I’ve been out of the fighting genre for a long time. It’s not since Tekken 2 and Busihdo Blade that I’ve sat down and thoroughly enjoyed and learnt a fighting system. Mortal Kombat achieves something unimaginable – it’s excellent and had me hooked from the moment the story began. The game begins at the end of the series. It’s all gone tits up: Shao Kahn has won, and the body parts of Earthrealm’s heroes are scattered across the hellish shores. Whoopsie indeed. With his last bit of strength, Raiden, defender of Earthrealm, sends a message back through time to himself, back to the beginning.
Mortal Kombat features one of the most complete single-player packages in a long time, and not just for the fighting genre, but of most. The amount to do and unlock before even considering the online modes is staggering. The Story Mode takes you through the new events that span the first three Mortal Kombat games, as Raiden struggles to save humanity without disrupting the course of events and causing unseen complications. This isn’t a few fights and a quick end montage, the story is fully fleshed out and a long experience. Each of the sixteen chapters sees you play a different character and witness their version of events in the timeline. Seamless cutscenes bridge the storytelling and fighting. There are no loading screens and the camera will pan round to start the combat, whether it’s part of the tournament or an illegal fight. Taking the story all the way back is a brilliant move, and one that helps to define characters that had simply become alternate colours of older characters.
The love and attention to character background shows. Johnny Cage is as arrogant as Duke Nukem, Kitana has her doubts and Smoke, Cyrax and Sektor are given back stories; they become individuals with their own desires, no longer committed to the ranks of being copycat models used to up the playable character limit. The only off choice is Sonya’s attire. With her jacket fully unzipped, and no underclothing or bra, it doesn’t seem right for a good natured character, a military officer at that, to be flaunting herself like a seventeen year-old trying to get into a nightclub. Especially when Stryker quips ‘dressed like that, she’s gotta be bad’, in reference to the lack of clothing Mileena has on. With characters left not how they were after the original events, and a character remaining that brought a huge smile of surprise to my face, the story will no doubt shock some fans with its changes. The Story Mode is backed up by one of, if not the fastest and smoothest MK fighting systems.
MK has a streamlined and easy to digest fighting system. Fast punch, strong punch, fast kick and strong kick are complemented with separate throw and block buttons. Specials are simple to execute and direct movement strokes are used instead of quarter circles (down, forwards, A for example). It’s easy to pick up but difficult master. Every move can be countered and many powerful moves simply blocked as you look for that small gap in the enemy’s attack or fighting style and exploit it to your advantage. It makes for some very tense combat – online and offline – that’s left my palms wet with perspiration as I came to the realisation that I hadn’t breathed for the last thirty seconds of that final round. It’s all about problem solving. Struggling against someone permanently crouched and blocking in a typically unsportsman-like way online? Dash forward and throw them, as the grapple will lift them from their feet. Scorpion’s teleport attack being spammed? Listen out for the sound the attack makes. Once you hear it hold that block button, causing him to briefly spin into the air from your defence. Now, teach them a lesson with that combo you learnt in practice mode.
A new attack that was heavily featured in the pre-release PR was the X-Ray attack. In keeping with modern fighting games MK now features a Super bar. With three sections, you can use one to power-up a special, use two to instant break a combo or use the whole bar to unleash an X-Ray attack. If the move connects, the characters signature move will be unleashed, and it doesn’t half hurt. The music score drops out and the background darkens to illustrate the violence of every blow. Organs puncture, bones shatter and skulls can be seen to fracture as each blow connects. It’s nasty, and often more violent than the over-the-top fatalities. NetherRealm have been observing a lot of Riki-Oh and The Street Fighter, taking a serious note of their toe curling X-ray moments.
With the story complete there’s plenty more available to test your might. Each character has a separate Ladder Tournament to go through. Like the classic games, this is a ten step battle to reach the top and give Shao Kahn the good-hiding he deserves. The Ladder can also be attempted in Tag Mode. These 2vs2 battles allow a greater range of tactics as you swap between the two fighters in real time, changing your methods to deal with different styles of attack. Getting spam-attacked with projectiles – tag in your partner who has a teleport attack and turn the tables. Test Your Might, Sight and Luck modes add yet more content into the single player component. Might has you tap the buttons in an attempt to karate chop through an object, Sight requires you to follow the ball in the cup (or, as this is MK, an eyeball or brain) correctly or face unpleasant consequences, and Luck generates two random, separate modifiers in combat.
