Fighting games have seen quite the spike in popularity within the last two or so years. Street Fighter IV seemed to jump start the revolution back in 2009, making games like Tekken 6, Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, and Blazblue relevant to a wider audience. Mortal Kombat may benefit the most in the rebirth of the genre, mostly because of the disappointing, gore-less Mortal Kombat Vs. DC back in November 2008. Not only has the extreme violence returned, but also a great deal of fantastic fighting that makes Mortal Kombat one of the best brawlers out there.
A story mode in a Mortal Kombat game seems a little odd but it works surprisingly well. Expectations aren’t exactly high for a campaign, considering the most given to us is a semi-broken, half-ass brawler in Tekken games. Here, it is much more realized. The story takes places in an alternate time line where Raiden sends a vision to his past self to correct the future.
The structure is told in chapters, with each character highlighting a few fights then seamlessly moving to the next playable fighter. “Seamless” is the key word here because there is no visible loading to keep you out of the experience. You fight, then immediately watch a pre-rendered cutscene (which allows for the background loading), then get directly launched into a fight. This works extremely well in the game’s favor so you don’t get time to get impatient.
The content (kontent?) of the story is more engaging than you’d think as a lot of these fighters have been around for two decades, giving you time to get familiar. I cared what happened and there were some shocking things to happen to a lot of the characters. The story could have been better, but given the genre’s incredibly low bar for it, Mortal Kombat has set the structure on how to do a story mode.
Story mode isn’t perfect though. Switching characters is good to give you a chance to experiment but what is not cool is how the odds are stacked. In almost every chapter, you’ll be facing two characters against just your one person. Beating what is essentially four rounds isn’t easy and given your familiarity character, can make it a bit hellish to succeed. In one instance, you’ll be pitted against Goro and Kintaro with a character you literally just unlocked. I won’t lie, I had to be mostly cheap to win these matches to save frustration which is a sign of bad game design.
While the story mode lasts a good 8 or so hours, you’re likely going to spend a lot of time with your favorite fighters in the other modes. I don’t think I’ve seen a fighting game packed with so many different ways to play and stuff to see. There is an arcade ladder (a more traditional story mode), a tag ladder mode (which can be a co-op mode), the 300 challenges in the Challenge Tower, the online modes like King of the Hill, the helpful tutorials, the Test Your Luck/Strike/Might/Sight (mini-games) stages, the place to cash in your koins called the Krypt, and the Nekropolis, a gallery and place to track your stats.
Every time I put the game into my console, I freeze at the array of areas in the game to sink my time into. All the options are polished and fun with their own secrets to discover. A few challenges in the Challenge Tower are a drab, but there are 300 of them, so a few missed opportunities are easily forgiven. One of my favorites is the Test Your Luck mode. In this mode, you and a friend (or the AI opponent) are dropped into an arena where a roulette spins with multiple game changing attributes. The absolute randomness here can lead to having no arms (rendering punches useless) or turning the whole screen upside down. Test Your Luck matches are a blast because you never know what is going to happen next.
With all this content focused on fighting, it is a blessing the kombat is such a blast at its core. Unlike Street Fighter, the moves are accessible, only involving usually two directional inputs and a face button. Accessible isn’t a synonym for easy, as creating kombos will take some chunk of your time, but Mortal Kombat is a great game to hop into. Playing the game is fluid and responsive and there are a couple great additions to fights to spice them up. Taking a page directly out of Street Fighter IV, there is a super meter in place here. Taking damage and doing combos fills it and it can be spent in three different ways. One of the three segments can be used as an enhanced special move, two bars can be expended for a combo breaker to quickly get you out of juggles, and the third way is the most exciting. If all three segments are saved, an X-Ray attack can be unleashed. These are game changers, as if you can land them successfully, can shave off 30% to 40% of your opponents health. These don’t break the game, but add an extra layer of strategy. Do you use a breaker and an enhanced move? Or do you wait even longer, risking death, to send out your fatal X-Ray move? Every match has these choices and adds some more depth to an already deep fighter.
Of course this is a Mortal Kombat game, so there are fatalities. These aren’t the weak “brutalities” found in MK vs. DC with almost no gore. Finding the limit of the M rating, these finishing moves are a blast to watch and perform, given you can pull them off. Some people split in half and some just get all the limbs pruned off. Regardless, even though there are some “tame” fatalities, all of them are great and worth watching. Every fighter has four fatalities: one unlocked at the start, one locked away in the Krypt, a stage fatality, and a babality. Unlocking them and executing them is the carrot on a stick and a unique driving force to play as all of the 27 playable fighters (28 on PS3).
Puncturing organs and snapping bones looks cringingly good in this title. All the gore looks great visually, as all the insides are appropriately colored, and different for humans, robots, and mutants. Their outsides are detailed too as kombatants have incredible detail put into each of their different costumes and animation routines. Adding to the brutal nature of the game, everyone gets visibly bloodied and bruised up, leading to swollen faces, tattered clothes, and ripped skin. By the end of the fight, both contestants look like hell and the only telltale sign of who won is whoever isn’t in pieces.
Backgrounds are an impressive part of the visual package. There are plenty of environments, some new, some old, and they all are edgy with action happening. If you can tear your eyes from the fight at hand, you’ll notice cool details like dragons fighting helicopters, people getting dipped in acid, monsters destroying buildings, and many other neat superfluous details. Such moments aren’t necessary, but they are a nice touch to have.
Fighting games have always had a infamous tradition of making cheap last bosses. Unfortunately, Mortal Kombat is also guilty of this offense. There are three bosses here: Goro, Kintaro, and Shao Kahn as a final boss. All three of them are dirty cheaters with rule-breaking moves that lead to multiple deaths. Goro and Kintaro are tolerable but Shao Kahn is a total asshole. He has roughly twice the health you do, his X-Ray does 52% damage, has unblockable attacks, can’t be grabbed, is super quick, and, worst of all, he can power right through your attacks with his own. Strategy flies out the window because his openings and possible weaknesses can just be shrugged off at irregular intervals. I had to resort to cheap tactics of my own to beat him, one pertaining glorious spamming of Kratos’ ranged arrow attack and another focusing on Raiden’s teleport and uppercuts. This aggravating boss design is just plain dated and frustrating and needs to be knocked out of the genre. They aren’t fighting for my arcade quarters anymore, so there is no incentive to make a boss this ridiculously dirty.
Mortal Kombat comes at a great time in the genre and for its own namesake. The brand was starting to lose appeal after the last iteration and, with a few great ideas, is back in the fight. Having a lot great features and fun, gory fighting, Mortal Kombat is a great solo and competitive title to own for just about everyone with the slightest interest. Hearing “FINISH HIM!” and letting organs smash and limbs fly has never been more exhilarating.
+Solid, accessible fighting system
+Gory as all hell
+X-Rays/Fatalities are fun
+Short loading for ladder fights and none for story mode
+Graphics and backgrounds are amusing
+Many modes to try and secrets to find and unique fighters to try
-The three bosses are unfair
-2v1 fights aren’t fun
Final Score: 9.5/10
Platform differences: Controller preferences aside, the PS3 version 3D capabilities and has Kratos from God of War as a playable character, with his own unique moves and stage. He is a blast to play as and he fits the universe so well. Xbox 360 gets to use their avatars as the avatars in the King of the Hill online mode.