Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox one, PS3 and PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Netherealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros.
The Mortal Kombat franchise may have gone veering wildly into the Woods of Crappiness for a while there but Netherealm finally brought the fighter back onto the right path with Mortal Kombat 9, a blisteringly fun game that I utterly adored. It wasn’t the most technically challenging fighter, hence it not really appearing much on the tournament scene, but I’d take it over the Street Fighter series any day of the week, favoring the quicker pace, brutal combat and Netherealms commitment to never taking itself too seriously. Now Mortal Kombat X is here and while it doesn’t do anything truly new to reinvigorate the genre it does improve on its predecessor in many ways while retaining everything that has ever made the series legendary.
Violence, that’s what makes Mortal Kombat. This is a game where you can punch a man so hard in the bollox that his head explodes. This is a game where you can get several of your internal organs turned to mush, bones broken and eyeballs ripped out, and then carry on like nothing ever happened. Characters will get spears hurled through their eyes, their neck broken and organs exploded, and still keep fighting. This is a game where you can literally melt the opponent in a puddle of acid, chop off heads, shove a persons arms into their torso so far that only their hands are visible, rip people clean in half after freezing their chest and pull out a spine through somebody’s throat using a razor whip. It’s absolutely absurd, and the fast pace of the matches always ensures that there’s never a moment of non-violence. Street Fighter might have the technical chops that make it a favorite among the hardcore, and deservedly so, but Mortal Kombat has the bloody personality. And you know what? Mortal Kombat X has some chops, too.
The plot takes place 25-years after the events of the previous Mortal Kombat, and in that time our favorite characters have gotten, well, older. The fallen Elder God Shinnok, a familiar name to Mortal Kombat veterans, is threatening to return with the help of sorcerer Quan-Chi and generally just make life a misery for everyone, and of course it’s up to Raiden and his band of Earth-realm warriors to stop them, dealing with the new Outworld ruler in the process, Kotal Kahn. Interestingly enough the traditional tournament has been ditched entirely in order to drive the plot a little better. Leaps back in time serve to fill in chunks of the plot, but primarily provide the backstory for the new additions to the roster, a roster which includes several sons and daughters of existing Mortal Kombat characters like Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade, and Kenshi, potentially hinting at Netherealms slowly abandoning the old guard in favor of a new group of warriors. But hey, at least a bunch of the old guard also make appearances, sometimes just as a cameo and other times as an opponent, including the likes of Smoke, Rain, Baraka and Frost.
The story is absolutely awesome, in the sense that it’s utterly terrible on every traditional level. The dialogue is hokey and often cringe-worthy while the voice acting is something of a mixed bag, occasionally managing to impress but more often coming across as poor, although to be fair to the actors it’s hard to make such awkward dialogue sound good. As for the actual plot it barely makes any sense, and characters drop into fights for paper-thin reasons, although it’s not quite as bad as MK9 where people would beat each other up for breathing the wrong way. Every scene plays out largely the same: somebody appears, often purely because of plot convenience, there’s a few lines of dialogue and then WHAM! You’re into a fight. As soon as that is over somebody else just appears for seemingly no reason, there’s a couple more lines of dialogue and BAM! Fight. It’s so poorly put together, every chapter following the same beats. And it’s utterly glorious. The story in Mortal Kombat X is the kind that you have to fully embrace, simply allowing your mind to float along the madness. It contains brilliantly choreographed fight-scenes, and has a cheesiness that makes it hugely entertaining. The characters, for all their iffy voice acting and dodgy writing, are strangely compelling, perhaps because in my case I’ve been with many of them for so long. Netherealm have smartly used the 25-year gap to develop the personalities of long-time Mortal Kombat characters, like Johnny Cage who has somewhat mellowed out and become a more responsible person, although he still retains his arrogance and cheesiness. None of it is terribly subtle character development, except in the context of Mortal Kombat itself where. Consider what has come before and this is a masterclass in writing, and its nice to finally connect with the characters as…well, people. In short if you’re generally unable to deal with even light cheesiness or aren’t a fan of the series it might be best to simply steer clear of Mortal Kombat X’s 6-8 hour campaign mode and focus your efforts elsewhere.
