Review: Mortal Kombat

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One can’t define ’90s videogame culture, and in a sense pop culture, without at least a passing mention of Mortal Kombat. It wasn’t the deepest game on the market, fighting or otherwise, but it captured the imagination of millions with its unapologetic-yet-silly violence and gore. I couldn’t begin to tally the number of quarters I dumped into my local video shop’s Mortal Kombat machine, or the hours spent on perfecting Mortal Kombat II‘s fatality motions on my Super Nintendo controller.

The years, however, haven’t been kind to the franchise. In order for a series to evolve, the developers have to take chances; the folks behind Mortal Kombat perhaps took one too many. From the ill-conceived (Mortal Kombat: Special Forces) to the not-quite-right 3D turn (Mortal Kombat 4), things kind of fell off the rails. But never too far that fans of the series didn’t stick around, waiting for that next jaw-dropping fatality.

Mortal Kombat, the first game designed under the Warner Bros. NetherRealm Studios moniker, is that fatality. It’s a glorious throwback to the things that made the series great, with a current-gen polish that makes it feel entirely fresh. In short, it’s the best game in the Mortal Kombat series to date.

Mortal Kombat (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Released: April 19, 2011
Price: $59.99

The Mortal Kombat series has never been known for its tournament-ready fighter balance or gameplay mechanics, but let me be clear: I’m not a tournament player, so I can’t (and won’t) speak to that for this latest installment. Here’s what I can say, without hesitation: Mortal Kombat feels fluid and brutal, and its combat is as fun to command as it is to watch in action.

If you haven’t picked up a controller or sunk a quarter into a machine to play Mortal Kombat since 1995’s Mortal Kombat III, don’t worry. The great news is that the basic techniques and controls you’re used to make a return, minus that pesky “run” button. Back are the standard four attack buttons, which include one light and one heavy attack for both punches and kicks. All characters share a similar base move set, which means uppercuts, sweeps, and jump kicks are the same for each fighter across the board. This serves as a pretty easy way to hop into a game and hold your own with any character, even as a first-time player.

While that homogenization of the roster might put off some fighting game fans, it’s par for the course with the Mortal Kombat series. But it doesn’t mean that the game’s sizable roster of characters — made up entirely of classic Mortal Kombat fighters, with few exceptions — all fight the same way. In addition to the usual arsenal of special moves, each fighter has his or her own unique combos.

Series creator Ed Boon has gone on record as saying this latest game would allow players to (and I’m paraphrasing here) “make their own combos,” but that doesn’t seem entirely accurate. While it’s possible to string moves together in order to juggle enemies for additional hits and such, the game has a meaty selection of pre-defined combos for each fighter. These combos are not only useful in combat (and can even be strung together with other attacks, including some specials), but they’re an absolute joy to pull off and see in action.

Every blow in Mortal Kombat lands with a meaty thunk or thwack, as though tendons are tearing and bones are cracking with each jab or kick landed. When it comes to sheer brutality, Mortal Kombat has no equal in the fighting game space; no game does a better job of making you feel powerful, capable of doing serious damage to the fragile human body, than NetherRealm’s fighter.

This brutality is especially prevalent in one of the game’s most dramatic additions, the “X-Ray” moves. Mortal Kombat now has a “super meter” which builds up to three levels as you fight, defend, or get hammered by your opponent. At the first level, you can throw super-charged versions of your character’s special attacks, usually done by performing the special movements in conjunction with the block button. The combo breakers that were found in previous iterations of the series are back (done by pressing towards and block), and use two levels of your special. But you’ll find that patience will reward you with that third level, the aforementioned “X-Ray,” and you’re going to want to see these in action as often as possible.

Distinct for each character, “X-Ray” moves are the “Super” or “Ultra” combos of the Mortal Kombat universe. When in play, the screen darkens and the camera zooms in on the action, exposing the bone and muscle of the character on the receiving end. You’ll see skulls shatter and organs rupture as the action slows down to a crawl to detail each and every sadistic blow. Every “X-Ray” move is an absolute treat to watch, completely over-the-top and outright ridiculous in equal measure. I couldn’t help but giggle (sometimes uncomfortably) as I watched the on-screen fighters pull out all the stops to completely tenderize each other’s faces, shins, livers (not a typo!), and more. From a gameplay perspective, these “X-Ray” moves do massive damage and can sometimes turn the tide of a battle; they can also be blocked, so knowing when to use them (and when to expect them) is key to success.

