Mortal Kombat was always more of a curiosity than a game. Like many kids I was utterly fascinated by the digitized violence on display and devoted many hours of my childhood to the arcade, slogging through fights solely to try and achieve some fatalities. At the time it was still remarkable to be playing a fighting game that allowed you to behead, dismember and disembowel your foes at the end of a match. The jerky, unresponsive controls didn’t bother anyone as long as they got to see gratuitous bloody murder. Catharsis, thy name is Kombat.
It’s generally accepted that the series peaked with its second outing, which offered faster combat, new moves, new fatalities and everyone’s favorite bladed miscreant, Baraka. Subsequent sequels tried adding a combo system and weapons, but none of them really attempted to change up the stilted combat. There was a reason why Street Fighter was the clear victor in the fighting game wars back then- it was just infinitely more playable, even if you couldn’t rip off an opponent’s leg and beat them to death with it.
It’s now 19 years since the first title graced arcades and we have the release of the latest, simply titled Mortal Kombat in an effort to reboot the franchise. And you know what? Developer NetherRealm Studios has finally decided to focus on what the series has needed for two decades- gameplay. It’s a novel idea, isn’t it? But Mortal Kombat with fluid, fast gameplay works beautifully.
The key innovation here is that you can chain together practically any combos and special moves. In previous titles the moves and combos had no leeway or freedom to them- you either got the combination of moves right and landed all the hits, or you missed. Not now! You can constantly change up the attacks and let them flow into new ones, and the responsive moves gives you more control over your kombatant than ever before.
There are 27 characters included (with more coming as DLC), all with a bevvy of attacks and three fatalities each, two of which have to be unlocked. The combat is classic 2D fighting once again, although of course the graphics are in glorious 3D. Matches play the same as ever- whittle down your opponent’s health by hitting him, but there are a couple of new additions to help you in your beatings. The biggest is the three level “super meter” for each character that fills up by performing combos or receiving damage. One level will allow you to boost a special attack’s power, two levels will enable you to counter an opponent’s combo- handy when you’re getting juggled around. Fill the meter up completely and you can unleash the character’s X-Ray move, an absolutely devastating attack that would make Sonny Chiba proud. These brutal attacks give you an inside view of your opponent’s body to better see their bones shatter like glass and organs rupture, not to mention a huge chunk of their life bar demolished.
The violence has never been as exquisite as it is here. Along with the X-ray attacks characters take damage to all parts of their bodies in real time- slash at an opponent with Scorpion’s sword and watch their cheek get flayed open and expose the jaw beneath. The finishing moves are made even more sadistic thanks to character models that include bones, tendons and organs. No longer will someone merely get cut in half neatly- all sorts of viscera will splatter out. At the end of the match even the victor will usually look cut and bloodied to hell.
So the actual fighting is infinitely improved and satisfying in every way, but the one big issue most fighting games have is that there’s simply not much to do. Sure, if you want to try and beat the game with every character to see their ending in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 you absolutely can do that, but besides fighting online there’s nothing else to do. Mortal Kombat has almost too much content.
First of all there’s a clever single-player campaign, which may actually be the single best in a fighting game yet. Once again they’ve decided to retcon the convoluted story. We are shown Raiden as he’s about to be killed by Shao Kahn after the events of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. Somehow he manages to send a message back in time to himself, a dire warning of what will happen to the world if Liu Kang doesn’t win the tournament. Past Raiden keeps having flashfowards and premonitions and does his best to rally the good guys to win it. You control various characters throughout the story of Mortal Kombats 1 through 3 and experience it from all sides. One interesting thing? The violence is toned down considerably for the story. There are no real fatalities and even the damage modelling seems to have been turned off. It’s to the game’s credit that it’s still entertaining, and you’ll actually be compelled to keep watching the twists and turns of the story, no matter how silly it gets. This might sound like a slam but it’s really well done for a fighting game- it’s not easy to tell a compelling story that hinges on a character fighting every single person he meets in his life.
If you don’t want to bother with all that story you can just play a Tournament ladder, which works the same as the old games. It’ll give you a random selection of fighters to face leading up to Shao Kahn, who is unfortunately one of the cheapest bosses you’ll ever face. Your attacks hardly make a dent against his life bar and you’ll have to retry that fight multiple times before you figure out how to take him down.
Then there’s the Challenge Tower, which offers a staggering 300 different challenges to face. Good luck getting to the top of this- they start off easy (beat an opponent with a throw, kill waves of zombies using a projectile move) and get increasingly hard as you get closer to the top. It’s a wonderful inclusion to the game, however, as it’s an incentive to boot it up just to try and beat a few more challenges.
No matter which mode you choose to play in you’ll earn Koins to spend in the Krypt, which can unlock anything from new fatalities and costumes for the characters to concept art and music. There are hundreds of things available for purchase here and you never know just what you’re getting.
Online play is included of course (but good luck getting online with the PS3…) and you’re given the usual Ranked, Player and Private match choices, in both single and tag-team varieties. That’s right, four player tag-team matches have entered the game for the first time, allowing for some new tag moves and tactics. Another great new online mode is King of the Hill, which allows eight players to compete in a mini-tournament. Two players fight while the rest watch on, using Xbox Avatars for the 360 version and Mini-Kombatants for the PS3.
Mortal Kombat is easily the best one yet, a revamping that should have been undertaken a long time ago for a series that’s long grown stagnant. If it had only included these gameplay improvements it would be worth a purchase by itself, but the massive amount of things to do and unlockables to strive for means that you’ll be spilling blood in this game for months. Murder simulation has never been such fun!