Mortal Kombat – Hands On

It was a warm Wednesday when I found myself in London, about to get to grips with the latest in the venerable Mortal Kombat series. As I followed the map on my iPhone towards my destination, it soon became clear that where I was headed would be surprisingly apt for the controversial beat ’em up series, housed mere meters away from the seedier parts of London’s Soho area in the balmy offices of Premier PR.

Greeted at reception, I was ushered into the agency’s new games room, its huge TV showing the game’s title screen. Asked by my host if I’d ever played a Mortal Kombat game before, I nodded as a grin formed across my face; I’ve known Mortal Kombat longer than I’ve known my best friends.

With its first entry launching in arcades back in 1992, my memories of Mortal Kombat’s meteoric rise and fall are as vivid as the franchise’s unique selling point, namely its shameless and cartoony use of blood and gore. One of the many 2D one-on-one beat ’em ups launched in the wake of the genre-defining Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat was rough around the edges but arguably more accessible, featuring a cast of digitised actors who could dismember and decapitate one another if you knew how to perform their special moves, with the highlight being ‘fatalities’, gruesome finishing moves that saw characters sliced and diced in ways rarely seen in videogames until then and never before with characters that (for the time) looked so realistic.

Over the course of the subsequent nineteen years, the series has seen entries on every major gaming platform (and one somewhat more obscure device), a move to the third dimension and its roster swell from the seven original playable fighters to, at one point, more than 60.

Liu Kang versus Kano high above the infamous pit stage. This isn't going to end well.

Sharing the name of the series’ 1992 original entry, the 2011 version of Mortal Kombat has fittingly gone back to its roots, playing on a 2D plane while featuring striking 3D updates to most of the cast and many of the stages from the first three entries in the series. Although never really a selling point of the franchise, the plot here has taken an interesting approach to the reboot formula, somewhat echoing 2009’s Star Trek movie; hoping to avert the cataclysmic events seen in Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Raiden returns to the past to alter the course of history, creating an alternate timeline in the process. Much like the recent Star Trek movie, what makes Mortal Kombat’s narrative choice particularly interesting here is the same blend of continuation for current fans (meaning their time invested in the series is still meaningful) while providing a perfect jumping on point for both a new generation of players and former fans such as myself.

And so it was that I found myself in Soho, feeling like I was about to meet a childhood hero, with the same potential for disappointment that removing rose-tinted glasses can bring. After a brief demo outlining the core features of the new Mortal Kombat, it was with some trepidation that I took hold of a PS3 pad and, left to my own devices, explored the game more fully.

One thing that was clear from my hands-on time: Mortal Kombat is looking to keep players busy. Offering modes for between one and four local players, you’ll be able to take part in solo, tag and versus battles straight away, with one or two players able to take their fight online. Arcade mode is now dubbed ‘Ladder’, with ten bouts separating you from battling the dreaded Shao Kahn in either solo play or as a tag team.

Solo players looking for a little more context to their fighting can take part in a Story Mode, although this was locked away in the version of the game I played. Also locked away from my prying eyes were the ‘Online’ mode (hardly surprisingly since the game isn’t out for another month) and the ‘Extras’, which I can only presume will see a return of the Krypt for you to spend your hard-earned Koins – but more about those later. Likewise, the PS3 exlcusive features of stereoscopic 3D and a playable character in the form of God of War’s antihero Kratos were sadly absent from the version I played.

Before getting stuck into the fighting, I had a poke around the game’s various training modes to brush up on what I had missed since pouring hours into the SNES version of Mortal Kombat II all those years ago. Starting with the comprehensive main tutorial, I soon found that the controls remain largely familiar, with four main attack buttons now mapped to your front and back fists and feet instead of the high and low punches and kicks of old, with a button each for throwing, blocking, tagging during tag matches and for switching between normal and southpaw stances — with all the characters I tried, I couldn’t spot any tangible differences between stances, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see it factor into advanced play.

Sonya Blade was always annoyed when someone wore the same outfit as her.

Making a triumphant return to the franchise are the character specific fatalities, not seen since 2004’s Mortal Kombat: Deception and more gruesome than ever. Fatalities now get their own specific tutorial too, helpfully showing you exactly where you need to position both you and your opponent to correctly pull off the grisly finishers the series is known for. One really nice touch with every instance of the game displaying move inputs, whether in tutorials or during the moves list accessed from the pause menu, is that the inputs are always displayed based on the direction your character is currently facing.

Also listed under training are the practice and tag practice modes, allowing you to test out your newly learnt abilities in a less structured environment.

One mode that caught my eye was the Challenge Tower, a series of 300 challenges (of which only 20 were available to me) each offering a payout of Koins upon completion. Some challenges served as an extension of the tutorial, tasking you with avoiding or blocking all attacks within 15 seconds, while others hinder you in some way, by removing all standard attacks so that you can only use special moves for instance, with others seeming a little more random in their nature such as tasking you with eliminating a pack of zombies using only projectile attacks. Interestingly you can’t choose your character for the challenges, which should see players get to grips with the majority of the cast if they want to complete the entire set. Each challenge begins with the slightest of scene-setting, with characters exchanging a couple of sentences before you take control; however these are not voiced, which is a pity. My favourite challenge so far, simply for reminding me of the sense of humour the series has retained all this time, is titled “I Hate Teddies”, where Mileena approaches Scorpion with a teddy bear she has made him. Scorpion replies “I hate teddies!” which annoys Mileena to the point where she proceeds to try beating Scorpion into submission, clutching the stuffed toy throughout the bout. Bless.

