Review: Mortal Kombat (360)

04.26.2011

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"A near ImMortal Kombination."

As much as I’ve tried to in the past, I could never fully love or appreciate the Mortal Kombat franchise. Growing up in the early 90′s, I witnessed the birth of the fighting game scene in the arcades, spearheaded by Capcom’s installments of Street Fighter II and Midway’s incarnations of Mortal Kombat (MK). Both titles were vastly different beasts; where Street Fighter II was more skewed towards elegance and strategy, MK seemed to focused more on shock value and realistic looking characters. That’s not to say it did have a slick fighting system….okay it really didn’t. The earlier titles, as well as Armageddon, were silly multiplayer fun, though nothing to take that seriously. On top of that, several nagging issues were prevalent throughout the franchise, from asinine button combinations for the most elementary tasks, to the cheating CPU after the third fight on a difficulty of Medium or higher.

Nearly every installment to the MK series brought a new gimmick or two to the table. From the Babality and Friendship in Mortal Kombat 2, to the Run button and Animality in Mortak Kombat 3, right on through to Kreate a Fatality in Mortal Kombat Armageddon. It’s hard to fault Midway for trying to build upon what was already present. It’s unfortunate that the gameplay never broke through the glass ceiling and showed gamers legitimate depth and creativity with its combat. Around the time when Midway Games was sold/dissolved to Warner Brothers Interactive, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe was released — two different worlds colliding in a more implausible manner than the Marvel and Capcom franchises battling it out. Thanks in part to the T rating, MK vs DCU seemed more like a marketing gimmick rather than a reinvention of the franchise; covering up what brought MK to the big dance, all the while leaving the gameplay rather lax.

Fast forward a few years and enter the latest installment to the franchise, creatively named Mortal Kombat. Developed by Netherrealms Studios, the development house that replaced WB Games Chicago/Midway Games Chicago, MK is the ninth installment of the franchise. After the ho-hum gameplay and lackluster Kreate a Fatality of Armageddon, followed by a somewhat interesting story, though unfulfilled gameplay presented from MK vs DCU, could a new installment to the famed franchise become a contender in the ever growing fighting game market?

The one major letdown that’s consistently played a role in each MK release was a lack of style and engagement with the combat system. When the series first started out, there were no complex combo systems, no real grace with two fighters on screen, delivering a beating to each other. With simplistic yet effective combos in the Street Fighter series, to the creative juggles found in each Tekken title, MK never offered more than a counter-intuitive, mostly unnecessary “kombo” system found in MK3 and up, which were preassigned button presses that threw out a combo, with littledeviance to be found. Add to that the most obtuse button commands for the most basic of attacks, and you basically round out the problem with the gameplay throughout the years in the MK franchise.

With the latest installment, there’s some good news and some “bad” news. The good news is that the feel of MK’s gameplay, while holding hints of familiarity to its roots, feels leaps and bounds more cohesive and has more obvious showings of tactics than ever before. There are still some preset combos present (that, plus every other move are available in a hand dandy pause menu option, so your single and local multiplayer fatalities are never forgotten) but some of these preset combos can be interrupted by certain special moves. For instance, Scorpion can jump in at his opponent with a jumping front punch attack, land two more front punches into a spear toss, land two more front punches and end it with his command grab called Takedown. It’s a deeper alternative to just throwing a spear, throwing out two front punches and ending with a back kick. It’s a rewarding experience for new players, as well as the tournament scene players that can build off these combos with some more complexity that has yet to be unearthed. Our very own Justin Wong (the Lemon to our Chocolate) discovered an 80+% combo with Kung Lao, so the possibilities for some insane combos are very much likely in the immediate future.

While the overall combat system is actually enjoyable and fulfilling, the “bad” news is the return of the unnecessary button commands for the simplest of gestures. While the current layout does provide an immense amount of diversity throughout the roster, with the series finally moving forward into a more robust engine as a whole, these commands should have been eased down some. Some commands have completely changed (Liu Kangs Bicycle Kick command changed from holding a button down for a few seconds, to away, away, towards and back kick) yet too many moves are still too goofy to perform. While pressing away twice and a button wouldn’t be a bad alternative for a teleport compared to the dragon punch motions in most Street Fighter games, pressing away twice and a button to throw a fireball with Kabal just doesn’t feel proper. Performing any “ality” is just as convoluted, though in different ways. Why does Cyrax have the most painless motion of down, up and Block for a stage fatality, with down, towards, down and back kick performs a Fatality for Nightwolf? It’s a complexity that should have been streamlined years ago. While finishing an opponent is considered a “reward” for defeating them in battle, it’s like that cousin who double wraps and tapes the best Christmas present of the year — you waited all this time for it, you know it’s going to be a worthwhile unveiling, but are held back again by an unnecessary layer of time wasting.

