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.