Shuffle off this mortal koil.
Not every video game franchise has the longevity to see its tenth main entry, and while multiple fighting game brands have reached double digits, Mortal Kombat has been splitting heads, spewing blood, and punching balls since 1992 with numerous console spin-offs and cameos to boot. But Netherrealm Studios' Mortal Kombat X, the first entry of the franchise for new-gen consoles, isn't about legacy insomuch as it is about charting a course for the future. Character variations, a new generation of fighters, revamped graphics, and integrated online ladders provide Mortal Kombat with a suitable facelift, though several touch-ups leave it oddly askew.
Following the events of Mortal Kombat 9, which left many of Earthrealm's heroes either dead or alive only as Quan Chi's enslaved zombies, the first chapter of Mortal Kombat X featuring Johnny Cage resolves this loose end. The abominable necromancer was only acting under the orders of the nefarious Shinnok, who had been imprisoned by the other Elder Gods, and has been plotting his escape and revenge ever since. Luckily, Raiden and the last remnants of the Special Forces are able to seal Shinnok in the opening chapter using his own character-absorbing amulet, finally giving Earthrealm a chance at peace before the plot moves the timeline 25 years forward.
From there, the story mode flips between the past and the present, focusing on the brewing civil war between Mileena and the new Outworld emperor Kotal Kahn as well as a team of four fledgling hotheads, all sons or daughters of the core characters—Cassie Cage (daughter of Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage), Kung Jin (cousin of Kung Lao), Jacqui Briggs (daughter of Jax Briggs), and Takeda Takahashi (son of Kenshin). The disappearance of Shinnok's Amulet, however, may lead to yet another battle between Earthrealm, Outworld, and Quan Chi who still harbors the souls of the likes of Kung Lao, Sindel, and Liu Kang.
Overall, the story does lend a touch of realism by giving the typically skeletal Scorpion a human look (who likely won't win any popularity points for what he does during his chapter), expanding on Outworld's brutally unyielding politics, and sowing tension between the new generation and old generation of fighters. Still, the twelve-chapter plot has an anticlimactic ending that leaves a few dangling threads unresolved and only features point-of-view perspectives of about half of the total cast (new gunslinger Erron Black has no chapter of his own). Many characters unwisely tend to follow a “guilty until proven innocent” or, more carefully put, a “guilty until beaten otherwise” mentality, which is as much of a plot device to justify the fisticuffs as the said zombification of past MK heroes. Then again, I imagine that most players won't expect much from the story for a fighting game anyway.
Though the 25-character roster can be seen as somewhat average, the introduction of variations removes some of the sting and allows for a welcome variety of match-ups. Each character has three selectable builds, most of which give or take away certain moves which can easily turn the tide of battle. Not only does this allow mirror matches to be far more interesting, but competitive players can broaden their strategies with different mix-ups in their mains. Part of me wishes that characters simply had access to their entire moveset; for instance, Sub-Zero traditionally has both ice clones and cryomantic weapons, but now can only choose one or the other since they've been relegated to variations. For the most part, though, these variations are a solid counter to matches that once felt fairly predictable.
As you might expect, Mortal Kombat X doesn't fall too far from the blood-soaked tree despite the inclusion of environmental attacks and maneuvers from the developer's prior work on Injustice: Gods Among Us. Combat (or is that Kombat?) still emphasizes proper spacing, high or low blocking, powerful X-ray attacks, and more than enough vicious, fantastic fatalities to make MKX a sadist's dream. And just to make that last point even clearer, MKX brings a host of unlockable brutalities and faction kills into the fold for even more merciless finishers to choose from. Veteran players will appreciate the smoothness of the animations and the provided frame data in practice mode for their mastery of vortex play and multi-hit juggle strings against the wall (I'm talking to you, Raiden).
The improvement of the presentation cannot be understated either. While the facial modeling could be marginally better, the crisp animations, richly-detailed stages, relatively short loading times (with a few black foggy screens that will remind you of Skyrim), and the thickness of the sound effects take advantage of the new-gen consoles. The user interfaces are clean and precise, and every option is rather easy to find. Characters also have witty one-liners and comebacks befitting the off-the-cuff, smacktalking style of Mortal Kombat.
The towers system effectively replaces the “klassic” arcade mode and the infamous challenge tower for high replayability. Depending on your ladder of choice, you can challenge yourself to a set number of standard matches, modified matches in Test Your Luck, or an endless number of opponents. Your performance will be recorded as a score where you can compare yourself to the competition in leaderboards. The new Living Towers, online time-based ladders that swap out frequently, will give you a reason to come back every day, on top of the Faction War where you contribute points toward one of five teams for special bonuses and faction kills (though I'm surprised that the Shirai Ryu isn't one of the five available factions).
Better yet, every match you complete will earn you currency for the new Krypt, a graveyard full of unlockables that is now styled like an old-school adventure where you move on a grid in a deadly 3D environoment. You'll need to explore spider tunnels, unlock passages by collecting items, and kill threats in quick-time events. Every headstone or bleeding corpse you find can be purchased, with an accompanying explosion, to reveal new costumes, concept art, brutalities, and online banner icons. It's yet another reason to continue playing after the credits roll for the cinematic story mode.
However, it's difficult to shake the feeling that Mortal Kombat X is holding out content. The $30 season pass which comes with four characters and a scattering of skins is pricey at this point, and even then, story mode has you fight against numerous AI-controlled opponents who aren't on the roster but look fully fleshed-out and ready for play already. It's not exactly on-disc DLC, but it's close enough that not being able to control those characters (I'm leaving it vague to prevent spoilers) feels like an obvious setup for a long-term plan for paid content.
For a few additional nitpicks, the number of stages is low even with the unlockable skin variants for a handful of them. There are no stage-based fatalities and there's only one “Test Your” mini-game, though the death animations for failing the Test Your Might mini-game are quite humorous. Also, the lack of a co-operative tag-team mode slightly stifles the multiplayer experience.
From what I've been able to assess in online play so far, in both ranked matches and King of the Hill, the netcode is underwhelming. I wasn't able to find any players with the maximum of three connection bars, so nearly all of my matches had considerable input lag. I've read several reports that the connection speed in the UK is much better, and the online servers for the game won't be officially activated until Tuesday, so the best I can do is give the netcode the benefit of the doubt but no more than that.
Although some of its content feels truncated, purposefully or otherwise, Mortal Kombat X lays a solid foundation for the series for this console generation. The new cast of characters feel a tad callow, but they fit reasonably well with their more iconic brethren. Both the integrated gameplay and the polished presentation set a high standard for the fighting genre, and the replayability of the towers system along with the dangling carrots in the revamped Krypt will ensure that Mortal Kombat fans have plenty to sink their teeth into. In fact, it's roasty-toasty.