The whole series of events leading up to Marvel Contest Of Champions (Free) is pretty weird if you think about it too much. It’s a clear reply to the mobile version of Injustice: God Among Us (Free), whose console version’s inception likely sprang out of Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe, which certainly only existed because of Marvel Vs. Capcom. That’s Marvel and DC for you, friends. They bite each other’s tails so often it’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Well, I just thought that was interesting. Truth be told, I’m glad something like Contest Of Champions came about. While Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 is ideally better than Injustice, trying to play it on a touch screen stripped away a lot of its merits, and the game was removed from the App Store even if you wanted to play it. Injustice, on the other hand, found a winning combination with its collection elements and extremely simplified take on the fighting genre. It only makes sense to have a Marvel version, and that’s basically what you get in Contest Of Champions.
I’m going to acknowledge right away that Injustice had many advantages towards its development that Contest Of Champions didn’t, and the result is that in some ways, there’s no competition between the two. Mainly, Injustice had access to the assets of a AAA console game, which allowed it to look, move, and sound better than many iOS games can afford to. Most of the characters have their own specific animations for almost every attack, and each is also voiced by a professional actor, some of whom are strongly associated with said characters in other forms of media. That’s not something that was ever on the table for Contest Of Champions, I suspect, so I’m not sure how fair it is to come down too hard on the game for not measuring up in those areas.
There are also several things it does differently from Injustice, many of them positive changes, a few of them not. Chief among the improvements is a somewhat more complex fighting system. Contest Of Champions is still pretty far away from what you would think of as a traditional fighting system, but simply having a degree of control over moving backward and forward opens up the gameplay a bit more. I also like that I can block more easily here than I can in Injustice. The control set-up is otherwise very close to that game, with taps for light attacks, swipes for heavy ones, and a super gauge that allows you to pop off special attacks after it fills up. I find the hits lack the impact of those found in Injustice, though. It feels like I’m whacking a bag of flour at times.
The balance of the fighting is different, as well. Injustice is really all about blocking, building meter, and firing off your super moves. In the later stages, your normal attacks are virtually inconsequential except as a way to build meter, and even then, you’re better off building it by taking punches to the head so that you don’t build your opponent’s meter. The special moves in Contest of Champions are not quite as strong by comparison. They’re useful, no doubt, but you really need to stay on the offensive using your regular attacks to pull out wins. There’s a great deal of overlap between characters for their regular attacks, which is kind of disappointing. It makes it feel like the hefty roster is really just a bunch of skins at times. That said, I feel the actual nuts and bolts of the fighting in Contest are more enjoyable than Injustice.
Where it loses me a bit is in the stuff outside of combat. For being a free-to-play game, Injustice is both surprisingly fair and simple. Fighting earns you money and gives your characters experience points. If you have enough money, you can buy new characters or character upgrades in the game’s shop. If you get duplicate cards, you can rank up a character to increase their base stats. Each character has their own energy meter that is consumed when they fight, and when it’s empty, they have to take a breather. There’s nothing hidden behind the curtain there, and while I have no idea how it monetizes, it definitely makes its money somehow.
In comparison, Contest is more like most other free-to-play games. Fighting earns you money, and I think ISO-8? You, not your heroes, earn experience points from each battle, and the energy meter is yours, so when you run out, you either pay to refill or wait it out. You can’t cycle heroes around and keep playing, no matter how many you have. Characters gain experience by combining ISO-8 with them, and ranking them up requires you to max out their level and have the necessary materials. You also can’t simply pop into the shop and buy your favorite character. Instead, you have to put your crystals into a random lottery and see what pops out. It’s close to the system found in many Japanese social RPGs, and while I’m okay with that style to an extent, there’s no question in my mind that as a player, I prefer Injustice‘s inclusion of a la carte purchases, a player-friendly stamina system, and straight-forward leveling.
That stamina system aside, I do prefer the way Contest Of Champions handles its main quest mode. It’s broken into chapters that are further broken down into stages, with each stage having preset battles with very minor dialogue snippets to keep the story going. While they start off small and straightforward, later stages offer branching paths and special routes if you have certain characters on your team. Each step along the way consumes stamina, and unless you use an item, your characters aren’t healed between fights, so you have to play carefully even against weaker opponents. Each character is sorted into one of several different classes, each one strong against one other class and weak to another. Part of the strategy of the quest mode involves bringing in the right types of heroes and using them against the right enemies. The game gives you plenty of warning about what you’ll face, so you aren’t going in blind. For this reason, you’ll want to try to collect at least one of each class as you go along, though you’re at the whims of fortune as to whether or not you’ll be able to do that with your premium currency.
The game is pretty generous with doling out premium currency in the beginning, but like many social RPGs, the farther in you play, the stiffer the demands get and the more scarce resources become. Unfortunately, another thing Contest adopts from Japanese social RPGs is a constant need to connect to the internet. If you have a spotty connection or are taking a flight, you won’t be able to play Contest, while Injustice will keep on rolling. Those are certainly edge cases, but it’s another one of the little ways Injustice is more friendly to the player. It could be said the connection is due to the game’s multiplayer component, but it’s functionally separated from the quest mode, even going so far as to use a different type of stamina, so I don’t see why quest mode at the very least isn’t playable offline. I should mention that the multiplayer isn’t true multiplayer. You’re simply battling against CPU-controlled versions of the characters of other players.
Recycled animations aside, Contest Of Champions is a very good-looking game. The models are very well-done, and though the animation is a bit rough in places, there are some nice touches like billowing hair and such. It’s even more amazing when you realize how many different characters are in here. The backgrounds are also very nice to look at, with pretty lighting effects and somewhat destructible walls on either side of the stage. The cost of those high quality models and gorgeous backdrops is that the game has a bit of an inconsistent framerate, or at least it does on my iPhone 5S. The audio side is less impressive. There’s very little music and none of it is particularly inspiring. The sound effects lack force and the only voices you’ll hear are generic screams and groans of either gender.
I think Contest Of Champions is actually a better game than the mobile version of Injustice, but it’s not quite as kind to the player. If you’re looking for a Marvel-flavored version of the DC brawler, this is probably close enough to satisfy you, and it might even pleasantly surprise you in some ways. If you’re a long-time Injustice player looking for another similar game, a niche that remarkably remained unfulfilled up until now, you’ll also come away pretty happy. If, however, you can’t get on with the usual concessions of F2P games, you probably won’t enjoy how this Contest is run, and those looking for a deeper fighting experience would do well to pick up Street Fighter 4 Volt ($4.99) instead.