When I was young and still hopelessly infatuated with Street Fighter II, Midway attempted to wreck Capcom’s party by releasing the more “mature”-themed Mortal Kombat, kicking the fighting game wars off just as surely as many characters would plummet to their deaths in Mortal Kombat game’s “Pit” stage.
More than 20 years after that first moral outrage inducing outing, Mortal Kombat X has hit the shelves, and it’s once again time to ooh and ahh over grotesque finishing moves - presented in the highest fidelity current technology can muster.
Mortal Kombatis at its core a one-on-one fighting game. There are many modes and they generally do add a lot of value and variation to the experience, but in essence you’ll spend your interactive time with the game attempting to wrest glory from the thoracic cavity of your opponent.
The marquee feature of any NetherRealm fighting game, outside of the highly entertaining combat of course, is the engaging story mode - a concept Mortal Kombat’s inventors first delivered in 2011’s Mortal Kombat (9). After showing improvement in 2013’s Injustice: Gods Among Us, NeatherRealm's storytelling nous has reached even greater heights in Mortal Kombat X, delivering a rich (if somewhat silly) narrative through a series of cutscenes that are connected together rather neatly by some supernatural fisticuffs. There’s even some quicktime elements to bolster up the between-fight tale-telling - but not so much it becomes bothersome, which is a fine (and appreciated) balance to strike.
One aspect of the story mode which remains unresolved and awkward, however, is that switching characters ensures only that you have little idea of what you’re doing from fight to fight - unless you really are one of those rare savants that knows every character (and there are 29 of them) intimately. It’s a frustrating concession to the mode’s method, and I can’t help but feel Persona 4 Arena’s many (and much shorter) branching paths is a better - though still not perfect - way to address it.
There are numerous other modes, of course, including variations on the “tower” mode that let you mess with the game’s core mechanics, if you wish, and an online faction mode that sees you fighting for the honor of your chosen house. I chose poorly in the latter mode and have lost every “round” so far; to be clear, Special Forces have come last out of five factions. Every time.
Game modes are all well and good, of course, but what really matters here is the fighting, and what matters to the fighting - to a significant degree - are the characters. The 29 are made up mostly of returning pugilists from Mortal Kombat’s rich past, as you might expect, but there are some very interesting new fighters to play with. If you want them all, you’ll need to buy the game’s downloadable content. Only 24 are included with the base game, with Goro as a free extra if you preordered. The game teases you with the ability to buy him but he doesn’t seem to be listed on the NZ store at the time of writing.
If 29 doesn’t sound like enough characters, outside of story mode each can be modified by selecting one of three variations. These variations, which are themed inline with the character, tend to accentuate one playstyle over another, and should lead to a markedly different experience - both when playing with them yourself and playing against someone who knows how to leverage them. It might not be the same as having 57 characters in a game - unless you’re trying to balance them, perhaps - but it provides significantly more depth for those willing to experiment.
It’s hard to judge the balance of a fighter so soon after its release, and there are sure to be some imbalances in the game as it stands today. NetherRealm, the game’s developers, have had a lot of experience in balancing fighting games over the years, however, so I feel confident that any glaring issues found by the hardcore community will be addressed appropriately. I didn’t discover any indomitable strategy in my time with the game, and that includes in the online mode where I spent most of my time on my ass. I was thrashed, sure, but it felt fair and due to my opponents' superior skill rather than any exploit or more powerful move-set.
Visually, it’s hard to get too excited about Mortal Kombat. The characters look decent, without being stunning, and they’re the best looking part of the game. Environments are detailed enough, but there’s not much flair to the set dressing, and the game’s polygon counts and texture resolutions look like they’d be well at home on the last generation. Animation is also pretty weak, outside of the fighting, in which it’s fine, which leads to a general “meh” feel to the presentation.
The return of x-ray style fighting moves - flair attacks that do massive damage and show your bones breaking inside your opponent's body - is welcome but even they serve as a reminder of technology’s limits, thanks to both their low detail and generic nature.
Learning that the Mortal Kombat (9) Tournament Edition PlayStation 3 fighting stick works perfectly with MKX on PlayStation 4 was a pleasant surprise. Sadly, the same is not true of the Xbox 360 stick with the Xbox One edition. The game works well enough on the stock DualShock 4, but there’s no beating a real arcade stick to get that authentic experience and control with Mortal Kombat.
Mobile game-style paid unlocks make an appearance. You can spend $30 to unlock all of the bonus items in the krypt, for example, or - hilariously - purchase consumable tokens that make executing fatalities easier. Some will no doubt leap to the claim that NetherRealm has designed the game to encourage this extra spend, but I see no evidence of that. You can still unlock everything in the krypt at a similar pace to previous titles, as far as I can tell, and fatalities require nearly identical types of input combinations to ones we’ve seen before (I even guessed one!) If you’ve got the money and choose to spend it this way, that’s your business; all power to you. So long as it doesn’t break the base game for the rest of us - a tricky balancing act NetherRealm appear to have accomplished rather neatly - I see no problem here.
There have been reports of players struggling with the game’s net code, but I've had no issues. It can take a little while to find a match, granted, and as always online interactions can be a mixed bag but my fights have been smooth enough. If you’re the tournament type and consider things like frames when comparing fighting games, it might not be up to scratch for you, but I’m more than happy to pop online and get my butt handed to me from time to time, without feeling like it’s the code at fault when my online nemesis snaps my feeble spine atop his knee.
Fatalities are suitably gross. I haven’t seen them all, but I’ve yet to spot a dud. They’re on YouTube if you want to see them, but I’d recommend against it they lose their effect if they’re not at your command - or used to humiliate you.
There’s also plenty of fanservice and pop culture references littered throughout the title, from surprise characters in story mode to even more surprising nods to classic cinema in certain fatalities.
It might not be the best looking game you’ll own this generation, and it’s clear there are still some issues to resolve around the way the story mode mechanic introduces new characters. But it’s also clear that this Mortal Kombat is one worth owning by any that consider themselves fans of the genre. What’s here is fantastic to play, and there’s heaps of it. Highly recommended.