Without a doubt, Mortal Kombat’s heyday was the mid ‘90s, a time when it and Street Fighter ruled not just arcades, but home consoles as well. It enjoyed a brief resurgence in the mid 2000s with sequels like Deadly Alliance and Deception, but with each new game came more goofy finishing moves, uninspired character designs and a needlessly complex plot. These were followed by MK vs DC Universe, which neutered the violence and gruesome finishing moves that made the series a success in the first place.
With so many missteps since the last major hit, what could the franchise do to regain its former glory? Ignore all the mediocre stuff and take things back to the original three games that started it all.
Above: And that means a lot of blood
For the most part, this new MK sticks to the characters and tone of the first few games, meaning tons of vicious, mean-spirited attacks with just a hint of humor; groin punches and hilariously excessive fatalities are in, farting attacks and tacked-on kart racer minigames are out. Even the roster preys upon the world’s fondness for MK1-3, pulling just about every single character from those early days into one game. It’s clear developer NetherRealm’s goal was to tug at our misty-eyed recollections of the past, and on that front, it totally succeeded.
Above: Classic backgrounds reappear, like this tournament scene from the very first game
Above: The MK2 armory returns with loads more background detail
Above: I’m sure we all remember the Living Forest?
Above: Even MK3’s memorable areas have come back, and in many cases have story-based context now
Beyond the superficial pandering lies a commendably fun scrapper that mixes successful elements of the first three games. Combat falls somewhere in between MK2 and MK3, with emphasis on chaining normal moves into specials; stringing combos together is slightly more freeform than MK3’s infamous “dial a combo” system that only allowed combos with pre-set button combinations, but it’s also not as open to experimentation as say, Street Fighter IV.
Speaking of SFIV, new MK freely cribs from not just Capcom’s workhorse, but also, of all things, Rare’s Killer Instinct. Along the bottom of the screen is a meter that fills up as you deal and receive damage. When one section is full, you can execute an “enhanced” version of any special move your character has; in other words, it’s the same as SFIV’s EX moves, where Ryu’s fireball deals an extra hit or in this case, Kano throws two knives instead of one.
Two full sections give you the ability to cancel someone’s combo and break free of their attack. Both enhanced attacks and combo breakers have tactical applications that can increase damage or set up more elaborate moves, so they’re far from copycat afterthoughts. If you refrain from using those moves and fill up the meter completely, you have access to X-ray moves, which are this game’s equivalent to Street Fighter's big-damage Ultra Combos.
All these elements form a game that mostly plays like MK2, just with more juggle, combo and interrupt options. It’s great, flashy fun for button mashers yet rewards those who want to dissect each move and how it reacts with another, so in our opinion that makes this the “best” Mortal Kombat to date. That said, I noticed several instances where moves would connect when they really shouldn’t have, even cases where my fighter would be jumping over another and magically reappear back in front of the computer, somehow being thrown. Most of the time special moves behave like they should, but there were more than a few times were I legitimately could not understand why one move has priority over another, or why the hit range on one move is as wide or tall as it is.
But that’s getting into tournament-level play discussion, which is not how most of us will judge the new Mortal Kombat. And in all fairness, MK has always favored style over substance, and this time the “style” is shredded faces, broken bones and splattered blood, which all combine to create a thoroughly violent experience.
Above: Blood splatters dynamically on your fighter and the opponent, so no two victory screens are quite the same
Above: Take too much damage and the kombatants actually lose pieces of their head and costume
This persistent damage is purely cosmetic, but it does indeed add to the flavor. It helps convey how much these guys are pounding the hell out of each other, and when one finally stands tall as the winner, with his costume tattered and teeth showing through his jaw, it truly feels like a victory. Before, blood flew around the screen for the sake of blood flying around the screen; now, it helps sell the dark, macabre atmosphere.
Topping all this off are the aforementioned X-ray moves, which are devastating new attacks unique to this version of MK. Land one of these suckers and you can deal up to 50% damage, which, while cool for comebacks, is perhaps too much. We want to always have a chance at victory, but uh, some of these moves can turn the tide in a very un-fun way.
Above: Plus how the hell are they walking away from this??
Above: A sample of ‘em. Note Kano barfing all over Noob’s leg – that barf stays there for the match!
