Preview: Injustice 2 is a gift to fans of the single-player side of fighting games

Injustice 2 is the upcoming DC Comics fighting game from the developers at NetherRealm. The game builds on the success of the first title in the series, but adds some big changes. The most notable of those changes is the new Gear system, which allows every character in the game to be equpped with a selection of accessories which not only change that character's appearance, but also provide significant boosts to that character's attack, defense, or special abilities—and sometimes even unlock totally new moves that change the way the character plays. 

At GDC 2017, NetheRealm demoed Injustice 2 and its Gear system in more detail than ever before, showing off some of the thousands of different Gear items that will be available, how those items are earned and equipped, and how they will work in different solo and multiplayer modes. The first few battles of the game's story mode were also playable at the event.

While NetherRealm has established a pedigree of quality competitive fighting titles, between Injustice 2's rich comic story and the addictive Gear system, their newest title is shaping up to be the most appealing fighting game in years for fans of the single-player side of brawlers. 

Upgrade your Batman 

You unlock Gear in Injustice 2 by playing the game. There's no "real money for in-game items" involved at any point, which is good because doing otherwise likely would have inspired a fan revolt. Instead you unlock items continually as you play, picking up new helmets, chest armor, boots, or other accessories. The Gear you earn is randomly determined based on a rarity system and other factors, and each specific piece of gear also has a stat range associated with it, so some versions of Batman's Kryptonite-Infused Boots will be better than other Kryptonite-Infused Boots, depending on your luck. The game also features a re-roll system for Gear, which will allow you a chance to improve the stats of items that you already like visually, or that you've had for a long time but which aren't quite good enough to justify stats-wise. Duplicate items are a possibility but because of this stat  scaling system you're unlikely to ever end up with two truly identical pieces of Gear.

You have a slightly greater chance of earning Gear for the character you are currently playing as, which means if you play a lot of Batman you're likely to end up with some good Batman Gear. Each piece has a level assigned to it corresponding to its power and rarity, which currently tops out at level 20, and you can't equip items that are a higher level than you have achieved with that character. You level up characters by playing as them and earning XP with that particular character, so if you earn a really great Level 20 Swamp Thing item that's a good incentive to start ranking up your Swamp Thing character. 

Each piece of Gear provides enhancements to one of your character's core stats, such as Attack, Defense, or Ability (which corresponds to special attack effectiveness). Many of them also come with Augments, which provide additional bonuses such as greater defense against environmental attacks or increased damage with certain abilities. One particularly interesting Augment I saw was called "Down to Earth," and it provided a significant increase in character experience if they completed a match without jumping. 

Where does he get those wonderful toys?

It's easy to see the RPG-style appeal of all this Gear. Thousands of pieces of Gear per character, even if many of them are variations on a smaller number of visually distinct items, is a Diablo-esque armory of choices. It should also be apparent that the system could provide a much deeper single-player fighting game experience than what we see from most titles in the genre. Unlockables that have more than a cosmetic effect are always tricky things for fighting games, which so often live and die with their competitive and tournament scenes. Including a pair of boots that increases your kicking strength might seem like a cool idea, but it also raises a dozen questions about balance and unlock rates and gear loadouts in tournaments and matchmaking, so it's not surprising that most fighting games have avoided this sort of thing.

But Injustice 2 is doing it, and they're doing it 110%. Gear is a core part of the game, and you'll even be able to use Gear in multiplayer matches. Depending on the mode you choose the boosting-effects of Gear will either be in effect, in which case they'll be accounted for by the game's online matchmaking system to try to give you a fair fight, or they'll be disabled, in which case your characters will be equally matched by still visually customized with your Gear.

And speaking of those visual customizations...boy, there are a lot of them in Injustice 2. Each character has five Gear slots, and each piece of Gear is visually distinct and represented on your character, often to dramatic effect. Once you've selected all the Gear you want you can then apply one of the shaders you've unlocked, which look to offer a dozen or more different color schemes for each of the game's characters. And different "sets" of Gear often have complimentary bonuses, so chasing down all of the Blood Ritual Gear for Atrocitus, for example, won't leave you overpowered in a single area but weak everywhere else. 

"This is a line we don't cross."

The Injustice series has a far better story driving it than you might expect from a fighting game based on an established comic book property. People would buy a game where you can play as Wonder Woman and beat up Aquaman even if the story was non-existent, but the world of Injustice is a rich, dark, parallel take on DC's famous comic book heroes and villains. We've previously written about both the original Injustice comic book series and the prequel comic for Injustice 2, but it bears repeating that the fiction driving the world of Injustice is great stuff (and a far better use of DC's roster than any of the recent feature films). 

Spoilers for the opening few battles of the Injustice 2 story mode ahead. 

Injustice 2's story mode will put you in the shoes of the game's different heroes for a few fights at a time in a way that will be familiar to fans of the previous game in the series. At the GDC demo I had a chance to play the story mode from the beginning, as Batman, through fights against Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Superman, and finally Robin (Batman's son Damian Wayne). The reason underlying this conflict is Batman's strict "no killing" rule, which places him at odds with the dark Superman and Justice League of the Injustice world, twisted by tragedy into a group that will go to extreme lengths to stop crime. 

The Cyborg and Wonder Woman fights were enough to demonstrate the basics of the Injustice 2 combat system (nothing groundbreaking here, but it feels as polished as you would expect from the veterans at NetherRealm), but once Superman shows up the tension is kicked up a notch. The Superman that Batman confronts in Arkham Asylum is scary. He hovers, with glowing red eyes, as he prepares to kill prisoners. And even worse...he manages to sway Batman's own son to his side with his arguments.

The fourth battle of the Injustice 2 story mode sees Batman face off his sidekick and son after Robin, convinced that Superman's "let's just kill all these criminals" philosophy is the right one, slits the throat of serial killer Victor Zsasz. Bruce and Damian Wayne brawl, with Robin wielding a sword that works as a clear representation of his willingness to embrace lethal methods. After the dust settles, Robin leaves Arkham at Superman's side, leaving Bruce Wayne truly alone against the world. 

I only got to play about a half-hour of the Injustice 2 story mode, but I came away impressed by the effectiveness of the drama on display, and the way the action smoothly followed from the story. The battle between Batman and Robin was surprising and emotional, and I was disappointed when the demo ended and I didn't get to see how the rest of the story played out. 

With practically endless Gear to collect and customize and a story mode that actually tells a good story instead of just being an afterthought designed to push you into online multiplayer, Injustice 2 could offer the best single-player experience we've seen in a fighting game in years. Casual fighters and those playing the game primarily for its DC connection will find a lot to like in upgrading Gear for their favorite characters, building a Superman that looks and plays differently than anyone else's.

Of course NetherRealm has stressed repeatedly through the run-up to Injustice 2's May launch that the game will have a lot to offer for fans of competitive multiplayer too, and there's really not much reason to doubt the studio's ability to deliver on that side of things. If they can couple that strong multiplayer component with an engaging single-player experience you'll want to sink hours into however...then they'll have something very special on their hands.