Platforms: Xbox 360 (tested), PlayStation 3
Classification: R18 – graphic violence
There’s nothing worse than seeing a franchise that you hold dear spiral into mediocrity over the course of its lifetime. Despite Mortal Kombat senior producer Hans Lo’s insistence that the franchise hasn’t made any missteps over its 18 years (in our exclusive interview back in the December issue of Game Console), I’m inclined to vehemently disagree. The news that the ninth iteration in the series reinstates the traditional 2D fighting plane and attempts to recapture the mood of the original three titles – the glory days – has the hopes and dreams of thousands pinned on a return to form.
The results are most definitely skewed towards the positive. The return of the 2D fighting plane (albeit faux 3D) is a monumental success. Much like Street Fighter IV before it, Mortal Kombat works best when the mechanics of its most popular iterations form the core of the experience. The play style of this offering lands somewhere in between Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3; veterans of those two games will pick this up in no time. In a slight, related misstep, though, some well-known moves now require a different command input, which is bound to throw some old-school players.
While I’ve seen and touched the thing, I’ve not yet had the chance to actually play with the Tournament Edition fight stick. But at this point, I’m convinced that it’s indeed the way to go it if you’re serious about Mortal Kombat. The Xbox 360 controller, more so than in Street Fighter IV, doesn’t quite cut it, and it's occasionally the source of much frustration. With Mortal Kombat’s reliance on directional stick taps as opposed to the rolling or charge motions of Street Fighter, it’s far more suited to clicky, digital controls (like those of the stick). Both the 360 controller’s analogue stick and D-pad will force you to fudge many a special move and, with frustrating regularity, Fatalities. I imagine PlayStation 3 owners will fare only slightly better with their controllers’ D-pads (which are commonly held as being superior for such inputs).
Don’t get me wrong – it’s absolutely playable and still a tonne of fun with a pad. Just be prepared to, occasionally, jump when you intend to perform a projectile attack and so on. Minor control issues aside, the underlying mechanics work really well, and there are plenty of fun moves and combo opportunities to be had. The much-discussed and very brutal X-ray moves (that show a slow-mo, gruesome shattering of bones), surprisingly, don’t get old terribly quickly. In fact, much like an Ultra Combo in Street Fighter IV, it’s a great way to turn the tide of a battle; it’s as much an indicator that things are about to get interesting as it is a gimmicky, visual trick.
Upon launching Mortal Kombat, the first thing I did was head straight to the Story Mode; it’s a linear progression of fights where character selection is removed from the player in favour of a story told from a variety of perspectives. The opening cinematic is really quite something, presenting an unfavourable, alternate epilogue to the original Mortal Kombat trilogy. The dismembered bodies of the Earthrealm warriors – Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, Sonia Blade et al – lie strewn across the floor, their remains pecked at by vultures. Only Raiden is left standing, battered and bruised, against a seemingly invincible Shao Khan. Before Khan delivers the deathblow, Raiden is able to send cryptic messages to himself in the past that just might hold the key to altering time and avoiding the events that have just unfolded.
So the player first assumes control of Johnny Cage at the beginning of the first tournament, squaring off against Reptile. Each chapter, consisting of roughly three fights, focuses on a specific character from Mortal Kombat lore while progressing an overarching plotline. The fights are bookmarked by cinematics that flesh out and develop the plot; it’s an interesting and clever way of retelling the Mortal Kombat story from a number of perspectives. In fact, the context of the plot will dictate the nature of the battle; whether it’s against a single adversary or one of the franchise’s notorious "Endurance Matches” against two. Of course, by way of including all of the characters from the original trilogy (and a few extras), some liberties have been taken with the wider Mortal Kombat canon. For instance, characters that weren’t present in the first tournament might play a minor role in that part of the story. But for the most part, Mortal Kombat’s story mode is a shining example of fan service done right; it pays the utmost of respect to the franchise’s most popular entries, with enough cameos and references to force a grin from series veterans.
