Mortal Kombat Hands-On Impressions

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Sometimes the old ways are the best.  The Mortal Kombat franchise is forsaking the more family-friendly trend that its predecessor Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe was heading towards, instead returning to the glory days of the series where you pummeled your friends before finishing them with a gory and brutal fatality, that ended with anyone watching yelling “Ooooooo!”

The feeling of gore and brutality is back, as the series returns to its roots with a reboot of both story and gameplay, and we got a chance to play the newest incarnation of the series at E3. The controls have been simplified, and the series has returned to what once made it great. The new game, which is currently being called just Mortal Kombat (although that could change), doesn’t introduce anything groundbreaking, but in this case, that is a very good thing, and what it does, it does well.

The story begins as Raiden is facing his death at the hands of Shao Kahn. As the final blow is about to be delivered, Raiden sends a message back in time to an earlier pre-Mortal Kombat version of himself. The game then retells the original three games, but with slight differences that should feel familiar, and yet fresh. After nearly 20 years of history and a story that spanned two movies, two TV shows, and eight games, relaunching the story while honoring its origins seems like a good move that should please fans and welcome new gamers.

As for the gameplay, the fighting has been simplified and opened up, while returning to its 2D side-scrolling origins. Gone are the pre-determined combos that required memorization of a particular series of movements. Instead, the game allows players to link combos based on the situation, which means custom combos are key. Timing will play a huge part of this, but it means that everyone will have the chance to link moves for massive damage, rather than having to take time to memorize moves.

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A tag-team mode has been added, and the characters working together can link their moves to continue combos, but it will cost you power. Tag team fighting is nothing new in fighting games, but it is a welcome addition to the series.

One new feature of the game is the super bar, a power up meter at the bottom of the screen with three segments that fills throughout the match. With each new segment being filled, a new attack is unlocked. Most are a powered up version of existing moves- for example Reptile’s green goo projectile attack becomes larger in size and more powerful. You can also sacrifice a segment of the super bar on powerful tag team attacks that can be used as part of a combo chain. Each of the super moves eats up a segment of the super bar, but the real highlight comes when the super bar is full and the x-ray attack becomes available.

The idea of the power bar in fighting games isn’t new, but the x-ray attack will have people talking. When the bar is full and the x-ray attack is activated, the camera slows down and zooms in on the damage being inflicted. The camera then focuses on the impact and acts like an x-ray, showing the ribs breaking, the vertebrae snapping, and in one case- the liver being frozen and shattered by Sub Zero. The attacks are powerful and can change the momentum of a game, plus it can be demoralizing to watch you character have his or her skull literally broken.

The powered up moves aren’t too tough to earn, and they give even the lowliest of players a chance while felling kind of cool in pulling them off. It isn’t a ground breaking new style of gameplay, but it is satisfying and feels right at home in the Mortal Kombat universe.

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The graphics are also stellar and the character animations are top notch. Returning to the 2D game style allowed the developers to focus on the little details, like blood splatter. When an opponent bleeds, that blood will stay on the ground, and on the opponent that caused it. By the end of particularly brutal matches, both characters might end the round covered in their blood, as well as the blood of an opponent. It is a little detail, but a fitting one for the series that is once again embracing the gore that made it famous.

The levels are also an interesting reimagining of old favorites, while still being fresh and unique. Returning favorites like “The Pit”, and the “Dead Pool” pop up, and level specific fatalities that send opponents falling onto spikes or into a pool of toxic liquid make a welcome comeback.

Then of course there are the fatalities. A great deal of time and thought was spent on each character’s finishing moves, and the developers are promising future fatalities to be available as DLCs. What we saw showed that the finishing moves are not for the squeamish. One move showed Kung Lao use his hat as a buzz saw which he used to cut his opponent in half; another had Nightwolf decapitate an opponent and then walk off with the head spiked on one of his axes. There is plenty to anger the likes of Jack Thompson here, while fans should love the return to gore.

At the moment, there appear to be 26 playable characters, and at least one planned DLC character. Who those characters will be is still a mystery, but developers are promising a return of fan-favorites from the first three games. Also unavailable is the online play, but NetherRealms is promising a robust online experience that includes more than just online matches. New characters, fatalities, and levels are already being planned.

Fans of the series can rejoice at the return to basics for the once great series as it returns in 2011.

Warning: This trailer may not be suitable for all ages.