In addition to creator signings, show exclusives, and assorted swag, fans crowded into DC Comics' booth at New York Comic Con for a chance to play the latest build of "Injustice: Gods Among Us," the dark Justice League fighting game coming in March to Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and WiiU. NeatherRealm Studios producer Hector Sanchez challenged Comic Book Resources to a few rounds, demonstrating the game's features and highlights and explaining why it's useful to receive fan feedback at the early stages of development.
As we played, the crowd in the booth watched us, cheering as Sanchez demonstrated some characters' signature moves and egging us on with taunting. First, we each had to select our heroes for the demo; though Green Lantern and Joker were recently announced as playable characters, they were not available in the NYCC build. Among characters available at this stage are Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Nightwing, Harley Quinn, Flash, Catwoman, Cyborg and Solomon Grundy.
"We're about halfway through our character reveals right now -- as you can see, there are still a lot to be announced, there's still hope for those people [wondering] 'why didn't you put this person, why didn't you put this person [in the game]," Sanchez said with a laugh.
"You can see the character design, it's very influenced by the traditional character designs, but they have kind of a NetherRealm feel. We made 'Mortal Kombat,' we have kind of very dark aesthetic," Sanchez said. "You can see Superman has armor, Flash has armor where traditionally it would be spandex. It's a different kind of take on the characters. DC has been very receptive to everything that we've done so far and that we've suggested to them."
For our first fight, Sanchez chose Green Arrow while I played as Nightwing. Sanchez picked the arena, explaining that the venue for the fight can be just as crucial as the fighters themselves. "A new arena that we have announced for Comic-Con is Insurgency," he said, choosing this map. "We're going to have a bunch of arenas, and the arena choice is going to be just as much a part of the matchup as the characters because what we're really pushing in this game are background interactions. It's not just going to be Green Arrow vs. Nightwing, it's going to be Green Arrow vs. Nightwing in this environment. I'll be able to jump off the lights or throw computer monitors at you, and interact with the environment in different ways, as well. The environment is going to be smashed up during the fight."
After some cinematic introduction sequences, the first round begins. Pressing buttons to find my footing with the control, Nightwing gives GA a rather petulant slap with his bo staff. Then another. Sanchez explained the button map, then mentioned that background interactions will be indicated with a button prompt -- he then pressed R1 to bomb the lighting and bring it down on Nightwing's head. Invited to try it myself, I struggled to reach the lighting, and Sanchez says Nightwing "has two fighting styles," one with the bo staff and one with shorter clubs -- splitting the staff allows him to move faster and jump higher, so I made the shift and knocked down the lights. Another background interaction makes use of a generator; "I can charge up and launch myself as a projectile," Sanchez said, demonstrating the effect.
"Another thing we have are background transitions," he continued, at which point Ollie punched Dick Grayson through a wall and into another part of the arena.
Green Arrow's special ability, unsurprisingly, is shooting arrows. "The cool thing about him is, I can change the type of arrows I'm shooting," Sanchez said. "I hit down-back, and it changes into an ice arrow, so if I hit you with it you freeze. If I hit down-forward, it turns into an electrical arrow and stuns you for a little bit.
"Every character's abilities are super-influenced by the comics -- we have a bunch of comics guys at the studio making sure there's nothing stupid or out of place."
Around this time, Nightwing's power meter filled up, and Sanchez prompted me to hit L2 and R2. In a cinematic scene, Nightwing hit GA with a car. "People have really enjoyed it, we've got a lot of positive feedback," Sanchez said of the limit-break sequences, explaining that the scenes are a dramatic departure for his team. "It was a big step for our studio to get away from 'Mortal Kombat' as the big thing we've done over the years. To take a step away from that and do something completely different is really cool."
