My first 11 or so hours with Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League have left me with wildly mixed thoughts. There are things I like, things I don’t, and worst of all, things that elicit no emotional response at all. The guns-blazing combat can be fun, and the story of DC heroes and villains swapping roles is for the most part engaging, but thoughtful mission design is almost non-existent and many of its looter shooter systems fall flat. On the plus side, apart from being kicked to the main menu a few times, the servers have been relatively stable for an online-only game at launch (though I have primarily been playing solo, so I’ll see how co-op holds up in the coming days). So far I’ve reached the end of its short-ish campaign, but I’ve yet to dive into whatever the endgame has waiting for me – but for now, I’ve had a fun enough time playing through its well-told story, even if I was left wanting far more from the missions that make it.
While the comparison might seem like low-hanging fruit, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League really is of a similar construction to Marvel’s Avengers – a game I spent dozens of hours enjoying despite its glaring deficiencies. They’re both live services aiming to offer extensive postgames – of course, in Avengers’ case, that promised service was cut short when Crystal Dynamics shut down development two years after launch. For Rocksteady, another famous single-player-turned-online developer, the first step toward trying to avoid a similar fate would be to create a compelling combat system that makes me want to return to Suicide Squad week after week, which it hasn’t quite achieved at this point. The studio known for revolutionising tight melee combat with its Arkham games has instead opted to make this a third-person shooter, which is a bold choice – but one that doesn't make complete sense considering the traditional methods of violence implemented by most of Task Force X, AKA the Suicide Squad.
As far as the story itself goes, the Justice League is acting out of sorts as they cause city-wide destruction with glowing wide-eyed glee. It doesn't take a brainiac to work out what's happening here, but it does take one to mastermind it all. Yes, traditional Superman villain Brainiac has hatched an evil plan to take over the planet and remake it in an image of his own and that involves controlling members of the Justice League’s minds. So, and you’ll never guess this, the Suicide Squad is called in to take down the Justice League by any means necessary.
It doesn't take a brainiac to work out what's happening here.
What threatens to be a straightforward story branches out around the halfway point into interesting directions. Yes, what have now become recognisable comic book cliches do dampen some of the big revelations (if you know anything about the endgame you’ll know what I mean) but there’s a level of storytelling on display here that harkens back to those Arkham glory days. That’s in no small part thanks to the phenomenal character design work and scriptwriting that brings each member of the cast to life as they successfully banter along that tightrope-thin line between charming and insufferable.
Close-ups are also liberally used to show off the graphical power that Rocksteady wields, and it’s frequently impressive to watch as cutscenes come to life. That technical prowess is also reflected in the voices behind the faces, too. The late, great Kevin Conroy excels in one of his final turns as The Dark Knight, showing us an even darker side to the caped crusader than we’ve seen from him before. Tara Strong is pitch-perfect as the anarchic Harley Quinn, and Joe Seanoa (former WWE wrestler Samoa Joe) dryly delivers each of King Shark’s one-liners to great effect.
There are fun and wildly different abilities that Rocksteady could have taken advantage of to create varied vigilantes.
Playable team members Harley Quinn, Deadshot, King Shark, and Captain Boomerang are exciting characters with trademark weapons, from boomerangs to booming hammers and sharpshooting sniper rifles to sharp-toothed snapping. There are fun and wildly different abilities that Rocksteady could have taken advantage of to create varied vigilantes who each bring their own style of play to the table. Instead, they're all reduced to the same baffling blueprint as damage-output-chasing characters who seem to love nothing more than firing guns and occasionally throwing grenades. Granted, they do each have signature melee and traversal attacks, like Harley’s sweeping baseball bat hits or Boomerang’s enemy-chaining namesake, but the overwhelming focus here is on shooting and collecting an increasingly powerful arsenal of guns.
This creates an awkward dissonance between how these villains play and how they've been written. Rocksteady has clearly gone to great lengths to create a detailed world full of memorable characters who behave true to their comic book roots, which could have served as a joyous playground for DC fans. But instead, it's like going to see your favourite football team only to find that, for some reason, they're being asked to play tennis instead. Sure, you recognise their famous faces, but they’re out of their element. Whether their method of destruction makes sense is a completely different question from whether it's fun, though. And the answer to this is: well, yes and no.
Where the Arkham games had a much more deliberate flow as you waited for enemies to make the first move before delivering crushing counters, Suicide Squad cranks up the speed as you zoom around hurling bullets into them at a relentless pace. It's undeniably impressive at times, with an emphasis still placed on combo-chasing and stylish takedowns while taking no damage. These combos can rack all the way up to 50, which provides a high skill ceiling and a real challenge to master. There are even bits that remind me of some of my favourite action games, such as the Shield Harvest mechanic which encourages aggressive play, echoing the attitude of Doom or Control wherein the best form of defense is to attack even more. This philosophy inherently lends itself to a chaotic breed of action that I enjoyed as I zipped around arenas scrambling for shield pick-ups and ammo. The inclusion of an active reload mechanic gives you something to do other than hold down the button, as it has for so many other shooters since Gears of War.
