“FINISH HIM” – It’s been nearly twenty years since we first heard that phrase emanating from our local arcades, pumping fistfuls of coins into the slot as we proved to the gathering crowds just who was better, Scorpion or Sub Zero. The exclamation point being the resultant bloody OTT Fatalities performed on the unlucky loser. Spinoffs, movies, more games and an entire franchise later and we find ourselves in present day. Thankfully Mortal Kombat has also shed the majority of the baggage that newer changes in technology and so-called progress added to the formula to return to much more straightforward roots while remaining a distinct and darker alternative to the hadoken-ing elephant in the room.
So gone is the awkward 3D fighting aspects, leaving us with 3D models fighting on a 2D plane. Gone are the superfluous fighting stances and weapon styles that added far too many complexities onto earlier titles. In a genius move however Mortal Kombat (the 9th game in the series) simultaneously manages to follow series continuity – it’s interesting to note that the storyline and lore is actually a pretty big part of the MK series – while also beginning anew thanks to some time travel. As a result we’re sitting in the period of time covered by the first three games, and most of the cast include those characters to suit, from long time MK stalwarts Sonya Blade and Scorpion through to Stryker and cyborgs Cyrax and Sektor from MK3. Perhaps a slight disappointment is the lack of new fighters, but thankfully Netherealm Studios have managed to make the current cast feel distinct enough on their own yet include a few surprises to some much loved (and hated) ones.
The five button control scheme really works in MKs favour in these days of four face button pads – although obviously arcade sticks are available – so moves are relatively simple to understand. A really stark and welcome touch is a Fatality trainer – so those of you who always suffered despite a victory being able to only finish with a pathetic punch to the comedy fall-down animation finally have a space to practice their positioning and (frankly a hell of a lot more forgiving, thankfully) timings to truly destroy their opponent.
And yes, with MK firmly back in the 18 rated comfort zone, Fatalties are as gory, painful-looking and as hilarious as ever. It would be a travesty for me to ruin them here, but rest assured that pulling one off results in such a satisfying visual cacophony of violence you’ll want every match to end in one and you genuinely get a little frustrated when playing online if you don’t see one used. On top of these, the new X-Ray attacks which are built up from a special bar that is also the key to (Kombo) Breakers and ‘Enhanced’ versions of special moves. These X-Ray attacks go through a series of literally bone crunching moves, with the camera zooming in and as the name suggests going into X-Ray vision so you can see the damage being done. It’s a wonderfully visceral effect and fits in perfectly with the MK ethos.
A really fantastic touch is something sorely lacking in many fighting games – the breadth of things to actually do. Sure, fighting people is all well and good but for those of us who aren’t inclined to go through battle after battle just to prove how good we are at fighting, Mortal Kombat includes mini-games and two fantastic modes purpose built for showing off the variety on offer here. Story mode is notable for the fact that instead of playing as one character to go through multiple stories with different endings, you play through one canonical story, taking on the roles of most of the fighters in the game as they undertake their role in the story. Obviously Fatalities aren’t allowed here but the seamless way the cutscenes morph into fights is something that should be applauded and is great to see.
Then the Challenge Tower provides 300 challenges that range from standard one on one fights to… well, almost literally anything. The variety here is staggering, being tasked to fight with reversed controls, fighting off a horde of zombies, no jumping allowed and many more. Some – as has been the Mortal Kombat way – are infuriatingly difficult but others are ludicrously easy. The fact that you literally don’t know what is coming next provides its own reward for climbing the heights of the tower and it is great fun to see what weird addition will be next. Some of these additions can carry over to multiplayer too, once you’ve got the correct Kombat Kodes which also make their return here.
If that wasn’t enough, playtime is bolstered with the promise of Koins throughout gameplay which can then be spent on unlockables in the Krypt including new Fatalities, costumes, artwork and more. The Krypt itself is probably more obtuse than it needs to be mind – moving around a 3D space to unlock things seems like a good idea at first, but quickly becomes boring when you’re looking for certain things you want to unlock. The multiplayer code could use looking at at this stage too, as it can be frustrating when lag means your inputs aren’t being registered quite as accurately or as quickly as you’d like. However there’s some really nice features in the multiplayer too, including the ability to make your own chat rooms/lobbies supporting up to 100 people, and the King of the Hill mode which allows you to rate the performance of your opponents through Avatar motions and scorecards while you wait your turn for battle. Finally, the introduction of tag battles – including the ability to play them co-operatively- brings a new interesting team dynamic to proceedings.
Overall Mortal Kombat is a pretty good beat-em-up, it’s probably not the purists choice for tournament play or those that really take their block-cancel-ex-combos seriously, but for everyone else it gets right something perhaps even more important by being a great, entertaining and above all fun game. It’s a great mix of the old and the new and still manages to pull a fair few surprises along the way. It’s a re-invention rather than a revolution, but it should keep even those not into the whole ‘professionally competitive’ style of beat em ups busy for a fair while. Mortal Kombat is certainly once again a worthy contender to the beat em up throne, and the old SF – MK rivalries now both have some powerful ammunition standing in each of their… korners.
Verdict: Head Shot
Platforms available: Xbox 360, PS3
Version reviewed: Xbox 360