None of the video games from 2017 that I’ve played have been bad, per se. A few of them, however, sure have been disappointing. Chiefest among them was DC superhero fighting game Injustice 2, whose should’ve-been-great character customization “gear system” instead ended up dragging the game down.
I quite like both of Netherrealm Studios’ Mortal Kombat games, but they could not compare to how hard I fell in love with the Justice League-themed Injustice: Gods Among Us. Its numerous tweaks to the MK fighting system made matches ridiculously enjoyable and distinctly comic book-y in the best of ways, and the story mode was remarkable. The prospect of a sequel to all of that, along with a steady drip feed of announcements and trailers, made Injustice 2 one of my most anticipated games of this year.
And in many ways, it delivered the goods! The fighting system was as beefy and juggle-tastic as before, with small but smart new features (e.g. dodge rolls) elevating things a bit farther. The character roster was both extensive and killer. The story mode was even better than the first game. The presentation layer wrapped around everything (yo, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, pay close attention)—all of the Batcave futurism! one-on-one pre-fight cutscenes! the Flash being a shithead in the character select screen!—was euphorically on point.
However, its main new idea to the table, on top of all of that, was the gear system. Upon first hearing about it, it made so goddamn excited about the prospects of Next Generation Of Fighting Games-type shit. Character customization in fighters up to that point mostly amounted to alternate costumes and different color schemes. But with this gear system, where you could mix and match individual costume parts of characters at will? Man oh man, you could conceivably sculpt a wholly personal superhero getup at a more granular level.
Injustice 2, to its credit, was a solid start towards such a promise. Each of the twenty-plus heroes and villains in the game have five costume pieces—a head piece, torso piece, arm piece, leg piece, and a unique character accessory such as Superman’s emblem or Captain Cold’s cold gun—that players could individually customize, along with a selection of “shaders,” i.e. color schemes. Configure all of those elements, and together they’d make a costume!
This comics multiverse was arguably the perfect property for implementing a fighting game side activity that’s basically about playing dress-up. Superhero characters lend themselves naturally to action figures, and thus the Injustice games are in essence toy sandbox beatdowns come to life; this degree of appearance customization ties the fighters even more closely to toys. Additionally, given DC’s decades-long heritage of costumes and stylings across various media and alternate universes to draw from, the possibilities for how the characters may look were tantalizing.
Given all of that promise, it was painful to see how badly the nuts and bolts of the gear system were implemented in Injustice 2. A feature that could have been its biggest selling point instead ended up dragging down my enjoyment of the whole game.
From a high-level view, the gear system worked against Injustice 2 by taking what should have been a simple, straightforward concept—detailed costume customization—and making it needlessly tedious and complicated. Even worse, the most likely motivation for the tedium and complications had to have been sheer greed: Greed that manifested itself in the most year of our Lord 2017 of ways at that.
Digging in deeper, that all came about from a series of bad decisions that, when all working combined as a team, bled all of the fun and excitement of playing dress-up dry. Let’s go over the most consequential decisions in brief!
First up, there’s the pieces of gear not merely being cosmetic, but also having an effect on a character’s stats to RPG-level extremes, complete with rarity levels and the occasional passive bonus. Sure, one can ignore the stats maximizing game in favor of looking good, but this state of affairs still introduces a problem which immediately gets in the way of one’s dress-up goals: You can have multiple pieces of gear that look exactly the same but have different stats. And what does that mean? Endless cosmetic redundancy, which therefore brings on nightmarish inventory management!
Playing a numbers optimization game in an RPG has its charms, even with pieces of equipment that look exactly the same, that much is indeed true. It’s part of what makes other games with RPG elements like Borderlands 2 and Breath of the Wild so damn engaging. But when I am playing my fighting game, where the main thing I am looking to do is fight, seeing a screen like this where I am like ten button presses and two loading screens away from fighting fills me with nothing other than a sense of dread.
But wait, there’s more! You know how multiplayer-focused games, including the recent crop of modern-day fighting games in particular, have a player profile XP leveling system to encourage frequent play? Well, as of the time of this writing, Injustice 2 gives you not one, but thirty-seven XP bars to keep track of. The first bar is your usual player profile level, but there’s also XP bars for every single one of the thirty-six currently playable fighters, each of which have a maximum level cap of 20.
Getting a character to level 20 requires hours upon hours of playing as only that single character. Want to get everyone to the highest possible level? Multiply that single-character time commitment by thirty-six. The mere sound of that ought to be viscerally exhausting at this point.
Yet it is also completely necessary, because going back the previous point about the gear pieces, every piece of gear not only has stats, but also a level requirement. If a character’s level is below the gear piece’s level requirement, you cannot equip that gear. Therefore, in order to guarantee that you can equip EVERYTHING the game throws at you, your characters have to be at level 20.
Hell, the game itself practically underscores the necessity through its story mode. At the end of each chapter, several pieces of the rarest gear, classified as “epic gear,” are unlocked...and each and every one of them have a level 20 requirement. Which does, in fact, mean that you seriously cannot even use that rightfully-owned equipment until all of the characters in question are raised to their maximum level. That is some real prime bullshit.
However, if you do end up getting one character up to level 20, there is a way to massively cut down on maximizing the levels of other characters! Just pay 10,000 units of a type of in-game currency called Source Crystals, and a character of your choice can be immediately brought up to level 20. Sure, it’s awarded to you very rarely during gameplay, with the most surefire way to get them being paying real money to acquire them via microtransactions...
Yeah, add multiple in-game currencies to all of the chaos. The Source Crystals are the yellow rightmost shield-looking currency. From left to right, there are also Credits (the most frequently earnable via regular gameplay), guild credits, and Regen Tokens (handed out very infrequently, similar to Source Crystals, and most readily available as microtransactions). Because a fighting game simply is not a fighting game without an economy management component involving real money, obviously.
But hey! At least you’ll be able to use those currencies to buy gear pieces that you desire at will! Right?
Well, credit where credit’s due, that IS true for character shaders, if you’re willing to fork over some of those precious Source Crystals.
But otherwise, for the rest of those gear pieces?
You cannot just buy them directly.
Instead, you acquire them in one of a few ways. First, you will sometimes be randomly awarded gear at the end of fights, whether versus the AI or against other players.
Then there’s the other way. The most distinctly 2017 way at that.
Loot (oh sorry, Mother) Boxes.
Which does, in fact, mean that the primary use for your Credits is to pay for the chance to randomly unlock gear that has the potential to be cool. As opposed to, you know, buying the gear that you actually want. On a partial side note, it especially pisses me off that if there are multiple
mother loot boxes to open, they cannot be opened all at once. They have to be opened one by one, by one, by one.
I found them tolerable back when Overwatch popularized the concept last year, considering how they were not implemented as shittily as they could have been. But a year of perspective—and seeing how much worse other games are executing the concept—has soured that attitude completely. The way Injustice 2 utilized them was my firsthand clinic on just how severely loot boxes could frustrate their associated systems.
It’s not even the only chance-based system in the game; see gear regeneration.
All of these particular decisions interlock into a grind where one rarely gets good gear for characters they actually care about because everything is handed out in random drip-feed fashion, and where at least two-thirds of one’s time on character management is a slog through countless duplicate and uninteresting pieces of gear in order to find and equip all of the cool/powerful stuff. It’s draining.
The kicker to all of that? Most of the gear doesn’t even look that much cooler or different from the default costumes. So it’s not like there is even much worthwhile to gain from putting myself through the gear system’s paces.
In the end, it’s just a bum note in the midst of an otherwise great fighting game. Too bad it also happened to come from the sequel’s most significant new feature.