The Komeback Kid - Mortal Kombat Komes Full Circle
Most fighting game fans can probably remember which of the entries into the Mortal Kombat franchise is their favorite. However, as a close converse to that, many can probably also remember which one(s) are the worst. I don’t think its cliché to liken the experience of growing up with the franchise to being in a relationship with a very emotional person. There are times when the relationship is great and you can’t help but wonder how you got so lucky to have found this person in the first place. For most people and their ties to MK this would probably be MK2 or MK3. The world is your oyster and the sky is the limit as far as the possibilities are concerned. Of course behind the white picket fence of idealism there are several moments that are far less than perfect. Indeed many people would rather forget Mortal Kombat: Special Forces ever even existed (let alone that they may have touched a controller while the game was inside of their console at the time).
Despite the tumultuous nature of the MK franchise, every game within it has sold well enough that NetherRealm Studios and Ed Boon have continued to churn them out. With the release of this ninth entry into the series expectations were obviously high, but were tempered by the initial announcements that the series would be going back to its 2D roots. The previous title in the series (that’s number 8 for those of you keeping count) Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe sold very well, but had expanded upon the 3D fighting game mechanic that was used in the last few MK titles. Needless to say the return to 2D felt like yet another crazy gimmick from Boon and his Chicago-based development team. However, the 2D (which is probably more like 2.5D) fighting style of Mortal Kombat (aka Mortal Kombat 9) feels pretty amazing given MK’s roots and is at the core of what has to be one of the most terrific fighting game experiences in a long time, if not ever.
To start with, all of the tenets you often associate with MK are here. From Dan Forden’s ‘Toasty!’, to the deep voiced announcer, to the gruesome fatalities. Control fidelity is the best the series has seen as characters are very responsive and super moves are easy to pull off. Dial-a-kombos are also back this time around, but characters have several of them which can string together into some devastating attacks. The fatalities in this new iteration of the series are some of the best the franchise has seen as the developers do a great job of changing the camera angle on the action to give you the best view of the gruesome manner in which you finish your opponents. No doubt many players will also find characters that they like primarily for their fatalities (Kung Lao’s blade saw fatality is one of my favorites as is Sheeva’s ‘Lend a Hand’ fatality). Kombat is also packed with a few new additions to the series such as X-ray moves.
X-rays can be performed with a full super meter, and a well timed X-ray can swing an entire fight in seconds as they do immense amounts of damage. The moves themselves are gruesome and cringeworthy moments were bones break, skulls fracture, and internal organs are crushed. The experience is a visceral, hard-hitting kombat the likes of which we haven’t seen or experienced before.
Wrapped around this central core gameplay is the usual crazy MK lore and backstory. Now I’m going to do my best to piece the backstory together for those of you that have missed a few of the entries (like I did) so if you feel that I’m incorrect about something please feel free to comment and let me know. As near as I can figure, the new MK starts out with everyone (and I mean everyone) dead around a giant pyramid in the middle of some desert. The only two fighters left are Raiden, the god of thunder and defender of Earthrealm, and Shao Kahn, the powerful warrior and despotic ruler of Outworld. This seems like it’s one of the endings from Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (number 7 in the series). Atop the pyramid, Shao Kahn is about to deliver the killing blow to Raiden and succeed in finally taking over Earthrealm. But Raiden still has some tricks up his sleeve, and uses his last bit of power to send his memories back in time to himself along with a message. Past Raiden receives this message and the visions just before the start of the events of MK1. What follows is a complete reimagining of the events from the first three games involving all of the characters from those titles as well.
Truth be told, I was never really into the lore surrounding Mortal Kombat, but the story mode does a great job of making you a part of the action. Throughout its 16 chapter length you play as different characters from within the series all while the game cuts seemlessly between in-engine cutscenes and the fights with no lag or load times at all. The story also has some cool twists in it that keep you interested throughout the experience. I won’t give away anything that happens, but trust me when I say that all hyperbole aside, this is the best story mode ever created for a fighting game. It’s definitely better than the entirety of the story for the Street Fighter franchise and arguably better than Soul Calibur. Of course, the story mode isn’t without its faults. There are some battles where you control a lone character, like say Liu Kang, against a tag team of AI opponents, like Shang Tsung and Quan Chi. Most of these fights are do-able, but will probably require most players to repeat them a few times before they can move on. Some of them though are pretty difficult considering that you may be in command of a character that you have little to no interest in playing or have no idea how to play effectively. Plus some of the tag teams you face take advantage of MK’s usual cheap as hell boss AI such as a fight between Cyber Sub-Zero and Kintaro/Goro on a tag team.
I suppose the other criticism I can level at the story mode is the lack of any character specific tutorials to get you acquainted with each fighter. For most novice fighting game players, the jump from one character to the next can be more than a little disorienting. The game does feature some basic tutorials on both how to play and a fatality trainer, but they only scratch the surface of what is possible once you know a character well enough to string together kombos.
