Developer: Netherrealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros.
If you've been here before, you might have noticed that we've been excited about this one for a while. Mortal Kombat was never the world's greatest fighting game, it kicked off with some awful mechanics, seriously cheap bosses, and balancing issues that made all of the fighters virtually identical save for their special moves which, coupled with a lack of strategic depth, made it far more of a gimmick than a game.
But how we loved it.
It wasn't about fighting perfection, it left that to the other Fighters - Virtua and Street - but it captured the imagination of a generation during the Nineties thanks to its ludicrous, over-the-top violence, memorable characters (even with the palette swaps) and ridiculously gory fatalities. For many, Mortal Kombat was a series that defined the Nineties arcades, but to suggest that the series has fallen somewhat from grace would be to put things mildly. Unlike its more serious rivals, it reacted unfavourably to the switch into 3D, never quite managing to find its feet. The ignominious removal of the series' staple tongue-in-cheek gore for the shrug that was MK vs. DC, and the subsequent death of Midway, looked like the last nail in the koffin.
Except Mortal Kombat never really died, there's just too much love for that, and so Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Sonya and co. return in a game that, surprisingly for the series, shows a fair amount of self-awareness to fix a number of the series' problems whilst also paying a vast homage to the original trilogy.
First of all, let's get this out of the way now. Mortal Kombat is a fighting game. I mean an actual, tournament-ready fighting game. It's not as sophisticated or as smooth as its Japanese counterparts but, when compared to the series' previous iterations, there's a noticeable and welcome improvement. For starters, every blow you land feels brutal, the excellent sound design and tremulous feedback used to maximum effect to make every punch and kick feel solid. Then, of course, there's the new special bar at the bottom of the screen, which brings a level of depth to the battles that was previously unheard of in the series.
It's a simple mechanic - a bar split into three levels - that allows for attack augmentations, defensive combo breakers and, finally, the bone-crunching X-ray moves. Fill the bar to the first level and any of your fighter's special moves can be enhanced with a tug on the right trigger. Scorpion's spear sparks with electrical energy, Sektor fires a barrage of missiles instead of just one, Sheeva's ground stomp turns into a brutal area smash. The second level allows fighters to break free of one of the series' original deficiencies: endless juggling. Again, a directional tap and a tug on the trigger during an opponent's combo is all you need to break the chain. Fill the bar to the end and squeezing both triggers will execute your X-ray move, a slo-mo mini-montage of organ-busting violence that takes off about a third of the victim's health. It's a game that's really all about timing and online for me this resulted in a lot of relatively patient thrust-and-parry style matches, which was no bad thing.
Speaking of online, there's Kombat to be had in spades. You can challenge others in ranked or private matches, whether using single characters or opting for tag-team play, and there's a new mode called King of the Hill that goes some way towards bringing back the feel of the arcade. Fighting games machines were always the ones that drew excitable huddles of people and King of the Hill tries to replicate that. Supporting up to eight players, two battle it out while the rest wait in line for their turn, with options for taunting, encouraging, jeering and, at the end, scoring the kombatants' performances. Xbox 360 owners even get to use their own avatars (as if that makes up for Kratos...more on that in a bit).
Mortal Kombat truly shines locally, though, it's all about being in the room with a beaten foe and cackling maniacally as Kano rips out their heart. With up to four player local support thanks to the tag team nature of two-on-two, it makes for a great beer and pizza night staple.
But perhaps best of all is the sheer wealth of content this new game provides for the lone wolf. You have the classic Arcade Ladder, of course, culminating in horrifically cheap battles (did we really expect anything else) with Goro and Shao Kahn. The latter is a particular nuisance seeing as he appears to be able to sometimes ignore your attacks at will which, if you've just given yourself RSI avoiding his attacks only to set up your own, can be a bit disheartening. There are practice modes for the Test Your Might/Strike/Sight/Luck mini-games too.
But the two big cheeses are obviously the Story Mode and Challenge Tower. The former is a sprawling mode of narrative-driven fights, the cutscenes in between each battle filling in the background of the story so far, with narrative threads weaving together the stories of the first three games. Not only does this bring the newbie into the bizarre world of Mortal Kombat, but it provides some outstanding tidbits for the fans. We get to see Cyrax and Sektor before the Lin Kuei turned them into cyborgs. We see how Jax's arms develop and why. We get to see the Scorpion and Sub-Zero saga pan out before our very eyes. Clocking in at around eight hours, it's a healthy chunk of story driven material that helps introduce you to a large proportion of the 27-strong roster.
Then there's the Challenge Tower: 300 special matches and mini-games. One minute you'll be Johnny Cage, proving he can do his own stunts by squaring off against a stunt man, the next you'll be trying to quell a zombie before it pushes you off a cliff. There are normal battles too, fights under special conditions like half and double damage, or everyone's invisible, or you can't get too close to your opponent because of the smell. There are dozens of little modifiers that get used to shake up the usual practice and keep players interested. And it'll take a while to climb, some of the later challenges are ridiculously tough.
You can skip levels, though, if you have enough koins. Earned in every mode of play, the koins also allow players to nip off to the Krypt and unlock new fatalities, alternative costumes, concept art, level music. There's an enormous amount to get through. I'd ploughed well over ten hours into the game and I was barely scratching the surface.
It's worth noting that there are differences between the two versions of the game, the biggest one being the addition of Kratos into the mix for PS3 owners. As it is, he makes a perfect addition to the roster, and you can check out Tom's roundup guide for how to get the best out of him here. However, if you have the choice, the controller inputs might also sway your decision. Put simply, the standard X360 pad is dreadful for a game that requires precise directional inputs. Although I'm not a fan of the DualShock layout, it makes executing combos and special attacks far easier. That said, if you have one of Microsoft's new silver controllers with the adjustable D-pad, you'll be sitting pretty. I wouldn't think about getting an arcade pad really either, unless you absolutely must for nostalgia value. The buttons are so perfectly mapped out to the two consoles' standard gamepads that the arcade pad actually makes things far less intuitive.
When all's said and done, though, regardless of platform, you'll have a blast with this game. It's an emphatic return to form by the series, with the simple return to 2D allowing for the core game to be taken forward in an impressive number of ways. There are a few niggling issues, Shao Kahn is absurdly cheap, the lack of new characters is perhaps a worry, and most of the roster still handle and feel the same, but the improvements and sheer entertainment on offer well outweighs our gripes. It's a must for any fans of the series and fighting fans who've overlooked Mortal Kombat before should give some serious consideration to picking this up.
- So. Much. Content!
- Looks fantastic
- Special bar adds welcome depth the fighting system
- Cheap bosses
- Fighter weighting still virtually identical
- Still a bit clunky when compared to its Japanese rivals
The Short Version: In taking a step back, Mortal Kombat moves the series forward and restores fans' faith. What Netherreal have produced is a solid, visceral, often hilarious game that's stuffed with content, depth and nostalgic appeal. A must-buy for series followers and now worthy of consideration for serious fighting fans too.