up for their copies? And, the chief question behind all of this: what makes a good fighting game?
I’m going to say this up front: I’m not a fan of interactive environments in fighting games. They’re nerve-racking. Every time I see some air-conditioning vent, box or car slightly shimmer, hinting that it can be used to decimate opponents, I get anxious. I feel Chekhov breathing down my neck, demanding that if there’s a weapon on the stage, it had better be used. So I fumble around the objects — car, breakable ceiling, etc. — and try to activate the event. Most times I lose focus and get pummeled. I like to think I’m a decent fighting game player, but I’ve yet to master those damn stage specials. They’re more distracting than helpful. This is one of the reasons I find Mortal Kombat a troublesome fighting franchise, and will probably find the same with Injustice: Gods Among Us.
NetherRealm Studios fumbled a few years ago with its comic book/fighting game crossover, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. In an attempt to salvage some of that magic by giving DC a fighting game all its own, the studio announced Injustice: Gods Among Us at E3 this year. As a fighter with only DC characters, Injustice looks like a darker, more metallic version of MK vs DC. For me, that’s not a good thing. Mortal Kombat has always been a series about shock value. Unlike Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter, MK gravitates more toward showmanship and gore than depth. This isn’t a bad thing. However, for Injustice, which follows MK vs DC’s blood-free vow, it could cause problems. NetherRealms has already dropped the ball once with the DC characters, so a strong fanbase isn’t on their side.
In Jay’s E3 preview, he mentions how the crowd cheered for the game’s more cinematic splendors, like when Superman performed his super move and sent Flash hurling from outer space. I can get behind this type of gameplay, but only for so long. Without depth or growth, I lose interest in fighting games quickly. It’s the same for these super moves as well as the aforementioned interactive environments. They’re flashy and fun, yes, but like the gore or objectification of characters in its notorious chief series, NetherRealms is trying to sell on shock value. I’m not sure there’s much shock left.
I think the one piece that we can all agree on with Injustice is that multi-stage cinematic sequences have REAL potential to wear thin, quickly. If there’s no gameplay component to those moments, those moments that seemed cool at first will end up just like the droning monologue cutscenes in Max Payne 3. WE GET IT ALREADY, YOU DRINK AND SHOOT PEOPLE AND HAVE INTERNAL CONFLICT. Except, this time it will be WE GET IT ALREADY, BATMAN CAN PUNCH THE BOY WONDER THROUGH FIVE THOUSAND BUILDINGS INTO A LAKE OF FIRE. Games removing interactivity is silly. Dead Space, a 5-year-old game, knows this, so why doesn’t Injustice? The obvious counterpoint here might be, “Well, what about the X-Ray moves in Mortal Kombat?” Those affected health and play drastically rather than just changing the scenery. They were also quick enough so as not to feel intrusive. Truly, about three seconds longer and we would’ve been complaining about how boring x-rays were.
I’ve got MAD beef with whoever says that Injustice will be crap because it’s not brutal enough. WHEN DID THAT MAKE A GAME COMPELLING. Oh, no, you’re right, no fighting game can possibly thrive without some spine-ripping, bloodletting action. BEE ESS. Just because this comes from the developers of the Mortal Kombat franchise doesn’t mean we need that hyper-gory content to keep us involved. If that’s the only reason you stuck around with the latest Mortal Kombat, then yeah, you’re probably going to hate Injustice. You also, consequently, hate Street Fighter. And Smash Bros. So, to the point of enjoying a game’s mechanics and reward systems, we disagree and that won’t be reconciled.
Can we also talk about the “imbalance” of Superman smashing the Flash into Earth from space versus a Batman suplex? What an unbelievable double-standard. Kitana stabs Reptile in the back of the head and the eye sockets, which takes away as much health as Noob Saibot’s tummy kick. Some other Street Fighter example. When someone (i.e. Greg in his piece on IGN) makes this argument, I know that the cart is leading the horse, so to speak, in terms of his debate. He’s got a stance, and is using examples to support that bias, rather than using the examples to support whatever argument those facts support. Games are complex beasts, and are almost never categorically “good” or “bad.” It’s such a central concept underpinning any media criticism that it’s almost insulting to explain. Take the artifact (in this case, a game nobody outside the development studio has even PLAYED) and analyze what’s there, not what you want to be there, or vice versa.
There’s nothing wrong with Injustice: Gods Among Us. The gameplay looks great, the DC superheroes are a great choice of characters, and the interactive objects and changing environments, while certainly not a new concept, definitely add to the tension and strategy of a battle.
Here’s what I sense to be the core issue: it’s not familiar.
