When I covered Injustice 2 at E3 last year, I didn't expect it to be as MMO-ish as it ended up. No, there's no physical persistent world and multiplayer doesn't seem to get any bigger than three (semi) active players in the same match, but it does have leveling, lockboxes, guilds, and active multiplayer boss battles. It may not be an MMO, but it certainly feels like a fighting game where an MMO player can really shine, even among killer-combo kings of the ring.
Oddly enough, the first thing I want to mention is the game's mobile tie-in game. No, I'm not doing some promotion, but from personal experience it's a quick way to get a very simple feel for the game. While it's a battery drainer, it actually uses the same cut scenes as the console versions of the game. It's just on a smaller screen, giving you a way to experience the story in a way that's more interactive than YouTube but less expensive than the full game. Really, the story alone is worth watching if you're not interested in playing the games. Be warned that the whole story isn't available on mobile yet, but the app brings up two points to keep in mind about the console version:
The idea of leveling and gaining gear in a fighting game. Certain fighters already do this, but I know some outlets had reviewers that disliked the random loot boxes. Maybe it's because I've cut my teeth on so many MMOs, but not only do I like loot/lockboxes (as long as I can easily earn and unlock them in game without feeling like I'm paying to win), but love randomly generated loot, and Injustice 2 does it well. The actual fighting in the app is quite different, but it gives you a decent enough idea of how things work.
Automated fighting. When you don't have time to play, the game can play for you. The mobile game handles this in the traditional sense, asking you to fill a slot and wait X minutes, but the console versions have you making custom AI fighters. The latter is much faster at completing missions while being more involved to setup, but wrapping your head around the idea that you can "play" when you can't really play is something I only really have experience with the last generation of Smash Bros games, mostly through the amiibo toys. Just give the game vague instructions, like focus more on zoning than grappling, then start the match and type up your article so your editor and guild mates will both be happy.
The mobile version has nearly identical graphics and the same roster. One is not a substitute for the other, and while I hesitate to recommend the mobile version for long term gameplay, I can't lie that I did have to pry myself away since I know I can get hooked on the decent mobile games wrapped up in my favorite IPs. However, the mobile app also gives you an exclusive Grid skin for Cyborg in the console game, and playing the console game gives you bonuses in the mobile version, so if you're a big DC fan and have a lot of time, it may be worth your while. The deal's more beneficial to the mobile player since the console player only gets a one time reward, but as we're focusing on Injustice 2's guild aspect, I won't go into further details about the potential advantage mobile players gain from the deal. This is partially why I just used the mobile version as a kind of demo before playing the full Playstation 4 version of the game.
As you might have guessed, Injustice 2 is like most NetherRealm games. It's a (largely) 1v1 2D fighter, heavy on combos, over the top violence, and fast-finger gameplay. Like the previous Injustice game, it's unique in that cinematic "finishers" are actually just hard-hitting special attacks, more akin to *Smash Bros-*esque Smash Ball attacks than Mortal Kombat Fatalities. When a player "dies," however, it's not the end of the round but simply reveals a second health bar, with only a slight pause as the winner taunts the last round's loser. You also have stage transitions and environmental interactions, so people are flying through walls, down shafts, getting slammed by cars, and jumping off of hanging alligators until someone throws the poor thing. Combined with top notch voice acting and writing, Injustice 2 is one of the most cinematic fighting games you can watch in my opinion, and NetherRealms combines all of DC's work-- the comics, shows, movies, and even the Injustice 1 game and tie-in comics-- together to create a universe I wish the DC films could reproduce.
When you take this online as a player though, it's just another fighting game for the most part, but with a slick look. If you're terrible at fighting games like I am, you'll get your butt kicked, horribly. Finding people in unranked matches doesn't take too long, and most people accept fights (ranked or unranked) no matter what the perceived outcome may be, or at least, in my bracket group. I somehow was matched against someone who supposedly only had a 20% chance of winning, and they didn't back down from the challenge, which was good since they won.
While the game does have levels and gear, by default, it's off during ranked matches and just there for looks. That isn't to say the gameplay is bad, but it's firmly in the fighting game category, so don't go into this thinking everyone else is learning; MK vets know how their combos and juggling work, and they will dissect you like an ivy-league med-school student forced to teach middle school biology. For those who want some kind of potential advantage as an MMO player used to grinding gear, the unranked games allow you to use the fruits of your lockbox labor, but you have the option to change that (among other things) if both players agree to the rule set. Both players are set to the same level by default as well, making even the "fun" matches a little easier on newer players who don't have all the cool toys veteran players do.
