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Hands-on: ‘Injustice 2’

‘Injustice 2’ is the RPG-fighter Netherrealm Studios has been waiting to make

Injustice 2 is the game that Netherrealm Studios has wanted to make for almost a decade, since before it knew what Injustice was. With the sequel to its 2013 DC Comics fighter, the studio will attempt to combine the original’s distinctive combat with RPG-style stats and loot that will allow players to customize their fighters look and play style.

It’s a bold and frankly counter-intuitive experiment. Building a fighting game around a system that completely breaks the intricacies of its balance runs completely counter to the conventional wisdom around fighting games. At a time when investors are pouring millions into competitive gaming, it seems utterly insane to make something that could interfere with its capacity to develop a pro scene.

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According to producer Adam Urbano, making a fighter with an RPG progression is an idea that’s been kicking around the studio since before the fall of Mortal Kombat’s original publisher, Midway. The success of the original Injustice, which earned it the trust of Warner Bros. and DC Comics, emboldened the team to pitch its dream concept for the sequel.

Between fights, players can equip their fighters with six items — head, shoulders, chest, arms, legs, and a weapon — which alter their appearance and upgrade four stats: strength, agility, defense, and health. (You can also earn shaders, which set a unified color scheme even if you’re using equipment from different sets.)

In making those character statistics visible, Injustice 2 will bring a little more transparency and, for better or worse, a little more math into the experience. While the health meter doesn’t say “hit points,” every time a character gets hit, a number indicating how much damage it did appears as their health meter goes down. Though it may be difficult to notice when two generally even characters go at it, the numbers make it clear that higher level characters do more damage. As characters customize and prioritize certain specs, you can bet those numbers will play a role in helping players calibrate their fighters.

Some items will also have what the team calls an “X-Stat,” a modifier that changes how a move works, rather than altering its stats. One Batman of gauntlets, for example, changed Batman’s batarang special to throw a flurry of three, instead of one. The game will have thousands of collectible weapons and armor pieces for each character, allowing for “millions” of combinations.

That same boldness also the team to dig deeper into the DC Comic canon when selecting new characters for its roster, such as Flash villain Gorilla Grodd and the Red Lantern Atrocitus, who join classic characters Superman, Batman, Aquaman, and Supergirl. (Though they haven’t been officially shown, based on the trailer it’s safe to say the Flash and Wonder Woman will also be playable characters.) One of the studio’s challenges for the original Injustice, Urbano said, was rehabbing Aquaman’s image to make him a viable character.

Netherrealm is committed to its loot-based system, but doesn’t plan to eschew competitive play, either: Though the studio is keeping its exact plan secret, it is committed to finding a way to balance players’ gear for the competitive scene. According to Urbano, Netherrealm considered adding a tournament mode that would remove player spec, but reconsidered after consulting with pro players. “They said, ‘if you’re going to do this, do it right,’” Urbano recalled.

Stripping away all of the customization, much of the moment-to-moment gameplay of Injustice 2 feels very similar to the original. Many of the series distinctive traits, such as tiered stages with interactive elements and over-the-top super moves, are still in place. The game will still feature a story mode, which picks up where the first Injustice left off.

Of course, the game looks better too. Despite the fact that the game’s loot has heaped on a large number of extra assets for developers to conceive and design, each character and stage appears more detailed. In many ways, Injustice 2 is a pretty standard, but still a marked update for a new but established fighting series. That said, with a whole new layer of meta-game getting layered on top of it, maybe it makes sense for the studio leave some aspects of the game intact.

Injustice 2 will launch on PS4 and Xbox One in 2017.