Mortal Kombat 2011 Review
The Mortal Combat series turns 20 years old next year. Anyone who actually played the first Mortal Kombat in an arcade may feel free to take a moment to feel old for a bit. We’ll wait. You deserve it. I know I do.
Where were we? Oh yes, we’re old, just like Mortal Kombat, a nearly drinking-age fighting game series that has spent most of its long life hamstrung by ill-advised sequels and the diminished returns that come from milking a franchise for every last drop of money possible. No wonder then that I spent the last year reacting to news about Mortal Kombat 2011 (AKA Mortal Kombat 9) the way I do about new Paul McCartney albums. (By which I mean, former greatness overshadows lesser, modern accomplishments). I was wrong. As it turns out, NetherRealm Studios has managed to (mostly) resurrect that old school Mortal Kombat magic in a game that is surprisingly accessible, looks incredible, is gloriously bloody and unrelentingly brutal.
If you had any doubts that the Mortal Kombat series has gotten a supreme sized injection of back-to-basics camp, cruelty and hardcore violence, 20 minutes with Mortal Kombat 2011 is all the proof you’ll need.
Mortal Kombat komes1 with hell of a lot of features. So many that it almost feels overstuffed with content. We’ll be covering them all in our Mortal Kombat walkthrough, so no need to get bogged down describing them all, but suffice to say there’s about 30 tons of stuff to keep you occupied, ensuring that it will be a long while before you’ve exhausted all the game has to offer. My favorites included:
* Training Resources:
If you’re stuck trying to get the hang of the sometimes simple, sometimes crippling-to-people-with-fat-fingers character moves, Mortal Kombat comes with two modes of play that can solve that problem. Training has 4 features- basic tutorial, fatality tutorial, practice and tag team practice that cover most of the game’s mechanics. Challenge Tower offers a better means of learning, through a series of specific challenges focusing on different aspects of in-game combat, like special moves, defense and so on. Completing each challenge earns “Kurrency” (more on that below), and unlocks other levels.
There’s a lot of unlockable content to keep you interested in playing, much of it really cool and easy to get. The vast majority of unlockable content is purchased in The Krypt. During normal play (including Challenge, story, online and versus modes), players earn Koins, in-game
cKurrency awarded for successful completion of challenges or victories. You use this kurrency in the Krypt, which can be located in the Extras menu. The Krypt features 4 different ghastly settings and an array of unlockables, including alternate costumes, new versus levels, cheat codes and new moves. You can also unlock concept art and other ‘Krypt Kollectables’. While a bit silly, purchasing the majority of your unlockables takes a lot of frustration away; secret characters and playable bosses must still be unlocked by actual game play, but you won’t have to spend 400 years of your life just to access Johnny Cage’s alternate Fatalities. Keeping the player interested without pissing them off was a wise decision.
* The Story:
Normally it would be wasting your time to bother commenting on the narrative of a fighting game. Hell, the whole thing is just a frame excuse for people beating each other up and besides, you just want to get to the fatalities, right? Bizarrely, NetherRealms managed to pull off the impossible: Making the story interesting. That’s partly due to excellent game design. Putting the Unreal 3 engine to impressive use, they created a mostly seamless transition from fighting to cutscenes that makes each fight feel somewhat organic and contextual while magically allowing the player to believe there’s actually a plot. However they also somehow successfully crammed the plots – if you can call them that – of Mortal Kombats 1, 2 and 3 into a surprisingly cohesive story.
The story is, we must emphasize, not actually original or ‘good’; We begin just after the end of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, with all the heroes and villains dead, Shao Khan triumphant and Raiden mortally wounded. At the moment of death, Raiden travels back to the beginning of the first Mortal Kombat in an attempt to change the future. The events of those games are told with multiple viewpoint characters – Sonya, Johnny Cage, Liu Kang, Scorpion and others. The entire original trilogy cast is back. But characters are written in beautiful, broad strokes, overwrought, solemn dialogue is intoned, and cheesy one liners are uttered without shame or reservation all in service of a story that is packed with cliches. And yet it kind of works perfectly
It’s not Citizen Kane, but the game ends up feeling like a fairly kick-ass, if paper thin and super dumb-dumb Wuxia fantasy movie2. Not a bad achievement for a fighting game, especially considering the Mortal Kombat’s prior history with cinema style storytelling.
*Graphics, Tone and Horrific Camp:
Related to what worked in the story, Mortal Kombat brings back that sense of excessive, over-the-top violence and brutal hilarity that made it famous when it single-handedly made Street Fighter 2 feel tame back in 1992. It looks excellent, the combat and fatalities are visceral and often hilarious, but beautiful and jacked up to 11. Blood splatters everywhere. Bones crunch, clothes are ripped and the cracking and wrenching of body parts is loud and scary. I was somewhat disappointed that they will never return to the days of digitized sprites, but we realize that they used them in the original Mortal Kombat trilogy because the action would look more real, less cartoonish. While it would be cool for a game like Mortal Kombat to make use of the kind of tech Team Bondi put into mo-cap for L.A. Noire, it’s not something you miss. The game is just right in all its anti-social glory, as it is.
