Did gaming ever really get better after you first took control of icy ninja Sub-Zero and ripped out Scorpion's spine? Yes, yes it did - and it seemed for a while there that Mortal Kombat didn't notice. The last few chapters in the sloppy fighting game saga piled on more and more stuff without actually making it noticeably more fun than the old days. But the ominously titled Armageddon - the last entry in the series until it reinvents itself on next-gen consoles, according to its creators - finally kills the clutter and focuses the series on what it does best: fast-action fighting wrapped in over-the-top gore with chunks of humor on the side.
Instead of forcing players to memorize three completely different martial arts disciplines and move sets, Armageddon trims it to two - one being a specialized weapon, unique to each character - and lets you carve your way through every character who's ever appeared in an MK roster - more than 60, including obscure jokers like Stryker whom you won't mind tearing limb from limb. Or, in playable boss Goro's case, limb from limb from limb from limb.
The new fatality system gives you the chance to do that quite literally - when you're urged to Finish Him, tap a few buttons to rip off your opponent's arms. Tap a few more before the timer runs out and you'll remove his heart. If you're quick, you can sneak in five or six more acts of depravity. This keeps fatalities from being one-note sick jokes - now they're user-created, multi-staged, nine-or-ten note sick jokes.
They're also not the only thing you'll get the chance to construct. After years of wishing, the Kreate-a-Fighter option has finally materialized and it was worth the wait - especially if you like Street Fighter games, as you'll find the look-alike parts of several famous Capcom characters lurking in the custom options. Name them as you see fit, use koins to unlock new attacks and clothing, then jump online and battle other players with your completely personalized deacon of destruction.
But why stop at killing your friends with mere fisticuffs? Motor Kombat, a knowingly silly but extremely playable kart racer, comes on the disc for free. See your favorite Kombatants use their trademark attacks on the racetrack - Bo Rai Cho pukes on enemies, Raiden shocks them with electricity as he passes. You'll outright kill opponents by bashing them off the track or leading them into deathtraps. It's ridiculous. It's eight-player online. It's awesome.
There is a mode to tie all this abject violence together; it's called Konquest. This single-player, action/adventure romp through the many realms of Mortal Kombat introduces brothers Taven and Daegon, who have just awoken from a lengthy sleep to fulfill a prophecy and blah blah blah. The writing and acting are equally cheesy, but the potential for carnage is unrivaled - you'll slice through dozens of bad guys and even take out a good number of the main MK characters through the roughly eight-hour journey, picking up invisible icons along the way. That's annoying, but it's worth playing, especially since collecting koins helps you pimp out your created fighter.
You'll also meet and beat a few dozen of the marquee characters along the way, though it is a bit awkward to constantly switch between the one-against-an-army Konquest controls and the one-on-one Kombat controls, where some of the buttons do completely different things.
Both the PS2 and Xbox versions feature well-mixed surround sound and surprisingly sharp graphics. Both platforms support widescreen displays, but Xbox owners can run the game in 720p. In return for a lowly 480p display, PS2 owners can buy a special Premium Edition that includes behind-the-scenes goodies and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 for an extra $10. Doesn't matter - just get Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, because it's worth owning. It may or may not be the blood-soaked ending to the franchise, but it's easily one of the most enjoyable games in the series and one of the most unapologetically fun games of the season.