The Mortal Kombat franchise has been many things to many gamers over the years. Its legions of existing fans consider it one of the long-standing greats for its style and story, while competitive fighting gamers tend to look at it more as some nice background noise to complement the arcade atmosphere while grinding away on one of their more favored games. With this reboot, simply titled “Mortal Kombat”, Ed Boon and his crew at Netherrealm Studios look to sustain the established fanbase while also winning the hearts and minds of their more analytical tournament-playing counterparts.
What's it about?
Since its unveiling at last year's E3, Mortal Kombat has been a carefully-controlled renaissance – everything about the game comes together in one spectacular wholehearted effort to tap into the same energy that kept 1996's Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 running strong for all these years. Calling it a return to form would be shortselling it, as the effort is actually in an attempt to create a breakthrough game for the franchise that can be embraced by casual fan and hardcore competitor alike. This wide appeal across the scope of the fighting playerbase has long eluded Mortal Kombat, and while Boon has long had a reputation for just settling on making games that attract the casuals that make up much of the gaming audience, the development of this particular MK saw him looking to tournament-fighting gamers as playtesters. In further efforts, Netherrealm even approached the directors of the Evolution Championship Series about what he would have to do with the game in order to make it worthy of being in their tournament lineup in July.
So, with all bases covered on the gameplay front, next came the setting. Having been written into a corner by 2006's Mortal Kombat Armageddon, the team at Netherrealm Studios decided instead to go back in time to the first three games. The idea is that Armageddon gets the pitch black ending that serves as this game's intro: Earthrealm loses, everybody dies, and Shao Kahn wins. Just before being killed by Kahn himself, Raiden manages to send a series of visions to his past self covering the events of all previous tournaments and invasions, along with a simple statement, "He must win." It's all too easy to assume that Raiden is referring to series protagonist Liu Kang, but you come to find it isn't nearly so simple. What ensues is a new continuity that sees a confused and paranoid Raiden haphazardly altering the course of MK history from how we watched it play out in the '90s, usually changing things for the worse, and causing many of his own followers to lose faith in him over time. Parts of this new storyline seem a bit rushed, as Netherrealm literally crams three games worth of plot into this one mode, causing it to feel a little more like really crazy fanfiction at times than an actual new direction for the series. However, it serves as a great excuse to include most old favorites among the game's character roster and background selection alike.
Why should I care?
As mentioned, this reboot marks a new era for Mortal Kombat, where as much effort went into making the game attractive for more serious players as for the series' more casual established fanbase. No matter who you are, Mortal Kombat has something that is geared toward you. The game features an absolutely embarrassing wealth of single-player content spread out between its aforementioned story mode and the Challenge Tower. Challenge Tower is where the bulk of your single-player time will go, in a series of 300 mission battles and mini-games. Unfortunately, the single-player game in general is held back by some terrible AI programming, which simultaneously sees it commit the cardinal sin of "instant right answer" to many offensive approaches while also falling prey to certain, extremely simple forms of repetition. The end result is a vast number of battles that aren't necessarily difficult, but tend to be a mind-numbing grind as you spam your way through them, only because a more intelligent approach to the game will only get you punished instantly and severely.
With that having been said, a fighting game is only as good as it ends up in Vs mode. This is where most of Mortal Kombat's failings have emerged over the years, and that is clearly where most of the attention has gone toward fixing this time around. Thankfully, Mortal Kombat delivers competition as well as nearly anything else in the genre. It doesn't settle in with such legendary company as Virtua Fighter 5 or Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, but it has no trouble fitting in with the big names that comprise today's fighting scene. There is some annoying uniformity in the controls, as a small handful of moves are done the exact same way for every character, but everyone still feels fairly unique and distinct when taken as a whole.
Competitive online play doesn't get much better than Mortal Kombat's King of the Hill mode. Netherrealm Studios wanted to make the Mortal Kombat online experience as arcadelike as possible, and the result is this avatar-based lobby system that allows spectators to interact as the game plays out. At its core is a standard winner-stays rotation lobby, but it's the bells and whistles that enhance the experience. Thanks to the avatar animations, you can applaud a well-executed combo for the entire room to see, or lob tomatoes at the screen as the overall level of play decreases. There's also a respect rating system tied to this mode, with ratings applied to an overall statistic, which is an interesting premise that hopefully won't fall victim to abuse as time passes.
Another nice layer of depth is added with the implementation of a super meter, a first for Mortal Kombat. This three-level bar has three different uses. The level-1 function is enhanced special moves, functionally identical to Street Fighter's EX specials which are typically executed by pressing the block button along with whatever button would normally trigger the move in question. At the cost of two stocks of meter, you can perform a combo breaker. This is nice, as it makes the breaker a replenishable resource that affects and is affected by the rest of the gameplay system, as opposed to the forced and isolated element it was before. Finally, blowing away all three stocks will perform an X-Ray move, Mortal Kombat's answer to Street Fighter IV's Ultra Combos. These are visually stunning (and cringe-worthy) attacks that cause an X-Ray effect to kick in, allowing you to see all the tremendous internal damage you're dealing to your opponent in the process. They're a very fun and fitting addition to Mortal Kombat, although the argument can certainly be made that the high level of damage might be far too much of a payoff for merely a simultaneous button press. It would have been much more appropriate if everyone had a unique and at least somewhat more challenging input for their X-Ray moves. As it stands, the only variable is whether you're standing or jumping.
What makes it worth my time and money?
All the criticisms throughout this review are extremely minor compared to the massive problems that have plagued the series in years gone by. Better still, Netherrealm Studios has future-proofed Mortal Kombat by way of a server-side management system that allows them to tweak the properties of any individual move in the game as needed to repair any problems that might be discovered, entirely patch-free. In addition, we have been promised a steady flow of additional characters thanks to DLC, so there will be new characters to learn and master for quite some time. No set of tier listings is likely to hold up for very long either as matchups will be altered and added over time.
Make no mistake, this is simply the best Mortal Kombat ever. It offers up plenty of deep, technical gameplay along with heaping helpings of content no matter how you decide to go about playing it, but it really gets no better than when you round up a bunch of players for a marathon session. This is a game best experienced among friends.