They’ve also gone all out on the Mortal KOMBAAAAT theme to the point that everything that can possibly use a K instead of a hard-c uses it. Kombat, Krypt, Koins, Kurrency, even the damn subtitles make sure you realize that when Shang Tsung summons a combatant, he’s actually summoning a kombatant. Either he’s a refuge from a cold war Commies Are Comin’ movie, or he’s an 00′s hip hop producer. +1000.
Similar to games like Marvel vs. Capcom: Fate of Two Worlds, players have full access to most character moves from the start menu. While they remain a bit difficult for fat fingered gamers like myself, tƒthhey’ve been streamlined somewhat from prior incarnations of the game, which makes timing, rather than a lack of carpel tunnel damage, essential to pulling them off. We were also happy with the excellent versus and online modes of play. It’s fun going toe to toe against a friend on your TV, or teaming up with them to battle tag team style against other gamers. The variety of different combat modes and things to do with them make for a game likely to have long legs.
The biggest change is the addition of the Super meter, a power meter displayed at the bottom of the screen that, when tapped, allows you to activate some vicious special powers. The meter fills up during combat as you take damage or inflict it; it’s divided into 3 sections and as you’ve guessed, the more sections you’ve filled the more powerful these powers will be. This opens up some interesting strategic options during a fight. If you have the skills to battle long enough to let the meter power up, you’ll get bigger and better payoffs that make waiting completely worth it. Expending a single bar from the meter will offer a one-time increase in the power and damage of one of your character’s special moves. You keep replenishing the meter simply by fighting, so this tactic is good for inexperienced players prone to epic beat-downs when relying solely on standard moves and combos. If you use two bars and you can pull off more powerful combos and also break your opponent’s combos. If you have the timing down, the chance to break an opponent’s combo can save you from an arcade-style cheese beating.
The problem is that expending two bars will end up costing you since it will take longer to get your meter built up enough to do it; expending one bar at a time can be effective but also prevents you from ever seeing the meter’s full potential. And that’s a shame, because a full meter lets you pull off the single best new Mortal Kombat feature since babalities were introduced in Mortal Kombat II: The X-ray Attack. Once you fill all four bars, time it right and you’ll deliver an absurdly damaging combo attack that can even-out or simply end an otherwise competitive game in seconds. Each character has a unique X-ray attack generally based off their fighting style and powers. Liu Kang kicks and punches, Sonya grabs her opponents with her legs and slams them to the ground, Sub Zero freezes internal organs and smashes them, that kind of thing.
Sounds cool? Yes but it’s called the X-ray attack for a reason: you get to see something like this:
That’s hell of awesome, believe that son.
What Doesn’t (Quite) Work
There’s still a few kinks that keep it from being perfect. Mainly, it might be a bit overstuffed for some players. We spent a lot of time complimenting the game’s many features, but the argument could be made that some of it could wait for DLC. The Krypt, for instance, is an interesting in-game resource, but it’s kind of inscrutable. Instead of clearly labeled content for players to buy, each item is represented by a tombstone and a letter-number designation such as DL-40. Which means unless you consult our walkthrough, you won’t know what the hell you’re purchasing, and could end up blowing your money on a bunch of crap that won’t help your game. It doesn’t help that there’s 4 different regions in the Krypt. Perhaps it would have been less of a hassle to make the cheat codes, unlockable arenas, fatalities and alternate costumes clear so that players could choose to delay purchase of useless concept art until after they’ve exhausted the actual, game-improving content.
Related to this is the Nekropolis, where you can review character bios, activate some of the content you’ve purchased in the Krypt and review the non-play items. It’s also a major pain in the ass to navigate. Not complicated in the slightest, it just loads slow and you have to scroll through every single character instead of going directly to the ones you want to view. It also doesn’t tell you clearly which characters have unlocked content. That means if you buy items but wait until after you’ve forgotten about them to check, you’ll have to click on each and every one.
These are minor complaints to be sure, but a pain in the ass is something you especially notice when most of the thing works so well and tweaks could improve things considerably.
Like we said though, minor complaints. In a year that already includes games like The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile and Bulletstorm, it’s beginning to look like 2011 is shaping up to be a great year for bigger, bloodier, brutally hilarious games, and Mortal Kombat 2011′s triumphant return to form after having been considered moribund for so long is absolutely welcome and absolutely ass-kicking.
* Graphics; fighting is brutal, carnage is visceral and it looks great
* Tone; The game toes the line between seriousness and camp, we mean Kamp.
* Excellent fighting system.
* Loads of gameplay types.
* Mostly easy commands pull off insane moves.
* Classic characters and moves, updated successfully.
* Shockingly, the story is fun and knows exactly what it is.
* Unlockables easy to achieve and plentiful.
* Unlockables also contain many useless items.
* Game might be a bit bloated for some players.
Final Score: 95/100
NOTE: Review is for the Xbox 360 version of the game.
1) See what I did there?
2) NOTE: If that movie were actually produced it would end up being like The Expendables of the martial arts genre. It would have to star Rain and Jean-Claude Van Damme.