Once you eventually get to grips with all of the kit, a tight and satisfying rhythm can be found.
And there’s more, too – you steadily unlock new abilities and modifications as you progress. One is Affliction Strikes, which add an extra layer to combat by imbuing your melee attacks with properties such as venom, which turns your enemies against each other when struck. There are so many different ideas and mechanics, in fact, that it can all get a little overwhelming to juggle at times, and the constant stream of tutorials seemingly never ends throughout the entire campaign. But once you eventually get to grips with all of the kit, a tight and satisfying rhythm can be found.
Just go into Metropolis expecting something a bit more hectic than the slower, puzzle-like encounters found around Gotham, I can see Rocksteady's thought process behind this shift in tempo. The speed of these combat systems does reflect their respective heroes, however, Batman is always one step ahead, whereas Amanda Waller's guns for hire are rasher, zany, and frankly enjoy getting stuck into the violence of it all.
Each character specialises in certain skills as well and can be tweaked to fit your style thanks to extensive skill trees. For me, though, the biggest deciding factor in choosing which criminal fit my style best is in testing out each of their movement abilities, as most of them felt clunky to me at first. After a bit of experimentation, I settled on Aussie inmate Captain Boomerang and his teleporting Speed Force Gauntlet, which I used to flank enemy hordes to my heart's content. I just never fell in love with Harley’s swing-and-grapple Spider-Man/Batman hybrid moveset or Deadshot’s jetpack hovering, mainly due to their ungenerous cooldowns limiting the distances you can travel quickly. And Shark’s quite basic run-and-jump combo frankly just never excited me.
I pretty much found all of the gear I needed to make each encounter a breeze on the story’s halfway point.
I steadily constructed an effective close-up Boomerang build with traversal mods that gave me a 40% damage boost to enemies within five metres, and paired that with a freezing melee attack and a legendary shotgun that shattered all who got near. It was a satisfying playstyle, but I pretty much found all of the gear I needed to make each encounter a breeze on the normal difficulty by the story’s halfway point. This meant I felt no need to engage in any of the crafting or looting systems for the most part, and instead just focussed on tuning the talent tree as I unlocked more points to fit my up-close-and-personal approach.
Speaking of getting up close and personal, I couldn’t help but notice the diminishing effect of Rocksteady’s dramatic shift in genre from a single-player story to a co-op looter shooter when it came time to interact with the characters that inhabit Metropolis. This is perhaps best exemplified by The Penguin's role in Suicide Squad. The once-powerful Gotham crime boss who was crucial to the events of the Arkham series, including one of the trilogy's most memorable levels in Arkham City, is reduced to nothing but a weapons vendor this time around. Sure, he’ll offer you a semi-limited range of guns that can be tweaked to your heart's content as you figure out which of the city’s four “manufacturers” have attributes and perks that work best for you, so he’s at least decent at this job. Of course, with this being a looter shooter, they come in multiple tiers of rarity ranging from standard common and rare guns to unique, high-powered Notorious and Infamous-level weapons, which are all themed around different DC villains.
Outside of that bit of costuming, though, the guns themselves are frustratingly bland. The world and characters are packed full of charm and colour, something that just isn't reflected in the dull arsenal. You'll largely be wielding a standard selection of rifles, SMGs, pistols, etc., as you circle around enemies with a routine of flank-and-fire strategy. The different weapons manufacturers offer their own quirks, be that burst-fire options or greater ammo capacity, but nothing is anywhere near as exciting as the variety of weaponry Borderlands’ similar setup can boast – the looter- shooter that popularised the genre with its ever-increasing wacky range of weaponry remains hard to compete with in that arena.
When you go to modify some life into your firearms you’re limited to fairly standard buffs like critical damage boosts or cooldown decreases, none of which really lean into capturing any of that superhero/villain magic. Instead of more damage boosts or predictable poison debuffs, I kept hoping to see something crazy – like a gun that fires exploding, chattering Joker teeth or a Clayface cannon that covers the ground and enemies in clay, immobilising them in the process. But having finished the campaign (admittedly not turned over every rock in Metropolis just yet) there's just a disappointing lack of imagination on display here, even for those rarest, top-tier options. That’s particularly a shame because I can see the bones of a truly exciting loot and combat system here –, it’s just hidden in the blandness of its solid but unspectacular gunplay and weapons.
It's not the combat itself that's the issue, but more the rinse-and-repeat encounters.
It's not the combat itself that's necessarily the issue, either, but more the rinse-and-repeat encounters you're given to use it in. Metropolis has come down with a seriously gnarly case of Brainiac-induced acne as you go around popping seemingly endless amounts of purple spots and monsters who don’t have the sharpest AI in the world – sometimes they are even totally unresponsive as you take out their friends standing right next to them. So it’s not a promising start, but I was relieved to find that as you get deeper into the story a greater enemy variety is introduced, and these new foes offer more of a challenge as they channel certain heroic abilities and make you consider your approach in a smarter way.
