Fighting games are like some sort of detox. After playing game after game where I’m living a power fantasy playing a fighting game can be a slap to the face, a reminder that I’m not as good as I think. One on one there are no excuses. Failure needs to be owned. Lessons must be learned. Inventive swear words must fill the air like so many angry, foul-mouthed bees. And my favourite fighting game series in history is Mortal Kombat. I’ve been playing them since Mortal Kombat 2, and now we’re up to the 11th numbered game in the series. For a while things were rough, but then NetherRealm made an epic comeback in 2011. Since then, Mortal Kombat has been better than ever. But Mortal Kombat 11…well, it’s a little trickier.
The Story & Characters
The story mode is lavishly made with detailed cutscenes, awesome fight sequences and even some strong voice acting in places, provided you don’t count the awkwardness that is Ronda Rousey voicing Sonya Blade. We open with Raiden having gone off the deep end. Determined to keep Earth Realm safe he’s now willing to go to any lengths to achieve that. Unhappy with the way things have gone a character by the name of Kronika pops up and starts messing with the timeline. Suddenly earlier versions of the Mortal Kombat cast start popping up. Young, cocky Johnny Cage is interact acting with his older, wiser self. Cassie Cage has to deal with meeting the earlier versions of her parents. It’s prime material for some klassic Mortal Kombat cheesiness.
Do be warned, though; if you can’t help but nit-pick stories then Mortal Kombat 11 might just drive you crazy. The thing that typically bothered me the most is how both heroes and villains would knock their deadly opponent’s out and then just leave them there. In a game that features incredibly violent killing animations, loads of blood and more violence than an average Saturday night in Glasgow it’s strange that so many lethal threats are left alive.
In short, there are a lot of plot holes involving the time -travelling shenanigans, but the story is surprisingly good fun. The only real complication is that keeping track of the Mortal Kombat timelines requires a college degree. This is the second sequel to the 2011 Mortal Kombat which served as a reboot for the series. Mortal Kombat X bumped the storyline along 25-years, thus introducing characters like Cassie Cage, the daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade. Throw in time travel and lots of references to prior games and you’ve got one confusing mixture.
Time travel also gives the developers an excuse to mix up their character roster. Old classics make a most welcome return, such as Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Noob Saibot, Liu Kang and Johnny Cage. Then there are the newer members like Cassie Cage and Erron Black. Finally, there are a selection of characters introduced in Mortal Kombat 11. There’s Geras, the hulking servant of Kronika, and Citrion, the daughter of Kronika who can wield the elements. It’s a good mix of characters, and the roster will only get expanded. But with that said, holding Shao Kahn back as a pre-order bonus was a dick move.
Fighting Mechanics & Changes
Look, I’m no expert at fighting games so this isn’t going to be a review that approaches the combat from a technical perspective. This is just going to be from the view of someone who likes punching virtual opponents in the face. On the surface this is still the typical Mortal Kombat experience where you dial combos and special moves and watch the blood fly. Hits feel impactful, the controls are responsive and the game looks fantastic.
Probably the most obvious change is that running has been ditched entirely, so the intense rushing of Mortal Kombat 10 is thankfully gone. Instead, its back to dashing, though players have already found an insane method using dashing that lets them hop across the screen in seconds. Despite the intense on-screen violence the pace actually feels more thoughtful and methodic.
Then there’s the inclusion of Krushing Blows, painful slow-motion moves that show of your opponent’s bones and organs being decimated. Every character has access to a few of these, but the way they’re triggered varies. Sometimes they need to be used as a counter, for example. Each one can only be used once in a fight, so to get the most out of them you need to vary attacks. I like these, because at first I didn’t even think about them and only occasionally hit one by accident, but over time knowing how and when to use them became more important.
Perhaps the most divisive tweak to the way fights play out are Fatal Blows. When your health is low a quick pull of both triggers activates a Fatal Blow, which is basically a super attack animation complete with spikes going through eyeballs, ice-axes being driven into chests and so much more gloriously over-the-top forms of violence. They’re fun the first time around, but after that the lengthy animations disrupt the flow of a fight and each character only has a single Fatal Blow animation. They can also just feel like a cheap way of balancing out fights, so that someone getting hammered can suddenly pull of an immensely damaging move. However, the wind up for a Fatal Blow does give the opponent a good amount of time to block. Plus, a Fatal Blow can only be used once per fight.
I have to say, though, that Fatal Blows in the story mode are hilarious. In the opening scenes you play as Cassie Cage and must battle her mother Sonya Blade to prove she is capable of leading a squad. Mid-way through the fight I activate Fatal Blow and suddenly loving daughter Cassie Cage proceeds to break Sonya’s jaw, put a bullet through each of her knees and then finish up with several rounds into her gut. Then the match ends and both people act like all they had was a demonstration bout. Only in Mortal Kombat.