And the Fatalities! Oh, the Fatalities! These finishing moves are what made Mortal Kombat famous, and they’re back in full M-rated force after the series’ last offering, the T-rated Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Like the “X-Ray” moves, experiencing them firsthand for the first time is half the fun, so I don’t want to give too much away. But suffice it to say that there’s no lack of creativity in these fight-concluding massacres, with each player having more than one in their sack of deadly tricks. Stage Fatalities are here, and even the humorous, somewhat nonsensical Babalities have returned. It also seems as if the game is bit more relaxed in terms of the timing of the Fatalities; you still have to remember the button combinations, but the game seems much more forgiving than previous iterations. It helps that the game features a training mode that will allow you to practice (and watch) all of the game’s fatalities without the “hassle” of trying to win a fight.

NetherRealm has also added a new tag team fighting mode, which pits teams of two against each other. It’s a pretty great addition to the series and definitely not just a mode tossed in at the last minute. The tag mode is well thought out, with each character possessing his or her own tag combos for you to master. Bonus: up to four players can participate in tag battles for some serious party-style brawls.

If you were to hold a gun to my head, I probably couldn’t recount the ins and outs of the Mortal Kombat narrative. The developers have done a pretty good job over the years of building on the series’ mythology (with a number of narrative-driven action games, even), but the first three games in the series were light on perceivable story. The latest Mortal Kombat sets it all right with a single-player story campaign that recounts (and in many ways, retells) the stories of Mortal Kombat I, II, and III. This story mode lasts nearly eight hours, broken up into chapters where you’ll take the role of a different character (determined by the narrative) as you progress.

Mortal Kombat
won’t win any awards for its writing or voice acting — the dialogue and the delivery managed to elicit more than a few groans — but it’s certainly an entertaining journey from beginning to end. The very fact that NetherRealm put this much time and care into what is normally a throwaway mode is simply impressive. Sure, some may find a few issues with the one-sided “two-on-one” battles it throws at you more than a few times, plus an overpowered monster of a final boss. But it’s an enjoyable romp, one that does a good job of forcing you to become familiar with a variety of fighters, and should become the standard for fighters that care enough to build upon their fiction.

If hours of story aren’t enough, NetherRealm didn’t stop there. The game also features standard ladder-style fights that can be played with any character, with each and every one of them having their own ending sequence. There’s also an expansive “Challenge Tower” that features some 300 different tests, all of which will put your Mortal Kombat skills through their paces. The challenges vary wildly, including standard fights, armless combat, and “Test Your Might” mini-games.

There are also a ton of unlockables in the game’s “Krypt,” which seems to feature an endless supply of alternate outfits, concept art, and more. Krypt items can be purchased with coins that are earned throughout most of the game’s modes, including the story and Challenge Tower. It’s great how everything ties together, while constant reminders of what you’re earning as you earn them act like dangling carrots that seem to give everything you do a sense of weight and significance.

Powered by the Unreal Engine, Mortal Kombat is looking better than ever in this latest iteration. The fighting is fast and smooth, with a great damage model on game characters that shows bruising, ripped clothes, and torn flesh as fights escalate. The game’s environments are particularly striking, with tons of detail that were still catching my eye after hours of play.

Online play

Here’s the reason why this review didn’t drop day-and-date with the game’s release, if you must ask. The servers weren’t available until launch day, and I couldn’t justify running a review before at least getting a peek at Mortal Kombat‘s online offerings.

What Mortal Kombat brings to the table for online isn’t particularly groundbreaking in the fighting game space, but it’s an admirable and solid set of features for a game already chock-full of offline replayability. You can hop into a pre-existing “chat” room (or create your own), which allows players to view connection strength and player status, and to communicate with one another via text. That last point yields the results you’d expect, by the way; here’s an example of what was happening in one of the game’s chat rooms the other night:

In theory, finding and challenging other players in this manner should be a snap. In actuality, it’s not that simple. Many challenges I sent were either never responded to or outright rejected as players waited for… who knows what? In a lot of cases, I was told the player wasn’t available after sending a challenge. Your other option to find players is the quick match option (either ranked or not) from the main online screen. It seems most people were opting to jump into chat rooms, because I found myself waiting for no less than one to two minutes (sometimes more) for the game to match me up with a fighter. In short, it felt like I spent more time setting up a fight than actually doing any fighting.