Like on mastering the ancient art of beating the crap out of the enemy. Not a lot has changed when it comes to the basics of Mortal Kombat, and indeed series veterans can leap in with a character like Sub-Zero or Scorpion and begin executing most of the special moves without even batting an eyelash. This is still a fast-paced fighter with emphasis on the brutality of it all rather than the more considered back and forth of something like the Street Fighter or Tekken games. Newcomers to the fighting genre can jump in and learn the basics quickly enough, the flashy and fast combat creating a satisfying feedback loop, while the window for the infamous Fatalities is larger than ever, so almost everyone can end a fight with a grisly death sequence which are now portrayed in more beautiful graphical detail than ever. X-ray moves make a welcome return as well. For those not in the know these special moves give you an X-ray view of opponents bones, muscle and internal organs being shattered, exploded and stabbed during a canned animation sequence. These go along with the very tricky to execute Brutalities which will likely be rarely seen given that the methods for executing them are largely impractical in a balanced fight. However, don’t be surprised to see at least a few highly talented players use them online when abusing a new player who is still struggling with the basic foundations of combat.
The roster spans an impressive 24-characters, with eight of them being entirely new to the series. These new fighters are an interesting mix; some, like Cassie Cage, who is the daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade, feel a tad too familiar. It has to be said, though, that if you loved Cage and Blade’s fighting styles then that mixture might sound awfully tempting. Other new fighters, though, offer up some cool new takes, like Kotal Kahn who can lay down beacons that give him powerful buffs. Returning warriors include the likes of Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Raiden, Jax, Reptile, Liu Kang, Kano and many more. On top of new and returning characters every combatant now comes packing three distinctive fighting styles that players can select from before a match begins, altering the available moveset by introducing new attacks, combos and powers. These different styles don’t completely alter a warrior’s core moveset and values, but it does vastly increase the wealth of tactics on offer and makes fully mastering a fighter a much harder challenge. Being good with Scorpion and his Ninjitsu style merely means being good with one-third of a character. One style may lend itself to more ranged play, for example, while another could further emphasis a character’s close-range power. Sub-Zero has one style which grants him the ability to summon up weapons of ice, augmenting his combos with deadly blades that increase range and damage while also giving him a special move where he slams the opponent with a hefty ice hammer. Another style gives him an ice clone that can be tossed at the opponent or used as a defense, while the third style allows for the summoning of an ice aura and a shield for more defensive play. These styles bring a fascinating new dynamic to fights that allows for some and add a new layer of strategy to Mortal Kombat which is more than welcome
Underneath the accessible exterior, then, lies a surprisingly deep game with plenty of nuances to master. Every character has a solid armory of special moves and canned combos to learn, but you can also craft custom combos by tying together existing moves, combos and X-ray attacks to create new chains. Toss in style variations that alter combo potential via new regular and special attacks and you’ve got a lot of information to take onboard, thus if you really want to compete with the big boys online spending time in the practice room is a must. The pause button helpfully offers up a panel detail how to pull of combos and special moves, and also includes other information like frame data. Meanwhile down at the bottom of the screen there’s a meter which contains three segments. By expending one segment you can launch an enhanced version of an attack, dealing more damage and also potentially allowing for new combos, while sacrificing two segments lets you break an opponents combo, a tactic you’ll need to be familiar with as a talented player can make mincemeat of your health bar in just one long attack. At the cost of all three segments you can unleash an X-ray move. Mortal Kombat X It isn’t as complex or difficult to learn as Street Fighter IV or even some of the BlazBlue games, but it does strike a nice balance between being accessible for new players and also deep enough to interest the hardcore fighting veterans. Sure, they’ll likely move back to Capcom’s offering after a few weeks or months, but I’m willing to bet a lot of money that they’ll have a freaking blast during their stay.
