Mortal Kombat 1 review: "An exceptional, confident fighting game"

Mortal Kombat 1
(Image: © NetherRealm)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Mortal Kombat 1 is a superbly presented fighting game with something to offer players of all experience and familiarity with NetherRealm's sprawling MK universe. The Kameo fighter system injects new strategic depth into combat, the rebooted timeline feeds a ridiculous story, and the suite of game modes are both varied and well made.


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    A surprisingly strong but utterly daft plot to the story mode, rammed with stuff that'll make MK fans grin

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    Kameo fighters offer immeasurable depth to the combat

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    Plenty of quality modes for the single player and online fighting game fan


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    Lacking in modes compared to previous titles

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    Some slight microtransaction ickiness

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A little secret among fighting game players is despite the clear success stories that are Street Fighter and Tekken, Mortal Kombat is far and away the biggest fighting game series of the lot, dwarfing the lifetime sales totals of its rivals with a remarkable eighty million copies sold. It's not even a close-run thing – Mortal Kombat is the king of the fighters, so to speak – and, if Mortal Kombat 1 is any indication, the series shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.


Release date: September 19, 2023
Platform(s): PC, PS5, Switch, Xbox Series X
Developer: NetherRealm
Publisher: Warner Bros. Games

This outlandish popularity is an important factor, because it means that Mortal Kombat has always had to spin a few more plates than many of its genre-mates. For every ultra-competitive player who enters tournaments and knows every single piece of frame-data there's someone who just picks the game up, runs through the story mode, and never touches it again. NetherRealm has to deliver compelling content to cater to them all – even those Mileena fans who keep coming at creative director Ed Boon on social media when he threatens to exclude her from one of the games.

Back to basics

Mortal Kombat 1

(Image credit: NetherRealm)

Mortal Kombat 1 is disruptive by design. A reboot of the entire MK universe, bringing about sweeping changes to combat and characters in ways that might surprise you. So while Mortal Kombat 1 certainly builds on the foundations of its predecessor, Mortal Kombat 11, the addition of Kameo characters offers a considerable change to the tried and tested formula. Jabbing R1/RB and a direction on the d-pad brings a selected Kameo fighter into battle to perform a particular move – drawing from a selection of grabs, combo extenders, trap moves, and more, all of which can be used to compliment your chosen fighter's strengths and weaknesses. 

At its most basic level, the Kameo system is a smart way to reintroduce a collection of fringe Mortal Kombat favorites back into the series – Stryker, Darius, and Motaro being particular standouts. At a more technical level, however, Kameos add some significant strategic depth to the proceedings, as simply switching out your chosen Kameo for another can change the way you'll need to approach a match with your chosen main, giving you or your opponent new problems to solve. It's so refreshingly fast and loose, too, allowing you to get away with some really sneaky, dirty tactics in a time where most developers strive for their systems to be fair and balanced. Above all else, Mortal Kombat 1 prioritizes fun.

It's not just the combat that NetherRealm are having a lot of fun mixing up this time around either, with the continuing Mortal Kombat story receiving a substantial overhaul. A problem with past installments has been that it's difficult to know what to expect from the series' story mode – NetherRealm has now had to canonically reboot its own timeline twice to undo some of the wild absurdities that have occurred and, despite Mortal Kombat 1 offering a fresh start of sorts to the Mortal Kombat world and its most famous fighters, it isn't long before things get characteristically daft.

Mortal Kombat 1

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Mortal Kombat 1's rebooted universe is ultimately a nice excuse to bring back the classic martial arts tournament setting, and throw some beloved characters into the mix – regardless of whether or not they'd been killed off, or had suffered an otherwise bizarre fate in previous titles. In the 10 or so hours it'll take you to play through the Mortal Kombat 1 story there's plenty of twists and turns that impact the sanctity of Liu Kang's 'peaceful' version of the Mortal Kombat universe; it's daft, violent, and full of brilliant little nods and winks for the hardcore MK fan to spot. It is, once again, exceptionally fun. 

It also looks absolutely phenomenal. Mortal Kombat 11 was a pretty good looking game and while it is hard to spot considerable improvements in the character models, better lighting, greater detail, and native 4K output mean that the backgrounds that the fights take place in are some of the finest seen within the genre. There's so much going on and at such high fidelity, they're really impressive to look at. The facial capture during the story mode cutscenes is also at a level that is almost real, nearly breaking through the 'uncanny valley'.

Expanding play

Mortal Kombat 1

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Once you're done with the story mode, your options are a bit more limited but of a high standard nonetheless. There's the obligatory 'arcade' mode towers, which include an ending sequence for every character and then, after that, the only thing going for the single player fighting game fan is the 'Invasions' mode – Mortal Kombat 1's 'live service' style portion that is going to run throughout the life cycle of the game. 

