It all began back in 1992. Those that were of age heard whispers about a new game, one that not only showed blood, it showed gruesome digital deaths. Phrases like “Get over here” and “fatality” entered the public lexicon, and while gamers flocked to the arcades, Congress and concerned parents went ballistic with warnings that this game would warp the precious little minds of impressionable youth. Naturally, this only strengthened its appeal and brought even more people to the game so they could stare in awe as one character ripped the head off of another. It was shocking and amazing, and changed the way people looked at video games.
Fast forward 19 years, and the world has changed. Decapitations and exploding bodies no longer shock us. In fact, if a violent game doesn’t have blood, gamers complain. Parents have more or less given up, and members of Congress are one step away from delivering fatalities on each other. And so Mortal Kombat has returned to its glorious and ultra-violent roots.
A reboot that isn’t a reboot
The ninth game in the series, simply titled Mortal Kombat, is something of a reboot… but not really. The story begins at the end of all things. Shao Khan has pwned all the fighters and left their bloody corpses to the carrion birds. Raiden is the last man/god standing, but even he can’t stop Khan, who is about to deliver a fatality on the thunder god’s dome. But before Khan can introduce hammer to skull, Raiden sends a message back in time to himself immediately before the very first Mortal Kombat tournament is set to begin.
While this is the foundation of the story, the more important thing is that the long, and confusing mythology of the Mortal Kombat series which was developed over nearly two decades, has been partially erased. It is a fresh start for the franchise. Mortal Kombat manages to recreate itself without sacrificing any of the things that made it great over the years. It also doesn’t try to reinvent itself, thankfully – it remains a 2D fighting game, as it should be (it does offer a 3D display on the PS3, but that doesn’t effect the gameplay).
One of the more interesting features of the game is the story mode, which is broken in to chapters starring one pre-selected character. You begin with Johnny Cage, who meets and fights Sonya, then you fight Kano to save her life. From there you jump to Sonya who is trying to rescue Jax, and from there Scorpion, and so on. The original characters are the focus at first, but as you progress you will be introduced, and then fight with, many of the newer characters as well. It shows you how the characters ended up in the tournament, what their motivations are, and where they fit into the universe. It’s an interesting mechanism that fleshes out the universe, and makes the game more than just a typical fighter—it is a story that involves fighting.
For those who don’t know the over-arching plot of Mortal Kombat, or who weren’t able to follow the increasingly convoluted mythology through the years–which began to involve rogue robots and other very weird elements–the story mode is an excellent introduction to the series. For fans of the game, it offers a new perspective on old events, which should appease those that were willing and able to follow the nearly 20-year long plot. Some of the dialogue is cheesy, and certain moments are kind of “out there,” but in general it is a good narrative. There are some balance issues though, and what would a Mortal Kombat game be if it didn’t blatantly cheat every now and again. It’s almost tradition at this point.
The level of difficulty seems to change on a whim. Some enemies will be crushed beneath you easily, while others will string together insane combos. You may then without warning be forced into a handicap match where you’ll fight a tag team. Typically though, if you have to replay a fight again and again, you will eventually get to a new round where you utterly dominate the character that was just whoopin’ you. And then there are the bosses… they flat out cheat. They will launch into their own combos even while you are in the middle of a combo of your own, then they will drop the odd unblockable attack just for giggles. It can be an exercise in frustration and even the most seasoned MK fans will be pressed to steal a win.
In general though, the story does an excellent job of taking a long history and redoing some of the points that worked well. Oddly, there is no way to skip the cut scenes, nor can you go back through the previous chapters you have already passed. Kind of a shame.
There are also ladder matches, which is an old school tournament where you fight your way to Shao Khan. Each character has his/her own ending, which is brief, but a good epilogue to the full story mode.
Come for the brutal killing, stay for the shopping
One of the best things about this game is that there is a lot to do—a whole lot. You have the story mode, the ladder matches, a challenge tower which awards you for completing increasingly difficult challenges and mini-games, a tutorial, a store where you can buy things based on coins you earn for each fight you win and challenge you complete, and online play. Plus, of course, the versus mode which most people will spend a lot of time with.
Versus offers the normal fighting modes that you would expect, as well as a tag team match, which features team combos. You can play with your friend on the same tag-team, or you can have up to four players facing off on two teams.
The online can get a bit sluggish due to lag, but that is somewhat rare. Online you have ranked matches or free games, and you can play alone, or join another player to face off against two other real opponents online. There is also a King of the Hill mode which pits 10 people in the same tournament with one person fighting until they lose, while the other players spectate. When it comes to online fighting games, there only so much you can do, and Mortal Kombat offers just about everything you might want.
As you progress through any of the game modes, you earn credits which you can spend in the store (called the “Krypt”) to purchase things like new fatalities. There are many other things available – like artwork and game augmenters.
Beyond the stuff you see in the menus, MK is packed with easter eggs, including babalities, secret stage fatalities, and hidden fights. There is a lot to explore.
Unlockable content or not, the real question is: how does the game play? The answer is very well, but you need patience. The fighting mechanics are exactly what developer NetherRealm Studios wanted. If you are a fan of the Street Fighter series, then MK will feel a bit sluggish at times, but this a choice rather than a problem. Each of the primary buttons represents a limb. There is a dedicated button for block and another for throw. The movement is the important thing; you cannot just charge your opponent and mash buttons in the hopes of a combo. You need to consider which button to hit, and how the momentum of that movement will best be served when it comes to the next hit. If you punch someone with a right cross, you will want to follow with a spinning roundhouse kick, or a left hook, for example. Trying to cut back across with a left sweep won’t work. It is a slightly simplified version compared to previous MK titles, but one that works.
Combos are the most important thing in the game, but a close second would be each character’s unique attacks. If you play with Sub-Zero, you need to learn his ice slide and freeze, or if you are Scorpion, you must be able to throw your spear, otherwise you will get pummeled from a distance. When you master these, the combos become much easier, and you can quickly deal massive amounts of damage to your foe.
The most notable new feature to the series is the super gauge, which fills as you land attacks. When filled, the first gauge offers a more powerful attack; the second a combo breaker; the third is the X-ray attack, which is by far the most memorable and damaging – it deals 30-percent damage on its own, and when linked in a combo can change the balance of a fight in seconds. They also look very cool, although each character has only one animation which gets old after a bit. They can be blocked and dodged though, so it is important to use them wisely.
Fatalities have also been simplified, thankfully, and many characters will use the same button commands. In the older MK games, sometimes the fatalities were positively aggravating. They became so difficult that learning even half of them was something of an accomplishment. Mortal Kombat makes it easier and the addition of a fatality tutorial is also helpful.
Once you understand the logic of the moves, the consistency of it will make sense in all 23 characters.
The new Mortal Kombat takes what worked for the series over the last 19 years, and streamlines it for a new generation of gamers. Longtime fans of the series should enjoy the new perspective, while new fans will have an easy starting point to join the bloody mythology from the ground floor.
The fighting mechanics take some getting used to, but that also means that fans of the genre won’t have to endure losing to button mashers who just happen to have found a character that works to their strengths. It takes a bit of skill to win, and the engaging story mode is a great way to gain that skill.
Mortal Kombat is a welcome reboot for a franchise that had begun to fade into obscurity. A few minor issues mar the title, but if you are a fighter fan, or if the series is appealing to you at all, then the ultra-bloody, Mortal Kombat is worth a look. Just don’t let Congress see it, it may give them ideas for the next budget debate.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PS3 on a copy provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)