Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is finished. Well, maybe not "gone gold, take a vacation" finished, but development seems to be wrapping up as the game enters the submission process, where Microsoft and Sony can try to poke holes in it before approving its eventual release. Midway came through the office this morning with the Xbox 360 version of the game and let us take a crack at it.
This is the third different version of the game I've seen over the course of its development, and as a nearly-complete game, it feels pretty different than it did back at PAX, and vastly different from how it felt back at E3. Back then, the game seemed fun and also kind of simple--but apparently that's just because the development team wasn't close to finished. Today, the game feels like it retains that level of play, but it also appears to have much deeper, skill-based angle to it, one focused on the proper timing of your moves and combos, resulting in wild juggles, much like the stuff you'd expect to see in the early games in the series.
As I was getting worked over quite badly by Midway's Paulo Garcia, I could see some of the horrific things he was doing to me were going to take some skill to pull off. This game doesn't seem to be about the basic memorization of combo strings, like some other 3D fighters (including the past couple of MK games) have placed an emphasis on. Instead, it's about making sure that you can land a couple of ground hits that end in a pop-up, letting you work in some special moves and sort of fling your opponent around the screen. In the case of Wonder Woman, well, she uses her lasso to make sure you get to experience every little corner of the screen as you're being tossed around.
Of course, there's a way out of all this. That's a good thing, because it's set up to prevent scenarios where you might as well set down the controller for five or six seconds every time you get hit as you get comboed around like a ragdoll. Combo breakers are earned as you fill up your character's rage meter, and hitting forward and block will essentially bust out of any hit that touches you at the cost of half your rage meter. Careful planning and use of the breakers seems to be key.
If you can save up your breakers and fill your meter, you can pull both of the triggers to enter rage mode for a bit. Rage mode disables your reaction to getting hit, so you can kind of punch your way through oncoming attacks to deal out damage while your character glows with a cool, yellowish tinge... like he or she was infected with cyber-jaundice or something. Being in the rage state doesn't make you invincible, though. You might be able to punch through an attack and crush your opponent's guard, but you'll still take damage and get dropped if you run out of health.
Between the breakers and the game's 2D feel, the game feels like a good mesh of the things that were interesting about the previous generation of MK games and a lot of the feel of the classic 2D games in the franchise. Things like the way a jump kick sort of sticks in the air for a bit when it lands, or the way Mileena's roll move (now on Kitana, as Mileena herself doesn't appear in the game) serves you up for an easy uppercut if blocked really go a long way.
There's a tightness to the gameplay that the previous MK games seemed to lack, with a lot of extra little moves and tweaks that can be done to alter up or branch existing moves. For example, Raiden has his classic teleport. But if you do the teleport move and then quickly do another, he'll quickly teleport twice, which sounds like it could be good for tripping players up. Batman has a move that lets him quickly throw two batarangs if done with the proper timing, Sonya's leg grab has an enhanced version that pops enemies up for a juggle if done with just the right timing, and so on. These moves might not be required for the average player to have a good time, but they seem like they'll definitely be worth learning if you want to be the best.
To finish off the fights, each character will have two finishing moves. While the fatalities that I've seen so far aren't exactly grisly and shocking in the way that the old MK games were, they seem to retain the spirit of what finishing moves are supposed to be--over-the-top and occasionally-ridiculous ways to slap an exclamation point on the end of a fight. Lex Luthor, for example, taps his wrist computer for a bit, causing a ton of lock-on targets to appear on his victim. Then, a bunch of missiles come flying out of the sky, blowing up and knocking over the loser. Of course, if this were a regular MK game, the guy would then explode and reveal a billion ribcages, but I didn't miss that too much. Besides, this game totally has the Liu Kang MK1 arcade machine drop from Mortal Kombat 3. So it's already A-OK in my book.
Between this being an all-new engine and the first game that the MK team has done for this generation of consoles, it makes sense that the game is much more focused on the fighting this time around, rather than tossing in a bunch of adventure modes, or kart racing, or a puzzle game. But there is a pretty lengthy story mode that will explain why, exactly, all these MK and DC characters are getting together in the first place.
The story mode opens with a choice of the MK side or the DC side. In each story, you'll play as that side's respective characters. Both stories take place concurrently, so by playing both you'll get to see the events from different angles. I played through the first few fights of the DC side, which starts out with Superman defeating Darkseid and arresting Lex Luthor. But from there you take control of the Flash, who encounters a couple of different DC bad guys before Kano gets into the middle of things. Before too long, the Flash is taking on Batman.
Wait... why would those guys fight each other? They're both good guys! That brings us to the main focus of the game's story: The Rage. The Rage is an infection of sorts that travels from character to character and makes them behave a little strangely. It appears to provide a good story-line justification for all of the different crazy match-ups that are possible in the game. Ed Boon told us that each side of the story should take players around three hours to complete, and that each side contained around an hour of cutscenes as a part of that number.
The other modes are all focused on the fighting, like a practice mode, online play, and the kombo challenge. This seems similar to the trial minigames that you'll find in the practice modes of some games, and it has you attempt to pull off ten unique combos for each character. This plays into the tight timing for juggles and enhanced versions of special moves that I was talking about earlier. On my first handful of tries, I couldn't even get the timing down for Scorpion's first combo. So this seems like it'll be a good way to learn the timing for some of the trickier moves. It also seems like it could be insanely frustrating and time-consuming. It sounds like some achievements and trophies will be assigned to completing these combos. There will also be a standard arcade mode that will have endings for every character.
All in all, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe seems like a smart collection of changes and enhancements to one of the fighting genre's longest-running franchises. It'll be interesting to see how it's received when the game hits shelves on November 16.