Warner Bros. Interactive
XBox 360, PS3
The wait is finally over, Mortal Kombat has been reborn! With so much hype surrounding this game, it was tough not to get a little carried away with our coverage on the run up to release – but we think we did rather well despite the fact that we could have written about our fanboy love for the series (well, the first three plus Ultimate) on a daily basis.
As is often the case when you have built something up so much in your own mind, when the game finally arrived here at Click Towers, there was the oddest feeling of “What if it turns out to be crap?” surrounding the office. Well I say the office, it was actually just me. I don’t think anyone else here cares, but that’s most definitely their loss because Mortal Kombat is everything I could possibly have dreamt of and then some!
As we noted during our previous hands-on preview and chat with producer Adam Urbano late last year, this latest instalment of Mortal Kombat is a reboot of sorts, focussing on the events of the first three games, albeit in a brand new alternate timeline. We weren’t entirely sure about how well that would work, but NetherRealm have absolutely nailed it.
The game’s story mode opens with a cinematic detailing the final moments of Earth Realms doomed battle against Shao Khan’s Netherworld forces. Raiden and Khan himself are the sole two survivors, and the odds have swung in against the Thunder God. Just as Khan is about to land the final blow, Raiden sends a message back through time to himself in a bid to avoid the fate that has befallen humanity.
This much we knew already, however thing got a hell of a lot more interesting when we realised the exact format that the story mode would take. As Raiden and the Earth Realm combatants (you have no idea how difficult it was for me not to spell that “Kombatants”) are preparing for the tournament from the original game, the immortal receives his future self’s message, shattering an amulet created by the gods in the process.
Not fully understanding the contents of the message, but knowing enough to realise that it was passed back in time from himself, Raiden must begin formulating plans to prevent the brief glimpses he has seen of his future from becoming reality.
Okay, so it sounds a little iffy on paper, I can’t deny that, but when it’s wrapped up in all the Mortal Kombat mythology we have grown to hold so dear since the series made its debut in 1992 it really is enthralling. For anyone who grew up as a fan of the series, before it took a sudden and unfortunate turn for the worst around the turn of the millennium, this is pure gold.
We get to learn exactly what went on at each tournament, from the interactions between the characters on either side, to the chronology of the fights. The decision to base the game not just loosely around the first three titles, but actually incorporating their events and tournaments, was a masterstroke by NetherRealm given the sheer volume of mythology that has sprung up around the series.
You’ll be hard pushed to find many who would refer to the story telling within the series as anything other than a little silly at best, but I’ve always found it enthralling despite that. The way the characters’ stories are intertwined and developed was always a source of great entertainment in my youth, as I battled my way through to every single ending, learning each special move and fatality off by heart along the way, so that I could fully immerse myself in the back story.
Mortal Kombat’s story mode brought all that rushing back.
Now, since the story mode has a certain canonical lineage to follow, it must be noted that it plays out unlike most other fighting games. You don’t have the opportunity to select your character, nor are fatalities available until you progress to later in the game to prevent you killing off characters with important future parts to play. It all happens by way of a linear storyline, cut with dialogue between characters which explains the story as you play. At first it felt a little strange, almost taking the shine off the gameplay, but as I got sucked in more and more it began to realise how special the whole thing really is.
When Ed Boon said that this was a fan appreciation title last year, he certainly wasn’t kidding around. Absolutely everything you could ever have wanted to know about Mortal Kombat, the characters and the tournaments is explained in great detail here. It chronicles the events from the start of the original game through to the end of the third, albeit with certain twists which are made possible by the implementation of the alternate timeline angle.
What’s more, the story mode itself is longer than most regular games out today, never mind fighting games which have individual character stories that can usually be completely in under half an hour. Unfortunately, I got so sucked into the whole thing that I never thought to note how much time it took to complete, so you’re going to have to wait til I play through it again and update this review to reflect my findings. If I were to go out on a limb, I’d estimate 5-7 hours or so, but then again my MK skills have grown rusty over the years, so I wasn’t exactly kicking ass all the way through.