The combat also gets a boost from vastly more fluid animations, which are in turn a byproduct of the overall graphical overhaul the game has gotten. If you’ve got the hardware then MKx is a rather lovely looking game featuring some impressive character detail and beautiful locales to fight in. Speaking of the locales environment interaction is included, albeit in relatively limited form. Each arena tends to have roughly the same interactions, like being able to use a piece of the scenery to quickly move around or a weapon that can be used to dish out damage, including my favorite example; throwing an old lady at the opponent. It’s just a shame that arena transitions from Netherealm’s last project, the excellent Injustice: Gods Among Us, didn’t make the cut, and that Stage Fatalities have also seemingly been abandoned for no reason. Special mention has to be made of some of the game’s more impressive little details, including how warriors become sweatier as fights go on and how they react on the character select screen. Supporting the often gorgeous graphics is impressive sound design, primarily when it comes to impact. Punches to the face, kicks to the stomach, organs exploding and bones breaking are all delivered with gusto, making the act of combat feel that much more satisfying. I’d have to say that Mortal Kombat has no competitor when it comes to making attacks sound painful. Also, loving the few lines of dialogue at the beginning of the match which has been written specifically for every possible opponent combination.
Outside of the story and single fights there’s some other singleplayer content to be found. Test your Might is a button-mashing festival and frankly not all that interesting. Test your Luck battles throw you into a single match with one or more random modifiers, including bombs being tossed onto the stage and a one where the entire area rocks back and forth and whomever is on the highest point takes a small amount of damage. Living Towers are where you can also find a lot of replay, a mode born of previous Challenge Towers and throwing in the aforementioned modifiers for good measure.. There’s three towers that refresh every hour, every day and every week respectively, offering up new challenges each time, plus there’s also the classic arcade-style towers, too, for anyone wanting a simple series of 1v1 battles. Both the Towers and Test your Luck struggled to keep me coming back, it has to be said, but doubtless there will be a lot of players who find them a compelling reason to keep loading the game up.
The Krypt makes a welcome return and comes packing an upgrade that turns it into something resembling a little dungeon delver in its own right, albeit a very simplistic one. In the Krypt you can spend coins earned throughout the rest of the game to smash open tombs and gravestones, revealing rewards like concept art, alternate costumes, secondary Fatalities and more. This time you move around the Krypt in first-person, each tap of the key sending you forward a certain amount. In MK9 the Krypt was just a giant grid, but this time around its laid out like a little adventure game. You can turn and venture down paths that lead to new areas, and discovery certain items that let you progress further and further into environment. Not exactly a deep game within a game, but it’s a neat little distraction nonetheless. How much enjoyment you’ll get out of mostly depends on how much of a Mortal Kombat fan you are; the vast majority of stuff is either little tokens that let you skip a fight or perform an easy Fatality, or its concept art, music and such, and thus for some people won’t feel like a very substantial reward for their time. Thankfully coins aren’t very hard to come by.
Once you feel like you’ve gotten to grips with at least a few characters you can head online and test your mettle against real people from around the world. Netcode in fighting games is always massively important, and worrying there doesn’t seem to be any notable improvement over MK 9’s systems, which is to say that it’s not bad, but it isn’t great, either. Some matches are great, and others simply are not, and in those instances it’s often best just to call it quits as dragging yourself and your opponent through a fight where the netcode just isn’t playing ball is a drag. Of course at least some of these dud matches are a result of a poor Internet connection somewhere, too. I’d say about 75% of my matches were solid. When you do get a good match unhampered by problems, though, Mortal Kombat X shines online. There’s just something so intense about fighting games because you aren’t just one member of a team, you’re own your own against one opponent, skill vs skill. Some of my favorite moments of these year are now due to battling one of my closest friends online, trading victories and revelling in every new trick learnt.
