Developed by NetherRealm Studios
Published by Warner Bros. Interactive
Rated M for Mature
Available on PS4 (reviewed), PS3, XBONE, XB360, and PC
In 2011, Mortal Kombat revolutionized the fighting game market for normal people. I qualify it as such because for a long time, while quality fighters came out of Japan, the anime presentation and skill barrier of games like Guilty Gear was a difficult pill for the average American consumer to swallow.
These are the games I grew up on, and even though I never really liked anime, the fast and fluid combat always appealed to me. They required some next level insane skill to master, as every launch and hit required meticulous memorization of the follow-up string of attacks to be competitive. I never really had time to learn all the nuances between homework, sports, and girlfriends, so I generally was known as the novelty sociable guy in the anime or gaming club, good for a few laughs but easily spread across the floor with even the most low tier character.
Games like Super Smash Brothers shake things up quite a bit by being fun and lighthearted party games, best enjoyed casually. The problem is that aside from those truly insane who think mastering things like wave dashing, shine jumping, and edge guarding is fun, mastering the game only serves to frustrate your friends and turn something casual into a one-sided show of just how unlikeable you are.
Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, has always had a novelty factor that persists beyond the skill barrier. Even if you suck, you can still enjoy the brutality and gore. The game is a spectacle to behold, which for a good time carried the game through the generations despite shoddy design. I didn’t start gaming until I was about 15, and before that my mother didn’t let me play mature rated games. To me, Mortal Kombat was that scary danger game that my mother warned me about along with sugary goods, strangers, and not eating my vegetables. For me, the series started with Deadly Alliance, which I purchased for two pounds when I was taking some classes in England and had found a spare Gamecube. To me, the game seemed fine, but I had never experienced the glory days of the 2D installments, and in retrospect the series didn’t hold my interest enough to get me to buy the sequels. It is interesting that the games were generally decently well received, despite the general consensus now being that the games were all ass and drove Midway out of business.
Despite my previously stated adoration of the fast 2D Japanese fighters, slower pace and ease of entry meant that me and my friends would play 3D fighters. The first one I got really good at was Soul Calibur 2, my first Street Fighter was EX 3, and Dead or Alive was my first totally-not-a-masturbation-aid. When the series was rebooted with the ninth installment, asserting a blank slate by just calling itself Mortal Kombat, it didn’t strike me how important the move back to 2D was. I still remember booting up the game for the first time: Scorpion and Sub-Zero are squaring off, a press start prompt flashes in the corner. As soon as you do, Scorpion jets across the screen and breaks Sub-Zero’s jaw. I knew at this moment I was witnessing the industry being taken up a notch. The story mode was revolutionary, integrating the fights into the story in a genre that had typically been walls of text, nonsense explanations, or a just a gauntlet of fights before a final cutscene specific to the character. More importantly, the combat was fast, fluid, brutal, easy to learn, and hard to master. It reminded us all why we used to love Mortal Kombat, and proved that the third dimension was best left out of the franchise.
The newly formed NetherRealm Studios proved it wasn’t a one-hit wonder with the release of the superlative Injustice: Gods Among Us, which proved definitively that the studio didn’t need to rely on gore to sell games. Things are on the up for Ed Boon, the 25 year veteran of the industry. Everyone thought his glory days were behind him, that the original few Mortal Kombats would be his legacy, and that the series wouldn’t survive the bankruptcy. As the creative director at Netherrealm, he proves that experience and real talent still count in the industry, and that his biography still has many chapters to go before he can be written off.
If this article were a fighting game, what I would be doing is called telegraphing, since you can already see that I am going to give the latest installment a great score. Feel free to punish me in the comments section. It isn’t a perfect game, with particular complaints coming from the DLC department and some stale design, but it will be difficult for you to find a game with more bang for the buck.
At the outset of the story, we are introduced to a thoroughly fucked up earth in the middle of a war with the fallen elder god Shinnok, who is filling his ranks with the souls of those who were vanquished during the Mortal Kombat tournaments. Since a large chunk of the cast were killed during the first game, this means that many of the good guys start out as reincarnated bad guys, which persists throughout the new canon. Johnny Cage is the new hero of Earth-realm, a development akin to Jason Statham being the new Luke Skywalker. It is brilliantly corny and fun. Cage taps into his inner mystic power to defeat Shinnok, imprison him in his amulet, and declare, “You just got Caged, bitch.” If there is a better way to imprison a being of near infinite power, I have yet to see it.