Based on story mode alone, Mortal Kombat is an essential purpose. All your favourite fight locales and characters from the first three games are here, including some additional names familiar to fans of the series, but who didn’t actually feature as playable characters in the first three titles proper, like Ermac and Quan Chi. Two DLC characters have already been confirmed, the red female ninja Scarlet and returning blind Samurai, Kenshi. Goro, Kintaro and Shao Khan return in non-playable form, and Motaro and Shinnok can be seen during story mode cut scenes, but don’t feature otherwise.
That’s enough about the story mode (although I could very easily have written another thousand words on that alone) for now, because no doubt there are many of you out there wondering when the hell I’m going to get to the gameplay. Spoilsports.
As we mentioned during our hands-on preview, the gameplay here feels like a mixture between MK2 and MK3, taking the best bits from each and adding some new dynamics to shake things up. It’s worth noting that if you’re playing on the Xbox 360 and haven’t invested in a controller that, you know, doesn’t feature the worst D-Pad in the history of gaming, you’re going to be in for a tough time initially. While the PS3 pad is more than adequate, we thoroughly recommend you pick up either a fight stick, or Microsoft’s new official controller with improved D-Pad, otherwise you’re in for a whole world of frustration as your character jumps when he was supposed to dash forward, steps backward when he was supposed to duck and fails miserably to carry out a good 50% of special moves through no fault of your own (at least that was my excuse initially). You will get used to it, but it won’t be pleasant going up until that point.
NetherRealm have made four major new additions to the in-fight gameplay, each of which has an integral part to play in reshaping the flow of combat within the series. The most well publicised in the run up to release have been the super powerful X-Ray moves, accessed by building up your super meter to its three bar maximum by landing attacks and blocking successfully before tapping the right and left bumpers simultaneously at any time during play. They look great, as the camera cuts to an internal view of your opponent letting you see the damage being wrought to their internal support system in grizzly HD glory, and they can dole out anywhere from 30-50% damage making it possible to see the fortunes of both players change dramatically within a few brief seconds.
In a bid to sate the fight purists out there, NetherRealm have also added custom combos. These do exactly what they say on the tin, letting players discover their own combinations as they play. Rigorous testing has meant that, from what I’ve seen at least, infinite juggles and unfair strings of moves have been weeded out pre-release, making for an altogether fairer gameplay experience. A lot of hype surrounded custom combos, with many expressing fear that they would lead to a spate of button bashing in online play, but this simply hasn’t proven to be the case so far. Yes there are some mashers online, but they’re easily dispatched with some careful, measured play.
Not quite so publicised, but every bit as important are the enhanced versions of regular special moves, again accessed by filling your super meter to a designated point, before adding the right bumper to your final special move input. This are labelled as being for advanced players, but the truth is that they’re an integral part of the game for fighters of all experience levels, offering increased damage and additional range for your moves.
On the defensive front, breakers have been added which allow you to stop an opponent’s combo before it has the chance to prove too devastating. These are accessed by hitting the block button just as your opponent’s first move makes contact, resulting in a swift counter blow to turn the tide back in your favour. While you might think that not getting hit in the first place might be a better form of defence, that’s not entirely true. The correct use of breakers can be a devastatingly effective tool in both defence and attack, setting your opponent up for a combo of your own that wouldn’t have been possible with a regular block or dodge.
Aside from the additions, you’ll be pleased to know (at last) that the game plays brilliantly. A real return to its roots in terms of fighting style and tight controls, I can’t really sit here and think of a single way they could have improved the feel of combat. The traditional four button attack system is here in all its glory, with a slight change worth noting for anyone who hasn’t played a Mortal Kombat game for a while – the high kick/low kick/high punch/low punch system has been replaced by the almost identical, just differently named, back kick/front kick/back punch/front punch system. Whether you’ve ever played MK before or not, it’s not going to take you much time to get used to it.
