Mortal Kombat Review – Year Of The Dragon

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Not only the best MK game to date, but also one of the best fighting games of all time

Almost 2 decades after Mortal Kombat first fought its way on to the arcade scene Ed Boon’s classic fighting game franchise has returned to its roots, both thematically and in terms of relevance. Back in the mid-90’s it was truly MK-Mania as both kids and adults alike couldn’t get enough of this revolutionary new fighter. The series became known (and loved) for its unprecedented gore and vulgar Fatalities; however underneath all of the bloodshed was a surprisingly in-depth game which managed to sit comfortably alongside the likes of Street Fighter II.  Looking back, MK1 has not aged very well but like many true classics both MK II and 3 are still highly playable today. For most MK fans those first three games define the series, they signify a time before the roster became diluted with useless additions and the story became too convoluted to follow. Knowing this, the folks at the recently rebranded NetherRealm Studios have effectively erased the last 14 years of lure from existence, rebooting the story and reverting back to 2D gameplay in the process. The result is not only the best MK game to date, but also one of the best fighting games of all time. Mortal Kombat (or “MK9” as I’ll refer to it for the rest of this review) has made the series “cool” once more, meaning you can once again feel proud to raise both arms and scream “MORTAL KOMBAT!” at the top of your lungs!

Stories in fighting games have always been nothing more than a reward for beating the last boss in the single player game. 2009’s Mortal Kombat vs. DC attempted to buck this trend by incorporating an expansive story campaign completely separate from the Arcade mode. Unfortunately watching Scorpion trade lines and then blows with The Joker wasn’t as compelling as one might imagine and MKvsDC’s story ultimately fell flat. For MK9, Boon and his team chose to focus on narrative points that fans actually care about while adding a few twists and turns along the way. The game initially picks up after the events of Armageddon, where Shao Kahn was finally managed to claim victory against a torn apart Raiden. However just moments before his untimely demise the Thunder God telepathically sends a cryptic message back to his former self warning him of his dark fate. Its then up to past-Raiden to both decipher this message and stop the future from happening. The time travel element has allowed NetherRealm to re-tell the events of MK 1 through 3 and re-establish a new base ground for the series going forward. The premise is certainly interesting and thanks in-part to the games impeccable presentation, MK9’s lengthy story mode succeeds. The transitions from the cutscenes to gameplay are the best I’ve seen since Metal Gear Solid 4 with all loading times hidden in the background while you’re squarely focused on the narrative.

The Story mode is broken up in to 16 chapters and will last roughly 8 hours. It’s a completely linear experience meaning your character, opponent and the match stipulations are all predetermined beforehand but the story excels because of this. The amount of polish and fan service that NetherRealms has put in the story mode is staggering. If you’re well versed in MK’s mythology watching certain events unfold differently in this alternative reality will keep you on the gripped right up until the very end. If you’re new to the series, or unfamiliar with the fiction I’ll give you a quick crash course. Evil Emperor Shao Kahn isn’t contempt with just ruling the Outworld, like all baddies he has plans to take over the world too. Thunder God Raiden has been tasked with protecting Earthrealm again Shao Kahn and his representative Shang Tsung but rather than settle this debate over a Skype conference call, the fate of the world is instead decided with a fighting tournament which apparently is an age old tradition. Sure this whole setup is just an elaborate excuse to get people beating the crap out of each other but it works! For years the Mortal Kombat team have been trying to deliver a cinematic, story-driven tale and finally the fruits of their labour have paid off.