It's really enjoyable, reminiscent somewhat of Soulcalibur's excellent 'Edge Master' mode, where you travel around a big board and get in unique encounters that usually have you challenging other fighters in scraps with some specific modifiers to them. Stuff like low gravity, multi-man battles, or even boss fights that have some sections where you're dodging projectiles fired in from outside the arena while you chip away at their considerable health bar.

To level the playing field a bit, you gain experience points and gold 'koins' for every win, which you can use to raise stat points and give your chosen character more damage and health, for instance, as well as buy items that can refill your health or talismans that give you access to new special moves, which can also be leveled up and improved. 

There's also a currency that allows you to buy seasonal content – costumes and color palettes, basically – whilst the current season is running. This is going to add a bit of longevity to Mortal Kombat 1, providing NetherRealm can find a way to keep forthcoming seasons of content interesting and the purchasable items worthwhile, but it is off to a solid start.

Mortal Kombat 1 combat

(Image credit: WB Games)

There is, of course, the slightly unfortunate inclusion of a 'premium' store. Same as any other game that includes one, it is a series of cycling items that can only be purchased with 'Dragon Krystals', a currency that can only be bought with real money – there doesn't appear to be a way to get these costumes via in-game play. Another slight downer is the removal of the Krypt, Mortal Kombat's usual vault full of unlockable bits and pieces. 

Now, for what it is worth, all of this stuff is included in Mortal Kombat 1 throughout the different modes, but the Krypt itself (specifically the one in MK11) was a fantastic combination of virtual Mortal Kombat museum, Myst-lite island puzzle, and unlockables menu that was full of cool touches for anyone who considers themselves a fan of all things MK. 

Sure, the Krypt wasn't without its issues – it required a lot of grinding for currency, and didn't include any items for any of the many DLC characters, so quickly became a bit obsolete, but it is a shame that NetherRealm removed it completely instead of finding a way to refine the experience. However, by ensuring that MK1 still has a boatload of unlockables from concept artwork to hats for Raiden and everything in between, it doesn't feel as much of a miss as it could've been.

Fighting with friends

Mortal Kombat 1 combat

(Image credit: WB Games)

Outside of those modes, it's a case of getting down to the real hardcore business of getting better at the game and challenging yourself against real life players. The tutorials, although hidden in a menu, are actually extremely detailed and full of practical examples to try out. They even go so far as to explain concepts such as frame advantage and how to maintain a pressure string against an opponent, so there's enough here for those who are trying to take their game to the next level, rather than just starting out. 

The practice mode itself also has the usual options to ensure that players have everything they need to drill any situation, including on screen frame data displays and the ability to make the practice dummy do whatever it is you need them to do. It isn't quite as user-friendly and instantly understandable as Street Fighter 6's 'Simple Practice' options and visual frame data meter, but everything is present regardless.

Online is also a fair bit less interesting than Capcom's offering. There's no online environment like the Battle Hub to meet and challenge players in, just a few different options for the type of fight you'd like to have and the ranked 'Kombat League', which again runs for a month or so, allows players to get as high up the leaderboard as they can, dishes out some rewards then resets to zero for everyone to go again. 

It does, brilliantly, force you to play a best out of three set rather than having people dip after a win but unfortunately doesn't have a way to filter out Wi-Fi users or others with a poor connection. In fact, once you've been matched against someone, you have to play the set even if it is like playing in quicksand. When everything works fine, which is most of the time to be fair, Mortal Kombat 1's netcode is excellent.

Mortal Kombat 1

(Image credit: NetherRealm)

Mortal Kombat 1 is a superbly presented fighting game with a combat system that manages to be familiar to what the series has provided in previous games but also requires a whole new approach due to how much the Kameo fighters can change a single character's gameplan. It is almost like each Kameo creates a different version of each main character, such is the variety within the Kameo's movesets and how they can blend with the moves of whoever you have selected from the main roster. Although NetherRealm have already confirmed the first DLC run of Mortal Kombat 1 characters, it is going to be extremely interesting if they drop any new Kameo fighters into the game because that could potentially be just as big a deal in regards to keeping the game fresh and exciting. 

Despite lacking a few of the additional modes the series is known for, the content on offer throughout Mortal Kombat 1 is all brilliant fun. Regardless of whether you are a casual MK fan, someone looking to get into the series, or a competitive player looking to hit this game until whatever numbered Mortal Kombat is next drops, you're going to find an exceptional, confident fighting game. People said that the last generation of fighting games was a real golden era. Well, we're two major titles into the new generation and both of them beat the brakes off their previous iterations. Things are looking pretty rosy for fans of people getting punched in the face.


Mortal Kombat 1 was reviewed on PS5, with code provided by the publisher

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Andi Hamilton
Freelance Writer

Andi is a freelance games journalist, but also has a "normal job". Over the last 10 years, Andi has specialised in writing about Street Fighter and Dark Souls, but also covers games more broadly, along with creating podcasts and videos for YouTube and Twitch.  Andi also prides himself in cooking a mean barbecue.