The fighting series that earned its name through blood and guts is back and crazier than ever. But what's actually impressive is that it's no longer the bastard stepchild of fighting games.
When Mortal Kombat hit the arcade scene it was known for mainly its gore and digitized animations. At a time when the games industry and law makers were arguing over game ratings MK was letting anyone with quarters pull out beating hearts and uppercut dude's onto spikes. Say what you will about the public's bloodlust but Mortal Kombat came at a time when games weren't sure to push the envelope without diminishing the audience. Because MK was able to straddle the line of risky but accepted it would forever be tied to another fighting game of the time period: Street Fighter II.
Two decades later and those games still share a certain amount of mind share, albeit nostalgically more than anything else. After the arcade surge, Street Fighter went on to become one of the most widely accepted fighting games on professional circuits. Mortal Kombat struggled to be taken seriously. It wasn't a deep fighter and the gore shtick lost its magic quickly. So, after a number of releases that met with middling success and disappointment, NetherRealm Studios hopes to recapture the glory of the early 90's. Lucky for us - they did much more than that.
How Long is That Thing?
Mortal Kombat - and it's actually Mortal Kombat 9 if you're keeping count - offers a lot of characters, a lot of play styles and a lot of game. You can start MK by going through a tutorial that, unlike so many other fighting games, actually teaches you how to fight. Other titles have the problem of assuming you're already well versed in the genre, but MK doesn't take that liberty and guides you through enough of the mechanics that you can step into battle and feel comfortable in knowing what you're supposed to do. Even better, they've included a fatality tutorial. It's exactly what it sounds like; pick a fighter and learn the distance and timing to execute their fatality. NetherRealm is smart to open the game up in such an approachable way.
After learning the basics, or skipping them entirely, you've got a lot of ways to kill time. One way to kill plenty of time is through the epic three hundred level Challenge Tower. Here you'll be asked to do anything, from the most trivial action of blocking five times, to beating three Shao Kahn's or Goro's at once. The Tower also includes the fun old mini-games like Test Your Might and Test Your Strength which helps the pacing considerably. You earn Koins for your feats, which you can actually use to skip one of the levels if it's too hard or to buy stuff from the Krypt. If you're anything like me you won't make it more than a third of the way through without having your ass handed to you. It's a fun mode with tons to do and should make plenty of hardcore fans happy.
Shockingly, some of the best action comes from MK's story mode. One of the biggest barriers to accessibility when it comes to fighting games is the fact that they're best played against other people, and typically speaking that's the only way to get your money's worth. Shoddy comic endings get tacked onto story modes that usually last a dozen or so fights. Mortal Kombat remedies a lot that. It's a lengthy campaign which puts you in control of a huge amount of the roster, letting you take control of every style of fighter. MK9 actually tells the story of the first three full MK releases, combined. It extends a little further into the history and truncates some of the backstory for characters, making small alterations to add consistency. These changes make the large scale of the story mode far more interesting and concise.
Even if it's hard to take seriously, the self-aware story isn't hard to enjoy. It knows exactly what it is and plays it up with a straight face. The campaign is told through fully rendered cutscenes that flow in and out of the fights. Fights usually result from some lame setup, but at least they're fairly funny. Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade could be walking, literally going nowhere, and Cage might comment on her modest chest size and BAM - they'll get busy trying to kill each other (actually, there's no fatalities during the story, strange for a tournament built around fighting to the death). It's always ludicrous, but watching a scene turn seamlessly into the core action of the game without a single loading screen is always impressive. The flow pays off huge, making it easier to enjoy the campaign that overstays its welcome by a couple chapters or so.
Kombat Kontrol, Mostly
The good will earned by the smooth transitions and pure nostalgic euphoria holds up most of the time but there are a few problematic fights that bog down the ride and may go so far as to ruin the experience for a lot of people. It isn't like other fighting games where you pick your fighter and take on the world. You don't actually have the option to pick who you'll be using for the fight, but that's good and bad. I appreciated that I was pushed to learn move-sets and styles of a lot of fighters, but if I got stuck with a particular fighter I struggled with, or just don't like, it became a bitter affair. This issue becomes compounded by the asinine decision to put players in a number of handicap matches throughout their journey. Enthusiast may like the challenge of fighting two or three opponents at the same time but most everyone else will be wondering what the hell happened to the fun game they were playing just a few matches earlier.
