I knew I was in for a good time with Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks when, during the opening cinema, Sub Zero ripped off a guard's head (with the spine still attached) and used it as a hammer to slap Scorpion silly with. That's the sort of comical, over-the-top violence we came to love back in the day when the original Mortal Kombat games ruled the arcades. And finally, Midway has put together a 3D action game in the same style that doesn't outright suck.
Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is a remake of Mortal Kombat 2, of sorts. The story picks up where the first Mortal Kombat left off and the second began, with Shang Tsung on the run and Outworld's emperor Shao Kahn threatening to take over the Earth realm. But, instead of a side-scrolling 1-on-1 fighting game, this re-telling of the story is a third-person action game, similar in many ways to games like Onimusha or Devil May Cry… except with a strong Mortal Kombat flavor. All of the locations from the MK2 arcade game have been brought to life as large, free-roaming environments, and all of the fighters and background characters have become the standard enemies that Liu Kang and Kung Lau must fight.
In most levels, you have to defeat the enemies in each area before you can get to the portal or boss that's waiting at the end. Some levels have platform-puzzle sections, where you have to jump, run and jump, and climb up platforms and ramps in order to make progress. There are even a couple basic switch-puzzle sections, where you have to toss enemies into spikes or "test your might" on a pulley in order to unlock a door or clear a path. Fans of co-op, er, "ko-op" play will also notice that many levels have secret areas that can only be accessed when two players are working through the game together.
Above all, however, this game is about kicking ass… and every controller button is used to give you numerous ways to accomplish that task. Basic attacks, combos, and mid-air attacks can be performed and chain together by pressing the main buttons. The shoulder buttons let you block, grab opponents, perform strong attacks, and activate Fatality moves. That's right babes–tap the L1 button and you'll activate the Fatality Stun mode. While in this state, you can input a series of commands (ex. down, left, up, right, square) that will make Liu Kang or Kung Lau perform a gory, multi-step killing move on their opponents. In all, there are nearly two dozen different Fatality, Multality, and Brutality moves to unlock and use.
Weapons can also be picked up and used, much in the same way that weapons have been implemented into the last couple Mortal Kombat fighting games. They work exactly as you'd want them too–slice a bad guy with a sword and you'll end up cutting off their limbs, decapitating them, or simply cutting them in half.
You won't have any trouble getting the hang of the controls, or figuring out how to absolutely pummel the dozens of enemies that often fill the screen. Mashing buttons works fine in the beginning, and by the time you need to know what you're doing, you'll have learned the major combos and Fatalities that will save you when the fit hits the shan.
The game is expansive. A portal hub in Outworld enables players to move freely back and forth between dozens of familiar Mortal Kombat locales. You'll face mutants in Goro's Lair and above The Pit, fight Baraka's blade-armed troops around the Wu Shi temple, beat up Mileena and her demons at the Outworld temple, battle corpses and giant trees in the Living Forest, and so on. Seeing these formerly flat and uninteractive places come to life as full 3D environments is a real treat. The overall visual quality is about on par with Capcom's Onimusha 3, which puts it on the level with the majority of the top-tier 3rd party releases published this year. Some of the cinematic cut scenes look a bit cheesy, mainly since the people look pudgy. Also, the music is frequently overbearing with its dramatic overtones, and the sound effects are the sort of "chop socky" punches, yips, and "Ohhs!" that have come with the franchise since its inception. That's Mortal Kombat though, love it or leave it.
If there is one prevailing flaw, it's that all of the repetitive fisticuffs become… well, repetitive. You'll tear through dozens, if not hundreds, of henchmen on your way to the boss at the end of each realm. If you play the game solo, you'll probably need to take a break every hour or two just to resettle your brain. Playing ko-op definitely alleviates a fair bit of the monotony, so you'll probably enjoy the game much more if you hand a friend the second controller. Ko-op play is semi-encouraged anyway, since it'll help you get through the game faster, find secrets faster, and let you perform team-specific attacks that solo players can't do.
Although the in-game world is expansive, you can probably "finish" Shaolin Monks in about 5 hours or so. The free-roaming gameplay and flagrant violence does provide some inherent replay value. If you're into unlockables, you'll find plenty of incentive to play through the game multiple times. First, Scorpion and Sub-Zero become playable in the story mode after completing the game with Liu Kang and Kung Lao. Talk about a sweet bonus. Next, there's the game's VS mode, which lets two players fight it out with various characters, including Johnny Cage, Baraka, Kitana, Reptile, and so on. The VS mode is easily as good as any of the 3D Mortal Kombat fighting games that were put out in the past few years. Finally, the original Mortal Kombat 2 arcade game is unlockable as a bonus item. You have to find Smoke in five different spots during the game to unlock it, but it's actually not that difficult to accomplish.
Non-fans just won't get the appeal of a game like Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. It is, after all, just another third-person action beat 'em up. That's not the point. If you don't understand Mortal Kombat, this isn't the game for you. But if you do get it, especially if you loved the first two arcade games, this IS the game for you. That goes double if you can convince a friend to join-in on the second controller.