Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360, iOS, Android
Release Date: April 7th (iOS/Android), April 16th (PS4, Xbox One, PC) and possibly June 2nd (Xbox 360, PS3)
Mortal Kombat is a series known for its brutality. The bloody fighter staked its claim in the landscape of video game history by willingly displaying violence at an extreme level that other popular titles like Street Fighter simply weren’t doing. Every subsequent release stacked the deck further with more modes, more gore and more of everything. It was, let’s face it, a bloated mess by the time NetherRealm Studios took hold of it. The ninth installment, simply titled Mortal Kombat, erased the downright awful (by that point) fiction that defined the universe, stripped out the very beating heart of the long-running series and rebuilt it into a leaner, meaner and far better game. It was a reboot that got it right in nearly every way.
The skeleton that NetherRealm showcased to the world in 2011 was damn good. Now begins the process of shaping the monster further. Mechanically this is, without a doubt, the very best game the franchise has ever seen. There are variations on old favorites, interesting changes made to the flow of combat and more that not only add depth to a game sorely needing it but also lending a sense of complexity. Tournament viable fighters have that. Mortal Kombat X has that.
There are heaps of play modes to dive into with MKX that, frankly, should help to give the game legs long after initial release. Towers are back with interesting variations upon them, Faction Wars offer community-focused events where there are elements of roleplaying games slipped in for good measure along with a fantastic unlock scheme involving the Krypt. It is weird to think that a Mortal Kombat game has a first-person style dungeon crawler to unlock skins, fatalities, brutalities and more, but it sure does. The biggest chunk of effort, it seems, in regards to the single player experience has to be in Story Mode.
You Got Story In My Fighting Game…
The continuation of the new precedent set with MK9 means that not only are there further refinements to mechanics but also a continued emphasis on narrative. Let’s face facts. Fighting games aren’t exactly known for their storylines. There’s scant tissue connecting most characters to each other or the setting at best with most titles. The idea of just flipping the reset switch and redefining what took place in the first three games was a bold move. It worked like a charm.
It was, without a doubt, one of the best storylines to a fighting game that has ever come down the pipe. It would, honestly, be a tough act to follow, but I will give NetherRealm credit for deftly juggling not only a huge amount of characters but sticking to their guns. This time around the focus comes down to the relationships that weave their way through the universe be it human, non-human or a mix of the two. The emphasis, in particular, on family, featuring old stalwarts like Johnny Cage and Jax along with their daughters, Cassie and Jacqui, works well. The campaign for MKX is pretty lean with about a dozen chapters to work through. It shouldn’t take much more than four to five hours at most. It is worth playing through if not for the in-game currency for unlocks but to get a sense of why these people do what they do. We’ve come a long way from the days of “I’m here to fight. Let’s rock.” and thus the Mortal Kombat tournament is born. It isn’t the most elegant thing around but is certainly one of the most fun ways to unlock content encountered in a fighting game.
We don’t hit the epic highs of the prior game’s attempt to pull a JJ Abrams for Mortal Kombat, but it certainly delivers a lot of great moments. All the characters featured are “good guys”, for the most part, and playing through each chapter puts one in the shoes of a would-be hero. The one-on-one fights are bookended by cutscenes for the most part. There are interactive events requiring quick button presses but, mostly, players will watch just as much as fight through Story Mode. We run the gamut on appearances from Special Forces commandos like Sonya Blade and Jax to fighters like Tanya and Rain.
The newer characters, in particular, are quite strong here with Outworld cowboy Erron Black and insect queen D’Vorah standing out amongst the new recruits, but one, in particular, works extremely well. Kung Jin, one of the more bland looking characters, is not only a descendant of Kung Lao yet one of the prime examples of what works well this time around with MKX‘s Story Mode. Subtlety is not something the series is known for yet the former thief transformed into a redeemed Shaolin warrior has a passive aggressive wit to him that is quite charming. The fact that the character also happens to be gay is but a mere trait of the overall character. That component of the character does not define him but, rather, is just another small way in which Kung Jin is a well-rounded entity within the MK universe.