Sure, it’s linear, and at times you’re inevitably forced to play as characters you may not particularly care for, but Mortal Kombat’s story mode is engaging and also surprisingly lengthy. You’ll re-encounter familiar environments and settings from the original trilogy in a way that ties in to the plot; no backdrop is forced. And it’s also completely additional to the stock-standard "arcade-style” modes you come to expect from a Mortal Kombat game. But as engaging as the plot is, the cinematics are occasionally just the slightest bit corny, and they leave little to the imagination. This is an aspect that was absent from the original trilogy, and gaps are filled that perhaps shouldn’t be, which detracts from the mood ever so slightly. Simply put, I don’t think the game has been 100% successful in recapturing the dark mood of the first three games, but it’s a very admirable step in the right direction. Some players may be a little disheartened to hear that Fatalities are removed from this game mode for plot reasons. Understandable, but it also aids in "PG-ifying” the Story Mode experience. For close to two decades, Mortal Kombat has been all about removing heads and hearts, but you wouldn’t know it given the majority of the game’s Story Mode.
But that’s where the traditional "ladder” mode comes in. This is effectively Mortal Kombat as it’s known and loved; you’ll scale the iconic Kombat Tower against a series of Kombatants before facing some familiar bosses and, eventually, Shao Khan himself. There’s no plot progression in this mode whatsoever aside from a short "motion comic” style ending for each character at the end; it’s pure arcade action through and through, and it’s where much of the single-player experience is likely to be had once you’re done with the Story Mode. Each character starts out with only the one Fatality, but an additional two can be unlocked by spending points in the Kombat Krypt (more on this later). The command inputs for Fatalities can now be accessed in the pause-menu command list, so the days of forking out for a Tips and Tricks magazine or keeping GameFAQs close at hand are long gone. It’s also worth noting that, in keeping with the Mortal Kombat tradition, a certain boss can be infuriatingly difficult. Let’s just leave it at that...
Also introduced is a tag-battle mode; a variant of the ladder mode where the player can select two characters with which to do battle against another two characters at each level. The tag-in, tag-out gameplay is fast, frantic, and surprisingly deep; it’s not quite at, say, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 levels of depth, but it’s rather close for what is essentially an additional gameplay offering within a wider package. A tag-team combo and assist system has been implemented purely for this mode, and I imagine this is one area into which the game’s most hardcore will sink some serious time.
However, it’s outside of these already impressive, standard single-player modes where the real value and longevity of Mortal Kombat becomes apparent. The Challenge Tower is an admirable addition that is bound to hold your interest for weeks to come. It’s, unsurprisingly, a series of challenges that the player must progress through; some of them will take you approximately 30 seconds while others will require multiple attempts and, often, a generous helping of luck. They range from, say, defeating an opponent while blocking is disabled to defeating two opponents in under 60 seconds. And that’s only the more straightforward tasks; they get as absurd as, say, defeating an opponent only by hurling your own limbs at them (don’t worry, they grow back!) to landing as many of Cyrax’s bombs into a moving bucket as possible. The many bite-sized challenges (although some will take a number of attempts) are great fun, and an excellent way of keeping you engaged. You’ve got to commend the effort that’s gone into this feature alone; each of the challenges is unique, and I’ve almost completed around 100 of the 300 on offer. There’s also reportedly an extra special treat for those who persevere and complete the whole lot.
Another reason to persevere with the Challenge Tower is that, much like every other game mode, you’ll earn Kombat Koins for completing certain feats. Every challenge completed, every opponent defeated, every Fatality performed and more will net a certain amount of Kombat Koins. These can then be spent in the Kombat Krypt to unlock a raft of kontent (am I doing it right?). It all ranges from the trivial to the substantial: concept artwork and renders through to hidden characters and additional Fatalities. NetherRealm’s done an exceptional job in pacing this aspect of Mortal Kombat, ensuring that there’s a steady flow of content to keep the player interested.
And I think that’s a bit of a fitting motif for this game; the lasting appeal of Mortal Kombat is through the roof. From the compelling and rather lengthy story mode to the traditional ladder mode (and variants of) to the Challenge Tower to the multitudes of Fatalities and combos to master, Mortal Kombat will keep you entertained for weeks. And that’s before I even get to the multiplayer component that, unfortunately, I couldn’t test out at the time of writing; matchmaking simply did not turn up any local results before release.
With all of this value, it doesn’t hurt that the underlying game is an absolute blast; from the mechanics to the visuals to the sometimes slapstick humour, it really does capture the essence of the franchise’s glory days. To any nervous, long-time fans of the franchise, I can assure you that Mortal Kombat is every bit the game you’d hoped for. The ninth in the series is a fitting tribute to its most popular offerings, and I can’t recommend it enough, even for the single-player offering alone.
Lasting appeal: 10