It's Wednesday afternoon, for the first time in weeks the sun is out, but I'm sitting in Premier PR's stuffy new Games Room, cackling with evil glee like a witch borne out of a centuries old tale from the brothers Grimm. The reason? I've just ripped someone in half with my bare hands, the floor is covered in gore and I'm chuckling in disbelief at just how over the top and disgusting the events that have unfolded in front of me really are. Mortal Kombat has scarcely left the news this week.
First of all, the Kratos trailer landed and whipped the Sony fanboys into a frothing frenzy, leaving their Xbox equivalents worrying about a lack of love. Ed Boon has been proclaiming that the DLC 'is not on the disc' til blue in the face, trying to allay N4G hysteria. Then came the reports that someone went and hacked the PS3 demo, getting the lowdown on all of the starting characters in the process.
Noise generally means we're nearing a release date, and so we are. But there's so much more to this reboot than just noise. We're not here to quibble about whether the hackers are right or not. But from one fan to another, here's why April 19th is a date that had better be in your books.
In my last preview, an hour-long multiplayer scramble-fest at Gamescom last year, there was a decent glimpse at what this game would become, but nothing in terms of real depth. Now, with the demo out, there's finally a chance to take an in-depth look at the fighting system itself (an arguable first for the series), and I got to glimpse a few of the alternate game modes too.
Let's start in the ring, figuratively speaking anyway. As I noted last time, Mortal Kombat has never exactly been a particularly deep or rich fighter. It's been far more about the special moves, the over the top mechanics, and the visceral ways in which you can exact a gloating victory over your opponent with a humiliating (and often hilarious) finisher. Midway's answer to accusations of cheap simplicity and spammable moves was to overcomplicate things from Deadly Alliance onwards with a multiple fighting styles, not to mention peppering the screen with mini bars that the majority of players simply ignored.
That has changed.
Of course, the cheap moves are still there. Scorpion's spear and Sub Zero's ice blast have lost none of their appeal, but things are different now. The streamlining of moving back to 2D has allowed for similar focus on the fighting mechanics. The action, dare I say it, has become somewhat tactical.
Part of this is down to the smoothness of the animation and slick response to your controller inputs. That said, it's a bit of an arse to play on a standard D-pad (though part of that could have been down to the way the Dualshock sits in my hands) and my fingers yearned for the fighting bliss that Microsoft's new silver Xbox 360 controller provides. That's right, folks...Mortal Kombat actually feels like a proper fighting game. It's a like bit heavy, it might seem a little bit clunky at first, but the 'new-retro' style does for the series what Street Fighter IV did for Capcom's flagship.
It's always paid to learn the basic ranged attack of any of the characters, but now it really makes a difference to know a character inside and out. Chaining different moves together I was able to trip an opponent, spear them, set them alight, hit them with a three punch combo before teleporting to their other side, smacking them in the face and executing my X-ray move. Seamlessly. There's an ever so slight pre-emptive cue that allows for rapid special move execution without lag, and it makes matches a tense affair indeed.
Of course, defending oneself is crucial, and it's good to see that Mortal Kombat has simplified special enhancements into one single bar. This bar, placed at the bottom of the screen for both players, is separated into three parts, filled by landing moves, special moves, blocking successfully and countering well. Hit the first level and your special powers become enhanced by holding the right trigger at the moment of execution. Scorpion's spear now shocks as well as stabs, Nightwolf fires three arrows instead of just one, and Johnny Cage's Shadow Kick now sends opponents flying across double the distance whilst doing double the damage...that sort of thing. Hit the second level, and you can perform a Breaker, interrupting an opponent's combo by pressing forward along with the right trigger. It's incredibly useful in turning the tide of a battle. However, if you manage to save yourself all three blocks of the bar, you can mash down both triggers and execute your X-ray move which ,as I mentioned previously, is a delightfully visceral special move that takes particular glee in zooming in on every broken bone and grisly snap. It'll make you wince and cackle and shout 'OHHHHHH!'. It's glorious.
The special bar also plays its part when it comes to Tag Team. When playing two on two, swapping places won't cost you anything but, if you find yourself in a tight spot, you can use one block of the special bar to execute tag attacks (where your partner jumps in, kicks butt with their special move and then leaves) or Tag Assists (which sees characters trading places to continue combos). It's a simple premise, really, but one that allows for a lot of tactical gameplay. Many will want to push for those X-ray moves, neglecting their own defences. For the first time ever, this might be a Mortal Kombat game that's actually suitable for tournaments.
There are little things to note from the demo too, like persistent damage, the terrifying proportions of the women's chests, the sad lack of a gurning man popping up on my screen and crying 'Toasty!', the lack of the 'interesting fatalities' at this point in time (locked until three weeks' time no doubt). There was also the small issue of the coins, earned for deploying special moves, a windfall when you won, none of which could be explained to me, though we have asked NetherRealm for comment. It does perhaps point to a return for the Krypt - reportedly revealed in a hack earlier this month.
We weren't able to have a look at the new Story mode, but we did get hands-on with the Challenge Tower, and got to have a gander at the new mini-mini-games. Falling into four categories - Test Your Luck/Might/Sight/Strike - some of them will seem very familiar indeed. The test Your Might minigame from the original Mortal Kombat (resurrected in Deadly Alliance) is back. Test Your Sight (also featured in MK:DA) is essentially a variation on '3 Card Monte' but played with skulls rather than cups and cards. Test Your Strike is a lot like Test Your Might but sees you button mash until you reach a sweet spot, before hammering the triggers to make your character break bricks. Test Your Luck is essentially a wheel of fortune that uses slots to decide the parameters and handicaps for the subsequent battle from poison to pitch black darkness, headlessness to 'Explosive Kombat'. These all looked to be rather incidental mini-games though, with sadly no visible return for Puzzle Kombat.
The Challenge Tower is an interesting prospect - essentially a 300 level ladder with standard matches, tag matches, matches under special conditions and the assorted minigames thrown in there for good measure. Koins can be used to bypass each level (if you have enough of them), though Boon and co. are keeping tight lipped on what you unlock after completing the whole thing. We shall have to wait and see if the hackers are right.
The jury is out on the amount of enthusiasm journalistic representatives should exhibit when it comes to things like this, but frankly sometimes we just can't help ourselves. Stage fatalities are back - each character had three locked finishers, which caused an interesting impasse when one of the challenges ordered me to perform a Pit fatality. A good many of the old battlegrounds - The Pit, The Dead Pool, The Desert, The Bell Tower, Goro's Lair, The Living Forest - they're all back. The characters' moves haven't changed a good deal either, so chances are if you were good with Sektor back in the day, you'll be fine with him now. In short, if you liked Mortal Kombat before the turn of the millennium, you're going to welcome the series back with open arms. And if you're a relative newcomer who failed to see what the fuss was about with the DC mashup, fret not... Trust me, I haven't been able to remove the grin from my face since last week.