It's clear that comic book video games have entered a golden age. With the acclaim from both critics and fans for Telltale Games' "The Walking Dead" in 2012 and Rocksteady Studios' "Batman: Arkham City" in 2011, it's clear that 2013's slate of comic book games has to up the ante, and the game with the best pre-release impression is undoubtedly WB Games and NetherRealm Studios' "Injustice: Gods Among Us." The DC Comics fighting game was announced late 2012, and while it may seem like a typical brawler, this game has a lot more going for it to appease comics fans specifically.
Considering NetherRealm co-founder and "Mortal Kombat" co-creator Ed Boon was heavily involved with 2008's "Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe," comparisons between the two games is inevitable. "Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe" was a decent fighter with a lot of hope from fans that it would become the next "Marvel Vs. Capcom." While the gameplay was solid, the greater narrative is undoubtedly where it suffered most -- which is why it's slightly surprising that "Injustice's" biggest draw for comic fans might actually be the story. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (who also worked on the story for "MK Vs. DCU") are onboard as story consultants, and if the available material for "Injustice" is any indication, NetherRealm, DC and WB Games are taking a decidedly different approach for the April-releasing fighter's story.
In many ways, "Injustice" capitalizes on the success of re-imaginings of the DC characters for games, much like Rocksteady's "Arkham City" took a darker look at the Batman franchise. "Injustice" is DC's most dystopic look at its universe yet, with Tom Taylor's digital-first prequel comic punctuating that difference in a big way. In the first issue of the "Injustice" prequel, a pregnant Lois Lane is murdered at the hands of the Joker -- and that's just the first issue.
No matter who came up with the idea for the prequel comic, it's the most genius and innovative way to tie-in a game to comics so far this year.
Granted, it's still early in 2013, but a vast amount of what drives comics forward in the modern era is a well-crafted story that leaves the reader wanting more. "The Walking Dead" explored this area by using an episodic release structure, leaving off each of its five episodes on a major cliffhanger that effectively made the game play the way a comic reads. While the "Injustice" prequel doesn't necessarily go to that level, the principle is similar -- pique comic fans' interest in the game's storyline by creating a self-contained universe with beloved characters. Palmiotti and Gray, unrestricted by a whole separate continuity to which they must adhere, have crafted a background for "Injustice" unmatched in modern comic video games -- especially considering that fighting games don't require a deep narrative in order to be compelling for gamers.
No, this time around, the developers at NetherRealm are heavily courting the core DC fans, those who have a very vested interest in a story-driven narrative and seeing some awesomely obscure characters. (Solomon Grundy, anybody?) Every environment it shows off, every character revealed shows a fine attention to detail and a real passion for bringing the most destructive look yet at the DC Universe. If "Batman: Arkham City" was a darker twist on "Batman: The Animated Series," "Injustice" is "Justice League Unlimited's" worst nightmare and is shaping up to be one of the darkest Elseworlds tales ever told.
It's clear DC Comics has learned from its previous digital endeavor tied in with "Batman: Arkham City" to present a comic that's much more tightly tied to the game's story. Unlike "Arkham City," the world of "Injustice" has huge differences from the DCU proper -- enough that a prequel comic is one of the best ideas DC could have had for its digital-first program. Although time will tell how much of the prequel is covered in the game, it's constructed and paced well enough that comics fans should start to get pumped about "Injustice."
Game developers, take note -- studios like NetherRealm, like Telltale, like Rocksteady continue to bring out what's great in comic books to their video game counterparts. A strong narrative that starts in comics and crosses over to the core game should be standard for comic book video games in an alternate universe. Expanding world-building to the pages of an actual comic doesn't have to be a gimmick, it can be a legitimate way to expand the borders of a story beyond what's contained in the core product.
Ultimately, that's why "Injustice: Gods Among Us" will resonate with comic fans in a far greater capacity than "Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe." All the material that's been put out prior to the game's release seems tailor-made with the comic fan in mind. In addition to the digital-first prequel, NetherRealm has teased the game's story in the recent Aquaman character trailer where Superman has placed the entire world under martial law. The game also brings on an all-star voice cast from DC animated history. Every piece of promotional material so far has been perfectly tailored for the comic fan. The only thing that remains is to actually play the game.
"Injustice: Gods Among Us" hits stores in April for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii U.