For those of us who grew up when a handful of quarters provided an afternoon of entertainment in the local arcade, Mortal Kombat is likely responsible for our developing arthritis and our oblivious reactions to anything remotely gory. The game caused quite a stir in the media when it was first released in the early 90s for its graphic fatalities and general over-the-top violence. Like many of its contemporaries however, the series changed as the years moved on – for example, we saw more action-oriented entries and a switch to a 3D-style template with the introduction of MK4. With NeatherRealm Studios’ latest entry in the series, cleverly titled Mortal Kombat, the developer not only takes us back to the franchise’s arcade roots, but also provides one of the most advanced, yet open fighters to date. It’s equally accessible for those new to the series but deep enough to keep hardcore fans thoroughly challenged throughout the lengthy story campaign and brutal challenge modes.
Mortal Kombat is not a remake of the original, despite carrying the same name; it’s more of a much-needed reboot of the series. You’ll find characters from the first three MKs, including Kratos (exclusively for the PlayStation 3), tons of level-based fatalities, a story campaign that retells the events in the original games, and an extensive online component that will surely extend the title’s lifespan for months to come. But NeatherRealm didn’t just polish the concepts, characters, and lore from the early Mortal Kombat entries; instead, it produced a game that is both familiar and fresh with new features like x-ray moves, enhanced special abilities, even 4-player tag-team.
A lot of developers are introducing compelling narratives to games that typically receive little attention in the single-player campaign. For instance, EA Sports’ Fight Night Champion featured an actual story about a boxer, and while it wasn’t perfect, it showed that there is room for a good story beyond action-adventure and role-playing games. Mortal Kombat runs so far with this concept that the story mode is worthy of its own game. You play through character-specific chapters as you are reintroduced to the events in the first three games. For real big fans of the series, you’ll probably notice the story strays a bit from the source material, but the presentation value alone should keep those same fans on the edge of their sofas.
The difficulty level may feel downright oppressive when you first find yourself facing a tag-team match on your own. That’s right; the game devilishly makes you face a pair of opponents all on your own, and as the story progresses, your enemies only become tougher. But this is nothing compared to what awaits you in the enormously tough Challenge Tower. This section acts almost like a tutorial for the different characters, but absolutely puts your skills to the test. There are typical matches, some quirky mini-games, and even the old school Test Your Might challenges. The tower provides enough content to warrant yet another game but it certainly doesn’t feel tacked on as the core gameplay remains intact.
I’m all for a challenge, honestly, and while the tower and story offer a perfect level of difficulty, the boss battles remain downright painful. This isn’t a result of bosses that are overly skilled or super-fast. Like the old games, Shao Kahn is nasty to the point he’s not enjoyable—and really, we play games strictly for enjoyment, so an update in this department would have gone a long way. This isn’t a huge complaint at all, but it still would have been appropriate to make the bosses feel more like, well, bosses as opposed to anti-special move concrete walls.
You gain Koins as you play through the game. These points are spent on unlocking items from the Krypt, an interactive area home to hidden fatalities, artwork, and other goodies. You can also spend your Koins to skip challenges in the tower, meaning if you are struggling with one area, you can see what’s ahead by dropping some hard-earned points.
The depth in the offline portion of the game is enormous. You can, of course, play classic matches against the computer or up to three other friends. The tag system matches works just fine, and luckily just about everything in the game is based on the core mechanics, which provide a near “flawless victory.” The face buttons are mapped to your attacks, while R1 acts as your throw, and R2 your block. Character movement is tight to the controls and it’s extremely easy to learn special abilities and the basic combos. If you have played the classic Mortal Kombat games, then you are likely already familiar with the idea of lobbing your opponent in the air, perhaps with a well-timed uppercut, then unloading a serious combo followed by a ranged special attack. Newcomers can learn this concept fairly easily, but if you play against a more experienced Mortal Kombat fighter, you’ll find yourself sweeping at every chance you get just to stop the bleeding.
Speaking of stopping the bleeding—characters take a massive beating, as you would imagine in a Mortal Kombat game, and the bloodshed looks fantastic. As the matches become more and more gory, blood cover the fighters, providing some truly brutal looking bouts. As ever, the fatalities are still a highlight. One small complaint however, is that the background goes completely black during these blood-drenched finishing moves. Personally I would rather have the background simply darkened so you still get a sense level location, not just some general cinematic that could take place anywhere. Small complaint, I’m aware, but it’s something I remember enjoying from the early games.
New to the series is the x-ray attack ability, which is based on a Super meter that is filled up throughout the match. As you land special moves, block certain attacks, or get thrashed around just right, your energy bar fills up. There are three different blocks of energy with in this bar. Each block may be spent to enhance special abilities, and a full energy bar allows you to unleash the fury of an x-ray attack. These are game changers and more than a bit overpowered. You simply press R2 and L2 at the same time to perform an x-ray attack, which are almost like mid-match fatality-style cut scenes. These are absolutely over-the-top and can draw their victim’s health down by 40 percent or so.
I sit in the corner opposing these attacks, or at least the overall Super meter system in its current form. It needs refining. For instance, the game intends for you to use your power throughout the match to land more powerful special moves, but there’s really little incentive to do so when you can easily save up that power (each round) and absolutely annihilate your opponent. They are also far too easy to execute. Perhaps if the counter system was improved the x-ray attacks wouldn’t feel so cheap. On the other hand, I played several matches against my girlfriend and these attacks kept her in competition—without it, I’d have to play with my eyes closed.
That’s not to say I’m really good at this game. Actually, I thought I was good until I took my skills online. Playing against human opponents is always the best bet, and online has some incredible potential. The King of the Hill mode is, as it sounds, a challenge to see who can beat the best fighter. Think back to those arcade days where you’d put your quarter down to signal you wanted to challenge the reigning champion. This mode allows you to watch the matches in real-time as you wait your turn. King of the Hill is where you’ll want to spend a lot of your time after you learned the basics and aren’t scared to take on the world—or at least a small group of strangers.
Elsewhere online you’ll find typical ranked matches and player matches, in both 1v1 and 2v2. It’s extremely easy to find a match and there are plenty of public lobbies to mingle and challenge other users. Online is not perfect, but it’s hard for me to say that’s because of servers or the system, or because of the recent issues with the PlayStation Network. I had quite a few matches simply drop due to connection issues, and noticed both lag and graphical issues pop up from time to time. Other matches, however, were perfectly executed, and I really got a chance to see how good people already are—the majority of my opponents, by the way, were Smoke, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero. There may be some balancing issues with the individual characters, both online and off, but it seems that can easily be corrected by the developer.
Mortal Kombat didn’t take me by surprise, I sort of expected it be really good, and it delivered. My main concerns with the game—the Super meter system, the (still) annoying boss battles, and online issues—can all be worked out. There are other little issues, like not being able to skip cut scenes in the story mode, that are more annoying than overly frustrating. Then again, the actual issues are easily overlooked if you enjoy the less-calculated fighting game, or just love anything related to Mortal Kombat. It’s really a joy to play for those of us who grew up alongside Scorpion and company.
How long the game sticks around is really up to the community. The single-player has tremendous depth, but all of it can likely be beaten in 15-20 hours, depending on your skill. Online is really where the game may shine six months down the road. The story is cheesy, as you’d expect, while the voice acting and character models during cut scenes are not super polished. As an overall experience however, Mortal Kombat is simply fun. It’s actually more than fun; it’s a ton of fun. As I said earlier in the review, games are meant to be enjoyed, and I truly feel sorry for anyone that doesn’t know how to enjoy a game like Mortal Kombat.