The first thing likely to pop into the head of any self-respecting DC Comics fan upon seeing Injustice: Gods Among Us in action is this: just how in Jor-El’s name are we supposed to believe that the Joker can go toe-to-toe in a brawl with Superman? The new fighting game from NetherRealm Studios, the team that brought us 2011’s surprisingly good Mortal Kombat reboot, pits 24 of the world’s finest superheroes against each other in a bid to launch a brand new fighting franchise in a crowded marketplace. Thankfully, there is an explanation at hand for the anomaly of the Clown Prince of Crime being able to deliver a knockout punch to the Man of Steel, but more importantly, with its fresh take on a well worn formula, Injustice proves it has the gameplay to hold its own against the heavyweights of the genre.

Exactly how DC’s big names came to be fighting amongst themselves is revealed early on in Injustice’s story mode. And not only does Injustice actually have a prominent story, but against all expectations, it’s quite good. Traditionally, one-on-one fighters have been happy to lean on the old faithful “bad guy holds a tournament” routine when coming up with excuses for exotic characters to pound on each other in endless bouts of fisticuffs, but Injustice follows Mortal Kombat’s recent lead and intersperses its fights with – get this – a genuinely interesting narrative.

Injustice: Gods Among Us review

Shocking as it may seem, instead of the usual ladder-and-boss scenario, players control a whole series of different characters as they work together to take down an evil version of Superman that has subjugated an alternate dimension Earth. The Elseworlds premise, while a bit silly, neatly explains away such nerd-baiting controversies as the Green Lantern fighting The Flash, or Wonder Woman facing off with Wonder Woman. Oh, and as for the power discrepancy between the Joker and old Supes? Two words: Kryptonite pills. In this world, everyone’s super, man.

Visually, Injustice is a real treat for comics fans. Created in 3D on a 2D plane, fighting arenas such as the Batcave, Metropolis, and Atlantis are beautifully detailed, and are littered with references to DC comics lore and cameos from minor characters (Gorilla Grodd!). Additionally, each location becomes visibly damaged as fights escalate, lending a palpable sense of power and destruction to the smash–bam-pow action as it plays out. Character models are generally top notch and faithful to the comic book versions, too, although skin tones do tend to look a bit too smooth and plastic when seen up close in cut scenes.

Injustice: Gods Among Us review

The costume design, however, is fantastic, and there are a number of excellent alternate outfits (some of which were given out as pre-order bonuses, but which will no doubt be made available to purchase further down the track) that take inspiration from the Arkham City game and the New 52 line of comics. If there is one obvious complaint to be made, it’s that Wonder Woman’s design is, frankly, ludicrously top-heavy, but luckily the rest of the female cast managed to avoid the obnoxious Dead or Alive-style boobification treatment.

Built on Mortal Kombat’s fighting system, Injustice works with that game’s strengths and ditches a few of its clunkier holdovers to create a clean and streamlined interface. The combo- and juggle-based gameplay is recognisably Kombat-like, but the controls really do give the game its own feel and prevent it from playing like an MK reskin. The switch from a block button to the more standard action of holding away or down to defend is a good one, and the face buttons correspond to light, medium, heavy and special attacks.

Injustice: Gods Among Us review

Throws, super moves and object-interaction are all assigned to shoulder buttons, and with specials being no more complicated than a simple quarter-circle-punch-style motion, the overall feel is of a game that prizes timing and tactics over the ability to enter great strings of complex commands. The learning curve is nice and gentle for beginners, but there is a legitimate depth there for hardcore frame-spotters to sink their teeth into.

One aspect of the system that really stands out is the innovative use of the super meter. As usual, performing attacks and taking hits will charge up a character’s meter, which can then be used to power up special attacks, perform cancels, and, with a full bar saved up, super moves. But the addition of Clash, a combo breaker that causes the two opponents to rush each other and collide in a Dragonball Z-esque flash of energy, takes meter management to a new level of importance.

Once the Clash animation begins, players have a few seconds to secretly wager an amount of meter, with the highest bidder left standing and either dealing extra damage or healing themselves in the process. It introduces a new meta-game of meter bluffing, and puts extra value on saving some power for when it’s really needed late in match.

Injustice: Gods Among Us review

After wading through the story, players can take on battle mode, a more standard arcade ladder that also includes several options for the masochistic including one that restores opponents’ heath bars fully every 30 seconds, and one that requires certain combos to be executed before a win will be awarded. S.T.A.R. Labs mode offers a series of challenges that will see players trying to pull off a series of special moves, or beat opponents under various conditions to unlock artwork, music, and other goodies.

Unfortunately, while the game’s tutorial does a fine job of explaining the basics of special attacks, combos and meter use, it is a little limited when it comes time for players to lift their game to a more competitive level. Especially in light of some of the excellent tutorial systems of other recent fighters, it’s a little disappointing that the S.T.A.R. Labs mode is more of a cute distraction than a tool for learning more about each character’s advanced techniques.

Injustice: Gods Among Us review

Now, the crucial part. Fighting games often live or die based on their online capabilities, and thankfully Injustice performs well in this respect. Players can take part in ranked matches, as well as King of the Hill and Survival modes, and there is little to no lag to speak of, making all ass-kickings a matter of skill, not connection speed. Honestly, the only slowdown that occurred during GP’s experience was when The Flash hit his Matrix-like time-altering special attack. Smoothness aside, the online features are a little basic by today’s standards – they lack, for example, the ability to record replays directly. But what’s there works perfectly well and will keep competitive players happier than Harley Quinn during visiting hour at Arkham.

It can be difficult for new fighting games to get a foothold amongst the Street Fighters and the Tekkens of the world – it’s a competitive genre both in terms of player ability and market share. But Injustice nails a super combo of accessibility and depth, taking a well-loved cast and applying a simple but nuanced system that will be appreciated by noobs and pros alike. For dedicated longbox trawlers and arcade stick twiddlers Injustice is an easy recommendation, but it’s not just geeks who will get a kick out of this one.