Nowadays, fighting games have followed the common trend of improving the multiplayer experience and it’s completely understandable. Great fighting games boast a wide variety of characters that not only contrast in fighting style but provide a delicate balance. Dedicated gamers have a deep appreciation for balance and detail that delivers popular fighting games to the limelight of tournament play and, ultimately, better longevity. Unfortunately, it is this type of trend that has led a lot of top developers to skimp on something that has been missing for many years – solo play.
Mortal Kombat fills this void with care and provides a unique package that not only raises the bar on story mode but provides some of the most compelling game modes outside of online play. In other fighting games, story mode (or arcade mode) was mostly relegated to experiencing the backstory of your character and discovering his or her fate after fighting the last boss. The motivation would come down to unlocking other characters, costumes and other endings and eventually taking your newly unlocked character to the training grounds to learn some combos to play people online.
Story mode intertwines the backstories of its esoteric characters resulting in all out revenge, unstable alliances and nasty betrayals. Instead of experiencing one character’s trials to victory, Mortal Kombat follows a single story through most of its fighting roster. The game pays homage through its prequels; specifically the first Mortal Kombat Trilogy. The story begins with the whole cast laying dead entrails-n-all in a barren wasteland while Raiden begins his futile attempt at fighting Shao Khan in a final battle. Right before Shao Khan lands the final blow in slo-mo, you are whisked through a whirlwind of flashbacks resembling cutscenes from Mortal Kombat 1-8 which becomes Raiden’s visions of the impending future. When Raiden gains back consciousness from his daydream, he finds himself back in the middle of the first original tournament standing next to Liu Kang with a new premonition – effectively rebooting the story and reintroducing the characters.
The story really takes you on the deep end of each of MK’s characters where you discover their collective emotional buttons. You learn how Jax gains cybernetic arms, Scorpion’s eternal feud with Sub Zero and all out wars between several factions. And even if you are only a casual fan of Mortal Kombat or even fighting games in general, the story has an entertaining vibe that does not take itself too seriously. Along with some interesting plot twists and witty dialogue, the story draws attention to each of the characters’ intriguing origins. “This is the last one” is often the common quote you’ll repeat often as you try to resist playing from chapter to chapter with the minor annoyance of unskippable cutscenes; even if you’ve seen them already.
The Challenge Tower greatly contrasts from the story mode with its breakneck pacing and specific challenges. There are 300 challenges in the Challenge Tower with each one rewarding you with Koins for the Krypt, located in the Extras menu. These unlock finishing moves, artwork, and other exclusive content which is sure to surprise even the most hardcore Mortal Kombat fanatics. The challenges vary widely from tutorials where you learn how to defend for 15 seconds to addictive mini games like stoping waves of Takarans with projectiles and special moves. Then there’s the Test your Whatever that takes challenges to an interesting level. “Test Your Might” challenge includes the classic block breaking; “Test Your Sight” involves following an object hidden under the shuffled cups or skulls; “Test Your Strike” involves destroying a specific block in a stack and “Test Your Luck” pits you in battles with various modifiers to battle, such as no jumping or no arms. Each challenge is progressively difficult than the next but not impossible. While there are plenty of fighting games have provided challenge-type modes in the past, the Challenge Tower is a fantastic addition that not only adds additional hours of enjoyment but compliments the story mode well with its campy style and sarcastic gags.
After Mortal Kombat 3, the series took the 3D route, added weapons, objects and sidestepping while the DC Universe softened MK and turned it into more familiar pastures of uber combos, less brutal Fatalities and Simon-says button sequences. Now it’s back to basics. MK takes us back on the 2D track with no sidestepping, weapons or run button. The fighting style is reminiscent of Mortal Kombat 2 with a variety of move lists for each character that are easy and natural to remember negating the need for those cheat sheets that many old school MK fans used at crowded arcades. Of course, you have your power bar along with the requisite combo breaker most fighting game systems already have. And this time the core fighting mechanics have been tuned for balance – something the series has not enjoyed since Mortal Kombat 3. Every punch, kick and special attack comes off more fluid and borrows the style of launchers from Capcom minus the over-the-top air combos.
