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. Ripping heads off and exploding bodies no longer shock us. In fact, if a violent game that 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 streamlined. It is a fresh start for the franchise, and it manages to pick and choose the best bits of the series and put them into one package—and it works well. 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. Mortal Kombat 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, which remains 2D).
One of the more interesting features of the game is the story mode, which walks you through new events as they unfold by pre-selecting your character and playing through a few moments from their perspective. 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 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.
As you progress, you will typically battle two opponents as a specific character, then be forced into a handicapped match were you face two opponents at the same time. Now, if you are familiar with the character you are playing, you should be able to beat the tag-team quickly enough, but the point of the story is for you to play as several characters, so there will come a time when you are facing two opponents with a character that you don’t like. This can be frustrating, and more than one controller may receive a fatality due to the nature of these anger-inducing games.
The level of difficulty also seems to change on a whim. Some enemies will be crushed beneath you easily, while others will string together insane combos. 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 combos even while you are in the middle of a combo that is landing blows, and 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 is also a ladder match, which is a 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 allows you to switch players with the touch of a button and combine attacks with your tag-team partner. 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 is fairly solid as well–it does get a bit sluggish now and again 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–but most will want the fatalities first.
Beyond the stuff you see in the menus, MK is packed with Easter Eggs, including—of all things—babalities, secret stage fatalities and hidden fights. There is a lot to explore, which fans—and anyone wanting to get their dollars’ worth out of a game—will enjoy.
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, similar to how Tekken plays. 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 left roundhouse kick, or a right jab 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.
As with the previous games, the majority of the moves will involve pressing the D-pad or analog stick in a direction, then toward another direction—for example, there are several moves that use back, back forward and a button, as opposed to the Street Fighter-style, which tends to use more fluid movements like semi-circles. Neither is better or worse, it is just a matter game play styles.
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 you fill up the first of three segments, it will offer an enhanced attack, which makes a special move more powerful. The second segment offers a breaker, which you can use to stop an opponents’ combo. The third is the X-ray attack, which is by far the most memorable and damaging. Each time you use the gauge, it resets, so it quickly becomes a vital part of your strategy. Most will probably opt to power up the X-Ray move, which can deal 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 one animation that gets old after a bit. They can be blocked and dodged though, so it is important to use them wisely.
The 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 half of them was something of an accomplishment. Mortal Kombat makes it easier and the addition of a fatality tutorial is also helfpul.
Mortal Kombat’s gameplay can take a bit of getting used to, and if you are unfamiliar with the games, it might feel a bit slow to respond at first. But once you understand the logic, things will just click, and the consistency of it will make sense. There are 23 characters at the onset, with one unlockable, and two available through DLC, which should give you plenty of options to find characters that you are comfortable with.
The PS3 version also has two major advantages over the Xbox 360 version. The first is 3D, which may not be an issue if you don’t have (or want) a 3D TV, but the second is the exclusive PS3 character: Kratos from God of War. It is just one character, but it is a nice boost for PS3 owners, as there is 360 exclusive counterpart.
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. Old and new fans alike should also dig the massive amount of content available.
The fighting controls are similar to older MK games (you will still press directional commands rather than do fluid movements), but also a bit improved because they are leaner. Saying the control scheme is easier than before is half right, but you still need to know what button will give you the best result. Simplified fatalities are a welcome touch, and the versus modes, both online and off could keep you entertained for a long time.
The story mode is engrossing in a cheesy way, and the plot does a good job of rewriting the franchise’s history. An imbalance in the matches–especially the bosses who cheat relentlessly and dare you to do something about it—do somewhat mar the overall effort though, and make a great experience spotty at times.
The fighting mechanics take some getting used to, and they won’t embrace players like Street Fighter can, 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.
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)