Ok, I’ll just come out and say it… I’ve almost always loved Mortal Kombat. Since I was a kid, sitting at home drinking Mountain Dew and eating Doritos, I remember sneaking in a borrowed copy from a friend, or hanging out with someone simply for the chance to see a motley collection of crazy combatants, or should I say… kombatants duke it out for the honor of punching to death a shape shifting old man named Shang Tsung.
Twenty years ago Mortal Kombat was a taboo. It was the game held up by anti-video game zealots to convince parents across the world that the video games were destroying society and poison the minds of children. Mortal Kombat set the bar for extreme in the world of video games, and in 2015 the emotions Mortal Kombat X elicits from me are novelty, nostalgia, and reverence.
Now I’m not a hardcore fighting game fan by any measure of the word. In fact I’m not ashamed to tell you that I really can’t beat any computer above medium in this game. But the fact that I can still have fun with Mortal Kombat X is what makes me love this game so much. If you’re a good fighter or someone like me, there’s plenty of stuff to do in Mortal Kombat X, though the staying power of fighting games sometimes leaves me feeling empty.
Mortal Kombat’s X’s story plays out like an interactive CG sequel to the cheesy 1990’s move with some additional Avengers flashiness. It’s events are a straight follow up to 2011’s Mortal Kombat, a universe-reboot that created a solid cohesion and story foundation for this game to be built. What’s particularly charming about the story in this Mortal Kombat is that things have seemingly progressed for the first time I can remember in an MK game. Characters are gray and retired. New characters are stepping up to the plate, and events in the last game are held up as canon and actively acknowledge. Though I don’t think we’ll ever see a MK without Sub Zero and Scorpion, it’s nice to see viable alternatives to these old faithfuls enter the ring. This mode amounts to about 4-5 hours of cutscenes, fights, and quick-time events, but was good enough to play though all in an entire sitting, and have more than one memorable moments.
If you’re like me and are essentially bad at Mortal Kombat X, you’ll appreciate all the ways you can still both have things to do, and take part in the community. All of these things are executed through stuff that I’ll call “semi-online” features. This is personally the way that I enjoy my online experiences in the age of always-online gaming. Online features are passive and subtle in ways that keep things fresh, and don’t nag you. The new Living Towers mode for example provides you with weekly, daily, and yes, even hourly reason to return and push through a slew of challengers with different modifiers that affect your game. I’ve encountered everything from digital walls shrinking fight arenas, one-hit-kills, laser and missile dodging, and even random portals that drop you through the planes of existence. All of these are coupled with challenges for extra Koins asking you to score flawless victories, not to use uppercuts, land 3 kombo-breakers, and other asks that makes you change up the way you play for rewards.
A note about user experience here. What's really interesting to me is that with all of the Challenge Towers I've never set a difficulty level. I don't know if the game is simply adjusting to my play style or if I perfectly represent an average player at this game, but the story mode also seems to have an auto-scaling difficulty that even scales back if it sees you starting to loose. These type of seamless mechanics are far too rare in modern video games and I think should be applauded and applied to even more system going forward. Mortal Kombat X tracks almost everything that you do as a fighter, online and off, and even goes so far as to giving you a chance to win percentage before your online matches. It made me feel in control of my fighting more than I ever have before, game me insights as to where I can improve, and set my expectations as to wether or not I would win my games. Hats off to this game which is either very smart, or perfectly tuned around a player like myself.
There’s also the passive faction challenges that allow you to contribute to the greater struggle by aligning yourself with one of five factions and have all of your fights count towards the community and resulting in a face-off at the end of each week that can score you different rewards, though while giving you fun goals to accomplish, asking you to try different characters and new ways to win matches, but after pushing through challenges all week, I found my progress didn’t seem to save, and I didn’t have a visceral sense of what I could be doing to give my team a leg up to win the war.
