Call me crazy with a K, but there’s something ridiculously entertaining about pulling people’s limbs off and beating them round the face with them. How else do you explain the enduring success of the Mortal Kombat franchise despite the fact that it hasn’t seen the release of a truly decent game since the mid-nineties?
Until now, I hasten to add. I’ll get it out of the way right at the beginning: Mortal Kombat (2011) is good, even though it’s confusingly labelled without so much as a sub-title, even though it rewrites the franchise canon, and even though Kano still hasn’t decided whether he’s English, Australian or Texan. I would even go so far as to say it’s the best iteration of Mortal Kombat since the heady days of the original trilogy, circa 1992 – 1995. So why has it taken 15-odd years to release a worthy successor? Well, probably because, as with many things, it just needed a fresh pair of hands and eyes to give it a once over.
The liquidation of Midway Games last year came as a shock to many people, but looking back it’s easy to see how things fell apart. Mortal Kombat had always been their flagship franchise, yet up against the likes of Street Fighter, Tekken, Virtua Fighter (hell, even Dead or Alive) it was always to be found wanting. Deception and Shaolin Monks sold relatively well and attempted to do something different with the series, but 2008’s MK vs. DC Universe was more or less the last nail in Midway’s gore-soaked coffin. A poorly-executed mismatch of worlds, slow and clunky mechanics, unresponsive controls, a pointless use of the Unreal Engine and one of the lamest storylines in MK (and indeed DC) history made for a game that became a caricature of itself, toning down the trademark violence and dialling up the cheese. Many people expected it to be the last coming of Mortal Kombat, the inglorious death of an old warrior.
But thanks to the intervention of Warner Bros. Games, NetherRealm Studios has risen from the ashes of Midway to bring Mortal Kombat back from the dead – and what a resurrection. The reboot does everything you expect a Mortal Kombat game to do, and it does it brilliantly. Taking the action back to the 2(.5)D plane, it eschews some of the annoying gimmicks seen in recent titles and focuses on the over-the-top brutality and controversy-courting that fans have come to know and love.
MK 2011 begins with Raiden’s apparent death at the hands of Shao Kahn. Just before he bites the big one, the Thunder God manages to work some mystic hoodoo on his magical macguffin-amulet and rewinds the entire series back to day dot. From then on, “Past Raiden” has the ability to see flashes of the future, helping him guide the Earthrealm champions towards victory in a plot arc that spans (and rewrites) the storylines of the first three Mortal Kombats. It’s a mechanic that makes for some interesting moments (seeing Cyrax and Sektor before they were turned into cyborgs, for example), and genuinely leaves fans and newcomers alike wondering what will happen after each bout.
Character-wise, all the old favourites return, from Lui Kang and Sonya Blade to Scorpion, Sub-Zero and Kitana. Each character comes equipped with an alternate costume for the unlocking, and a roster of kombos (their spelling, not mine!) and special moves, as is par for the course. On a technical level, there’s still nothing here to bother the likes of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom or Street Fighter IV, but it’s still a great deal of fun mastering your favourite characters all over again.
Unfortunately, the move lists are a little uneven, with some characters barely mustering four specials and others boasting reflect moves, teleports and grabs, making for the occasional imbalanced fight. Likewise, the characters themselves aren’t often very evenly matched, and some kombatants (again, sorry) are incredibly fast (Kitana, for example) whilst some seem ponderously slow (Nightwolf, I’m looking at you) – not usually a problem in other games, but in MK there’s little difference in the damage they can inflict, meaning Kitana simply whoops ass faster, thus creating the aforementioned imbalance.
A new control system helps to deepen the tactical play, though, as now instead of having low and high kicks and punches, buttons are assigned to the front and back feet and fists. The inclusion of a three-tiered power-bar also makes for some strategic ducking-and-diving: the first bar allows you to enhance the damage of a standard special attack, the second allows you to activate a Kombo-Breaker manoeuvre and when all three bars are full – well, that’s when it gets really personal. Three full bars activate the X-Ray move, whereby pressing both triggers at the right moment will deal huge amounts of damage to your opponent whilst treating you to a close-up X-ray view of their bones and internal organs splitting, smashing and popping under the impact. It’s beautiful and brutal at the same time – it’s just a shame that they’re quite easy to exploit.
But then Mortal Kombat was never about technical brilliance; it was always about accessibility and fun, and this iteration is no different. Newbies and stalwarts alike can pick up a pad and find themselves in a nice comfortable rhythm in no time at all. Even the tag-team system is easily learned – though mastering it can be tricky – and NetherRealm were nice enough to include Tag Kombos and Assists to add a subtle layer of tactics to tag matches.
Which is not to say the rest of the game modes are about mindless button mashing, of course. The classic Arcade Ladder returns with ten matches and a short ending video for each character, along with a reward for completing it – and the reboot also sees the return of the Test Your Might mini-game, this time alongside Test Your Luck, Sight and Strike, too.
Test Your Sight is a fairly straightforward ball-and-cups game, whereas Strike is a slightly tweaked version of Might – but the real fun is in the Test Your Luck game. In this mode you spin a pair of bandit-style slots to determine your opponent and which parameter is set for the bout – and these can range from fighting without the ability to jump to fighting with no arms or upside down on the ceiling. There are a krazy (ok, that one was me) amount of variations, and not knowing what’s coming next keeps the mode fresh, fun and frantic.
Added to this is the Challenge Tower, 300 levels of character-specific tasks from winning a bout by hitting your opponent in every bodypart to holding back a horde of charging zombies with Stryker’s pistol. It adds a further level of mayhem to an already-bursting game. Indeed, the story mode is huge for a fighter and can easily take the best part of eight hours to finish, giving you the chance to play from the perspectives of a handful of the 25+ playable characters. Oh, and the Krypt is also back, featuring hundreds of unlocks to be purchased using Kombat Koins earned in the game modes.
It’s disheartening that it all kind of begins to come apart online. Unlike the more sophisticated fighters out there, MK plays like a true brawler – one where anything goes and cheap tactics are often used in place (or perhaps in deficit) of the kind of deft finger-dancing employed by a seasoned SF player. Despite the new King of the Hill mode adding a little surreality to proceedings (you can watch other people fight, score their performances, boo, cheer and throw rotten tomatoes at the screen), Mortal Kombat’s Vs. Mode is still best when played on the settee with your mates next to you – it has that enduringly childish appeal that can only come from tearing out your mate’s spinal column or transforming him into a crying baby (yes, Babalities are back).
While it’s fair to say that Mortal Kombat is flawed, it’s also fair to say that we all expected it to be – and because of that it’s actually far better than we could have imagined. It isn’t particularly clever or sophisticated, but it’s slick, sick and gruesomely entertaining. Complaining that Mortal Kombat is all style over substance is like complaining that Michael Bay’s films have a lot of explosions in them – if it’s not your cup of tea, go drink somewhere else. But if you want your action loud, colourful, exciting and unpredictable, you know exactly where to kome (last one, I promise).