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Mortal Kombat Review

Nick_Tan By:
GENRE Fighting 
PUBLISHER Warner Bros 
DEVELOPER NetherRealm 
M Contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Strong Language

What do these ratings mean?

It's like being back in high school!

For anyone pondering what the hell my avatar is supposed to be, it's Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile fusing together to form a ninja of ultimate doom whose name must not be uttered lest we invoke the apocalypse. Sure, it's an exaggeration, without remorse, but that's just rolling with the punches for Mortal Kombat. Realistic character models, gallons of gore, decapitation, women wearing tight pieces of fabric that can barely hold anything spherical, a 'k' instead of a 'c' – it's enough to make a seven-year-old boy understand the meaning of life and an old konservative kry, konvulse, and kroak.

click to enlargeOr at least that's what Mortal Kombat used to be about. This once-upon beast took the recession of the fighting genre in the late 1990s the hardest, and with each subsequent sequel of mediocrity, was whipped into a corner, chained to the wall, and hidden behind a collective gate of disappointment to protect whatever nostalgia we could save. But then Midway, in its last breaths, led Warner Bros. down to the pit and helped them throw a DC comic at the frail franchise, a comic with a healthy dose of crossover magic and superhuman powers. And now Warner Bros. has a new healthy, rambunctious pet with which to play fetch and call upon if some reviewers don't like it.

In what is an appropriate comparison, this revival of the Mortal Kombat series is akin to the revival of its rival Street Fighter series: Both return to their arcade roots. Perhaps there's even a minor joke with Ryu Scorpion uppercutting Ken Sub-Zero on the menu select screen. At any rate, the throwback to the good ol' Mortal Kombat days is obvious: the roster holding only the most important or popular characters of the franchise, the complete retelling of the story of the first three Mortal Kombat games, the redone classic stages complete with stage-specific fatalities, old-school inputs for fatalities, the manual input of kombat codes during a versus screen, and not being able to perform a fatality on Goro.

Nearly everything has returned to form, especially the combat system which focuses on simple combos, blocks, and super-moves, and eviscerates the weapon fighting from the more recent Mortal Kombat titles. If you're a veteran that understands zoning, juggles, blocks, standard strike range and priority, and mix-up combos between high and low hits, then you've already got a solid foundation. Bring in dash canceling, block canceling, and an energy bar that can enhance super moves, break an opponent's combo, or perform a wicked, bone-crushing X-ray attack, and you have a modern update to a beloved franchise. And that's not even including the awesome single-player or cooperative tag-team match that adds tag combos, fast tags, and tag specials to each character's moveset.

At the same time, it's also accommodating to new players. Mortal Kombat has always been rather generous with their input windows, and here, any simple three-strike combos and super move cancels on the move list can be performed easily. Inputs for fatalities are extra long and every direction in the command doesn't even need to be strung together quickly. There's even a slow-paced tutorial that carefully guides players through the basics and a separate fatality tutorial just to be extra sure.

click to enlargeThe fantastic 27-character roster (and Kratos for the PS3 version) has graphical updates as well, particularly Reptile who actually looks like his namesake and the addition of 3D graphics for the PS3 version. It would have been nice to see Kintaro, Goro, and Shao Kahn as unlockable characters as well, but that fits understandably within the throwback to the old days. Visible damage has been viscerally improved as well, with characters getting their clothing and skin torn off as the fight progresses and on specific body parts that an opponent has unmercifully targeted. Nothing like seeing Noob Saibot walk around with a hole in his chest because Sub-Zero stabbed him with an ice sword.

If there are any gripes with the combat, it's that everything could have been taken one notch higher. The energy bar could fill faster with more segments to make enhanced super moves more frequent. Gameplay options could have included damage rates, combat speed, and a toggle for guard damage. The movelist should have included wake-up moves and have had cursor memory, so you don't have to continue scrolling down to the sections for combos and fatalities. Earning coins and unlocking the hundreds of items in the Krypt increases the replay value, but unless you have a strategy guide in front of you, its randomness will make sure you shake your fist at getting concept art instead of a new fatality or character costume.

Where those complaints are mere scrapes, however, the automatic difficulty scaling is not. One place where the "throwback" talking point loses its luster is Shao Kahn, who is needlessly cheap with a hammer that stuns, enhanced health and damage, and an occasional one-hit buffer that ignores any strike you attempt to land on him. This forces you to fight cheap tactics with cheap tactics, instead of a fair fight, like the other nine matches it takes to get to him. Sure, you can beat him after several tries, but that's probably because the game automatically lowers the difficulty with multiple retries. So not only do you feel bad for losing, but you don't feel as good for winning either.

This occurs both in The Challenge Tower, a series of 300 progressively difficult matches and mini-games, and the story, which reinterprets the original Mortal Kombat trilogy in a chapter format similar to that of MK vs. DCU. By anchoring the story around visions Raiden receives from the ominous future, the first two-thirds provide explanations of certain plot points that fans might not know about in the original story and has a well-paced flow, disturbed only by a rushed last-third that tries to tie in the plot of Mortal Kombat III. Granted, that's a tall order, but the story generally lacks nuance and the ending leaves a questionable aftertaste for the sequel, especially when the writers have the liberty to rewrite anything they want (into something better).

click to enlargeThe online offerings are decent, covering both ranked and regular player matches, though the online connection can get glitchy or laggy. My experience was tolerable, apart from some freezing with the spectator King of the Hill option and how the game resets the player's win streak if an opponent disconnects. Hopefully, these blips will be patched soon.

In one swift blow, Mortal Kombat reminds me why I dressed up as Sub-Zero for Halloween when I was six: It's brutal, aggressive, and awesome. The blunders with the auto-difficulty, story, and online can be easily patched or passed over by the return of the franchise to its arcade roots - where it belongs. Now play some Mortal Kombat before Scorpion tells you to get over here.
B+ Revolution report card
  • Return to arcade roots
  • Strong roster
  • Tag-team play
  • Friendly to new players
  • +/- Great story, for a fighting game...
  • +/- Online play, glitchy and laggy at times
  • No event pause/skip/replay for story mode
  • Must use cheap tactics against Shao Kahn
  • Auto-adjusted difficulty for losing

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More information about Mortal Kombat
Also known as: Mortal Combat

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