The fights are fast paced, and every player will quickly find their own style for each character thanks to the fact that both the story mode and Challenge Tower (more on that below) require you to put in considerable time with multiple characters, where otherwise you might have just stuck to the same two or three.
The fights flow organically, with the impetus shifting throughout as combos, breakers, enhanced moves and X-Ray moves all swing control backward and forward between the players. It doesn’t ever feel like you’re down and out after a few seconds, which serves to make the whole thing a much more enjoyable experience.
While the fighting purists will no doubt take issue with several of the gameplay features, I am happy to say that I have no such concerns. As someone who always remembered the early games fondly, and spent far too much time playing them in my younger days, Mortal Kombat delivers everything I could possibly have wanted.
The tag matches introduce several interesting new dynamics to the game, taking it to another level again. The basic act of tagging in and out is night and straight forward, requiring only a single button tap, but on top of this you have the ability to have your second character jump in with an attack on tagging, or simply enter the fray temporarily to unleash a special move. Chaining of tags can build impressive and highly imaginative combos, so it pays to experiment.
The fatalities are back and even more gruesome as ever – so bad in fact, that the game has been banned in Australia, with the promise of severe sanctions for anyone who attempts to import it from abroad. While that’s a bit of an overreaction in my book (there is absolutely nothing that could be referred to as even resembling realism here), it’s true that NetherRealm have dialled the gore up to eleven.
You can access the button commands for one of each character’s fatality roster (two to three, plus a stage fatality) right from the start via the Move List section in the pause menu, or you can use the fatality training mode in order to get a feel for how they work. As you play through the different single player modes, you’ll earn coins which can be used to unlock the instructions on how to perform additional fatalities, as well as character art, alternative costumes and conceptual sketches from the game’s development.
If you’re the type who can’t rest easy until you’ve unlocked everything, you’re going to be in for a lot of sleepless nights thanks to this game. There are literally hundreds of unlockables on offer, ranging from the useful (fatalities being the main ones here) to the somewhat pointless (barely interesting stick figure doodles outlining early ideas for special moves or finishers). There will undoubtedly be many of you who don’t bother with this side of the game, but for me it’s a real treasure trove of bonus goodness that will keep me coming back to the single player Mortal Kombat experience for months to come.
As we mentioned earlier, the Tower Challenge mode represents the second main single player mode and, like the story mode, it offers an interesting and wholly original twist on gameplay. It’s a great place to start out when you’re done with the tutorials as it gradually introduces you to each character, their special moves and their fighting styles.
Challenges range from simple one on one battles, to matches fought upside down, on a magnetic floor or with special moves/regular moves/jumping/moving disabled, to the especially bizarre. The latter group offers some of the most unexpected gameplay I’ve ever come across in a fighter, including challenges where you need to destroy a set number of onrushing zombies using your character’s projectile attack, or strange tag team combinations (Johnny Cage and his director versus Jax and Sonya on the set of his latest movie anyone?). In a lot of cases the challenges are silly, but manage to be fun rather than seeming forced.
Test Your Might returns, alongside Test Your Sight (track an object placed under one of multiple skulls as it is moved around a table) and Test Your Luck (a one armed bandit style interface selects your opponent, any move limitations placed on your character, and the type of conditions the battle is to be fought in) and Test Your Strike (similar to Test Your Might, but requiring you to hold the meter between two points for a few seconds before you are allowed to trigger your hit) to add even more variety to Tower Challenge’s 300 separate events. Completion of the whole lot wins you a special prize, I won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s not really as special as I was hoping (or at all if I’m being truthful).
Before we get to the multiplayer side of the game, we’ve still got some more of the single player to cover. Selecting Fight from the main menu brings up options to play in Ladder or Tag Ladder mode, which will be immediately familiar to fans of Mortal Kombat 3. The selected difficulty level will affect not only the skill of your opponents, but also the number of stages you’ll need to complete before your final showdown with Shao Kahn. It says a lot about the unbelievable depth of Mortal Kombat that this, which would be considered the main single player mode in practically any other fighter, has instead been consigned to a sub menu, tucked away like a little extra for anyone who wants a little more from the game. For those of you who can’t get enough of Test Your Might/Strike/Luck/Sight, you can access each one you’ve already conquered within Challenge Tower mode from the Fight menu too, although there’s not a huge amount to them that would bring you back time and time again.
