The world of beat-em-ups tends to be a backwards-looking one: new iterations of the big franchises generally run scared of making major changes and thereby alienating their fanatical fan-bases. However, Warner Bros' Injustice franchise, which boasts the pick of the DC Comics roster of superheroes and supervillains, has no such baggage. The sequel to 2013's Injustice: Gods Among Us, it might just be the most high-tech and forward-looking beat-em-up ever made.

There is, admittedly, one venerable beat-em-up franchise still going strong which managed to reboot itself to resemble a modern game: Mortal Kombat. And sure enough, Injustice 2 was crafted by NetherRealm, Mortal Kombat's developer. But we feel that, with Injustice 2, NetherRealm really felt able to cut loose and raise the bar for the genre as a whole.

Story-wise, Injustice 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, in an alternate DC universe in which Superman went rogue and currently languishes in Stryker's Island prison. Various other superheroes have been banished or consigned to obscurity. 

Batman/Bruce Wayne, though, rules the roost in Gotham and beyond, like a sort of billionaire superhero mayor (with Harley Quinn as an assistant), snuffing out evil with the help of a giant computer surveillance device called Brother Eye.

But that alternate Earth faces an existential threat, in the form of the invading Brainiac, who is coming after the last two Kryptonian survivors. And in order to defeat Brainiac, a sort of Justice League must be assembled – unsurprisingly, given that a Justice League film is due.

As ever in a beat-em-up, cut-scenes setup bouts against various good and bad guys, but miraculously for such a game, Injustice 2's story holds together brilliantly.

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The cut-scenes look stunning, as does the game itself – the detail of the character models and animation demands superlatives. The writing is pretty good, too, and it's nice that you can often choose to control one of two characters; the story mode teaches you pretty effectively how to play as all of the superheroes.

The control system will be pretty familiar to anyone who played the original game, with medium, light and heavy attacks, plus a special ability and a welter of special moves. But it has been tweaked, and very impressively at that.

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The four-bar super-meter is back, but this time around you can spend individual bars on particular moves, as well as waiting for all four to fill before launching a super move. These super moves are hilarious and very satisfying to behold, although they are blockable, so you must time them carefully.

A new system called Clash lets you wager bars of your super-meter against your opponent: whoever stakes the most is rewarded by a super-heavy attack. There are all sorts of environmental objects you can bring into play too.

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Injustice 2's control system pulls off a major feat for a beat-em-up: it's easy to grasp its essentials, but contains vast amounts of depth (such as delayed recovery) that will keep the beat-em-up ninjas happy. You'll have to master it fully if you go online, though.

One aspect of the game which is new and beautifully conceived is its gear system. More or less everything you do wins loot boxes, containing items you can use to power up your characters, or even radically alter their play-style to make them more effective against particular opponents. The loot system has an air of Destiny to it, which is an exciting thing to find in a beat-em-up.

Then there's the Multiverse – an ever-morphing collection of alternate DC universes, each with its own subtly (or sometimes radically) different back-story, played out in a more traditional comic-book style, which lets you drill down deep into your favourite characters, and includes universes that only appear fleetingly. Injustice 2 is a very meaty game indeed, and the Multiverse extends it to near-infinity.

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Injustice 2 supports Guilds, too – for those who, say, idolise Batman, or prefer to fight as villains with particular affiliations. Joining a Guild brings a whole new Multiverse, along with another set of challenges to bring yet more potential loot. You could envisage other beat-em-up franchises copying Injustice 2's structure in the future.

Verdict

Future beat-em-ups would do well to eclipse Injustice 2. It's the beat-em-up that has it all.

There's a cast of playable characters which is a comic-geek's dream, rendered and animated as well as we've ever seen, and customisable not just to your tastes but to the requirements of individual bouts. The game has plenty of appeal to casual players, as well as the hardcore, thanks to a good storyline and a near-infinite supply of new bouts, challenges and alternate-universe scenarios.

The beat-em-up world is fiercely factional, spawning tribes who are devoted to specific franchises, so lining one beat-em-up against another can prove controversial. But Injustice 2 is certainly the most 21st-century beat-em-up we've ever encountered and, in general, it feels like it moves the genre forward.

It might be a bit rich to assert that it's the best beat-em-up ever – and there will always be those whose tastes fail to extend beyond peers that feel retro and classical – but Injustice 2 is an instant classic with little compare.