Abstract commands notwithstanding, it’s absolutely shocking how much fun MK can be. There’s a visible layer of depth present that has never been available previous to this installment. While it does feel a bit off throwing a fireball by pressing away, forward and front punch with Liu Kang, there’s a flow and pacing to the actual fights that gives the franchise its first real identity, other than a fatality simulator. It feels like a respectable blend of Street Fighter and Tekken; there’s a lot more juggle friendly combos and possibilities, while the core gameplay flows as well as some of the better Capcom fighting games over the last decade. Even the pointlessness of a block button to a 2D fighter feels like less of a square peg in a round hole.

Added to the present gameplay formula is a three tiered “super” bar. Fill one bare and the player can launch an “EX” version of their special moves, which drains that portion of the bar when used, similar to the Street Fighter 3 and 4 titles. Fill a second segment of the bar and the player can perform a combo breaker, ending just about any combo in its tracks which, oddly enough, is a utility that could be as beneficial and important as a super meter in general. Completely fill all three bars and a powerful X-Ray (XR) attack can be performed. Each character has their own specific XR attack, from a unblockable, full-screen hit XR that Sheeva can perform (jumping is the only way to avoid it) to multi-hit devastations (Sonya Blade) to close range, untechable grabs (Jax.) Knowing when and how to avoid these attacks are key, as they can easily take of a third of your health. The fact that some of these XR can be tacked into a standard combo, although  scalaed down damage wise, you’ll really have to pay attention more than you ever have in any previous MK game.

As with the gameplay, the visual upgrade over its predecessors is well apparent. Each character model looks quite impressive, but it’s the backgrounds that shine the most. Most of these stages are recreations of previous MK stages, such as The Pit II, Goro’s Lair and the Coliseum, but the detail can be quite astonishing. From the random NPC’s in the background of the Coliseum to the lighting work in the Temple stage, Netherrealm Studios went out of their ways to give MK a look befitting of the consoles they appear on. The animations are spot on as well, though jumping still looks a bit stiff. As with MK vs DCU, battle damage is present, none of which are held back from a T rating. Black eyes, torn lips and torn outfits are all present, as well as blood splatters on the floor and on each other. The gore factor from just this alone teeters near obscene levels, but just barely keeps its self from looking completely overdone.

When Marvel vs Capcom 3 released earlier this year, Capcom was pretty light on game modes and bonuses in general. There have been some that whined over the fact that the endings were so short and pointless, when the installment before it had no endings whatsoever. A few months later, gamers have a new fighting game to sink their teeth into, and more than likely have a feast fit for a king for the foreseeable future. Neatherrealm Studios went all out with game modes and bonuses in general, that it puts nearly every Capcom fighting game released in the last ten years combined to shame. Each ending is voiced over by the announcer, and for all intended purposes, are quite interesting, more so than the Street Fighter 4 series. The typical single player mode is present (Ladder) in single player, or even tag team enabled, allowing for two on two ladder battles. This addition alone is commendable, and gives multiplayer gaming even more legs to stand on. Tag battles can be a one human against one human affair, two humans against the CPU Ladder, or even four players at once, two on each side, tagging in and out of battle. While the latter isn’t going to light the world on fire, it’s a great addition to ones list of party games.

The online portion can be hit or miss. While matches dedicated to just two people run smoothly enough, the touted “King of the Hill” rooms are still mostly too choppy to enjoy in either participation or viewership. This is a shame, as KotH with Avatar support (as viewers, not as combatants, you sick freaks!) was one of the things that was supposed to set its self apart from Kratos and the PlayStation 3 incarnation. There are some occasions where a KotH will be smooth enough to enjoy, but they are too few and far between. As it stands, it’s the least enjoyable addition to a massive line up of modes and extras, which I’m sure will be patched up soon enough.

The Krypt makes another appearance, with a near overwhelming number of unlockables available. While a majority of it is fluff in the form of concept art, music (which is quite stellar — more on this later) and even some preliminary sketch art (the stick figure fatality art was quite a hilarious addition) bonus costumes as well as secondary fatalities can be unlocked as well. With the massive number of purchasable locked away, players might feel that there’s too much to wade through in order for them just to get a second fatality. If that’s an issue, use a hand dandy online FAQ to find the rewards you want. Otherwise, there’s still a healthy amount of items that are rewarded via Koins gained throughout the many game modes available.

Two of these modes almost seem as if they are way too loaded to be put together in one package.  The Challenge Tower is basically 300 levels of random tasks the players are asked to perform. Most of each “floor” has some quick text dialog before each  fight commences which, while nothing important, furthers along the reasoning to the battles that are taking place. Just about everything but the kitchen sink will be tasked to you throughout, ranging from fighting while upside down, to shooting a bomb into a moving bucket for koins. One thing the Challenge Tower never becomes is predictable, but the increasing challenges presented will captivate gamers for a good chunk of time.

However, the true star of MK is the Story Mode. Netherrealm Studios single handily made stories in a fighting game relevant once again, as this 8+ hour mode is nothing short of engaging, fascinating and all around memorable. To keep this as spoiler free as possible, I’ll just say that the story isn’t necessarily new, though not quite a retelling. As with the Challenge Tower, at certain points, the playable character changes, giving those that enter either mode a chance to test out most of the roster in an intuitive, meaningful manner. The voice acting is passable, though leaps and bounds better than the feature film Mortal Kombat Annihilation. From beginning to end, the story is so engrossing that it puts some RPG’s to shame. Never have I encountered a story mode in a fighting game as thoroughly satisfying, well told and informative before MK — not even the franchises battle with the DC Universe, which did have a better story to it than most any fighting game in the last decade.