There’s are also two new bars on the bottom left of the screen which fill up over time. The upward pointing bar can be spent to pull off defensive moves, like breaking out of a juggle combo before you take too much damage or useful wakeup moves. The bottom bar is dedicated to “amplifying” special moves by adding extra hits and increasing their damage. This is key to the game’s combo system and is usually how you can extend combos or get an opponent into the air for extra punishment. Both of these bars fill up over time, so there’s no need to hold back when using them.
Flawless Blocks add an extra layer for seasoned players to learn. By hitting a block at exactly the right moment instead of just holding it a player will take considerably less damage. More importantly, a Flawless Block allows for one of two powerful counter moves to be launched, the first of which launches the opponent into the air and thus opens up a lot of combo potential. Knowing exactly when these can be used, though, takes experience. I feel like this mechanic may be the most intriguing in high-level play.
Another big change are the customization moves. Every character has a core set of special moves available in every match, but you can now slot extra ones in. There are three slots, and some moves will take up two of those three. Sub-Zero can have his slide replaced by a shoulder barge, while Scorpion has a sweet whirling spear move.
To teach new players the way of Mortal Kombat and how to literally ram your fist up into someone skull via their jaw there’s an extensive and fucking awesome tutorial mode with individual lessons for each character. It’ll guide players through the basic moves and special moves, while also providing more complex stuff such as framedata. As a casual player I learned a lot through the tutorial, including how important frames actually are. I mean, I’m still crap at actually applying that information in fights, but at least I understand some of it now! NetherRealm have done a fantastic job here.
Fighting feels absolutely superb. It flows so nicely, there’s a good level of depth and the sheer spectacle is a blast. This might be the best a Mortal Kombat has played to date.
Outside of the story mode which takes around 6-8 hours to work through there are the classic arcade towers. By working through a series of fights with a character you can unlock their own custom ending. It’s a series’ staple and for good reason, adding a bunch of extra singleplayer content to an already quite well packed game.
Gear, Augments, The Krypt & Microtransactions In Mortal Kombat 11
The Krypt is like a Mortal Kombat theme park filled with cool stuff to find. Its set on Shang Tsung’s island from the very first Mortal Kombat and is filled with cool stuff to see. Its explored in third-person via a generic character and features a sort of Metroidvania style of progression where you gather items that allow you to unlock new areas. Kenshi’s Blindfold reveals walls that can be broken down, while Scorpion’s Spear can help unlock special chests. The entire island is packed with special chests that unlock skins, character art, new augments and gear. Exploring it was one of my favourite parts of Mortal Kombat 11, right down to finding a dining room modeled after the one in the Mortal Kombat movie.
But here’s where things start to go downhill a little. To unlock the chests within the Krypt you need to acquire the three different currencies; Koins, which, Soul Fragments and Hearts. These things are not easy to get, especially the last two. Unlocking one of the Shao Kahn chests, for example, costs a whopping 250 Hearts. Since I started this review updates have been put out which increase the rate at which things are earned. Now, a Fatality will earn three hearts while a Brutality will net you five. Even so, that’s a lot of matches to play before getting 250 Hearts.
The most efficient way of earning currency is to work through the Towers of Time, which is Mortal Kombat 11’s version of Injustice 2’s Multiverse. This mode has an even changing rotation of towers to tackle, a series of fights that offer up rewards in the form of gear, currency and other stuff. Each series of towers is typically themed around a particular character as well, so completing all of the towers in a series will usually mean getting some new gear for that character.
The premise of the Towers of Time is absolutely rock-solid. Just like Injustice 2 it’s a great way to keep players coming back to check out what towers have popped up. At launch the game had seemingly no understanding of how to balance difficulty in the towers. Opponents described as being “medium” would typically range from being pushovers to being God-like beings capable of decimating anyone who dared try to fight them. Since launch there have been a few updates that have smoothed this out considerably and now the experience is far more enjoyable.
Amplifying the challenge are the Modifiers. These add a range of things to fights, from parts of the floor being set alight to the A.I. being able to call in assistance from other fighters. Again, at launch these were horrendously balanced so that fights often had the A.I. using multiple modifiers. Worse, the modifiers charged at a much faster rate for the A.I. and so matches felt horribly unbalanced. Losing fights didn’t feel fair. But to their credit NetherRealm have responded well and toned down the modifiers to a more pleasing level.
Players get their own extra modifiers to play with as well, called Konsumables.. Mortal Kombat 11 hands out Konsumable items like freaking candy, each offering bonuses when used up before a fight. Stuff like Scorpion lending a hand or Reiko tossing in some shurikens. Other Konsumables are designed to help combat what the A.I. throws at you, like reducing frost damage or not dying of sodding fire quite so fast. Unfortunately these Konsumables are largely random, earned by opening chests in the Krypt or by earning them through towers. This means whether you have the right Konsumables to counter a tricky foe is also random. These Konsumable items end up feeling like an extra type of currency in a game already brimming with them. Since the updates, though, it’s much easier to deal with tough fights without them.