Some would argue that the Challenge Tower does a better job at providing character specific tutorials. The 300 level tower features some interesting challenges and minigames that range from stupid easy to hair pulling, teeth grindingly difficult. This is also where the game shows off the new Test Your Luck mode where a series of slots will spin and will provide you with everything from which fighter you will be fighting against, to special buffs or debuffs that will affect you or your opponent during kombat. This mode can also be played in competitive local two player mode which can give you a major advantage on your friends that would normally best you in a straight up match in MK.
However, the only real downside to this mode is that there is no way to play Test Your Luck online. Also according to a tweet from Ed Boon on the subject we probably won’t see this functionality added via any DLC. In addition to the story mode and challenge tower, MK also features the standard arcade ladder which provides unique endings for each character as well as the return of the Krypt which can be accessed to unlock alternate costumes and directions on performing alternate fatalties. Moreover, MK has taken a page out of Marvel vs. Capcom’s playbook by also introducing a tag team mode in which up to 4 players can fight both locally and online. There is also an arcade style tag ladder with some unique trophies/achievements associated with it. The single player package also contains a tremendous amount of hidden content such as hidden fights, kombat kodes, stage fatalities and hidden finishers just to name a few.As for the multiplayer, MK features both local and online play. Locally and online the game can support up to 4 players via tag team. However, MK purists will probably opt for the standard 1v1 head-to-head mode of klassic MK games. As mentioned previously, Test Your Luck is available locally, but online offers the standard 1v1 and King of the Hill mode. In King of the Hill two players act as the starting fight with new people who join the room creating a line behind. The winner of the fight stays and the loser leaves with the next person in line playing the winner. After each fight the other players offer their respect (read: score the fight) and give respect points to the winning player. Its a great mode that has some interesting emotes thrown in and even features a theater style venue for play. However, the multiplayer is not without its issues. At present the game is little over a month old and currently the fighter balance is not ironed out quite right. As a result, you may often find yourself pitted against the same characters throughout your time playing online with many players choosing Scorpion, Kung Lao, and Smoke. A rebalance was issued recently by NetherRealms to help remedy the situation and also tweak some of the other fighters, but to be fair I haven't personally noticed too much of a difference yet. It is also interesting to note that NetherRealms has implemented a system that allows them to rebalance the fighters and the game without having to issue official patches.
The other major downside of the multiplayer is the latency and matchmaking issues. Currently, I've found it impossible to start a ranked match in MK. Also getting into a fight can take an exorbitant amount of time and even once connected there can be a tremendous amount of lag. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the world's greatest MK player by any stretch, but its difficult to tell if my skills are not up to snuff or if I can safely blame the latency and lag for some of the problems I found myself running into when I tried to input moves. In fact, one of the most infuriating things was being projectile spammed to death due to lag and being unable to pull off a teleport to get myself out of it. Still I have found that I can win online matches, but to be honest I often have to resort to some cheesier tactics as my combo timing gets thrown off enough that I drop combos and miss frequently. Again this could be a combination of a lack of skill meeting a technological limitation, but as to which way that balance actually shifts is anyone's guess. The problem with the ranked matches also presents a major problem for would be trophy and achievement hunters as many of the online related trophies and achievements require a ranked match to be played to earn them. Its also worth reminding anyone reading this that these are observations of the multiplayer elements as they run on the PS3. I would love to hear some feedback regarding how the 360 versions of these elements run and if there happens to be any significant difference.
I can say unequivocally that based solely on the single player content alone MK is worth the purchase price. The plethora of unlockable content, unique characters, and challenges will keep even the most expert MK players busy for a very long time. Also while the game does feature a few problems, such as bizarre and oftentimes bad boss design and AI, or some slight audio glitching during extended gameplay sessions, they are merely oily fingerprints upon the shiny surface that is MK. Additionally, the problems associated with the multiplayer aspects of the game don't completely kill the online experience, but do make it difficult to enjoy or recommend until it gets patched. NetherRealms has already stated that an official patch is on the way to streamline the netcode for the game and fix the ranked match support as well as matchmaking in general.
It also seems appropriate to mention here that there aren't any major differences between the PS3 and 360 versions of the game aside from the inclusion of Kratos as a character in the PS3 version and the inclusion of avatar support for King of the Hill mode on the 360 version. In short, if you have been wanting to get into MK or indeed the fighting game genre you should buy this game. If you are a fighting game player that is looking for something to break the drought of fighting games currently out there you should buy this game. And if you’re a die hard MK fan the real question is why haven’t you already bought this game? MK is a welcome return to form for the series and I for one can’t wait to see what NetherRealms comes up with next.