From here, the story switches to 20 years later. Of the game’s 24 character roster, 8 are new, and with most of the heroes and villains of the previous game being dead, the story focuses on this new generation. Some of the old favorites are there—in revenant undead form or another—but for the most part this seems like an attempt to pass the torch to a new series of star characters. Quan Chi exists as a necromantic device to bring back characters they realized they probably shouldn’t have killed, so of course the series could easily bring back everyone whenever they want. It seems like they actually kind of care about plot continuity this time around, and without spoiling anything the whole “bringing people back from the dead” thing is a semi-closed thread, so it is likely that the characters that we see now as evil will stay that way and the ones that are dead will stay that way too. Still, since a lot of the new characters are children of previous characters with similar play-styles, it is reasonable to assume that even the most dead of characters will see some kind of new incarnation.
The story on whole feels less robust and important than the previous title. MK9 is a tough act to follow, seeing as how they told the story of 3 games, recreated the canon, and killed a majority of the cast. The scope and length is not matched, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth playing. It serves as a great introduction for the new heroes, even if the villains are a bit unexplored. It is funny to be spending so much time talking about a fighting game storyline, since traditionally they have been the less important than the Zune, but MK9 did change shit up, so it’s a bit of a blessing and a curse now. This installment feels a bit like a filler episode in preparation for a more epic story, introducing a new cast who has to fight a placeholder big baddy who underwhelms. Still, the storyline is better than either movies. Now, onto the other content.
As I briefly mentioned before, the roster is 24 characters large (including the unlockable Shinnok and DLC Goro), with plans to expand it to 28 with the first of what I assume to be several season passes. I don’t at this moment in the article want to get into the disturbing trend of DLC, so just know I will complain about that later. 24 characters is already a respectable roster, but is misleading when judging the sheer amount of variety. Each fighter has 3 different styles, which change how the character plays. While some variants are relatively similar, playing Possession mode Kenshi is entirely different from playing Balanced mode Kenshi. Styles alter not only what special moves are available, but the properties of attacks, what combos are available, and what your prefered engagement range is. For example, the three styles of Raiden include one for traps, one for extended combos, and one for increased teleport mobility. If you were to consider each variant to be about half a character of difference, which is conservative, it is closer to the truth to say that there is a 48 character roster.
That being said, of the 8 new characters, 4 are the children of previous characters. They stated that they wanted the children to represent the styles of their parents, so the question of if they are unique characters or just the new version of pallet swap ninjas is valid. Of the 4, Kung Jin and Takeda Takahashi are both unique and compelling picks. Kung Jin suffers a bit from being similar between styles, but Takeda does not, switching between a Kratos like lasher-mode, versatile Ronin mode, and combo heavy Shirai Ryu mode. Jacqui Briggs and Cassie Cage, on the other hand, both are a bit too similar to their predecessors. Jacqui is similar to Jax, but has some variety in her styles to keep her fresh. Cassie is the worst off, being an amalgam of the styles of Johnnie cage and Sonya Blade. Her moves function differently, but she lacks her own personality in regards to play style. Her characterization is great, so it makes up for a lot of the shortcoming, but play trumps style in my book.
Of the other 4 new characters, only D’vorah didn’t appeal at all to me. She isn’t bad, but she seems too tech to be functional. If you don’t get what I meant by that, go to your local anime club and ask them what I meant. Erron Black is my new favorite, and is criminally under represented in the story. He is voiced by Troy Baker for shit’s sake, making his scant few lines the greatest under-utilization of talent since Patrick Stewart showed up in Oblivion for a few seconds to say hello before realizing he had to go and do his part in killing off the original X-Men franchise and ran himself into some assassins. Ferra/Torr is similarly under explained for how interesting the character is, bringing a Master Blaster design without any of the cool exposition. The pair is unlikely to unseat Erron as the new favorite, and I get the distinct premonitory vibes they will be dumped in later installments. Still, the character is fun to play, and uses the two person combination factor creatively. For me, Kotal Kahn was a letdown. He has some personality, but as an emperor of Outworld, he is no Shao Kahn. I felt that his various modes weren’t really balanced, with War God being the obvious choice. I might get totally destroyed by some SSS tier ultra-pro in the future, but I call it like I see it.
