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Mortal Kombat Review (360/PS3)

Imagine you won a ticket to go to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, but you weren’t that into chocolate. When you got there you would be nonplussed by the river of chocolate. “M’eh”, you would say, as you admitted that the chocolate river was technically impressive and certainly a miracle of cocoa aqueduct-ery, but was not something you desired to consume.

As you explored the factory further though, you would find things beyond chocolate to excite you. Fizzy drinks that made you fly, edible wallpaper and everlasting gob stoppers would all conspire to convince you that maybe this factory was one of the greatest factories in the world, even if you weren’t bothered with the chocolate. Then, as you prepared to leave, you decided to try the chocolate and realised that you actually had changed your mind and were now an avowed chocoholic.

Where am I going with this overlong metaphor? Well I think I am trying to depict what I felt as a lifelong Streetfighter fan realising how wonderful the newest Mortal Kombat game is, and maybe realising how good the core game has been all along. I came into the newest MK enticed by all of the story elements, extras, bonuses and minigames, but in the end it’s the rock solid Mortal Kombat gameplay – that I had never a fan of – that won me over.

The first and most obvious thing about this game is that it is a “big package”. In much the same way as something like Black Ops, this is a game that’s so packed full of features and modes that it’s hard to believe they managed to squeeze it all on to a single disc, Blu-Ray or otherwise. From basic story mode to singeplayer ladders, challenges, mini games, galleries, theatres and copious unlocks and secrets, this is a game so packed full of “stuff” that from the first moment you appreciate just how important this title is to everyone involved. Make no mistake, Mortal Kombat opens as confidently as Johnny Cage arriving at a party and proclaiming to the room, “I don’t know how to say this, but I’m kind of a big deal”.

And it’s the arrogant movie star that convinced me early on of the quality and high standard of writing that has gone into the story. Yes, I said high quality of writing in relation to a fighting game story. Johnny’s characterisation as a wise cracking, oblivious douche bag who nonetheless remains likeable throughout – despite having the word “Johnny” tattooed across his chest – is testament to how self aware the storyline is. Despite the knowing humour, Mortal Kombat never mocks or patronises its fans. The storyline may have a good deal of levity, but the dramatic story points respect the source material and the fans. The end result is a finely balanced tale of time travel, sibling rivalry, honour and revenge tinged with humour, drama and outright brutality. It manages to be both sincere and self aware, and for fans of the series it must be an absolute dream come true.

The structure of the storyline should be a lesson that Capcom, and all other developers of fighting games, should look at closely and rip off shamelessly. While MK does offer the standard ladder with individual endings for each character, it’s the structure of the story mode that truly impresses. Set in an alternate timeline where a defeated Raiden sends a message back through time to his past self, the story takes place in the familiar world of the first Mortal Kombat game. As the mistakes of the past must be avoided though, Raiden guides events to turn out differently. Structurally, this means that cut scenes play out framing the narrative before fights take place with the player using different characters at different times. For example, early on you play as Johnny Cage, fighting against Sonya Blade as he makes a pass at her and she tries to prove she’s as tough as the boys. Immediately following this, Kano arrives seeking to finish Sonya off while she’s weakened. You arrive as Johnny once again to save the day. Although one of the clumsier examples, these scene setting interludes drive forward a decent story and epic battles such as Scorpion’s underground battle with his nemesis Sub Zero are fantastically epic despite being pure fan service. At other times the storyline allows special conditions to be put on a match, such as having to defeat a tag team of both Mileena and Kitana.

This tag mode is also playable outwith the story mode and works in a similar way to Marvel Vs Capcom. It’s well implemented with subtle interplay between the chosen tag team and significant complexity involved in the assist moves. While much of it was too much to take in for me as a beginner, it would surely add a great deal of depth for hardened players and rather than being a last minute addition, it seems a lot of work has been put into making it balanced and fun.

The character roster is large and most of the fan favourites are present in one form or another. The amount of unlocks is staggering with “The Krpyt” being the designated area to go and unlock content. Based on performance in matches and challenges, the player can navigate this virtual graveyard and unlock everything from extra moves to the God of War himself. The feeling of constant achievement and reward given to the player as they complete challenges and win matches to unlock new items in this area is just one more great feature that you can’t believe has never been done in other fighting games before.

The challenges themselves come in a variety of forms. From silly mini games involving guessing which head the eyeball is under, to the classic block breaking minigames of the original, there’s so much to do. A lot of it is novelty content, but it’s still nice to have it. The most amusing of them is the Test Your Luck mode, where a number of unfortunate effects can strike your character. For example, you can be forced to fight without any arms. Such black humour is present throughout the game and makes you realise how much the developers must love Monte Python.

And all of these features are mere side salad to the actual meat of the game…. and the meat is bloody brilliant.

The “feel” of a good fighting game is an ethereal thing, hard to define and impossible to describe. The closest I can get is to say that this version of MK is brutally, crunchingly satisfying. Every single move looks like it hurts and you are never unsure of when your on screen avatar is being hit. Every hit is well animated and satisfying. In particular, the games X-Ray moves – MK’s version of supers or ultras – need to be seen to be believed. While some are better than others, the best ones can make you physically wince as bones are crunched, spines are shattered and skulls are obliterated. The deformed character models that continue to fight despite having their eyeballs knocked loose from their skulls almost cross the line between brutal comic violence to Troma movie-level sickness.

The gameplay balance seems good. Slower than many games, there’s a feeling of approachability throughout and although better players can execute damaging juggle-combos, the difficulty curve is reasonable even for players completely new to fighting games. It shouldn’t take too long for novices to learn a few tricks and combos and become competitive. Ironically, it may be hardcore fighting fans that have the most difficulty adjusting as the gameplay is superficially similar to something like SF4, but functionally, completely different. I’ve heard that MK players will find the combat closest in feel to MK3, but it’s been a long time since I played any of those games so couldn’t comment.

Most interesting from a competitive point of view is how tweaks to character balance are made. As well as a designated combo breaking move (which consumes some meter), there is also online character balancing active in the game which doesn’t require new downloads to be updated. Interviews with the developer suggest this is done to ensure special moves are toned down if too effective and infinite combos are eliminated. It is apparently invisible to the player, and it will be interesting to see if this works, and if it changes the game noticeably down the line.

Multiplayer has been a mixed bag so far. While many of my matches have been lag free, others have degraded significantly as the game progressed. Certainly no worse than any other fighting game, it’s not clear how well the game will cope as its official release day comes. It’s encouraging though that from the start quitters are punished in ranked matches.

Beyond the basic ranked and player matches there are many options to play around with in multiplayer. Lobbies are handled well and shouting at the two fighters from the virtual audience is great fun. If the net code holds up, this will be a game people play for a long time to come.

Taking a step back from this release, you wonder what an MK fan would want in a new game that Ed Boon and his team haven’t already included. They seem to know the audience so well and have set such high standards for themselves that it’s hard to see how anyone but the most harsh critic could find anything to complain about. Beyond satisfying those hardcore fans, they have managed to create a brilliant game for even those who actively dislike the series. From detailed tutorials on how to achieve the brilliantly inventive fatalities to a great story mode, they have created a game as inviting as a fighting game can be. Without compromising on depth or complexity, they still have managed to craft a game anyone can enjoy. If a fighting game renaissance is possible, it will be Mortal Kombat – not Street Fighter – that brings it about.

10 crushed, bleeding, glorious spleens out of 10

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