These features make up the guts of the game (no pun int… fuck it, pun intended) and power all the other single and multiplayer components. I’ll get into those on the next page, which are all surprisingly awesome and worth checking out.
If there’s one thing Mortal Kombat has always had over Street Fighter, it’s story. SF doesn’t really need one at all – it’s more about world warriors fighting to become the best or whatever, and when Capcom later started adding plot lines for Cammy, M. Bison, Evil Ryu and the like, it felt supremely unnecessary. MK, on the other hand, embraced its admittedly thin story since the beginning.
Above: MK1 had a shred of a story. MK2 added extra details and began an actual canon that detailed how and why every fighter was present. The new MK re-tells all those events
As the games wore on, the story spiraled into bizarre, convoluted nonsense. That’s part of the point of this entire game – to erase and rewrite a tale that got out of hand. An Ultimate Spider-Man take on MK if you will. The intro begins with 2006’s MK Armageddon, where baddie Shao Kahn finally triumphs over Raiden and the rest of the Earth realm fighters. Desperate for help, Raiden sends a message back in time to himself in hopes of averting this crisis, which begins a brand new take on the events from the first three games. Again, smart use of the three games most people latch onto.
MK’s story mode then spans 5-6 hours of surprisingly cool cutscenes and fights that show Raiden’s various attempts to stop Shao Kahn’s inevitable victory. No matter what he does though, the visions of a ruined future continue, leading him to make drastic alterations to the timeline. If you care about the MK story at all, with Shao Kahn invading Earth, Scorpion eager for revenge against Sub-Zero and the transformation of Lin Kuei ninjas into robo-assassins, this story mode is a total blast and absolutely worth playing through. I know it's hard to take MK's story seriously, but this is actually pretty cool.
Above: Honestly, it’s as good as any MK movie (or other video game movie) you’re likely to ever see
Then there’s the Challenge Tower, which contains 300 task-based battles that award you coins for use in the goodie-filled Krypt. These tasks start off simple (beat opponent with this move, win without blocking etc) but quickly transform into weird one-off modes that add a bit of spice to the battles, like winning while inside a cone of light, defeating Nightwolf before he can summon a massive lightning bolt or mashing Triangle/Y to attack waves of incoming zombies. The final reward for all this toil isn’t necessarily worth the time spent (we’re talking hours), but the journey itself is an interesting departure from the main game.
Above: Story mode, arcade mode and tower all give you coins to spend here, in the Krypt
That brings us to the Krypt. This feature has been in prior MK games and its function remains the same – earn coins in other modes and spend them on bonus content sprinkled throughout the Krypt. Thing is, you don’t know what you’re getting until you spend the money, so expect a lot of character renders and paintings when what you want are locked fatalities and alternate costumes.
I like the idea of the Krypt. Helps give a reason to keep playing. But there are (at least) 299 objects in this damn thing, each ranging from 800 to 1200 coins apiece. Story mode and the Challenge Tower will give you a huge chunk of change, but once they’re over, there is no good way to acquire more coins. Clearing arcade mode over and over again, which includes fighting Shao Kahn and Goro/Kintaro, two of the shittiest cheap-ass bosses I’ve ever played, nets you about 4000 coins per trip. If you want to unlock every character's second fatality (and you do), that means hours upon hours of grinding.
Above: This should feel like an Easter egg hunt; instead it’s just a slog
Now here’s the really interesting part – you don’t actually have to unlock a fatality in the Krypt to use it. Just look online for a list and boom, you can pull it off even without finding it in the Krypt. On one hand, hey cool, I don’t have to spend a ton of time earning coins for moves that should have been unlocked in the first place. On the other… WTF is the point of putting fatalities in the Krypt at all? Does NetherRealm think the world will even bother with it if we can just look up the moves online and they’ll work in the game regardless? Are they hidden content or not? It makes the entire notion of the Krypt ridiculous. Unless you really enjoy seeing promotional art and pre-release sketches, this entire mode is kind of a bust.