One consistent factor, however, is that the vast majority of these enemies will be found on top of buildings protecting Brainiac weaponry or causing a general nuisance, which made for the vast majority of my time feeling like I was just bouncing from rooftop to rooftop whacking moles. In fact, a steady cadence of “cutscene, rooftop battle, repeat” persists throughout pretty much the whole of the campaign’s roughly 10-hour runtime. It’s just a stream of uninspired encounter designs with seemingly no ambition shown toward making any authored missions that stand out. You’re regularly just cycling between a handful of basic objective types, such as defending an area, clearing out a group of enemies, or escorting a truck through the city, all of which get tired pretty quickly.
Metropolis itself is fun to move around, with a generous amount of tall buildings to bounce up to and explore, but that’s a strength that’s never incorporated into its mission design. Insomniac has shown us how amazing missions can be in superhero open worlds as you dart through cities in the blockbuster sequences of the Spider-Man games, and while the movement of Suicide Squad may even be reminiscent of Insomniac's earlier Sunset Overdrive at times, the city feels nowhere near as tailored for such missions.
But before either of those games, Rocksteady built out its Gotham City with numerous landmarks that served as fantastic contained levels inside an open world. In Suicide Squad, interesting interiors are kept at a premium, however, with almost all of the action taking place high above the city and at great speed. Arkham City’s combat arenas were so expertly designed, like mini action levels found within a sprawling open world with environmental takedown opportunities and creative ways to move around constantly present – but here, only “blink and you’ll miss it” flashes of this philosophy can be seen. Ironically, an early Batman encounter is one of these, offering a smart inversion of the Arkham experience… but then a later confrontation with The Dark Knight, unfortunately, devolves back into a rote bullet-sponge battle.
It’s clear that some imagination has gone into a few of the boss battles, however. They frequently begin with an uninspiring fight against a massive purple cannon, though, which seems a bizarre choice considering we’re in a world full of heroes and villains. But when you do get to finally face off against mind-controlled members of the Justice League themselves, things really do pick up. You can see glimpses of that puzzle-like nature that Arkham’s boss encounters contained shining through, and while there’s nothing quite as memorable as the Mr. Freeze showdown from Arkham City, it’s nice to see that those elements haven’t been completely put on ice (even if some do just boil down to pumping as many bullets into a superhero as you can).
The standout among the boss fights has to be a brawl against Green Lantern.
That lineage can be clearly seen in The Flash fight, for example, as you have to quickly time counter shots before dealing damage. The standout among them, though, has to be a brawl against Green Lantern and his arsenal of glowing constructs in a battle that delivers greatly on both spectacle and excitement by smartly implementing a large custom arena full of high vantage points that can also be used as cover. They’re all a welcome challenge that crucially never feel unfair, with each generously signposting attacks to avoid frustration. Yes, you’re fighting superhumans here, but the way you take them down is supported by reasonably believable story context that allows you to go toe-to-toe with Earth’s mightiest (even if most of those solutions boil down to inventing new types of bullets).
Metropolis itself is a sun-soaked city where superheroes are treated like gods and monuments to them bookend its streets. It's regularly gorgeous and, if it wasn't for the small issue of a gigantic brain hovering above it causing widespread mayhem, would probably be a lovely place to spend a weekend. The art direction is superb, with a rich mix of architectural influences combining to create a uniquely inviting skyline – that skyline, though, is often filled with gunfire and smoke thanks to the warzone bubbling beneath it. Yet, it all just feels oddly lifeless at the same time, like a beautifully constructed diorama collecting dust. Like the Arkham games, there’s an eerie lack of civilian activity to make it feel like a place where people actually live and that needs protecting. Additionally, there's no iconic score sweeping alongside you as you move through its streets, or anything of note happening at all really, apart from enemies patrolling them waiting for your ambush. It's again, a shame, as it's undeniably an artistic achievement, but this world just doesn't have anywhere near enough variety in it to warrant the level of exploration I’d hoped for when I first stepped into it like an eager tourist.
Of course, there are many other familiar DC faces thrown into the mix that I won’t spoil here. There are surprise arrivals and departures scattered throughout that are sure to delight comic book fans, even if it does just make the story ultimately seem like a collection of cool-looking scenes stitched together with over-familiar combat scenarios at times. There are impactful moments, though, which are often full of wonder but go by in a flash. Clocking in about 10 or 11 hours, Suicide Squad's main campaign isn’t an especially short one (it’s roughly the same as Avengers), but it is perhaps an underwhelming runtime when you consider we’ve waited almost nine years for a new Rocksteady story. That said, there are enough surprises and turns within it for it to stay consistently engaging, even if what you’ll be doing on either side of the rewarding cutscenes isn’t up to the same standard.
But, of course, there’s more beyond the main story of Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League left for me to see, and I’m yet to delve deep into whatever endgame has to offer. For my thoughts on that and our final scored review, please stay tuned in the next few days.