King Of The Hill mode successfully rekindles the joys of participating in an arcade tournament

Alongside the games Story campaign is Arcade mode which provides your standard ladder climbing affair. As expected your reward for emerging victorious is a character specific ending which expands on your chosen Kombatant’s fiction. Even more interesting is the game’s Challenge Tower which tasks you to complete a series of 300 challenges each with their own specified win conditions. If you enjoy these stipulation based fights then you’ll love MK9’s all-new Test Your Luck mode which is often hilarious! Before each bout a slot wheel appears on screen to determine the conditions for each fight. Depending on your luck you may have to engage in a head-less brawl where  the screen is flipped upside down and fighter shoot arms! Test Your ‘Might’ ‘Sight’ and ‘Strike’ modes are also present but I’ll let you discover those for yourself. Also new allows to the series are Tag Team match-ups which allow up to four players to participate in the same fight. I personally can’t see myself choosing this mode very often but it’s still a neat addition that adds an interesting new gameplay dynamic.

As with all fighting games, MK9 is best served with a buddy beside you who is willing to join in on the festivities. The game supports both on and offline multiplayer but the latter is recommended due to connection issues which are present whilst playing online. However unless you’re lucky enough to live with a similarly skilled opponent, playing over the internet is far more practical. Like MKvsDC, MK9 uses a lobby system to host online matches which allows you to create chatrooms for each session. Once you’ve created (and named) your room each of your friends can locate it simply by conducting a search. The real highlight of MK’s online experience is the King Of The Hill mode which successfully rekindles the joys of participating in a “win stays on” arcade tournament. Up to 8 players can join King Of The Hill with each person being represented by either their Live Avatar (Xbox 360) or a super stylized MK character (PS3). 2 people fight at a time while all others watch from the sidelines. During the match all spectators can express their feeling about the fight by selecting from a list of emotes, before rating the winner’s performance on a 10-point scale once the match is over. The loser is then forced to back of the pack with his/her tail between their legs while the winner goes on to face the next person in line.

MK9 features the best and most brutal finishers in the series to date

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about MK’s story and modes but none of those things would be worth a damn if the actual fighting part wasn’t very good. Street Fighter IV originally set the benchmark for current-gen fighters and now MK9 has raised the bar to all new heights. The fighting system is essentially MKvsDC but on a 2D plane and with all the gimmicky things such as Free Falls and Rage mode removed. In its place is a Street Fighter-esque meter which fills up as you incur damage and perform special moves. The meter is divided up in to three parts and only drains once you use it. Filling a third of your it allows you to perform an ‘Enhanced’ special move, so instead of simply throwing a spear Scorpion can throw two flaming ones! Filling two thirds of the meter allows you to break out of any combo, which can often mean the difference between life and death. And finally, filling up your entire meter allows you to issue a devastating X-Ray move which are almost as brutal as a fatalities. Squeezing both triggers activates your X-Ray move and if successfully landed the camera will zoom in to give you a shot of your opponent’s internals as you viciously shatter bones in their body and destroy vital organs. It truly is horrifying but in a good way!

High-level MK9 play is often very combo-based and reliant on air juggles. Discovering new combos as you randomly follow strikes with special moves is a huge part of the games of appeal as you constantly feel a sense of accomplishment and growth as a player. Hardcore fighting game enthuses will probably argue that MK9 isn’t “tournament level” and therefore not worthy of this much praise but the majority of gamers will appreciate it for what it is. The games methodical pace, four-button fight system, easily to pull-off specials and the introduction of what has been dubbed the ‘X-Ray meter’ pushes MK ahead of the competition, and the signature Fatality moves are the icing on the cake. MK9 features the best and most brutal finishers in the series to date. It has been several years since Mortal Kombat had Fatalities worth talking about and NetherRealm has certainly made up for their absence. Many of the fighting arenas also allow for Stage Fatalities and these rarely disappoint either. Learning the way your opponent fights is almost as important as learning your own characters moves, and the diversity between each of the characters is phenomenal. Become a true MK Master will take a tremendous amount of time and effort but you’ll enjoy hours of fun while trying.