With the cast returning from the first three instalments of the series and many familiar stages making a vividly re-imagined appearance, the actual gameplay is equally familiar and reinvigorated. Gone is the feeling that you are simply tapping out a series of prescribed combos (to a degree) and in its place is a fighting system that retains the chunky, weighty feeling associated with the both the franchise and the Unreal Engine powering this instalment, all while allowing for some freedom in stringing small combinations of moves together. Physical damage sustained by your fighter is persistent for the duration of a fight, with the victor often covered in cuts and bruises, their costume torn, sometimes with an eye removed and skin hanging off their faces to reveal the flesh underneath (and, in a nice touch, revealing the skull underneath Scorpion’s mask). Needless to say, as always, Mortal Kombat is not for the faint of heart.

A familiar face looks on as Mileena and Kitana force Kung Lao to face his fear of strawberry jam

Among the main additions to gameplay is the Super Meter; split into three sections, the meter fills based on damage inflicted and received. After filling one section, characters can perform enhanced versions of any of their special moves. Filling two sections allows the player to perform a Kombo Breaker; requiring quick reflexes and superb timing, Breakers disrupt an onslaught of attacks and daze your opponent briefly, both offering the chance to retaliate and adding a newfound tactical level to two player battles. Finally, filling all three sections of the Super Meter gives access to your X-Ray move, a brutal series of attacks that, as the name implies, shows the internal damage caused via a series of sweeping camera moves with x-ray vision.

Victory awards you with Koins, with further bonuses for performing a fatality and for achieving a flawless victory. Though I couldn’t see what this kurren… sorry, currency will be spent on, precedent would suggest an extensive amount of unlockables await the most dedicated of players.

True to its roots, Mortal Kombat is the definition of gruesome spectacle, relishing its silliness from its ridiculously proportioned and outfitted cast to its equal opportunities policy when it comes to dishing out the pain. Like many on the receiving end of a fatality, I’m torn — my 27 year old tastes telling me that I’ve grown beyond the overload of tits and gore that are abundantly present and (not very) correct, while feeling the need to listen to the part of me that can’t wait to see the next gleeful drip of ultra-violence that’s only ever a moment away, just to see what else this mischievous game has up its sleeve. Mortal Kombat is utterly absurd, ridiculously gratuitous and yet oddly compelling.

Just like you remember, but far better-looking than it ever really was

Importantly, by revisiting its youth and bringing these new additions, Mortal Kombat feels like Mortal Kombat, its distinct brand of fighting as rough around the edges as its forbears standing apart from other titles in the recent beat ’em up revival — different, though not necessarily better. Having only spent 90 minutes in its presence, I had a blast though I can’t help but wonder what else the game will need to do to keep itself in my disc drive.

If you only have room in your life for one beat ’em up, chances are it’s already sitting beside your console. But if you have room for a dose of daft Daily Mail-baiting bonkers fun wrapped around a competent brawler, this April, Mortal Kombat may just be your cup of tea.

Mortal Kombat is out on 21st April for Xbox 360 and PS3.







6 responses to “Mortal Kombat – Hands On”

  1. Liam avatar

    I can’t wait for this and have to agree the daily mail troupe will have a field day. Very entertaining read, challenge towers sound awesome.

  2. Tristan avatar

    Looks badass!

  3. Ron avatar

    The game this bad ass. when does the 360 demo come out

  4. Giles avatar

    With this, Duke Nukem and Bulletstorm, it’s looking like 2011 is going to be a good year for bad taste gaming. ^_^

    Ron — still no news on when the demo is coming to Xbox 360 unfortunately. Hopefully it’ll be released before the game is available – time will tell!

  5. Dean avatar

    I remember trying to pull off all the fatalities on the megadrive version with my older step brothers when i was eight and feeling so cool that i was doing something so forbidden:) I usually can’t stand beat ’em ups but i have a massive soft spot for this one! Does it still have those silly challenges in between fights where you have to karate chop through increasingly hard materials?

  6. Giles avatar

    Yes indeed Dean, one thing I forgot to mention (bad Gilo!).

    The traditional ‘Test Your Might’ appears, which sees you hammer the attack buttons until a meter passes a certain point then press a shoulder buttons to strike. ‘Test Your Strike’ is a variation on this where the meter has to be within a certain area before you press the shoulder button – if the meter is too low or too high then you will fail the mini-game. The third one I saw was ‘Test Your Sight’, an MK flavoured take on the game where a ball is hidden under one of four cups, the cups are moved around rapidly and you pick the cup hiding the ball – except in this instance the cups resemble the head of a zombie missing it’s lower jaw. Finally we have ‘Test Your Luck’ which was locked away in the version of the game I played so that one’s a mystery to me.

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some of the more silly extra modes seen in previous MKs, like the MK takes on Mario Kart and/or Puzzle Fighter. ^_^

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