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Injustice: Gods Among Us review: Crackingly overblown entertainment - while it lasts

Inventive theatrics mask loose mechanics in NetherRealm's fighter

In a murky Gotham alleyway, former lovebirds Joker and Harley Quinn trade practical joke-themed blows. In the skies above them, Batman and Nightwing wage war, trading bitter insults as they attempt to clip each other's wings for good. Meanwhile in Themyscira, Wonder Woman finally meets her match in... Wonder Woman?? Welcome to Injustice: Gods Among Us: the DC Universe as only a one-on-one beat-'em-up could possibly imagine it.

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Except of course that this isn't our DC Universe. That's right: in a brave attempt to squeeze all of the above nonsense into a single coherent narrative, NetherRealm has gone down the route most recently traveled by that game that we don't talk about, and dabbled in inter-dimensional travel.

And so we're barely halfway into the first chapter of the story mode when Batman, Green Lantern and friends (oh, and the Joker, too) tumble down a wormhole like big clumsies into a parallel dimension. Now, if TV and film has taught us anything, it's that this kind of thing rarely works out well for anyone. But even by parallel dimensions' low, low standards, this one's a stinker.

"The end result is one of the most compelling beat-'em-up storylines we've seen in a while."

Metropolis has been levelled by a Joker-deployed nuke for kick-off, and its charred remains have fallen under the tyrannical rule of a crazed Superman. He's gone a bit 'wrong' due to the trauma of indirectly causing the death of his beloved Lois. Ravaged by guilt, he turns his anger onto the public at large, reasoning that fear is the only way to control them.

Most of the other superheroes have either been killed in their attempts to reason with him, or have sided with him out of fear, alongside a cabal of 'reformed' supervillans. Only a few insurgents remain - including some faces who you wouldn't necessarily expect to see siding with the good guys - but their leader, Other Batman, has been incarcerated by Superman's regime. In a last-ditch attempt to stop a man who, remember, can snap spines like they're Toffee Crisps, they suck our Justice League into their dimension and ask for help in freeing their leader.

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This might seem a rather elaborate set-up merely to explain why the Green Lantern is fighting his evil twin, but NetherRealm has dived into the alternative reality gimmick with gusto, and the end result is one of the most compelling beat-'em-up storylines we've seen in a while.

This is a dimension where up is down; heroes become villains and villains become martyrs, all at the whim of a manic yet curiously coherent narrative, which often stops to ponder if the current allegiances as we know them are nothing more than a quirk of fate. It certainly never gets boring, particularly during the later stages where battles are punctuated by dramatic cut-scenes that play out like someone's jammed the final five minutes of every superhero film ever into one of The Fly's telepods. Injustice has an eye for cinematic escalation that's rare in video games.

INJUSTICE LEAGUE

The story mode borrows a trick from its counterpart in NetherRealm's previous game, the 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot, by flitting its perspective from character to character on a chapterly basis. This keeps the narrative moving at a brisk pace, but more importantly it eliminates the fatigue you can get from having to play as the same character, with the same fighting style, for the entire duration of a campaign.

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The downside to this approach is that there's little reason to return to the story mode once you've completed it the once, but there are plenty of complementary modes that add longevity. The most expansive of which is the S.T.A.R.S. Lab, which offers up a succession of character-specific challenges, with up to three stars awarded for completing side-objectives along the way. This is Injustice's equivalent to Mortal Kombat's Tower mode - and like its predecessor, it occasionally spices things up with a few, shall we say, 'out there' challenges.

Then there's Battle mode, which consists of numerous gauntlet match challenges. They begin sensibly enough - with match-ups pitting you against only heroes or only villains, for example - before branching out into odder territory. One of the later modes has you tackle half the Justice League while poison slowly drains your health bar for instance, and in the penultimate challenge you have to take on two foes simultaneously.

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