'Mortal Kombat' Feels Both Modern and Classic

Arun Subramanian

The reality is that as a whole, Mortal Kombat makes very few missteps.

Mortal Kombat

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Studio
Players: 1-4
Price: $59.99
Platform: 360, PS3 (Reviewed)
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Release Date: 04/19/2011

While the original Mortal Kombat made waves with an extreme level of violence, it was never a very deep or balanced fighting game. Mortal Kombat 2 had a much more technical style, and was one of the most successful fighters at the peak of the arcade fighting game scene. But since then, the series has been largely unsuccessful, playing to die-hard fans of the mythology as opposed to being legitimately interesting fighting games. The 2011 reboot of the franchise, simply called Mortal Kombat, is a homerun in almost every way. While there are some idiosyncrasies to the Mortal Kombat way of doing things, it's easily one of the best fighters on the market. It should keep fighting fans, as well as those who simply have a good deal of nostalgia for the franchise, busy for some time to come.

The first thing Mortal Kombat does right is staying true to the series' 2D roots. Given how important jumping and projectiles are to the series, moving it to the third dimension never felt quite right. Players can dash by double-tapping, as opposed to a dedicated "run" button. Multiple fighting styles, both armed and unarmed, have been stripped away. The core group of characters is almost entirely from the first three games in the series.

It's clear that in addition to appealing to a new generation of players, a priority for NetherRealm was to lure back fans that haven't played an MK game for a while by giving them a fast, modern take on the game they remember. For example, some of the enhancements, like the super meter and the associated X-ray attacks, were certainly taken from other successful modern 2D fighters. However, it still feels a lot like an early 90s fighting game, particularly a Mortal Kombat one. For example, in a hallmark of the series, the AI is such that brutally difficult boss fights slowly move from being a sure loss to a 50/50 proposition if you know what attacks to spam.

Mortal Kombat comes with a sizable amount of single-player content. Smartly, much of it requires players to try out many different characters. The story mode is a retelling of the first three titles in the series, and plays from the perspective of a number of different combatants. The narrative isn't fantastic, but it's so far and away above anything seen in a fighter before that it's hard to fault it. The mode transitions smoothly from story section to fighting sequences and back, and this seamlessness is welcome. There's also a large "Challenge Tower" mode consisting of 300 tasks, each requiring the player to complete an objective as a particular fighter.

Some of these tasks are inconsequential, but many involve a traditional match with some manner of restriction. Perhaps special moves are not allowed, or blocking is prohibited for a certain amount of time. This serves as a great tool to get players accustomed not only to various characters and their abilities, but also to successful strategies in the face of particular kinds of opposition. What this means is that spending a good deal of time in the story and challenge modes will likely give players not only a few favorite characters, but also some basic tactics with them.

Even with a large single-player component, fighting games live and die by their multiplayer experience, and in this day and age that means online. Mortal Kombat does a good, but not great, job in this department. Unless you connect to a lobby and challenge a player manually, having the system find a match for you seems somewhat slow. Forums are littered with posts complaining of lag, and while it's not as prevalent as it's being made out to be, it is a real issue. Lag is an issue for any fighter, but this is particularly true for a game as twitchy and feint heavy as Mortal Kombat. The tag team mode is somewhat fun, but Capcom and Namco have given us better implementations.

The most welcome mode is "King of the Hill", which is as close to having a small lobby of players, putting virtual quarters up on an arcade screen, as Mortal Kombat gets. This mode can be hit or miss. NetherRealms is really pushing the notion of interactivity while you're not fighting, and to that end, the people in the lobby are represented by avatars that can cheer or boo at the press of a button, while watching the match take place as though it's on a theater screen. However, with full voice support, and the ability to smack talk and interact with other players that way, it's difficult to argue that having avatars on the bottom of the screen really adds a great deal. In fact, if you prefer to watch the matches in full screen, you'll find yourself toggling the view constantly, because there doesn't seem to be a way to set a global preference to switch to that view when the fight begins, and the theater view is automatic between fights.

That said, at the end of a match, all players in the lobby, including the loser of the most recent match, are able to offer "respect points" on a scale of 1-10 to the winner. This is a fantastic addition that allows the entire group to quickly voice either their enthusiasm or disdain for the method of victory. While the cheering and booing of avatars is clearly an effort to recreate the magic of being in an arcade, waiting for your turn against the reigning champion, the holding up of score cards has no corollary in the arcade experience, and feels like a fresh idea.

The reality is that as a whole, Mortal Kombat makes very few missteps. At present time, it appears to have a good deal of depth, a notion that will be tested by the competitive fighting game community as time passes. It feels both modern and classic. It's a much more straightforward fighting experience than the recently released Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 and as such seems as though it may have more widespread appeal. Mortal Kombat is the strongest entry yet in the long running series. It undoubtedly signals something of a new beginning for the franchise, and both casual and hardcore fans can easily find something to like in it.

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