That's not the only design choice that will have you scratching your head. There's an infuriating tactic implemented during battles with specific enemies where you attack your enemy and they flash, immune to damage for no clear reason at all. It's a neat trick and all but the final boss does it over and over again removing any and all skill from what should have been the most epic fights in the game. The fact that it's an arbitrary, inconsistent action not built into the skills of the characters makes it all the worse. You end up doing what no one ever feels good about doing in a fighting game - playing cheap to win.
It's quite sad that the balance is so off because more than any other Mortal Kombat game in the franchise this one feels good. The series has always been criticized for being the shallowest and less skilled of the major fighting games, but MK9 improves the control in almost every way. By giving players a better, more responsive command over the action, matches boil down to ability and strategy far more than they might have in the past, something the title desperately needed. It does, however, bring to light the fact that some characters significantly overpower some others. I'll happily admit that I get my ass kicked more often than not in these games, but even I'm able to identify when the balance is skewed. Mortal Kombat fails to equip each of its characters with the tools needed to match up equally with one and all, and that can be frustrating.
The crux to the new fighting system is the new super gauge meter. This allows you to store up energy so you can pull off modified combos and, the new, special X-Ray moves. X-ray moves require a full meter to perform but if you land them they'll do massive damage to your opponent. The modified combos will also deal an increased damage, but that isn't given. No matter what you're trying to do the other player can stop you dead in your tracks if they get in a well timed block. Unlike other auto-block or back-press block fighters, MK forces you to press an actual block button, something that took a little getting used to but ended up feeling quite natural. You can also gain a lot of energy toward your X-ray move by countering an incoming attack, but I never ran into any counter-dominated matches, which can be a worry for some.
It is the Modest Color of the Unpublished Blood
Though the designs are familiar, these men, women and freaks look awesome. It's stating the obvious that this is the best looking MK game ever but it's also a hilariously gory mess that outshines any other game I can recall. The new X-Ray moves are wicked and brutal looking. The screen goes dark and the attacking character will strike an area that will display the bone and muscles of the character as they snap, break and shatter from the blow. Outside of the campaign you'll see some pretty shocking fatalities. It's hard to gauge what anyone finds gross nowadays, but it's safe to say that if some of these don't make you queasy then you should probably start playing Toy Story 3 and proving to society that you're not a threat to the safety of others.
Making every pulverized chest plate and splintered shin even more brutal is some fantastic audio design. Fights sound genuinely vicious, with a lot less of the extracurricular sound effects that other fighting games bring with them. Really though, the best work is done by the actors. The character performances are delivered with aplomb, no matter how absurd the scenarios might be. And unlike most fighting games where the sample size is a two sentence monologue before matches, a lot of the main actors have a lot of work to do. It's an accomplishment in its own right to deliver such a lengthy campaign in a fighting game and have that not be a negative.
Mortal Kombat goes back to its beginnings and recaptures much of what made the original games so beloved. But it's in stepping up on the fundamentals that this Mortal Kombat of 2011 will likely be the most successful ever in the series. It feels deeper and more responsive than it ever has been, even if it still doesn't outclass the heavyweights of the genre, while offering more worthwhile content than any other fighting game on the market right now. It's unfortunate that the story is nearly ruined by the unbalanced nature of many of the fights, something that gets cleared up somewhat if you go online. At the end of the day Mortal Kombat is the best western fighting game around, chalk full of content and cheesy fun, but it's still not the competition-class fighter that some might have wanted.
Final Score: 83%
80-84% - "Great" Has loads of promise, but falls just short of its potential. A great title that leaves you wishing they'd gone that extra mile. This is the sort of game that you keep for a long time and do multiple runs through. Always worth a rent, but usually you’d want to buy it.