2011's Mortal Kombat was a terrific, fresh start for the franchise. The reboot got things back on a 2D plane and modernized the action in a way that could appeal to today's more discerning fighting game fans without alienating that core audience of people who just want to mess around and rip off some heads. It also retold the story from the first three Mortal Kombat games with plenty of interesting differences that left classic characters in completely different situations. Mortal Kombat X follows up on that game with a similar fighting system and a storyline that jumps around in time so much that it can be hard to follow the exploits of both the old MK fighters and a collection of their offspring.
Mortal Kombat X moves the timeline forward 25 years, giving the game the opportunity to show older versions of existing fighters as well as some of their kids. This translates into 24 playable characters, with a decent split between existing combatants and new ones. Returning characters include Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Kitana, Kenshi, a gray-haired Liu Kang, Raiden, and more. Eight characters are new, with four falling on the bad guy end of the spectrum and four humans that descend from "old" fighters. Those four also figure heavily into the game's storyline as Cassie Cage, the daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade, teams up with Jax's daughter Jacqui, Kenshi's son Takeda, and a descendant of Kung Lao named Kung Jin to basically save all the realms from Mortal Kombat 4's end boss, Shinnok, and his right-hand man, Quan Chi.
The story mode uses the same structure as Mortal Kombat 9 and Injustice: Gods Among Us, slotting characters into chapters and having you go through a few fights with them before moving on. It's a decent way to get exposed to the different characters, but the story itself is all over the place. It starts a couple of years after the events of the previous game, then jumps ahead 25 years, but then a lot of the characters keep having flashbacks to events that happened five years before that. Some of the old fighters (including some who, annoyingly, aren't playable here) have become evil "revenants" that fight alongside Quan Chi, and keeping track of who is on what side in each part of the timeline is a chore. It all wraps up a little too quickly, too, with the four Kombat Kidz traipsing into just the right place at just the right time a few too many times for my tastes. On top of that, while the game still impressively transitions into and out of fights and its nice-looking cutscenes, a handful of Quick Time Events have been added to the proceedings, distracting from the storytelling a bit as you stare near the bottom of the screen just in case this cutscene happens to be one that contains a few lame button presses. While the lead characters, their backgrounds, and their motivations are far, far better here than they were in the games that came after Mortal Kombat 3 in the pre-reboot timeline, I still found the story to be a little disappointing, overall.
The action in MKX builds off of the systems and mechanics of both the previous game and, to some extent, Injustice: Gods Among Us. The buttons, basic fighting, and concepts of a three-part super meter, combo breakers, X-rays, and EX versions of special moves are all pretty much intact, though now you can EX your throws, which cancels the throw and leaves the enemy standing there, ready for another set of attacks as long as you're quick about it. You can also execute a block breaker, which works similarly to the combo breakers but pushes an enemy back while you're blocking instead of when you're taking hits. The fighting feels faster and more fluid than the previous game, but some of the more basic juggle combos feel like they're a little easier to land, too.
The game also has background interactions, which boil down to things that cause damage and things you can jump off of to cover a huge distance very quickly. All characters interact with objects the same way, as opposed to Injustice's more nuanced system, where characters broke down into "speed" or "power" camps. Picking up old women, dead bodies, or hapless monks and throwing them at your foes is pretty amazing. A new meter governs your use of interactables, preventing you from spamming them over and over again. The meter also drains when you back dash and when you run, which is another addition over the previous game. I found the run command to be a little cumbersome, as it requires you to hit block after a forward dash. So if you happen to be the sort of player who likes to dash forward and immediately block, hoping to bait out some sort of attack, that block turns into a run, leaving you wide open to damage. That took some adjusting on my part, and I'm still occasionally running face-first into someone's foot because I didn't remember to double-tap block to start and then immediately stop the run. This seems like the sort of thing that is more of a me problem than anything else, but I figured I'd mention it just the same.
Characters come in three variations, which you select while you're selecting the character. This means that you can select a Scorpion that has swords that are used in some of his normal moves, a Scorpion who has additional fire abilities (including a proper fireball), or a Scorpion that uses clone-like minions in some new special moves. It's a cool touch that lets you pick a character type that fits more to your sort of fighting style (or counter-pick someone else's without completely changing characters), but in some cases it distributes the special moves in ways that feel weird or reuse moves from other games. One of Reptile's variants, for example, just steals The Flash's ability to slow down time right out of Injustice, color change and all.
The finishers in Mortal Kombat X are more gruesome than ever. On some level that should be an obvious improvement, since this is the first game in the series to show up on this generation of hardware. But the developers have really gone the extra mile to make sure most of the fatalities go "too far" in new ways, from bodies getting ripped in half to faces being sliced off to reveal a tongue that sits there and twitches until you move forward to the next screen. The game also has brutalities, which are new--they aren't just the weird, sped-up dial-a-combo explosions that they were when they showed up in Mortal Kombat Trilogy.