Finally completed that pit full of content or sick of being out manoeuvred and decapitated, then head over to the Challenge Tower. Here 300 challenges await and rather than let you select a character it’s all pre-determined. This sounds limiting but it actually acts as an expert training mode. Through aggressive and often difficult modes the Challenge Tower fine-tunes the skills you’ve already developed. As an added bonus you’ll unlock and learn stage fatalities along the way and for every test completed you’re awarded Koins. Playing the various game modes rewards you with Koins to spend in the huge Krypt. In a first-person view you float over the four areas, using Koins to unlock doors, open graves, activate medieval torture apparatus, pop bloated corpses or gut impregnated bodies. It’s all very (un)pleasant stuff. Every hidden unlock provides you with a piece of production art, a new fatality, alternate costume or other surprise. It’ll take you a good while to earn enough to unlock everything available.
Locally, two players can hit the Tag Ladder together or face off against one another. Got more friends round and a few extra pads? Up to four players can compete locally at the same time in 2vs2 tag. And from experience, there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had playing locally, bringing back memories of playing pass-the-pad-winner-stays-on Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. All this and I’d yet to touch the online mode: Mortal Kombat is rammed to the roof spikes with content to play, discover and unlock; much like the Easter Egg of pressing the start button on an old stage during the level select.
Online there are varying modes to kick arse for the Lord in. Ranked Match does what it what says on the label, and Player Match opens up a list of rooms to join. There is no difference other than title (some are ‘beginners only’ etc) and upon joining you’re taken to what looks like a chat room. Select a player and it’ll give you their wins, losses and disconnects. Send them a challenge or look to see who else is available. King of the Hill matches, while including a long wait, are a lot of fun. Entering what looks like a cinema, your avatar joins the back of the queue. In front is a giant screen displaying the current Kombat, with the two contestants elevated on platforms either side of the screen. Everyone can chat to each other or have their avatar approve or disapprove of the onscreen action. Once the battle is finished everyone rates the match with score cards, adding to their respect points. Winner stays on and the next in line jumps up, the loser joining the back of the queue. The mode works well and it makes for a great opportunity to study other players’ styles and moves in advance.
That doesn’t mean it’s a flawless victory. Shao Kahn is an overpowered boss that’ll force you to repeat the one attack the AI hasn’t been told to dodge. The last chapter falls on gaming conventions and rather than becoming an epic event, the end fight is a chore that’ll have you roaring at the TV due to its difficulty. NetherRealm, this isn’t an arcade cabinet – you don’t need to make end bosses insanely hard to get extra coins in the machine. Please make the finale fun next time. The Challenge Tower uses some repetition to flesh itself out for 300 tasks. The Krypt feels awkward to navigate and the loading screens when viewing unlocked content is long compared to other modes. I often struggled to find available Ranked Matches online, with ‘no matches found’ a common message. A filter option to show those with a win/loss ratio similar to you would have been a great addition. As Player Rooms can become a stream of invites from talented players to those with high losses, clearly trying to push their win ratio higher and avoid a real challenge.
With so much content some may worry about what NetherRealm could add to a sequel. More of the same perhaps, but a few new additions wouldn’t go amiss. Having a co-op beat’em-up mode similar to Streets of Rage with a more basic fighting system, where you could play characters you’ve unlocked by finishing their Ladder Mode, would be great. A one round Survivor mode, similar in setup to King of Hill, where the victor stays on but is forced to keep the same character, their health only increasing slightly. An additional co-op ChallengeTowerwould be a nice addition too. There are a lot of ideas left and NetherRealm won’t disappoint with future titles following the ability they’ve shown here.
Mortal Kombat is the most fun I’ve had with a fighting game in many, many years. There is an unrivalled amount of single player content and a busy online system, all of which is a joy to play. NetherRealm have done a fine job.