One additional feature is the King of the Hill match, where people come into a lobby try to defeat the current "king." The loser is out, winner stays in, trying to rack up the longest win-streak possible. It's not terribly creative, but this is mostly the standard fighting game aspect of the game. Guilds are where things start to get more interesting.
Unlockables and GuildsFor me, the big draw of the game is guilds. I'm not really a fighting game person beyond some classic 90s titles, *Smash Bros*, and more recently *ARMs*. *Pokken* was *a lot* of fun, but, like most fighting games besides *Smash*, the learning curve made it too difficult to get new players to jump in and have fun, and accessibility is something I really look for in a game these days. If it wasn't for *Injustice 2's* gear system, I probably wouldn't have been interested in doing much more than watching the cinematics and reading the comics based on the game, which is exactly how I interacted with *Injustice 1*.
But loot alone didn't lure me into Injustice 2. It was the idea of guilds in a fighting game, a traditionally 1v1 genre. Guilds largely act as a team point system, with achievements like online wins and even solo mode progression adding the guild's score. The guild system is fairly similar to World of Warcraft's Guild Levels introduced in Cataclysm, having a lot of passive work that's easy to gain with a bloated roster of randoms. The first few guilds I joined were of this nature, almost causing me to think that the system was an ultimate failure. However, I eventually found some meat hidden behind the bones.
The most viscerally engaging guild addition to the genre is Injustice 2's boss battles. They're fights where multiple players team up to take down a single AI controlled fighter. It's still 1v1 on the screen, but two other players can assist their guildmate by controlling healing items, power-ups, and projectiles on a cooldown. For example, as the first player to join the room, I got access to a straight lighting bolt, healing container, and random buffs, but other players got meteors that rained down in a diagonal angle, instant heals, and "ice gauntlet" buffs, among others. Simply spamming your cooldown abilities is, like with many games, unwise. A lot of my guildmates didn't seem to realize the projectile wasn't just there for them to help with damage, but to help save a guild member caught in combo hell. Health tossed out in the middle of the ring is useless if your guildmate is trapped in a corner. I managed to find a guild where a few people are more organized, and it's almost in the top 100 guilds, but this only served to highlight how the genre caters more to the solo crowd.
The problem with this becomes obvious as you spend more time with the guild system. Guild quests in the "multiverse" require coordination. For example, you may need to complete a quest 20 times as a guild, but there may be a two-hour cooldown on completing it, which may take 30 minutes or more depending on how good you are at the game. While the AI minions you customize may help you grind gear in solo multiverse missions, you can't use your AI friends to grind guild missions (or against online players). The guild rewards also aren't as good as most of the solo ones, especially at the first tier. There are three tiers per week, with each tier giving better rewards.
Most solo players, however, will likely focus on single-player multiverse events, as they can give guaranteed rares, epics, or even high-level loot boxes, but tier 1 guild multiverse quests just give standard loot boxes or currency. While the rewards for completing guild quests apply to all guild members--active and inactive-- many people seem to be fine playing by themselves and hoping someone else will do the guild quests for everyone else. Climbing through quest tiers actually gives even solo players loot buffs, but it's not explicitly advertised, so people just go about solo play and feel that's enough to warrant them getting free stuff.
Perhaps it's because I've spent a lot of time managing guilds, but I feel this is a problem MMO guilds face as well, but MMO guilds tend to have access to the best gear and everyone knows it. Injustice 2 guilds may as well, but it's sort of hidden. If players could see the rewards for tier 2, 3 and the bonus guild multiverse rewards, they might be more motivated to help. As it is, I've had guild leaders who kick inactive members but have trouble just giving members a time to log in and do guild activities together. The PlayStation Network is equipped with a messaging system out of game, calendar system, and voice chat, which is a lot more than most old school MMOs had, but perhaps due to the genre, getting a group together of just three players (enough to do a boss battle) can feel impossible. Team boss fights are only accessible to guilds, but for some reason, that alone doesn't seem to be motivation enough for many players.
This, perhaps, is where the MMO player may be useful, especially those with experience creating groups by hand, not looking-for-group systems. While a large bloated roster through social media may help unlock the first handful of guild achievements and the lockboxes they reward, a small group of just 3-5 players feels like they can get a lot done. Larger groups working together do activate guild buffs, but I've yet to see them work in the guilds I joined. However, with just a few of us working together, my current guild shot up hundreds of ranks within the span of a few days. If your MMO crew is feeling a bit burned out, Injustice 2 may offer a good way to meet new people, try a different genre, and maybe make an impression on them.