If you’re old enough, you remember when Mortal Kombat debuted in the arcades 22 years ago. You probably also remember the ensuing fallout; it was arguably the most controversial video game of all time. Until then, parents just assumed all games were simply variations of Mario Bros. and as such, entirely harmless. But MK started the wheels turning and the process resulted in the ESRB, the industry’s first rating system (akin to the MPAA for movies). Now, the most visceral, brutal, ambitious franchise entry arrives and it’s just about everything you could hope for, with a few minor drawbacks.
The graphics smack you right between the eyes, as well they should. Mortal Kombat X isn’t just bloody; it’s outrageously gory, especially when you enter the shockingly violent world of Fatalities and Brutalities. But beyond that, the animations are super smooth, the frame rate never stutters, and some of the backdrops are particularly impressive. Perhaps most surprising is the quality of the cut-scenes; as NetherRealm wanted to present players with a more robust narrative, cut-scenes play a large role in the story experience. And you know, they’re freakin’ sweet. I suppose I could complain about the all-encompassing and often oppressive darkness but really, it’s an effective atmosphere.
Some of the sounds you hear when playing MKX are so disgusting they’re downright comical. I heard about the developers using a wide variety of interesting techniques to get the effects they wanted (like using toilet plungers and smashing fruit, for instance), and now I know why. The game’s rockin’ soundtrack matches the do-or-die action and propels the combat forward, while the voice performances range from decent to great. Once again, the technical elements shine during finishing moves, or during particularly hectic cut-scenes. But overall, the slick visual presentation and solid overall sound cements an impressive production. The entire game, from top to bottom, is designed to have a giant impact.
MKX is a direct sequel to the 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot, so the story starts after Shao Kahn’s death. We find out that Quan Chi is an agent of Shinnok and he sets out to free his master, who is trapped within a sacred amulet. The story is much more involved than one might think, even though it won’t last you longer than five or six hours. You control a variety of characters and fight in both Outworld and Earthrealm locations, which makes for a well-paced and entertaining adventure. New faces as well as old jump into the fray and you’ll get a chance to experiment with a bunch of distinctly different fighters. The only problem is that unless you’re an expert on series lore, you might end up getting lost. Yeah, I never thought they’d make a fighting game narrative that could prove confusing but NetherRealm has managed.
However, just because you’re not fully checked out on each character’s back-story doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the campaign mode. And besides, as always, it’s all about the combat. Perhaps the biggest change – or upgrade, depending on your position – is the implementation of different move sets for each character. Each fighter has three techniques they can employ in battle; you choose before the contest begins and it can’t be changed in mid-competition. The techniques change greatly depending on a fighter’s inherent abilities, but they tend to revolve around three basic principles: Up-close-and-personal assault, defensive-oriented, or ranged. Experimenting keeps the game fresh and interesting.
Then there’s the addition of interact-able environments. Some arenas have various dangers that can be used against your opponent; for example, acid pots can definitely cause some damage. But you can’t abuse the environment too much, as interacting with the background uses some of your Stamina, which is also used for sprinting. If you’re wondering, the Energy bar has returned; performing special moves fills the Energy bar and when you’ve got enough stored up, you can unleash devastating combo-breakers and X-Ray attacks. Given all these factors, MKX is one of the most demanding and strategic fighters out there, and in my estimation, the most intricate series installment yet.
As you would expect, matches are fast and furious. They’re constantly engaging and require the strictest attention, which should please avid fighting fans. Franchise favorites like Raiden, Johnny Cage, Scorpion, and Liu Kang return, and yeah, some are old enough now to have kids. For example, Jax Briggs has a daughter, Jacqueline, and she’s a powerful, highly effective fighter if you know how to use her. If you pre-ordered, you have immediate access to Goro (otherwise, you have to shell out $4.99 for him), and his four-armed assault is a force to be reckoned with. Given the 24 characters available right out of the gate, you’re bound to find a few you like.
That being said, speaking of the Goro DLC, microtransactions might put a damper on the fun. You can buy easy-Fatality tokens and considering the difficult combos required for some of the Fatalities, it’s going to be an attractive option. I’m not sure how they’ll progress but whenever microtransactions are involved, one gets a little leery. If you’re okay with them, though, you’ll find a compelling roster and lots of fantastic action. Outside of the Story Mode, there’s the Classic Tower, which will undoubtedly tickle the nostalgia bone in old-school arcade fanatics, and then there’s Test Your Luck. This tower adds positive and negative effects to each fighter, so it’s sort of a crapshoot. As for the Survivor Tower, that’s self-explanatory.
The new addition is the Living Towers, which replace the Challenge Towers. Living Towers have three variations: Hourly, Daily, and every few days for the Premier Tower. There are ceaselessly changing factors and rewards and as such, it keeps you on your toes. That being said, I’m not impressed with the rewards I’ve gotten out of the Living Tower, especially when compared to the Krypt. I love the Krypt because it’s more involved this time around; it’s similar to old-fashioned dungeon-crawlers and you definitely earn your coins. These coins, by the way, are used to unlock graves within the Krypt, so you always want to press forward and earn more coins. If you’re a pansy, you can fold and pick up a $20 pack that unlocks the entire Krypt…I have nothing to say if you’ve already done it.
I like a lot of things: I enjoy the demanding, fast-paced nature of the gameplay, I like the more involving and ambitious Story Mode, and the visual impact of this over-the-top production is unparalleled. I will say, however, that some of the techniques for certain characters feel useless or at least poorly balanced, and there’s a steep learning curve for novices. Button-mashing won’t get you very far, especially in the Towers, and some of the more difficult matches can leave you gnashing your teeth. As for the narrative, it’s certainly better than most fighting games today but I feel they could’ve done a lot more with it. They took a step in the right direction but I honestly don’t think they followed through.
In regards to online competition, there’s another new feature: Warring Factions. Each fighter belongs to a Faction; one of my favorites, Raiden, is a White Lotus. That means every time I use him – either online or in single-player action – my points will go toward the White Lotus Faction. If you stick with a specific Faction, you can unlock cool Fatalities unique to that Faction. It’s a nifty system that really makes you think about your character selection; i.e., “If I change now, maybe I should switch to a different fighter in the same Faction.” As for the technical side, I didn’t experience any lag and while the matchmaking feature isn’t 100 percent yet, you’ll typically get matched up with a player of similar skill level.
Mortal Kombat X is full of gory fun. It’s fiercely fast, wildly engaging, and wonderfully diverse. Not all modes are equally strong and I still say more could’ve been done with the promising story, but it’s nice to have such variety. The three techniques for each fighter adds another layer of density and complexity, the balancing is just about right (with some minor exceptions), the Krypt and Living Tower are definite highlights, and the online mode will hone your skills. The microtransactions could be annoying, depending on your viewpoint, and the combo system is smooth but still requires a lot of practice. Aside from this, MKX is a huge crowd-pleaser; it’s raucous and unashamed of being the most insanely brutal game on the market today.
The Good: Excellent design, detail, and animations. Great music and wicked sound effects. Story is ambitious and surprisingly deep (for a fighter). Balanced, diverse combat with an eye toward strategy and diligence. Super fast and super engaging. Plenty of variety. Viscerally powerful from top to bottom.
The Bad: They needed to take another step with the narrative. Microtransactions might rub some the wrong way. Some techniques seem underpowered.
The Ugly: “Oh man, take your pick…which Fatality or Brutality grossed you out the most?”