Beat-em-up classic Mortal Kombat rose from the dead earlier this year, looking better than ever. But, after almost twenty years and some bad mistakes (including those dreadful movies starring Christopher Lambert), has the game that launched a thousand headlines retained its power to shock? And, more importantly, is it any fun to play? Christopher Bell finds out…
I’ve been playing the Mortal Kombat series since it made its gore-soaked, parent-and-politician-bothering debut way back in the early 1990s and, considering that I’m now 27, that would put me at around nine or ten years old when MK1 first arrived. Don’t panic; my folks were OK with it, and I didn’t become the ultra-violent little so-and-so that the naysayers claimed I would.
Skip forward to the here-and-now. The digitised actors have been replaced by fully Unreal Engine 3 rendered, three-dimensional punch bags, albeit on a 2D plane; the ninja costumes are no longer re-colours (the original suit was white, and the colours changed depending on the character), giving a greater sense of visual identity and, last but not least, the series’ trademark Fatalities are much more grisly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because the biggest change is not merely technical.
As long term fans will remember, the climax of the last game (MK: Armageddon (2006)) saw every last fighter dead and newly-mortal thunder deity Raiden about to meet his maker at the hands of evil overlord Shao Khan. But, in a move inspired by J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, the new game uses a time travel storyline to start its own canon all over again, and Raiden is able to send a last-minute warning to his younger self, via an enchanted amulet. Cut to the cast of the original game arriving for their very first battle…
It’s a plot that’s been used countless times before but it still manages to work well here, as Raiden starts to change established events in MK‘s history, and not always for the better, leading to tensions, fights and even premature deaths in the hero camp.
Why return to the beginning? Mortal Kombat was originally developed by a small team within Midway (Rampage, Pit Fighter, etc.). Sadly, due to the economic crisis (and some bad games), Midway closed its doors forever in 2009. The Mortal Kombat team signed to Warner Brothers and formed Netherrealm Studios. So, new studio, new publisher, new start! They could have continued the series after Armageddon, but starting over with the original characters allows them to keep their existing fans as well as attracting a new audience. Anyway, on with the review!
The fighting system is very basic, and nearly identical to earlier MK games. The four face buttons are divided into two punches and two kick buttons, with a separate button used for blocking. Special moves can be executed by extremely simple button combinations (eg. down, forward, low kick), and include some nasty free-hit strikes (Sub-Zero’s ice ball and Scorpion’s infamous grappling spear) and teleports. These moves can be enhanced by pressing the block button with the final button press. This scheme worked back in the old days, and is still pitch perfect today.
The close combat has changed though, and thankfully for the better. The older systems were about spamming the punch button to repeatedly bludgeon your opponent in the face. Now, the combat is more about combos and timing, much like Street Fighter IV. Some combos are listed in the handy command list, accessible from the pause menu, but the real fun lies in discovering unlisted combos to swiftly bring your foe one step closer to death’s door. (The uppercut, which can be used to send opponents flying into pits of spikes or acid, makes a welcome return).
In addition to these specials, you now have a three-stage super meter. Stage 1 gives the ability to enhance a special move (see above) and Stage 2 allows a Killer Instinct-style Combo Breaker. Stage 3 gives us the X-Ray move. Much like a super combo, this deals a lot of damage if the first part connects. Better yet, we get to see exactly how much damage is done by the medium of – you guessed it – X-Ray vision and slo-mo! These are a lot of fun to use, and deal around 40% damage on their own.
Now comes the nasty bit, and I’m going to give you all the grisly, graphic details here. The Fatalities. After they fall for the second time, you will be prompted to horrifically butcher your opponent. Here’s my Top 5 nastiest, Grindhouse-worthy kills in this game. Cue chart music!
1) Jade – ‘Half Mast’ (She uppercuts the opponent into the air, impales them on her staff, then tears their head off and jams it on top.)
2) Johnny Cage – ‘And The Winner Is…’ (Cage karate chops his opponent’s head down the middle, sticks an Oscar in the wound, then cockily pushes them over with just his finger.)
3) Mileena – ‘Be Mine’ (She throws her sai knives into the opponent’s torso, walks on up and, after caressing their face, tears most of their head off and chomps on their face.)
4) Kung Lao – ‘Razor’s Edge’ (Kung Lao sets his hat spinning in place on the ground, like a table saw, before dragging his opponent over it…)
5) Noob Saibot – ‘Make A Wish’ (Noob creates a copy of himself, they grab a leg each, and pull the opponent in half up the middle. All in horrifying slow motion.)
Sadly, there are a few flaws. First, a lot of the characters have the same basic moves and combos. Secondly, some of the Fatalities are damp squibs (guest character Kratos using Medusa’s head, for example). Lastly, why did they have to bring back Babalities? (You turn your fallen adversary into a helpless infant – seriously?!)
Mortal Kombat does have some fantastic downloadable content (DLC) though. The PS3 version features an exclusive guest character, God Of War‘s Kratos, but he pales alongside Freddy Kreuger. No, you’re not dreaming. He even comes armed with the ‘Depp kill’ Fatality! Other characters include Rain (a purple ninja inspired by Prince (the singer)), Kenshi (a blind swordsman out for revenge) and Skarlet (originally a bug in MK2, where the female ninjas turned red). More are rumoured.
Included on the disk are a wealth of concept art, gameplay modes (including a tag-team mode!), and alternative costumes for most fighters. Sadly, you have to buy some of extras from the crypt, sorry ‘Krypt’, with digital ‘Koins’ earned in-game and some these extras, such as alternative Fatalities and costumes, can be unlocked elsewhere in the game for nothing. All finishing moves can be done without having to unlock them first, so you can easily get the move lists off the internet.
Well, there it is; a new chapter in the gore-soaked tome of Mortal Kombat. This is not your father’s beat ‘em up, kids! Actually, keep this well away from the kids – over 18s only!
Mortal Kombat (2011) is out now.
Developer: Netherrealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Brothers
Formats: PS3 and X360 (PS Vita version rumoured)