Brutalities are a fun way to style on your opponent because you do them during a fight's conclusion instead of waiting for it to shout "finish him" at you. Some of these are easy. For example, if you continue holding forward while ending your winning round with Erron Black's throw, he'll pull out his six-gun and shoot his victim's leg clean off. If you mash some buttons while winning a fight with Takeda's throw he'll rip off his opponent's arm at the end of it. Most of the brutalities are expanded, murderous takes on a character's special moves, so each character has around five brutalities. Many of them have more elaborate requirements, like not getting hit for seven seconds during a match or doing 30% of your damage with one move. Those requirements remind me of the way you'd need to hold down a button for 30 seconds to get Shang Tsung to morph into Kintaro for a fatality--you need to set up how, exactly, you're going to win before you've actually won. In some cases, that makes them risky and, when you pull them off, kind of impressive. They're also a lot faster than the standard fatalities. Faction Kills are also faster than the fatalities, and these tie into an overarching metagame where you pick one of five different factions and all your fights, online or off, deliver points into an overall pool. Once a week, the points are tallied and the winner gets access to a specific faction kill. It's a nice distraction that helps give all of your efforts a little more meaning, even if you're just playing through the story or grinding it out against the AI on one of the many different towers.
Online, those factions can team up in five-on-five team battles, but there are quite a few different modes to choose from. Ranked and unranked standard fights kick things off, but you can get into a lobby for king of the hill matches and watch other people fight while you wait your turn. You can also enter practice mode while you wait, which is a nice touch, but the game doesn't have a "fight request" or similar option to let you get in some proper AI fights while you're waiting for a human opponent.
Mortal Kombat X has a lot of different little fight modifiers that you can enable yourself in offline "kustom kombat" matches, or you can roll the dice and play "test your luck" matches online or off, which dial up a handful of random modifiers and drop you into a battle. There are a lot of these, including basic stuff like lowering the recovery time on uppercuts or giving you more meter. Some of them make the screen wobble around or force you to fight upside down. One time I got something called "kick dive," which reduces your entire move-set down to just the Kung Lao-style dive kick. But I only saw that one pop up once and it doesn't seem to be on the kustom kombat list, which shows the modifiers whether you've unlocked them or not. Weird. It's strange and a little disappointing that you can't cook up some mix of custom modifiers, save them, and use them against friends in online matches. Your only option online is to play the random, test your luck variant.
The netcode in MKX is capable of being just fine if both players have sharp internet connections. But if those connections aren't up to snuff, the quality of the match goes down fast. The game also doesn't seem to give you accurate ping notices when you're challenging someone in a one-on-one match--it only shows proper ping meters in the game's chat rooms. Unless you're the sort of person who has a local crew of players to lean on or a properly modern internet connection, you may find this section of the game to be frustrating.
It's also worth noting that the game is extremely in-your-face about its after-purchase options. There's a 25th character, Goro, that comes with some pre-order copies of the game, but if you don't have him already, his icon shows on the character select screen with "PRESS X TO PURCHASE GORO" showing up when you attempt to select him. Goro appears to be for sale for $5. There's also a large window on the main menu that cycles through the season pass characters and some skin options that are also for sale. While I think the "Cold Steel" Sub-Zero skin looks really cool, the game presents its DLC in a really gaudy way. On top of that, the game can give you daily faction challenges for characters that you don't own. And, to round things out, a handful of characters that don't appear as playable show up in the story, including Tanya, who is one of the four characters coming as part of the game's season pass. They'll even sell you packs of consumable "easy fatality" tokens, in case pausing the game, looking at the moves list, and executing the fatality properly is too much for you. Or maybe you'll just want to spend $20 to unlock everything from the game's "krypt" section. Mortal Kombat is one of the great, long-running franchises of gaming and its popularity is already well-documented. Packing it with various real money transactions and having the game try to upsell me in multiple spots cheapens the experience.
The PC version of Mortal Kombat X launched in a literally unplayable state due to it attempting to use the same kind of "play part of the game while the rest downloads" technology that you've seen on modern consoles. This ended up ruining the first night of play, but I haven't had any issues with that end of the game since. The PC version of the game looks fantastic with everything turned up and is well-integrated with Steam for matchmaking purposes. The two console versions are roughly the same, with the most meaningful differences being your controller preference and where you have the most friends to play with. The PlayStation 4 version of the game supports PS3 fight sticks over USB, which is a nice touch if you fell on the Sony side last time around and have that hardware already.
The speedier pace of combat and the addition of Injustice's background interaction are just two of the things that make Mortal Kombat X a better-playing game than its predecessor. Also, MKX feels like an attempt to move forward into new things, whereas MK9 was one large, albeit rebooted nostalgia trip. And it looks fantastic all the while. All of this is enough to make up for the game's handful of rough edges around story mode and some of its other options.