Beyond the main story, there is a ludicrous amount of content. Faction wars add a meta conflict to the game, awarding new fatalities and perks to the dominant clan. Constantly rotating “Living Towers” offer a unique twist on the classic gauntlet, with challenging modifiers that change at specific time intervals. Classic Towers exist to scratch that old-school MK itch, this time with extra towers for endless, classic, random, and Test Your Might. The Krypt returns, this time in an adventure game shell. You explore the various rooms to find items that unlock more rooms, usually with some kind of Koin reward. Koins unlock stuff, and every once in a while an enemy pops up for you to quick-time event swat down for extra Koins. The entirety of the Krypt map can be accessed without spending more than a few thousand koins, but unlocking everything will cost hundreds of thousands. You get about 40k for completing the campaign, and after playing for a few hours I managed to get about 13k more. Unlocking stuff is optional, as concept art and skins are by nature fluff, and the extra fatalities and brutalities can always be learned with a simple internet search. Unlocking them just adds the prompt to your move-list, so is a luxury rather than necessity.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t possess as robust of a training mode as Injustice. Aside from a tutorial and “Fatality Practice,” there is only the bare bones practice mode for you to work on your combos. While it didn’t teach you ludicrous 10 string combos, the Injustice training mode did a decent job of teaching you basic attack strings that connected between moves. This goes beyond the basic kombo commands that exist in the Mortal Kombat X move list, instead teaching you what follow up moves combine with previous moves. Mastering these follow ups is necessary to get the most out of the game, so it is a shame they leave that all up to you figuring it out.
All of this single player content, and I haven’t even gotten to the multi-player yet. Versus mode will obviously be the star here, as Mortal Kombat has always been about destroying the less godlike of you with humiliating fatalities. The online is smooth from what I experienced, and that is coming from a decently shoddy internet connection. Still, as technology sits now, there will always be a bit of lag, making the local couch versus the prefered option. Unique skin specific character intros and victory screens keep things fresh and new, but more importantly the varied characters and styles offer something new at almost every step. As a nice bonus, Challenge Towers can be tackled and sent to friends, asking them to beat your score with your modifiers for a prize. Overall, the online function doesn’t do anything to reinvent the wheel, but works well enough to also not earn a demerit.
For such a robust package, it is a shame to see all the ways they grab for cash. This isn’t just character and skin packs. The DLC bullshit that has been crammed into this game as if it were an example for future generations of how the great DLC war reached a turning point. Aside from the typical Day-1 nonsense we have grown used to, there were a number of special additions released which included the “Kombat Pass” and various skin packs. I really don’t care if you want to sell skin packs to fans, but creating content that at the outset of the game is hidden behind a paywall is and will always be a bit scummy.
The Krypt has always been a beast to unlock, requiring a ton of time to muster up enough Koins to unlock everything. Traditionally, it has felt like more of a slow burn reward to keep the game interesting, with smatterings of new fatalities here or concept art there to give you some back story and keep the game entertaining for a bit longer. Now, it can all be unlocked with 20 dollars. Super, so now all my hardwork and scrounging to unlock my 5th brutality is all comparable to some asshole who just was too lazy. Accomplishments are only accomplishments in games if I can just buy my way to the top. When I pull off my second fatality in my alternate skin, I want to show that I earned that, not payed $20 for it.
Or maybe I’m just using their newest bullshit cash grab, the easy fatality! Easy fatalities are done using two buttons, and reduces the fatality process to holding the right trigger and pushing front punch or front kick. Doing so costs an “easy fatality” token, which along with the new “skip fight” token defies all logic. If you want to skip a fight, then why the fuck are you playing Mortal Kombat? Aren’t fights the whole reason you bought the game? Buying Mortal Kombat and skipping the fights is like buying a dog and skipping all the parts where it loves you just to scoop up dogshit.
Mortal Kombat is supposed to be a real game, not a cash-clicker. Fatalities take 4-5 button presses and a reasonable assessment of space. If that is too much for you, I have no idea how you managed to both unwrap the box and get the disk in your console. The only use I found for easy fatalities was to see what fatalities I hadn’t unlocked yet, and even then they only function as a “get out of googling this” card.
If I predict this correctly, what is probably most tragic bit of DLC will be some kind of “Story Pack.” In the game’s campaign, we run into four characters — Rain, Baraka, Tanya, and Sindel — who are not playable. Tanya has been confirmed as DLC, meaning that they already have a functioning version of the character at launch that they just did not include. I would be incredibly surprised if we did not see the remaining three come out in the near future as full characters. Making characters just to release as DLC before launch is already borderline evil, but including in the game characters you fight but cannot play as just to release them as DLC later is absurd.
As it stands, Mortal Kombat X will likely be fondly remembered. The new three style system is technically not new to the series, but the variety it brings is a welcome evolution. Solid combat and decent balance make this game fun for both casual players and hardcore, though casuals might be best suited staying offline. Despite all the game brings to the table, I doubt it will be remembered as fondly as Mortal Kombat 9. It doesn’t reinvent things like that game did, with its innovations being less orgasmically wowing and more functionally practical. It is an admirable step forward for the series, but not the great and thunderous leap of its predecessor. If you like Mortal Kombat, you will love this game. If you like fighting games, Mortal Kombat X is a great place to go. If you want this game to keep that rocket ship of hype going that you felt from MK9, it might give you a few more puffs, but it won’t get you to the moon.