The last time we saw Mortal Kombat was back in 2009, when NetherRealm rebooted the franchise by doing away with all the convoluted backstory and taking the series back to its roots.
Mortal Kombat 9, as it came to be known by fans, got a lot right. A varied cast, huge amount of single-player content, and new mechanics like X-Ray moves added a fresh layer of brutal paint to a series that has long traded on the appeal of high levels of ultraviolence. NetherRealm provided players with a lengthy and highly enjoyable single-player fighter, though online multiplayer was let down by some horrendous netcode. Thankfully online play is much improved this time around, though it’s still some way off matching the excellent netcode in Street Fighter IV and Killer Instinct. Lag isn’t as bad as before but it’s still there, making online play unsuitable for more than casual matchups – advanced players will still need to stick to local versus modes.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Mortal Kombat X – that’s prounounced “ecks” by the way, not the numeral – gives fans much of the same: upping the gore with some disturbing, if hilarious, levels of brutality and providing plenty of single player content. If X-Ray moves were the headline selling point last time round, this time it’s the new Faction War. Boot up the game for the first time, and you’re asked to choose one of seven different factions, each represented by a different theme and different subset of the game’s 25 playable fighters.
Faction Wars are an interesting idea in theory: players ally themselves to different causes, and completing certain challenges awards points for your faction. At the end of each week, the faction with the most points wins, and all members of the winning side gain some kind of benefit (normally Koins, Mortal Kombat X’s in game currency, used to unlock bonus material and gameplay modifiers).
In practice you’ll simply grind through your tasks for the day. Many of the challenges revolve around playing a certain number of different gameplay modes or performing certain moves; the result is that it sometimes feels as though your playstyle is being dictated to you by the game, rather than you being allowed to simply get on with things. Before long, you’ll find yourself simply ignoring the Faction Wars element altogether – probably not what NetherRealm was hoping for, given how heavily the feature is being touted in promotional material.
Your first port of call in Mortal Kombat X is likely to be the Story Mode. The single-player story campaign was a breath of fresh air when it first featured in Mortal Kombat 9, and to this day it remains a benchmark in the genre. It beggars belief that more developers don’t put the effort into delivering a meaty single-player experience. Just because the genre is geared towards multiplayer bouts and tournament play, doesn’t mean it’s ok to skimp on single-player modes when it comes to delivering value for money for those who’d rather not feel pushed into the unforgiving world of online multiplayer.
Mortal Kombat X sees NetherRealm providing another solid campaign, filled with action-packed cutscenes and propelling the timeline some 20 years after the previous game. Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade are now separated and at loggerheads, returning characters are now noticeably older, and the shift has provided NetherRealm the opportunity to introduce a bunch of new characters, mostly descended from the more familiar cast.
These “legacy” characters are nice to have, but many disappoint by being so similar to existing fighters. This isn’t always the case – Kung Jin is an archer, and plays rather differently to his razor-rimmed hat-wearing cousin, Kung Lao – and some of the new cast members who aren’t descended from established characters are more interesting. Kotal Kahn sports a heavy Aztec motif and wields a huge sword, and is surprisingly nimble for someone of his size and weight; D’Vorah has plenty of moves which see her impaling characters on giant spider-like appendages or summoning nasty insects to do her bidding; and cowboy Erron Black appears following his debut in the comic, wielding dual pistols or a rifle.
But these new characters form the center of what will be one of the most immediate disappointments felt by players: the roster. While 25 characters (29, if you include the bonus fighters unlocked with the steeply-priced Kombat Pack) is by no means stingy, it’s still noticeably fewer than the 34 characters (not including PS3-exclusive Kratos) featured in the previous game; previously-playable fighters like Rain and Sindel are absent, despite being featured as opponents in the story.
More cynical fans won’t be blamed for wondering if this slimmed-down roster is purposefully designed to sell more DLC at a later date, and publisher Warner Bros’ refusal to deny such a possibility does little to stem concerns. Even more damning is that many of these characters have been found to be playable via a hack on the PC version of the game – and though they only have one moveset instead of the three employed by the main cast, it shows that NetherRealm put extensive thought into each of the non-playable characters in the Story.