My only complaint about Story Mode, in general, are the QTEs involved. They occur infrequently and when the player might not even have their hands on the controller as the cutscenes that make up a majority of the time spent in Story Mode are long. It isn’t a dealbreaker or anything, but it is certainly a noticeable failing in an otherwise great experience.
Lean Mean Fighting Machine
That idea of reworking and scaling down continues with a roster that is definitely bloat-free compared to past MK entries. The roster of 24 is well-rounded featuring fan-favorites from the Lin Kuei, Shaolin warriors old and new along with the ragtag Special Forces gang including Jax, Jacqui Briggs, Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Cassie Cage. Don’t worry Raiden, Sub-Zero and Scorpion are here as well. Quan-Chi and even Shinnok join the mix. The new combatants are given plenty of breathing room in this pared-down roster and are better for it. There are legacy fighters like Cassie, Takeda (son of blind swordsman, Kenshi) or the new blood like Ferra/Tor (a big hulking brute with a small child riding on his shoulders) and Kotal Khan (new ruler of Outworld) with far less ninjas this time around. Rain, Smoke, Noob Saibot, the cyber variants and more are great and all but it can be overkill with ninjas. The roster feels lean and mean even with the incoming Kombat Pack characters of Tanya, Tremor, Jason Voorhees and The Predator. Just give me the Dillon skin for Jax already.
The roster, while smaller than in previous installments, casts a larger shadow with the inclusion of three Variations per character. Every character, new or old, has three different means of approaching battle. Classic abilities like the spear for Scorpion or Sub-Zero’s iceball remain but with a change in variation come different abilities, variable buffs or debuffs and a sense that the same character can be played three different ways. The result is a character like Johnny Cage, in Fisticuffs variation, plays more like a standard version of what long-time fans are used to. The on-screen HUD showcases which one the player has chosen but usually there visual cues as well. Cage, for example, wears brass knuckles with the word “C A G E” across the first four fingers. His damage also increases when he’s in “Danger Mode” or at low health. His normal throw is altered and his special moves are accompanied by a red glow instead of the trademark Cage green. Hit up the Stunt Double variation and Cage will suddenly have shades of Noob Saibot tossed into the mix. His ability to gain two charges of Stunt Double will allow him to toss out Special Moves from a distance. Players can get in and mix it up with a quick show of deadly force from the charged moves followed by an EX Shadow Kick or any number of abilities that will serve as a capstone to the projectile special moves in this variation. The third variation, A-List, allows for charging of special attacks and even grants some of his standard moves with differing EX versions. The timeless Nut Punch suddenly becomes a confirm that can then lead into a serious juggle with some deft Shadow Kicks and nimble fingers.
This applies to every character on the roster. The overall meta-strategy, in regards to the competitive scene, should be interesting to watch as top-shelf talent figures out how to match up against characters and their variations. Long sets can be turned towards victory or defeat with simple changes in a variation on a character that a player sticks to. Unbreakable Sub-Zero might work far better than Grandmaster in certain situations along with a myriad of other tweaks that can be made between matches that could help or hinder the cause. Numerous hours will have to be spent in the lab determining who and which way is best for this reviewer to make sure Johnny Cage gets to Shadow Kick everything possible.
Other new additions include a Stamina Bar that will diminish as players dash, run (though a dedicated button for it would be nice instead of having to hit Block and a dash forward/back — easy to accidentally do at first) and break combos. This makes for characters with more zone heavy variations have a limit on what they can do along with making it possible to break some but not all combos. If you’re not a fan of the ChrisG type of Morrigan play in fighting games then the Stamina is a welcome addition. Mileage will vary player to player.
One quick note about netcode. The aspect of most games that every FGC nerd dreads. The discussion about whether online fighting can actually help one “get good” is one for another time but the fact remains that the online play, as it stands, is variable depending on numerous conditions. Wireless play will have a harder time than those hardwired in but, honestly, it came down to differing times of day resulting in far better experiences. This has smoothed out since the first day of launch but it is something to be aware of. Few games can claim to possess a flawless net code though Killer Instinct comes pretty darn close. My own personal experience has ranged from unplayable to so smooth I could scarcely tell I was playing in an online match. Better net code will result in a longer life for this game. The game’s first patch, released earlier this past week, has helped to remedy some of the issues that were hitting online play early in Launch. There is room for improvement, though.