Mortal Kombat does have a pretty neat “King of the Hill” mode, which is an arcade-style “quarter up” game session. Player Avatars (mini versions of Mortal Kombat faves, or Avatars on the Xbox 360) stand in a theater and watch fights happen in real time as they wait their turn in a winner-stays series of fights. While waiting, players can emote by cheering or booing, and after the match, players rate the winner on a scale of 1 to 10, which goes towards the victor’s overall “Respect Points.” Despite having to wait in some extremely long queues before getting my chance to battle, I think it’s a pretty great setup; it’s particularly nice to be able to watch my potential opponents’ gameplay patterns before I get my shot.

How smooth the online play is will be a “your mileage may vary” situation, but I can’t say I was entirely thrilled with the few hours I put in. Matches ranged from stuttering messes to a few that were playable but with noticeable lag that had me adjusting my timing to keep up. This was pretty much the case on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3; I didn’t find one better or worse than the other. Again, I realize that optimizing fighting games for online play is a tricky process, and that players are at the mercy of not only their own connection, but that of their opponents. It’s worth noting my experience here, but it might not be indicative of your own. (If you’ve been spending some time with the game online, please comment and let us know how it’s going for you.)

PS3 vs. Xbox 360… FIGHT!

I’m not going to win any friends with this one, and I generally like to stay out of this stuff, but here goes: I think the PS3 version of Mortal Kombat is superior to the Xbox 360 version. There, I said it, although I feel kind of dirty for even having to bring it up.

First, the obvious: the PS3 game features more content out of the box, specifically with the inclusion of an additional fighter, God of War‘s Kratos. His character is not only fully realized as a fighter within the context of the game, but he slides in with Mortal Kombat‘s cast of goons with ease. Fans of the God of War series will appreciate the care taken in bringing him to life in the fighter, and there are plenty of nods to the series weaved into all of his attacks. The PS3 version of the game also features support for 3D televisions, if that’s your thing.

The Xbox 360 version, on the other hand, doesn’t feature anything that sets it apart from its “competition.” There are no exclusive hidden characters or modes; it’s simply the PS3 version minus one character.

I’ve also found that Mortal Kombat appears to be designed around console controllers, its movements for combos and specials tailored for four-way D-pad motions. I won’t harp on it too much, since it’s a dead horse, but the D-pad on the Xbox 360 controller ain’t that hot. I found trying to pull of many moves with it (including simple things like doing a sweep) frustrating. Switching over to the analog stick yielded somewhat better results, but comparatively, things felt far more accurate on the DualShock 3’s segmented D-pad.

If you plan on using a fight stick on the Xbox 360, you might not think this will be an issue. But I found that the buttons — including block, tag, and the single-button throw — were all in the perfect places on the standard controller. On a fight stick, even PDP’s official Mortal Kombat Tournament Stick, the buttons are spread out in such a way that keeping my fingers on important buttons like “block” felt senselessly difficult.

The bottom line with this comparison is that both games are solid, and if you only have one console, you’ll get a great package either way. But when it comes down to it, it really seems like the PS3 is the best fit for Mortal Kombat. (With that said, I’ll probably end up doing most of my playing — reluctantly, mind you — on the 360, where it seems the bulk of my personal network of friends is competing.)

Over the past two weeks, I’ve spent perhaps as much time playing the new Mortal Kombat as I did playing the original titles in the arcade and on consoles. The fact that I still haven’t unlocked everything, and that I’m not bored of the game’s ruthless fighting mechanics and sadistic finishers, is a testament to the game’s value.

Mortal Kombat doesn’t redefine the franchise, but by sticking to what it does best and piling on the content, it has become a must-have for fans and easily establishes itself as the best in the series.

Impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.

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