Additionally, MK also includes the feature of tag team fighting – another first for the series but a welcome addition nonetheless. The tag team style works similar to other fighting tag systems in that you can switch off through an attack. The main difference in MK’s approach is the ability to have your benched character tag in with a variety of attacks as opposed to introducing themselves with a jumpkick and the obligatory stance of mockery. And whether you use the tag system or not, the battle may not resemble kung fu choreography but it is still MK at its core. Along with body damage comes X-Ray – MK’s super visual payoff that resembles Jet Li’s Romeo Must Die. The move deals massive damage through brutally yet satisfying X-Ray slo-mo of your opponent’s skeleton structure as you break legs, necks and skulls when connected. And although the X-Ray is considered one of the most violent moves in the game, that accolade is reserved for Fatalities. When you actually pull one off, it’s apparent that the developers have made Fatalities a labor of love. One example has Kung Lao spin his bladed hat continuously on the ground and, like a table saw, he pulls his opponent’s legs and slices the whole body in two, starting at the crotch. He then hoists the two bloody slices in victory in each hand, arms dangling. A more comical example is Johnny Cage splitting the opponent’s head down to his neck with a karate chop. And with the head all open like a bloody flower, he pulls out a trophy, slams it into the spine of his opponent and congratulates him before tipping him over. It sounds hilarious on paper but the experience of executing and witnessing the Fatality is something to behold.
Even then, those Fatalities and X-Rays are still icing (but great icing mind you). In my previous experience of playing every single MK game to date, the mechanics and gimmicks (especially weapons) found in the previous installments just never felt like the right direction for the series to me. But in this new Mortal Kombat, the developer has realized that outside of its bloody exterior requires substance. And as much as I nag about a block button, the new mechanics mixed along with the old have put MK right back in the limelight by making it play so much better than previous MK titles. Stringing together combos still requires skill and timing as opposed to a set of button sequences and MK’s counters give you a good chance to return the favor.
Fight, Training, Extras and Options are standard faire among fighting games of today. Fight plays similarly to the old school arcade version of Mortal Kombat where you’re climbing the MK ladder and play an opponent locally but you can also co-op with a friend through tag team in case you’re feeling a little lonely. Training works as intended and allows you to train Fatality (and Babality) moves along with position indicators. The Training Ground’s comprehensive settings covers everything a good fighter should have like showing a record of inputs on the screen and adjusting CPU settings for specific fighting scenarios. Extras allow you to use your “Koins” to unlock characters, costumes and a whole slew of bonuses that include concept art, code modifiers and most importantly, hidden Fatality moves.
But of course once you’ve experienced the varied chapters of Story Mode and defeated all 300 Challenges, the Online Mode becomes the last binding piece to an already outstanding package. So how is it?All of the typical things you’d expect to see on an online fighter are here including Ranked Matches, Private rooms, Stats and Leaderboards. Online play includes both one-on-one and tag team play. There is also a “Message Of The Day” for quick chuckles before fight time. When you actually get into a match, both the PS3 and XBox 360 have similar (if not the same) experiences in terms of searching for opponents but when you actually get into 40-50 bouts you may find yourself waiting on the queue often for fair matchmaking. As for lag, I experienced it more on the PS3 network under a business-level broadband connection but that may be due to my opponents connection considering how their profiles are marked worldwide. It’s also important to point out that Kratos (of God of War fame) is an exclusive character that is only available on the PS3 version of MK but that shouldn’t stop you from experiencing MK’s innovative King Of The Hill mode. In King Of The Hill, fights take place in a group lobby a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. When the round begins, MK avatars sit back to riff away about the fight using live human feedback (genuine or not) through hilarious emotive cards keeping bench sitters engaged and participants amused. And in typical Mortal Kombat fashion, the mode has some secret codes allowing you to unlock other cards – all of which can be discovered through the Extras mode. To date, updates have helped balance character dominance in the leaderboards giving MK the EVO nod for tournament play.
Overall, MK’s latest iteration feels like a triumphant homecoming dance with the hot prom queen who’s polished with finery and all dressed in red. Gore is back as a centerpiece of the experience culminating through the wince-inducing X-Ray moves and the grand return of the Fatality. But it’s also clear that the game aspires to be more than just obscene scenes of death. Mortal Kombat’s reimagined world gleams that of its old school roots with stunning 3D backdrops, detailed characters and sharp sound design that is sure to provide the evil grin during those X-Ray moments. The new and improved Mortal Kombat emerges as an impressively realized reboot that elevates the series to a new plateau of excellence. If your interest in Mortal Kombat has stayed in stasis until now (to which I was) unfreeze your expectations and take a dip in the dark side. You’ll find that ripping someone’s head off is a lot more fun than when you originally remembered.