The Bloodier The Better
NetherRealm has soared to new heights when it comes to bloodshed and mayhem in Mortal Kombat X. Fatalities have never been this brutal before. The exacting detail to which one’s foes are mangled, sliced open, heads made into ash trays or forced to take a #Selfie with a jaw missing are not only gruesome to behold but just plain fun. It’s the sort of overwrought madness that some will take far too seriously, but it is tough to take it for more than what it is: video games on the far end of the violence spectrum. It is odd when fighters like Johnny and Cassie face off. If Cassie wins and performs the Selfie fatality there can be a strange dissonance present in seeing a daughter do that to their own father and vice-versa. Brutalities, however, are a brilliant addition to the game. These require more than just a few button presses after winning the second round and usually require certain match conditions to be met to even enact them. The added difficulty of pulling them off means some real satisfaction can be gained after pulling off a sick combo. The ramifications for online and tournament play are enormous as seeing an opponent doing strange or very specific things might clue one in on what they’re attempting. If they pull it off anyway? The closet analog I can muster are the halcyon days of waiting to play against the kid who’s run the table at the arcade. You’re ready for this battle. You know your character. He’s just better than you. The humiliation of that defeat is humbling yet motivating as well. Time to get good. It is, perhaps, one of the best things that Mortal Kombat X brings to the table aside from variations in that, somehow, they managed to replicate a part of the original experience of fighting for your pride in an arcade. Pulling off a Brutality feels so rewarding but falling victim to it is frustrating yet looking away is impossible from the violent train wreck happening on-screen.
This game is, graphically, one of the best things out on the current generation of consoles period. The PC version, once it gets stable and playable, will look even better. High Voltage/NetherRealm are working diligently to bring it up to speed but, just a word to wise, they’re also handling the 360 and PS3 ports as well. We can only hope their launch isn’t marred by the same problems. Character models are fantastic though a few rough spots are present in regards to facial textures on some. It is more noticeable when one of the better looking fighters, D’Vorah, for example, goes up against someone like Sonya Blade. Costumes, all around are great with a decidedly toned down approach to the female fighters in particular. There are still some busty gals, sure, but they also look more dressed for the part of fighting to the death as opposed to the borderline Dead or Alive costumes from prior 3D entries. It is strange to say that a game that revels in such absurd levels of carnage and gore actually dialed it down a notch in certain respects. Mortal Kombat has always been about cranking the knob past 11 and ripping it off as opposed to the near sensible design aesthetic on display here. Fatalities are tremendous too ranging from the over-the-top hilarity of something like “Here’s Johnny” from noted Hollywood jerk and (my personal favorite) Johnny Cage to Ermac’s absolutely disgusting second Fatality featuring, well, just sheer lunatic levels of depravity for a finishing move. The overall level design for stages, featuring interactive objects (taking a page from Injustice: Gods Among Us) is solid across the board with notables like The Kove, Refugee Kamp and the White Lotus Temple truly standing out.
Mortal Kombat X will find a place among the most casual of fans to the most diehard of fighting game enthusiasts. The absolutely stuffed slew of single-player content mixed with the best multiplayer experience a Mortal Kombat game has ever had means that there are lots of nuances to discover. The Krypt, a first-person dungeon crawler, is a unique and, frankly, quaint means of unlocking content through single and multiplayer. The scaled down roster means fighters are more balanced (except Erron Black. Nerf incoming) and Variations add more complexity to the overall strategy of an MK game than ever before. It is surprising to see some of the choices made in a game where a player can execute the other by slowly pulling out every inch of their guts then holding them aloft like a ragdoll. The revelry of hyper-violence comes with some very smart design choices in regards to character design and mechanics. The Faction War meta-game should prove to be interesting if the rewards are worth the effort. The included micro-transaction nonsense of EZ Fatality tokens and unlocking everything for $20.00 feels a bit beneath such a storied franchise. All that said it still doesn’t ruin the experience it is, however, a bit troubling. This is, simply put, the absolute best Mortal Kombat game that has ever been made despite a story that doesn’t quite reach the heights of 2011’s Mortal Kombat. NetherRealm Studios has knocked this one out of the park.