Mortal Kombat has always been a series about death and murder and Mortal Kombat 11 is taking that mantra personally by killing off a lot of the elements found in earlier games. The traditional X-Rays moves are gone, the super meter has been replaced, long combos have been taken down a few pegs, running is nonexistent, and even the iconic neutral jump punch has been neutralized. All of these signature Mortal Kombat aspects have been brutally executed, separating Mortal Kombat 11 from its predecessors. And while time will tell how much these changes hold up, they do give this installment its signature flavor.
Fighting games do have the tendency to be heavily iterative. Tekken has only incrementally changed with each release, Street Fighter tactics often transfer between sequels, and even the upcoming Dead or Alive 6 looks like more Dead or Alive. It’s not to say that these games are the same from entry to entry but the genre has usually been comfortable with evolutionary, not revolutionary, adjustments for the most part.
Mortal Kombat 11’s overall tempo is one of the bigger changes. Mortal Kombat X was notorious and often criticized for being too heavily focused on fast, rushdown combat. This new game makes combos less damaging and takes out the run button, which dramatically alters how quickly fighters can sprint in and overwhelm their opponent with a flurry of nonstop punches. Producer Trevor Traub said this change wasn’t as much of a conscious response to Mortal Kombat X, but something the team just gravitated to.
“I think it was more of a natural evolution of what we wanted to do,” he said. “We were looking to do something different and I think we’ve achieved that. It’s not Injustice and it’s not MKX. We’ve got something new.”
Mortal Kombat 11 preview – Methodical kombat
It definitely does feel new and not like the studio’s other games, which is great for keeping the long-running series fresh, but possibly strips out a bit of its identity. Shorter combos and attack strings justify the lack of a true Breaker but take a little less execution to land and aren’t quite as fun to watch. And that comes at a cost of stronger fundamentals that rely on pokes, mix ups, handling the neutral space, and knowing when to strike. Focusing far less on juggles and more on spacing might be better for the actual fighting mechanics, but seems more like a negative when the game is so new and hasn’t as much of a chance to prove itself.
And it has more systems to support the added nuance it does have. The vanilla super meter has been replaced by two other meters: offensive and defensive. The former enhances attacks and the latter can help you air dash out of combos, use unique wakeup attacks or environmental moves, and roll away and some moves even take from both meters. Both automatically refill and give every facet of the game its own independent resource.
It’s a lot to take in and is a huge change from the simplicity of one big bar that handled everything. All of these moves take careful inputs to execute and are a far cry from the relative ease of meter burning a special move with some armor or using a Breaker to get out of trouble. Since fighting games require a long tail to stay alive, it’s hard to fault Mortal Kombat 11 for adding deeper systems even if it makes it a bit harder to learn. However, this depth can drown the game if all of disparate meters end up overcomplicating the more straightforward systems that blossomed in Mortal Kombat 9.
Mortal Kombat 11 preview – New kombat options
Krushing Blows, Perfect Blocks, and Fatal Blows are, however, a little more straightforward. Krushing Blows are mini-X-Rays that play once you meet certain criteria and change the properties of a move. For example, punishing a high attack with an uppercut with Sonya zooms in to show the attack and corresponding crushed jaw and will allow you to follow up with a combo; something you couldn’t normally do with a non-Krushing Blow uppercut. Figuring out how to do these augmented moves is an intelligent way to add a metagame on top of the current match while also showcasing the series’ signature gore.
Perfect Blocks are a bit more straightforward. If you hit the block button a few frames before an attack connects, you’ll be able to recover more quickly and counter something you might not have been able to counter otherwise. That window is incredibly tight, as it should be, which made it hard to test out even for the professionals at the reveal event. However, it sounds like a clever way to reward those dexterous enough to have memorized the necessary timing.
Fatal Blows are essentially X-Rays that become available once you reach 30 percent health. They’re high damaging armored specials and you only get one per match so you have to choose whether to secure the first round or possibly keep it to have it save your nearly dead ass in round three. While it has the opportunity to turn into a tool that scrubs will exploit and use without much thought to armor through normal moves, Traub thinks it will make the game deeper.
“It affords the player some more flexibility when they use it,” he said. “And the thing to remember is that you only get one Fatal Blow per match. So a lot of times when I’m getting into a fight, we’ll get down to the end of the first round and both of us will have it. And it’s like if I use it now to win this round, I’m not going to have it if I get into the same situation. Do I save it and try to win normally? Or do I use now and get the round and try to tough it out the rest of the match?”
Mortal Kombat 11 preview – Gearing up for change
Gear and Kustom Variations are also aiming to making the game more strategic even if NetherRealm hasn’t spilled all of the details yet. Kustom Variations allow the player to equip abilities into three slots and more powerful moves take more slots, which is a player-driven version of the Variations system from MKX. These Kustom Variations are also decked out with customizable cosmetic gear that can be slapped with augments that add small buffs to your character. In a great move, these augments are separated from the gear, meaning you can wear whatever you like without having to worry about what the enhancement is; a stark contrast from the gear in Injustice 2.
The incredible array of visual options is staggering and the amount of control you have over your fighter is impressive. But the details NetherRealm won’t divulge could make or break this system. Shutting out Kustom Variations in competitive matches would be bad because people wouldn’t play them much otherwise.
But letting tournament combatants choose their loadout before each match could possibly take too long. Making players earn moves would punish those that haven’t unlocked everything. Essentially, the game needs to find a way to ditch its augment system and incorporate its Kustom Variations without sucking up valuable time. While more customization is great, all these systems risk overly complicating the authored, simplistic, and effective Variations system in MKX.
The Kustom Variation system is emblematic of Mortal Kombat 11 as a whole. It’s unique, interesting, bold, and fun but still a bit of a mystery how it will all shake out when the game releases on April 23 and those new mechanics will truly be tested. Pulling back on the offensive overload from prior Mortal Kombat games and betting more on fundamentals and different systems is bold and could be an innovative, healthy change for the series or an obtuse direction that loses sight of what makes it special. Big franchises like this don’t often refresh themselves this radically which is exciting in theory. Mortal Kombat 11 executes enough of its characters in its bloody fatalities and now we just have wait about three months to see if it can execute its new ideas with the same grace.