With these robust single-player offerings in place, I couldn’t help wonder why NetherRealm didn’t include character-specific tutorial or challenge modes that train you on special moves and combos. Street Fighter IV and MvC3 have this feature, which helps familiarize you with the ins and outs of each fighter, and in turn help you discover which you like best. Without those, all you can do is blindly select a fighter and hop in and out of the pause menu move list until you settle on someone you prefer. Another case of MK focusing on presentation and trappings instead of core fighting tools.
Multiplayer just barely began working in time for this review, but what I played worked well. I was able to quickly hop into matches, find opponents, create lobbies and so on without issue, though something akin to SFIV’s fight request feature would have been a nice idea to copy as well. Perhaps the most interesting mode is “King of the Hill,” which takes SFIV’s Endless Match concept (two players fight, the rest spectate and chat and the winner stays on top) and adds Xbox Avatars (on 360) or chibi-MK fighter avatars (on PS3) along the bottom of the screen to act as you “watching” the match.
Above: What no Home support, PS3?
The true state of multiplayer won’t be known until thousands of people are all online, pushing the servers to their limit. But the time I spent suggested basic, functional ideas with the usual leaderboards and tracking info. And if you were wondering, no, online matches do not award combat coins. Excuse me, kombat koins.
On top of all this is the Tag mode, which most other games save for a whole other $60 sequel. In Tag matches, you select two fighters and, as you imagine, swap them in and out at will. While it’s not as robust as MvC, Tag mode does contain all the basics of a fun team experience. You can tag in a fighter mid-combo, call your friend in for an assist or quick-tag with an attack move/tag combo. It’s a great freebie that extends the combo and strategy opportunities well beyond what the single player game could offer, so the fact it’s here at all is noteworthy. Furthermore, up to four people can play tag mode, which assigns each player their own character. A cool idea, for sure, and a great way to further the "team" mindset.
Above: Picking a team isn’t as important a choice as in MvC, but hey, they didn’t have to include the mode at all
It all boils down to a great fighter that’s held back by a handful of serious issues. While I commend NetherRealm for making this one so easy to get into (you can even pause after “Finish Him!” and look up the fatality), the fight mechanics fall shy of contemporary fighters. I already mentioned the handful of oddities with hitboxes and priorities, but there’s also a problem with projectile attacks – there’s next to no cooldown between moves, so you can spam them all day. Some characters, like Mileena and Cyrax, can fill the screen with crap you can barely get around, and not in a challenging “I can figure this out” kind of way. It all feels unbalanced, in that half the characters can spam moves that are hard to react to, let alone punish when whiffed.
But again, most of us won't judge the game like that. It's still a blast to play for fun, and the story mode fully entertained me; hell, that thing’s 5-6 hours by itself, which is what most $60 games charge for anyway these days. And perhaps the biggest compliment I can give the new MK is that the violence actually garnered multiple "whoa!" and "ooooh shit!" remarks from everyone in the office, years after the series (and violent games in general) stopped impressing anyone. That's the true spirit of MK, and in that regard, this game completely lives up to its pedigree.
Super SFIV? No. I’ve made comparisons to this throughout the review, and the bottom line is that SSFIV is a more thought-out fighter with finely balanced gameplay, useful training modes and special moves that change the flow of a match on a second-by-second basis. It lacks the story and theatrics of MK, but the gameplay is second to none. And if you're wondering why I keep bringing SF up, it's because these two series are the most widely recognized fighting games in the world, and they've been connected since their '90s arcade roots. Yin and yang, always.
Marvel vs Capcom 3? We’ll say no, but the experiences are so vastly different it’s hardly worth making the comparison. Sure MK has a tag mode, but it’s comparatively bare bones when compared to the nuanced team mechanics of any MvC, let alone part three. Then again, if you don’t want to deal with head-spinning 80-hit combos, MK could be more up your alley.
MK vs DC Universe? Yes. This was the last entry for MK, and while it’s a perfectly OK game in its own right, it is not a great MK game and does neither license justice. Once you get past the “oh hey, Batman is punching Sub-Zero in the face” aspect, you’re left with a fighter that came and went in the span of a month or two. MK 2011 stands a much better chance at a long life.
A successful sequel that both reboots and redeems the wayward series, though it’s not a flawless victory. Character balance, inconsistent detection and a stingy coin reward system drag down an otherwise bloody good time.