Review: Mortal Kombat
Written by David "Milbo" Milner
In recent years, Ed Boon, co-creator of the Mortal Kombat series, has resembled a stubborn old rock band - he knows no one is showing up for his new material, yet time after time he keeps trotting it out, hoping that this time we’ll appreciate it. Well, Ed must have finally been hit with enough empty water bottles and received enough sarcastic applause because he is finally giving his fans what they want. Mortal Kombat (2011) is a love letter to old school diehards, many of whom, like myself, gave up hope and abandoned the series in recent times.
Before I delve into the nitty gritty, I feel a little bit of background info is appropriate for you to work out whether what I say applies to you – there are after all fans who will love anything with the MK brand attached, and there are those that would rather gouge their own eyes out before performing a ‘Fatality’. As you may have gathered, my relationship with the Mortal Kombat franchise has had its ups and downs. As a pre-pubescent gamer, the idea of my character punching someone and actually having blood fly across the screen was mind blowing. Until that moment, I wasn’t even aware that videogame characters had circulatory systems. Mortal Kombat made it startlingly clear that they had bones and internal organs too (see mum, I’m learning).
As I grew, so did the franchise. My initial immature curiosity become a more meaningful form of affection with the subsequent releases of Mortal Kombat 2 and 3. I have fond memories of my early teenage years spent with a SNES controller and a hand-written list of all the fatality commands that me and my friends knew how to pull off. It was fun, challenging, and best of all, slightly wrong. I showed my parents Donkey Kong Country. I didn’t show them Mortal Kombat.
Then the 3D games came along… Oh dear. With the added dimensional plane, my interest in the series circle-strafed off into the background. I couldn’t understand why it was supposedly more fun to have all my ice blasts and harpoons casually avoided by a simple step towards, or away, from the screen. I spent less time with each new release before eventually passing them by altogether. I was briefly lured back to the series by the prospect of ripping Superman’s spine from his body (Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe) but sadly, it just wasn’t enough. This game on the other hand, has well and truly won me back.
Mortal Kombat (2011) is as much a reboot as it is a simple return to form. The fat has been trimmed from a series that was in danger of becoming morbidly obese. Gone are the 64 player character select screens, the weird kart-racing mini games, ‘Friendships’, and most importantly, the 3D fighting plane. The game instead narrows its attention span, focusing on solid core mechanics, putting the spotlight back on the ‘fight’, and it is all the better for it.
The sense of nostalgia I felt playing this game was overwhelming. From the updated renditions of classic music, to the over the top ‘FINISH HIM’, everything MK veterans could want is here. The roster is made up of classic characters from the first three games, Quan-Chi being the only exception. The backgrounds too, all beautifully rendered, are vastly improved reimagining’s of classic stages. Where in MK2 the ‘wasteland’ stage was simply a deserted ‘purpley’ place, here it is the aftermath of a brutal battle, waves crashing upon the blood-stained shore and the strewn corpses of fallen soldiers. Also of note is the ‘rooftop’ stage, which has dawn, day and dusk variations and features an ongoing battle between a helicopter and a dragon (although in the thick of the action you’ll be hard pressed to notice).
The character models are meticulously realised. The ninja’s no longer look like mere palette swaps; each now has their own distinct look – Scorpion clad in decorative armour, Ermac wrapped in cloth like an ancient Egyptian mummy. Although the game’s art style is stunning, the one criticism I do have is that the female characters, without exception, are all scantily clad to the point of absurdity (even Sheeva!). Add into the mix that clothing now gets torn and damaged throughout the fight and… you get the picture.
Although Mortal Kombat has never sat anywhere near politically correct, the costumes of the female combatants could reasonably be considered more offensive than the gratuitous violence, which is cartoony and over the top in the best possible way. On that note, old school ‘Fatalities’ are back, and they’re more twisted than ever. Noob Saibot’s alone, which has to be seen to be believed, made me question whether it really was a bad thing that this game was banned in this country.
While the classic characters, stages and gore are crucial to this games appeal, the return of the 2D fighting plane is the single most important throwback. The ‘fireballs and teleports’ gameplay style of MK has always been an uncomfortable fit for 3D fighting, which is better suited to hand-to-hand fighters like Tekken and Virtua Fighter. In 2D, MK shines once again, the emphasis now being on speed and strategy.
The super moves are intuitive and easy to pull off, making the game less about memorising complicated button inputs and more about choosing when to deploy a specific move, creating an exciting tension between offense and defence. A ‘comeback’ meter, similar to the ‘super meter’ of Street Fighter 4, has been added, heightening the tactical elements further. Players must choose whether to enhance their ordinary super moves with a small section of their meter, break an opponent’s combo, or wait until the meter is full and unleash a devastating X-ray move.
The classic roster is well balanced, each character having well rounded strengths and weaknesses. Some are particularly vulnerable to rush-down beatings, having to rely on maintaining distance with fireballs and teleports. Other’s have devastating combos, but lack the speed and agility of some of the less powerful fighters. The variety on offer means that everyone will be able to find a fighter that suits their style.
While the action is well crafted and fun, fighting games live or die by their online community. Australian’s considering purchasing the game for this alone should heed a word of warning. The very fact that the game has been refused classification means that the player pool is considerably smaller than would usually be the case. It is often difficult to find a local opponent online, and the lag between international players is severe, often bordering on unplayable.
The good news though, is that there is more than enough single-player content to keep you busy. Mortal Kombat features, hands down, the best story mode in any fighting game ever (which admittedly are usually pretty terrible). Set in an alternative timeline during the events of the first three games, the story revisits important moments from Mortal Kombat cannon, altering them slightly. The story is told in b-movie fashion between fights, and although the reasons for the bouts are often ridiculously contrived (Jax taking offence to Johnny Cage’s repeated attempts to woo Sonya being the worst example), it does force the player to try characters that might otherwise be ignored. Add to this a challenge tower mode, and the still fun couch based multiplayer, and you’ve got more than enough content to keep you entertained for many hours.
Mortal Kombat has been criticised in the past of not being a ‘serious’ fighting game in the way that Capcom’s games supposedly are. As someone not even close to competition standards, I am not the person to answer the question of whether this has been addressed. The popularity of the game and its inclusion at major fighting game tournaments is evidence that at least some of these problems have been rectified. What I can say though with the utmost confidence, is that I have had more fun playing this game than any other fighting game in a very long time.