Online game modes include the standard one on one battles, but sadly tag-team mode hasn’t made the cut. But really the star of the show is King of the Hill, where you and sever other potential winners or victims enter a room. Whoever wins the first fight stays on top, and must battle opponent after opponent until someone topples the King, and then takes their place. It might sound boring for the players who have to simply wait their turn to enter the fray, but you can can sit and chat to other players, watch the fights live and hopefully pick up some new things to try, and even hit up practice mode while you wait. Also worth checking out is the 3v3 and 5v5 modes, which as the name suggests is pits a team of three or five people against a team of equal number, the team with the most victories claiming the overall win.
Tentatively tying both the singleplayer and multiplayer aspects of the game together is the new Faction system, an interesting if limited concept. As soon as you start the game you’ll be prompted to ally yourself with one of five different factions, ranging from the Lin Kuei to the Special Forces but oddly missing Scorpion’s Shirai Ryu clan, and from then on everything you do, be it singleplayer or multiplayer, earns points that are added to your Faction’s pool. At the end of the week all the points are added up and a winner is declared. Beating the other Factions earns rewards, and special events pop up from time to time, including Invasions where you need to fight a specially powered up boss character. You even get special Faction Fatilities to bring out during a fight. Here’s the thing, though: while it’s nice to feel like a part of some larger war, it’s also incredibly easy to completely forget about the system. I’d like to see the developers expand on the system, like how about issuing a multiplayer bounty on one of an opposing Faction’s top fighters, challenging you with taking them down in a head to head fight for big points? The other problem is one of balance: everybody and their dog is currently allied with the Lin Kuei clan, because of Sub-Zero. Right now it’s a popularity contest and the Lin Kuei are dominating in embarrassing fashion. There’s no balancing going on to try to keep things vaguely balanced.. People can change allegiance, but doing so loses you all progress so there’s not exactly any reason to jump ship, especially with the promise of rewards for the winning faction. Maybe we need some way of betraying our chosen Faction, perhaps stealing some points away from them and giving them over to our new allies. There just needs to be something to encourage players to opt for anything but Sub-Zero. Hell, get Scorpion up there as one of the Faction headers. That’ll get people joining, at least.
On the PC version of the game raw performance is somewhat patchy. Ignoring the irritating day-one issues which left people with huge swathes of the game missing entirely there are some framerate issues to deal with, at least when using my own admittedly modest setup. Most of the time the game ran fine at max settings and a 1080p resolution at 50-60fps, but during some fights the framerate would tank to the 25-30fps range with some sharp downward spikes that made the experience less than satisfactory. These issues seemed to be because of the arena, as the framerate would consistently drop in those specific battlegrounds. There’a also a baffling problem where attempting to access the controller menu crashes the game. Seriously? I’m also not a fan of how in-game Fatalities and X-ray moves are capped at 30fps, a jarring drop when the rest of the fight has been running at a lovely 60fps. My assumption is the cap is in place because of the extra demands on hardware that such moves make, since they have to show muscle, bones and more being turned into mincemeat. Hopefully a patch will unlock the framerate so we can get a more consistent experience across the board.
There’s also the thorny issue of DLC and microtransactions that gained the game so much infamy prior to release, including the slap to the face of the fans that was opting to place the iconic character Goro as a pre-order bonus that can now also be bought in the store. The problem of being able to purchase easy Fatality tokens is less irritating, just because easy Fatalities have been in the series for years, though having the option to purchase them feels stupid considering that Fatalities are pretty easy to do. There’s other stuff too, but I’m going to keep it out of this review, because it’s a topic for another time.
Mortal Kombat X is not revolutionary or innovative, nor is it a particularly huge step above the previous installment, but it is the best Mortal Kombat game to date and one of the best fighting games on the market. And of course due to the currently limited selection it’s the single best fighting game available on current-gen consoles. It’s gratuitous, bloody-thirsty and wonderfully satisfying with enough going on in its mechanics to hopefully keep even hardened veterans interested for a little while. Thus far it stands as one of my favorite games of the year, although I do of course have to admit that the year is young. It’s not a flawless victory, but it is a Fatality.