Aside from the pleasure of beating people to a pulp and then executing them in horrible ways you’re doing all of this in the name of getting new gear and augments. In Injustice 2 NetherRealm introduced a massive loot system with characters having changeable torsos, legs, heads, arms, capes and other items. Every piece of loot came with a variety of stat boosts, and new stuff was handed out generously. I fucking loved it, and quickly became enamoured (a polite way of saying totally addicted) to logging in daily to blast through a few Multiverse towers.
Comparatively, Mortal Kombat 11 seems to have taken a few steps backwards. Despite not having to deal with licensed characters there’s far less customization on offer. Each fighter has just three bits of gear that can be swapped out, and they’re typically very small. On Johnny Cage you can change his shades, his belt buckle and his gloves. On Sub Zero you can change his mask, the ice axe he summons and the tiny knives on his belt. It’s not exactly a lot of options.
At first, it seems like that might be because a lot more time was put into skins. Each character on the roster has about 60+ skins to unlock via Towers of Time and the Krypt, but many of them are just re-colors. I’d say that each character actually has about 4-6 unique skins with the rest just being color variations.
When it comes to the Krypt all these skins and bits of gear are entirely random as well. Combined with the grind that means finding the skins and bits of gear you genuinely like and for characters you actually use could take a horrifying amount of time. Towers of Time will offer up specific skins and bits of gear as a reward for completing them, though.
None of the gear comes packing stats this time around. If you want that, you also need to find Augments for your chosen character. These slot into gear, except that it isn’t so simple. Get a notepad out, people, because this is complicated: each piece of gear has two slots for Augments, and these slots need to be levelled up by winning fights with the gear equipped. The first slot takes a good few fights to open up, and the second takes considerably more. On top of that each slot has a specific shape and only an Augment matching that shape can be used. Considering slots are completely random and there’s no way of seeing what they are before unlocking them that equates to a lot of time spent trying to find a bit of gear you actually like, levelling it up, unlocking the wrong damn slots and then having to either re-roll the slots in exchange for Koins or find a different Augment or just pick out a different piece of gear and try again. The Augments themselves are also random within the Krypt, and only occasionally are specific ones given out as rewards in Towers of Time.
There are microtransactions within Mortal Kombat 11 and given the grind you might understandably expect them to be tied into progression. Weirdly this isn’t actually the case. While I was fully expecting there to be options for spending real money to speed up the grind there isn’t. Instead there are Time Kyrstals which you slow earn and these can be spent on one of five premium items in the shop, the selection refreshing every day. As far as I can tell the items can always be earned purely in-game through the Krypt or in the Towers of Time. Real money can be spent to pick up more Time Krystals.
Ultimately Mortal Kombat 11 handles its progression and reward system poorly. It’s a massive grind and the things that you eventually unlock rarely feel like they were worth the effort. Augments offer small boosts and despite having put in around 40-hours I’ve yet to find one that does anything interesting. NetherRealm increasing the speed at which you can grab resources as helped as now you can venture into the Krypt more often and have a reasonable chance of coming out with something half-decent. Still, most of the time I spent ages building up Koins and Hearts, go into the Krypt and come out feeling like I’ve gotten nothing worthwhile. Maybe I got some new shades for Johnny Cage, but that means I’ve got to go level them up then hopefully find a matching Augment or just spend awhile re-rolling the Augment slots. With all that done the small stat bonus just doesn’t feel like it was worth it.
Closing Thoughts On Mortal Kombat 11
But do you know what is worth it? Fatalities! Yes, the game has problems with its progression system but the core fighting mechanics are great, and the gloriously violent fatalities are arguably some of the best in the series. While performing them on A.I. opponents can be a lot of fun, like any fighting game online is where the real proving grounds await. The netcode currently seems to be solid and I’ve had some great bouts, though I’m frankly just not good enough to go toe-to-toe with the skilled players out there.
And it all looks absolutely outstanding. There’s still a little weirdness in the animations when it comes to certain moves flowing together, but it’s a vast improvement over what it used to be. Character models have loads of detail and facial animations during the story are quite impressive at times. Best of all, it runs at a silky smooth 60FPS with nary a drop to be found, at least on the Xbox One X.
When I started writing this review I had mixed feelings about Mortal Kombat 11. The story was a blast and the core fighting mechanics are fantastic, but the badly judged progression system was such a massive grind. Since then, though, I’ve had to re-write chunks of this review to reflect the updates that NetherRealm have put out. I can’t speak for the future and where things might go, but for now they’ve managed to really improve the economy. Hopefully they’ll continue on the path of goodness. So, before the updates Mortal Kombat 11 was going to score less, but now I feel happy giving it….
4 out of 5