There are a number of things you can do in Injustice 2 that would probably never happen in any straight-laced movie or TV show about DC Comics characters, and it has nothing to do with superheroes punching each other. You can make Superman wear an orange costume. You can make Blue Beetle green. You can give Deadshot a solid-gold mask that looks like a football helmet. You can make Batman look like he’s cosplaying as a robot from an ’80s anime, color the whole thing like Boba Fett, and then send him off to trade quips with Atrocitus, a Green Lantern villain who could probably count the number of interactions he’s had with Batman in the comics on one claw.

These ridiculous twists on traditional aesthetics are all because of Injustice 2’s brilliant loot system, but the reason it’s brilliant isn’t because it lets you make superheroes look crazy. It’s brilliant because it’s a nod to the wackiness of DC’s multiverse on a scale that fans probably haven’t seen before outside of something like the universe-hopping opening of Crisis On Infinite Earths. As comic book fans know, alternate universes always come with weird variations on the typical superhero designs to show the reader that the universe is somehow different from the one they’re used to, like giving Superman a blue cape or whatever. Injustice 2 explicitly takes place in an alternate universe—specifically one where Superman became a fascist dictator—and so the game cleverly makes the creation of wacky multiversal costume variants into a core component.

(Image: Injustice 2, NetherRealm Studios)

Basically, completing fights—either online or off—gets you space bucks that you can use to buy boxes filled with loot. Cheaper boxes will give you cheaper gear and better boxes will give you better gear, with the better gear typically looking crazier and adding additional buffs or abilities to your characters. (There are also rare shaders that let you change the color of an outfit, but that’s more about trying to dazzle your opponent with your fabulous style than anything else.) Every piece of gear has stats, so outside of specific modes that nullify any bonuses, that means you’ll want to have good loot before trying to take on harder fights. If you’re playing as a stock Harley Quinn, you don’t want to run into someone online whose Harley Quinn has a cool hat, because that means she probably has higher health or does more damage than you—not to mention the fact that she’ll look cooler than you, which is a victory all on its own.

The best way to get a jump start on unlocking good loot is by playing through the story mode, which—like the first Injustice—is much better than you’d expect out of a fighting game. Injustice 2 takes place a short time after the original, which saw Batman forming a team of resistance fighters to take down the fascist Superman, with the Man Of Steel and his compatriots (including Wonder Woman, Batman’s son Damian, and Cyborg) now either in prison or on the run. Everything gets shaken up when Supergirl arrives, as she’s closely followed by longtime DC villain Brainiac, a super-intelligent robot/alien who had a hand in the destruction of Krypton. Naturally, Batman ends up having to team up with Superman to stop Brainiac, and a big roster of DC heroes form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to keep the invader from destroying the Earth. The writing is solid (especially some of the pre-fight quips), but it’s also worth noting that the facial animation is so detailed and expressive that it’s legitimately unsettling at first.

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This is all without even touching on the actual combat, which is as easy to grasp as any of NetherRealm Studios’ Mortal Kombat games, but with some clever wrinkles thrown in that feel particularly appropriate for a superhero game. There’s the returning “clash system,” which lets you wager some of your super-move meter against your opponent’s and involves a quick scene where the two characters trade one-liners with each other just as superheroes would in the middle of a battle. There are also “meter burn” moves that you let you use up a chunk of that same meter to make a regular special move turn into a fancier special—like turning a regular arrow into Green Arrow’s iconic boxing-glove arrow. High-level players will want to learn all of the combos and combo-breakers and recovery moves, but even newcomers who only want to mash buttons and unlock increasingly cool hats for their heroes will do just fine.

(Image: Injustice 2, NetherRealm Studios)

By the way, that loot system, as great as it is, does have some flaws. The biggest one is that it’s all completely random, meaning it’s practically impossible to seek out specific gear for your favorite character—unless it’s one of the few characters you’re forced to play as in the campaign, all of whom get special bonuses. You might spend hours playing as Blue Beetle, but when you go to open the loot boxes you’ve earned, you might get nothing but new tridents for Aquaman and tattered rags for Scarecrow. That’s a good segue to the loot system’s other flaw: Some of the characters really don’t lend themselves to the sort of minor variations that most of the gear offers. Swamp Thing, Cheetah, and Atrocitus are particularly ill-suited, since a set of legs covered in moss or red rocks isn’t necessarily going to look a whole lot different than a set of legs covered in twigs or slightly spikier red rocks.

That’s the thing about the multiverse, though. Some realities are super cool, with heroes that look like they’re from a future where everything is made by Apple, while other realities are just kind of boring and weird. Injustice 2 gives you both kinds of realities and everything in between, but even if you hop online and face an opponent who is so awesome that it makes you realize that your reality is the one that’s boring and weird, at least you’ll have a good time punching and/or getting punched by them. Plus, you might unlock your own cool piece of gear after the fight, and that’s all that matters in the end, anyway.

Injustice 2
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on:
Xbox One
Price: $60
Rating: T

Purchase Injustice 2 here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

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