Mortal Kombat (PS Vita) hands-on preview

NetherRealm Studios pulled off a remarkable feat last year: it made Mortal Kombat a force to be reckoned with again in the fighting game genre. The series hadn’t ever disappeared, but increasingly it had been moving away from the elements that made the series such a hit back when arcades were still legion. NetherRealm took a back-to-basics approach with the core fighting elements while also introducing a new wrinkle in the form of the Challenge Tower.

All of these elements will be ported over to Sony’s newly released PlayStation Vita when Mortal Kombat is released for the handheld in April 2012. It’s not just a straight port, however. Early looks at the gameplay have revealed that at least a few features will take advantage of the Vita’s unique capabilities. I got to get up close and personal with the game last week at GDC, and I can confidently say that NetherRealm seems to be approaching the new stuff with the same level of care and respect for the franchise as it did with the console reboot.

Everything you enjoyed about the Komplete Edition of the console game is coming back in the Vita edition. The story, the versus fighting (ad-hoc and wi-fi, both proudly touted as running at 60FPS), the minigames, the Challenge Tower… this is no stripped-down port. In fact, Mortal Kombat on Vita will actually boast more content than its predecessor, thanks to an entirely new Challenge Tower — roughly six hours of content, according to NetherRealm — and an assortment of new “Test Your…” minigames that use Vita-specific controls.

In terms of the basic fighting gameplay, it’s largely unchanged on the Vita save for two important features. First: fatalities can now be triggered using the touch screen. More importantly, they’re a little easier to pull off since they just involve swiping in the appropriate directions. For example: normally, one of Sub-Zero’s fatalities is trigger by pressing Back, Forward, Down, Forward on the analog stick/D-pad, followed by a Back Kick. Using the Vita, you would simply need to swipe Back, Forward, Down, Forward to trigger the fatality using the screen.

Mortal Kombat‘s Vita edition will also offer a new way to trigger the game’s “X-ray move” combination attack. The console version featured this new special attack that could be triggered when an on-screen meter filled up by pressing a specific button combination. In the Vita version, triggering an “X-ray move” is as simple as tapping the on-screen icon when the meter is filled. Simple.

On the minigame side, there are two new ones that both use the Vita hardware in inventive ways. Test Your Slice is essentially a Mortal Kombat take on Fruit Ninja. You swipe across the screen to cut objects — largely decapitated heads and body parts — in half as they’re thrown into your field of view. It’s time-based, so slicing green clocks adds to your remaining seconds while slicing red clocks takes some time away. There are also a variety of slice-able power-ups, such as a Sub-Zero head that freezes everything on the screen and a piece of toast that, when sliced, triggers Toasty Mode, immediately filling the screen with flying body parts for you to slice.

Test Your Balance is equally goofy. Here, you must hold the Vita upright and level, tilting to the left and right to keep a fighter balanced on a pole suspended over a pit. Body parts randomly fly in from the left and right, knocking into your fighter and throwing the balance meter out of whack. Later levels require you to keep balanced in a specific position — ie hold the meter in different spots — without falling. Anytime you fall, you’re treated to an amusingly grisly MK-style death, such as spinning fan blades or a pool filled with piranha.

The big new addition is a second Challenge Tower. The original game’s Tower remains, but a new, Vita-specific one brings another 150+ objective-based levels into the game. Many of these also take advantage of the Vita’s unique features. One that I got to try, called Bring Out Your Dead, required me to beat down Scorpion using 10 very weak (two or three hits takes the out) zombie fighters. Another mode plays out like a more standard fight, only each strike coats the screen in blood that you need to physically wipe away (unless you’re cool fighting with obscured vision).

There’s a ton of content here. A mini-fighters mode has two pint-sized MK fighters with oversized heads duking it out. Fire Away requires players to tap fireballs as they appear on screen, before they can reach the fighter standing on the opposite side. Bombs Away is a particularly hectic one; it plays mostly like a standard fight, only you can tap bombs on the screen to damage enemies (or yourself) and juggle them (or yourself… seriously: be careful) as bombs fall. There’s much more beyond that as well, including levels that put you in control of Shao Kahn and Kintaro.

There’s always the temptation among developers working on ports for portable platforms to strip away some of the original game’s content. Refreshingly, NetherRealm did the opposite with Mortal Kombat for the PlayStation Vita. Fans who have played the console game need not worry about having to buy a “second copy” when the Vita version arrives next month; while all of the older content remains, there’s a surprising amount of new stuff to plug through and the bulk of it is specifically tailored to take advantage of the new platform.

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