Finally, via the Extras menu, you can access The Krypt where you’ll be able to spend the in-game Kurrency we spoke about earlier to unlock additional game content. Once you’ve done your shopping, you’ll be able to pop on over to Nekropolis to admire your purchases and gaze in wonder at the staggering amount of effort NetherRealm have gone to in order to bring you to ultimate Mortal Kombat experience.
And then you’ve got the multiplayer.
Accessed by entering your Kombat Pass, a unique code with each new purchase of the game (more bad news for second hand buyers), the online multiplayer features everything you could possibly expect from a modern fighter. Ranked, player and private matches are on offer to those wishing to prove themselves as the Kream of the Krop (sorry, couldn’t resist it), while you’ll also be able to view your own in depth player statistics which chart your progress through online play, and the global leaderboards for each match type.
Ranked play offers regular one versus one and tag team fighting, while both player and private matches add King of the Hill to the fray. This mode is essentially old arcade favourite “winner stays on” in online form, letting you watch the fight in progress while cheering (or abusing) the combatants, or offering your own expert (ahem) insight as to where they went wrong, before staking your claim to be recognised as top dog.
While the online community is still growing at the time of writing, the standard is already quite impressive. Few fights are guaranteed victories as everyone still searches for that ideal blend of attack and defence, while there was a surprising lack of annoying sods whose sole aim in life appears to be to annoy the crap out of everyone with a headset.
It’s still too early to say whether the game will become as popular as Street Fighter IV online, but early indications suggest that it is a very real possibility, and with NetherRealm promising to support the game for the foreseeable future rather than abandoning it to release a new “Super” version any time soon it certainly appears that Mortal Kombat is here to stay.
Before I wrap up the review, I’ve got a few other bits and pieces to cover. Firstly, the graphics. While they impressed me quite a bit when I played an early version of the game back in October, they seem to lack a certain sheen in the final version. That’s not to say the game is ugly, because it’s really not, it’s just that it isn’t quite as pristine looking as others. Obviously there are technical reasons for this, such as not wanting the game to dip below the 60FPS mark, which it succeeds brilliantly at, but I couldn’t help feeling a little let down by the occasionally bland backgrounds and lack of wow factor. It makes no difference to the gameplay of course, and it definitely has that unique Mortal Kombat visual style to it however, so it shouldn’t prove to be a barrier to anyone’s enjoyment of what is otherwise a top notch product.
The sound is just what you’ve come to expect too, with brooding orchestral pieces placed over the various menu screens and a fresh new take on many of the classic old motifs from the first three titles to accompany the fresh new realisations of the backdrops and locales.
In finishing, Mortal Kombat has delivered absolutely everything it set out to. Whether you’re a current or lapsed fan, or are coming in fresh, there is an absolute abundance of features on offer here, both locally and online, and the return to the classic 2D side on Mortal Kombat action of yesterday has been impeccably achieved.
Some will no doubt be a little disappointed by the fact that things are a little too accessible (a simple two button combination to pull off the devastating X-Ray moves being a fine example) to newcomers or those unwilling to put in the time to learn intricate manoeuvres, or the lack technical play on offer, but those people were never really the target audience – and even then they’d be hard pushed not to milk hours of enjoyment from the game.
Mortal Kombat takes everything that has ever been great about the Mortal Kombat series and recreates it here, supplemented by a range of new features and modes and an almost overwhelming amount of character background and story progression, not to mention the 500-odd unlockable extras.
It might not technically be the best fighting game ever, or offer the most in-depth approach to combat, but for my money it’s the single greatest overall video game fighting experience to date.