It’s not Street Fighter. It’s not Tekken. It’s not what fighting games have been since I was a wee lad in a South Jersey boardwalk arcade. This is a completely new fighting game, with characters not normally featured in fighting games (save two mediocre titles). Whenever this happens, red flags go up. We are quick to analyze that which is unfamiliar, picking apart each little tidbit until we find something to criticize. It’s the nature of journalism, the Internet, human existence, what have you.
Injustice is no different, except in one major area: the people behind the game are no fighting game rookies. NetherRealm and the people working there have been doing this for a long, long time. The 2011 Mortal Kombat is lauded as one of the best fighting games ever made. Hell, even with the release of two versions of my all-time favorite fighting franchise (Marvel vs Capcom), I chose MK as the best fighter of the year. Greg Galiffa talks about how Injustice will not have NetherRealm’s strong MK fanbase on their side, as the last foray with DC characters was unsuccessful. While yes, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe was not up to par, those expectations were borne more of the fans’ familiarity with Mortal Kombat than anything else. Fans wanted to see Sub-Zero rip Superman’s head off, or watch as Batman finally kills an opponent. They expected the gore from the Mortal Kombat title, and it didn’t deliver. Injustice removes that problem, focusing solely on the DC superheroes. The expectation of gore is no longer present, as Mortal Kombat and its characters are nowhere to be found. By doing this, the boys and girls at NetherRealm are giving themselves more leeway to experiment with less-gory fighting mechanics, hence the background objects and interactive environments.
There’s another more important discussion to be had here: what makes a fighting game GOOD? For me, there’s one core concept that needs to be focused on upon all else: balance. Not balance in the way of the Superman damage vs Batman damage example that Dan used, but more in a roster sense. Marvel vs Capcom 2, as fantastic as it was, only had 12 viable characters for competitive play out of a roster of 56. Marvel vs Capcom 3 is starting to venture that way as well (has anyone seen what Spencer can do? Dude’s an animal!). If Injustice is going to succeed, then it needs to bring a balanced, varied roster to the table. I need to know that I can win with whoever I choose against whoever the opponent chooses. The game can look dazzling, sport an incredible soundtrack, and control like a dream, but if some characters overshadow others and the competitive edge is removed by everyone using the same character, then Injustice will be just another fighting game lost in time. Like Time Killers. Or Eternal Champions. Killer Instinct?
I have to agree with Dan here on the “imbalance” issue. The super moves are meant to exemplify these heroes and villains through what they do best, but at the same time the developers can’t have overpowered characters. Seriously, it’s like people who complain about that sort of thing want to have their cake and eat it, too. If Flash’s round-the-world punch did more damage than Batman’s melee-o-rama, then more people would play as Flash and those same people who bitched that Flash should do more damage would start whining that Batman is useless. I’m fine with it the system the way it was shown. You get to see these dudes and dudettes kick ass as best they know how without it tipping the scales.
Also, saying the game isn’t brutal enough is BS on three fronts. The first, Dan summed up quite nicely. As for the second, it’s DC SUPER HEROES. That’s not the direction DC Comics has its characters take. To have Superman ripping Wonder Woman’s head off and Harley Quinn shoot off each of Solomon Grundy’s limbs would be out of character and flat-out stupid. It would cheapen the game and feel like total disrespect to the source material. Finally, Miller even says in his article that the developers are planning on the game being more brutal in terms of battle damage – some blood from serious blows. That not only shows they’re going to be more brutal than what we’ve seen, but in a way that doesn’t spit in the face of DC’s portrayal of violence.
Moving on to the subject of interactive environments, I say why not? Some people like yourself, Greg, and even myself at times, may go straight for them, but is that not our own fault? These areas aren’t designed to be major ways of winning matches, but extra elements to be taken advantage of in a pinch. It adds a bit of flavor and extra spice into an otherwise standard fighter in terms of mechanics. We also don’t know how easy or difficult they’ll be to pull off because no one has been able to get hands-on time with it yet. One of the editors in Miller’s piece was quoted as saying that after playing through a stage that you’ll know what places to avoid in a map, but from what I saw there won’t be many places to hide. Each section of a level seemed to have two or three interactive objects, which were spread out fairly thoughtfully. There’s no way players will be able to avoid all of them at all times, which is great because it will make them think about where they can and can’t afford to be cornered and will create another layer of strategy.
I will agree with Miller (and thus Dan again) on one thing: Those transitional stages are going to get old fast. They’re fun as hell to see the first time around, but I can see myself just sitting there bored to death for the thirty seconds it takes for Batman to clunk his head and knees against railings, walls, and all other kinds of objects as the battle moves from one section to another. But then again, maybe that’s the only way these extra stages can be included in the matches. Perhaps sacrificing some time watching a repetitive animation will be good in exchange for diversity in environments.