Speaking of characters, MK9 features almost every fighter from the first three games plus Quan Chi who was first introduced in MK4. There is a total of 28 fighters to chose from or 29 in the PS3 version thanks to the inclusion of Kratos. It has been confirmed that more Kombatants will join the fight via DLC but as it stands MK’s line-up is rock solid. Goro and Shoa Kahn once again appear as un-playable boss characters and both are as frustratingly cheap as each other! Boss battles have always been a major weakpoint in fighting games and unfortunately that tradition lives on through MK9. PS3 owners were naturally excited about The God Of War’s appearance in the game and rightfully so. Kratos can deflect projectiles, dash using the Boots of Hermes, launch enemies high in the air, fire arrows with Apollo’s bow, stun opponents the Head Of Helios and even pull out Nemean Cestus and the Blade Of Olympus respectively for his X-Ray move and Fatality. I, along with many fans, was initially worried that Kratos would be overpowered making him a pain to fight against but I was pleased to discover that isn’t the case. Although extremely powerful, Kratos is very top heavy and moves rather slowly. Pit him against snappy characters such as Scorpion or Kung Lao and the God Of War just might find himself on the receiving end of ass-whooping!

The MK team have been known to cram secrets in to every crevice of their games and MK9 is no different. Most unlockables are unearthed by collecting Koins in the single player game and spending them in the game’s Krypt. If you’re a completionist you’ll find yourself playing this game for a very long time as you painstakingly attempt to discover the inputs for Kabal’s second fatality or hidden emotes for your Kings Of The Kill avatar. The advent of Patches and DLC gives NetherRealm the opportunity to continually throw in unexpected extras and I hope they jump the chance. Tutorials are also a major component in MK9 and as well as the standard Practice mode (for both regular and tag) there is a brief tutorial which shows you how to do all the basics but also teaches you a some advanced techniques. A Fatality tutorial has also been included which is a god-send for novice players. This tutorial not only displays the commands for each fatality, it also highlights the area you should be standing in and gives you an infinite amount of time to get it right. Unsure of what “sweep distance” is, or how to press “up” without jumping? Simply visit the Fatality Tutorial and start practicing!

Also exclusive to the PS3 version is stereoscopic 3D support and “holy crap” it looks good!

Graphically MK9 is gorgeous! The gritty aesthetics, exciting fight arena, super sharp character models and realistic gore effects all work in conjunction to produce the best looking fighting game ever! The graphics add an extra punch to the combat and makes it even more satisfying to see small intestines or brain matter spewing out of a downed opponent. There are a few oddities such as Smoke’s inexplicable hair and Reptile’s… reptileness… but for the most part MK9 looks stunning. The audio design is also top notch, particularly if you have the right sound system. Hearing bones shatter as Kano slams a blade in to someone’s poor thigh or the “crunch” as Styker breaks his opponents jaw with his nightstick is intense! The fully voiced story mode is also appreciated as each character (with the exception of Lui Kang) sounds great! On the downside, I wasn’t not too fond of the fight announcer who sounds a little drowsy but that’s a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.  Also exclusive to the PS3 version is stereoscopic 3D support and “holy crap” it looks good! The characters themselves aren’t 3D but the extra layer of depth makes the backgrounds and foreground objects look even better. I honestly had to move my head the first time I saw Kung Lou’s hat come hurling towards the screen, and even those who aren’t wearing glasses won’t have a problem keeping up with the action. Unfortunately the story mode cutscenes are all 2D which is a shame but again, that’s a small price to pay.

All in all, Mortal Kombat is exceptional fighter which offers more content and hidden extras than any other fighter on the market. This is the best Mortal Kombat game I could have hoped for although no online Test Your Luck and difficulty spikes during the Story and Challenge Tower modes hurts the overall experience. There is enough single player content to keep you busy for at least 20 hours and the all new King Of The Hill mode dramatically shakes up online play. After 20 years of trying, Mortal Kombat has finally won a round against the Street Fighter series. It’s not quite a flawless victory but MK9 is still a masterpiece.

This review was based on a purchased copy of the game for the PS3.

Mortal Kombat
  • Story
  • Graphics
  • Gameplay
  • Sound
  • Value
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