Much has been made over the way that this game tries to monetize itself post the initial purchase of the game. While I generally don’t think that it’s overly offensive what they’ve done with in-game purchasing, it’s worth noting that some pieces of the game feel as though they were developed, at least partially, and left out of the game, in order to have head room to include them as DLC later on. Every match in Mortal Kombat X nets you Koins and experience. Coins can be spent in the games Krypt. Something that has existed in Mortal Kombat’s past, but it’s never been quite so engaging. The Krypt in MKX has been reimagined as a old school dungeon crawler ripped straight out of a dungeons and dragons map, with a MK twist.
In terms of straight violence, this game has it by the bucket-load. This is where developer Nether Realm studios is most successful. The game for me ran silkly-smooth in combat, and every punch, kick a special move feels kinetic and brutal. Environmental destruction is well executed giving combat the variety of swing-kicks, head bashes, hot-coal burns and human-bodies-turned-weapons. You’re even in for a special treat the first time you go to “interact” with an innocent bystander who’s watching the horror unfold in front of her. I’m talking about you, Blanche.
The game has also had layers of depth added to it by including a variation of something that was tried back in the Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance days. Every character is equipped with three “variations” that give them certain abilities, and I’ve yet to ascertain if the damages dealt by other moves ends up also being varied by this choice. This effectively drives the already-packed 24 character roster up three fold technically, each character getting different special moves per variation and giving you an extra level of things to account for while playing. The story mode even eases you into the concept by having you encounter characters using different styles depending on the context of the fight. And hey, it’s also an excuse to see what Kano would look like with a green laser eye instead of a red one, am I right?
The rounds, punctuated by the iconic voice over commanding “FINISH HIM” are filled with Fatalities that feel more extreme, and easier to execute than ever, at least for a player of my skill level. Ed Boon and team are acutely aware of what they’ve accomplished over the years with Mortal Kombat, and what their core audience has come to expect in terms of shear violence and gore from the series. Fatailies in 2015 are certainly more graphic, more detailed, and more wild than ever, to the point where they elicit a guttural belly laugh even, always accompanies by a wince, even for someone like me, who can take quite a bit when it comes to blood and guts. I found myself more than once having an out-loud reaction to some of the in-round combat, and fatalities.
To me though, that’s what Mortal Kombat is. It’s what it should remain to be. Street Fighter was the american-anime one, Marvel vs Capcom was the “I don’t know why this is still sprite-based” one, Mortal Kombat was the gory-awesome one, Tekken was the one with the break dancing guy, Soul Caliber was the one with weapons, Dead or Alive was the one with boobs, and Clay Fighter was the “What the fuck” one. For a video game series to venture 23 years, and be able to balance feeling modern, with a strong identity as to what it is largely left intact, to me, is something that’s a monumental accomplishment. It’s something that other series could pay attention to. Now I’m looking at you Final Fantasy and Resident Evil.
All of the variety in this game, but after over a dozen hours I ended up feeling the way I typically do with fighting games. Like I wish there was more meat on these bones. If this game ends up being a 40 hours affair for me, it will be in drips and drops over the next year or more. Not all at once. The Koin collecting seems artificially slow to encourage purchasing, the skins, and characters and features that roll out over the next six months will be greatly reduced in price by Christmas, and this game will be just as enjoyable, more complete, and a better value for your money in what feels like just a little while.
If you’re like me, and itching for the chance to freeze Scorpions ass again after not getting to for years, go out and get Mortal Kombat X. If you’re as patient as Master Raiden, you’ll get more if you can wait. I've included a video of one of my favorite challenges yet in Mortal Kombat X, where the Living Towers had a Mortal Kombat One challenge that asked me to square off against all the original fighters from the beginning of the series that are in this game too. It's a great example of something I probably wouldn't have enjoyed if I had to do in with a Super Nintendo on a 4:3 ratio screen and non HD graphics with a slow fighting system and sprite based cartoon animations, but created something better than nostalgia. Which is just about the best thing you could ask for.
Mortal Kombat X was reviewed with a retail copy of the game purchased on the Xbox Live store.