As far as the rest of the audio package goes, everything feels a lot more powerful than ever before. Bone crunching XR attacks, trips, fireballs and every other effect present is clean, impressive and has an impact like few other titles in the genre have had. The musical compositions are equally as impressive, sounding as if they were all lifted from big budget Hollywood blockbusters. They have tinges of familiarity to them as well, and every single one seems to not only fit the background they are musically representing, but the franchise as a whole; dark, brooding, moody. While none are immediately memorable post console power down, they are a piece of a vessel that carries each player through a sea of exhilarating combat.

With that being said, there’s only a small handful of miscues throughout. We touched upon the King of the Hill shortcomings and button commands earlier, though again, the latter doesn’t feel nearly as annoying as previous iterations. A returning issue, though the severity has been dampened quite a bit, is the difficulty spikes. While winning a third match doesn’t present the absurd difficulty spikes from previous titles, higher difficulties in general are unforgiving, as are the battles with Shao Kahn, as well as some of the later Challenge Tower and Story Mode battles. Shao Kahn, as with Goro and Kintaro, have what’s called “super armor” which, if you’re a veteran Street Fighter 4 player, know that this means it takes an extra hit or two in order for the character fighting against Shao Kahn, to half is current incoming actions. Combine the fact that Kahn can easily perform an infinite dizzy, dash attacks at blinding speeds and rarely opens himself up for a counterattack, and you have one of the most frustrating boss battles since Gill from the Street Fighter 3 series. While Kahn is a billion times easier to deal with than Mortal Kombat 3, he is quite a powerful end boss which, while it makes sense, he should have been toned down just a tad bit. Certain characters can exploit brief openings much better than others, mainly combatants with a teleport or teleporting attack, such as Smoke. It’s an uphill battle nevertheless.

In regards to Story Mode and Challenge Tower difficulty spikes, they mostly come from two on two, or one on two battles that you are forced to partake in. Some have complained about the numerous handicap battles in Story Mode, though these frustrations have been overblown some. Sure, they can be frustrating at times, especially since players are running the gamut, playing a different character on each chapter and adding a learning curve to each fight, but most of these handicap fights are not that bad. If push comes to shove, throw spamming can be done. This goes for the Challenge Tower as well, though there are some curve-balls thrown in here that does borderline maddening. Stuff like Cyrax losing 2% movement speed every few seconds that tick by, can really push even the more seasoned fighting game players to their limits, especially when Raiden is the opposition. But then again, this is the Challenge Tower, not Candyland; if one can’t handle the sometimes damning difficulties, then go play Parappa the Rapper.

Lastly, while this might sound like nit-picking, some of these fatalities are a bit too repetitious. There are way too many dealing with decapitation, holding up a decapitated head, or just heads exploding in general. Some of these are creative enough, like Johnny Cage’s second fatality, which he’ll karate chop your head right down the middle, then pull out a fake Oscar award and slam in right between the chopped halves, but the repetition is still there. One can argue that with a pretty good sized cast of characters, originality would be hard to obtain, which was why Armageddon had a more hands-on approach in performing your own (albeit dumbed down) fatalities. But seriously, there are a myriad of ways a character can kill off another, and decapitations seemed like a cheap cop out. Again, it’s nit-picking, especially since the gameplay and extras supersede even the fatalities this time around. If more of a focus was put upon making the actual gameplay worthwhile, as well as what the franchise now can proclaim it distinguishes its self from their rivals, then the redundancy of the fatalities isn’t much to pick apart.

It took nearly twenty years, but the Mortal Kombat franchise has finally come out from under the blood soaked shadows and made a proper name for its self. In fact, it feels like I’m still dreaming, that I’m playing a totally different franchise, and not the one I’ve tried to appreciate for years, but never could. In terms of being the total package, Mortal Kombat is much more than that, adding in everything you’d expect from the franchise, as well as bonuses and extras that no one saw coming. If the violence and killings from the previous games were a turn off, the depth in the gameplay, as well as the modes available should not only make your stomach feel more at ease, but filled to its capacity from the feast the Netherrealm Studios will feed you. A third of the way through 2011 and Mortal Kombat has become one of the best titles released thus far, as well as one of, if not the best fighting game this generation.

Rating: 9.0


Jason V.

I am the Co-Editor-in-Chief here at Chocolate Lemon. Over the last 15 years, I have been writing gaming articles here and there, including my time with GameSages, a then IGN affiliated video game code database that's now owned by IGN, as well as my near four year stay on this very site. I'm quite the gaming enthusiast, have a somewhat "old school" soul, and enjoy a wide variety of geeky shows, movies and so on. Follow me on Twitter @Jas0nVelez