Sanchez said the game's departures from the "Mortal Kombat" have raised new challenges for the studio, but it has also been rewarding to work with a licensor that respects NetherRealm's vision. "With 'Mortal Kombat,' we don't have anybody to answer to because it's our own creation. Obviously, with 'Injustice,' these are iconic characters, so we have an approval process with DC where we submit design ideas that we have -- 'Here's how we want to portray the Batcave' -- and our interpretation of the Batcave is different from what was in issue number whatever," Sanchez said. "But the thing that's been really, really cool is [that] they have liked everything we've done. They've given us that creative freedom to take advantage of our art style and inject it into these. They want us to make it pretty badass, and they don't want to hamper us in any way. They give us notes every now and then, but nothing that's taken us away from what we want to do."
Our second fight had my Flash squaring off against Sanchez's Batman. Super speed can be a tricky power to build into a game (due to the player's presumably human reaction time), but "Injustice" finds a fairly elegant solution: when the Flash activates his ability, the other character slows down. Nevertheless, Sanchez managed to get a Bat-rope around my hero, tossing him all about the Batcave arena. "This little kid is mad that I'm beating up the Flash," Sanchez laughed, referring to a young fan behind us.
The initial impression after playing through two rounds is that the game is very easy to pick up and play, but it rewards experimentation with special moves and background elements. It's also a good deal of fun for fans of the characters. The cinematic sequences are ridiculously over the top, and thus have rightly been used in NetherRealm's promos to get fans fired up about “Injustice.” It's just big, powerful, stuff. But the finer details are neat, too; if Green Arrow shoots you with an arrow, the arrow stays in your character's body for some time.
I asked Sanchez about the power balance among the several playable characters, wondering how the team approaches what might otherwise be lopsided matchups. "We're balancing it with the same strategy that we've been balancing games through the years. Basically, we don't look at it like 'Superman is impervious to everything, he's going to be the most dominant character.' We want to balance everybody in terms of their abilities and their powers," he said. "Superman has these really big melee attacks, but they take a little longer, they're a little bit slower. That's how somewhat like Catwoman, who has a lot of faster attacks, could get in there and make it more of an even matchup. While Superman is rearing up to do this big punch, she can get in and hit maybe five or six times and do the same amount of damage. As far as the lore of figuring that out, we explain how these characters can kind of exist in our story -- but we haven't talked about our story yet."
The build of the game seen at NYCC reflects changes made based on fan feedback, Sanchez said. "Members of the team are very active in social media. People that have played it have talked back, said we like this, we don't like this, and we listened and addressed some of these. It's a work in progress. With social media, you get real-time feedback, so that's really cool. And coming to events, where we actually see people playing it -- we play it differently because we've been playing it for so long. When you see people who haven't played the game yet, they play it differently and sometimes things happen where you're like, 'Oh wow, I haven't seen that.' We would never think to do it because we know the rules that have been put into the game. It's invaluable to come out to shows and see what people like and address the things that could be better."
Asked how fans' play differs from that of developers, Sanchez said the primary difference was that new players, having discovered certain things are possible, want to keep trying them out for different effects, or to bash an opponent into submission; for people who have worked on the game, play is a bit more elegant. "For us, we're very combo-centric, we don't really spam the background elements. But once we show people what they can do with the backgrounds, they'll sit there hitting it over and over again. And sometimes the timing might not be right, you'll be in a helpless state and someone can take advantage of that. It's not something we would do, we just hit it once and get out of there. But if you get trapped in the corner, just getting hit over and over -- we don't want to put that guy at too much of a disadvantage." Seeing this, Sanchez said, helps the developers discover flaws and imbalances that people who "know the rules" wouldn't have noticed otherwise.
The Playstation 3 version of "Injustice" was on display at NYCC, but the game will also hit the Xbox 360 and the forthcoming WiiU system from Nintendo. The WiiU, like the Wii before it, employs motion controls to a greater degree than the PS3 or Xbox, despite both of these systems' aftermarket peripherals. As such, CBR asked Sanchez how the WiiU version of "Injustice" would differ from that of the other systems. "We're definitely going to have some kind of addition to take advantage of the new features," he said, but these are not ready to announce just yet.
"We've got a few months left of development, so we're definitely still messing around, adding new features and things of that sort."
"Injustice" lands on the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and WiiU consoles in March.