Perhaps in part designed to provide additional variety to the slimmed-down roster, fighters in Mortal Kombat X now have 3 different playstyles. You’ll be forced to choose one of these variants at the character select screen, and depending on which you choose you’ll gain access to certain moves which allow you to mix up your approach. Series stalwart Sub-Zero can choose between the more defensive-leaning ability to create an icy barrier version of himself, or the power to create icy melee weapons, for example. You can’t switch between stances mid-match, so you’ll need to choose carefully. I’m rather partial to Scorpion’s Hellfire variant, which increases the focus on his demonic powers and gives his arms a fiery aura.
In terms of presentation, there’s very little to fault. While the dialogue and acting is incredibly cringeworthy, and most of the characters have issues ripped straight out of a teenage soap opera, it feels churlish to criticize NetherRealm when they’ve put a lot of effort – and money – into creating a substantial story. Character models are crisp and highly-detailed, and though there’s still some stiffness to their animations, by and large they leap and dash around the interactive stages convincingly, bouncing off of background objects and smashing scenery over the heads of opponents. Sound are a particular highlight – each bone-crunching move is accompanied by a suitably wince-inducing crack, and you can tell the foley artists had fun ensuring that the on-screen action sounds just as painful as it looks.
NetherRealm has packed their latest game to the gills with playable modes and unlockable content. The Krypt returns, once more featuring a vast array of concept art, unlockable moves and modifiers to unlock via in-game currency, and some of these unlockables only appear at certain times of day. There’s been some controversy over the presence of paid DLC which simplifies the inputs required to pull off a Fatality, but as it happens it was actually the very first bit of content I unlocked in the Krpyt – hidden inside a chest which appeared at about 3pm. Whether or not the contents of these time-limited chests are random or not is something I haven’t ascertained, but it does mean that it will be a while before you manage to unlock everything.
The aforementioned Faction Wars system throws up plenty of challenges and challenge towers to complete, cycling at different times. But the highlight is Test Your Luck mode, which adds between 3 and 7 random gameplay modifiers to each match. Test Your Luck is likely to be the source of much hilarity in local versus play: one match I played saw decapitated heads raining down the sky, stunning fighters mid-move, while the stage tilted left and right, lowered gravity saw players floating slowly through the air after being juggled, and portals opened up on the ground, swallowing fighters before spitting them out high above the stage. The more modifiers you enable, the more chaotic – and laughter-inducing – each match becomes, and it’s easy to see Test Your Luck becoming a staple part of post-pub gaming on a Friday night when you and your mates pile into the living room for some drunken multiplayer.
Other than the roster, disappointments are few. The story mode is shorter this time around, though at about 12 hours in length there’s still plenty to get through. More irritating is that many of the cutscenes feature lengthy QTE sequences, often coming out of nowhere. Success in these events isn’t mandatory – the story simply plays out slightly differently – but it’s aggravating to feel chained to your controller when all you want to do is sit back and enjoy the spectacle. Despite what many developers seem to think, adding quick time events to cutscenes doesn’t improve immersion; if anything, they pull you out of the experience by reminding you that you’re playing a game, and feel little more than a forced bid for attention to keep you sat in front of the screen during pre-rendered sequences. NetherRealm would do well to leave them out next time.
Also disappointing is the way the game taunts you to unlock Goro at every opportunity, and the steep (some would say excessive) price of the game’s Kombat Pack. At $29.99/ £24.99 for 4 fighters – 2 guest characters, and two from the wider Mortal Kombat universe, it’s hard not to feel as though someone is taking the mickey, particularly when the launch roster already feels somewhat artificially truncated. Seeing your favorite character in the story, only to discover you can’t play as them in multiplayer, never ceases to annoy.
Still, overall Mortal Kombat X is a success. With some of the most inventive and graphic Fatalities ever seen in a Mortal Kombat game, and with a generous amount of content and modes on offer, it will be a while before you run out of things to do and grow bored of dismembering opponents in new and hilarious ways. There’s still plenty of room for improvement – particularly when it comes to a solid online experience – but Mortal Kombat X is the best installment in the long-running series to date.
Mortal Kombat may have started off as little more than a novelty over 20 years ago, but in 2015 the series feels as enjoyable and fresh as it ever did back in 1993. For that, NetherRealm deserves to be commended. It remains to be seen how much life it will have as a serious contender in tournament play, but if you want a substantial single-player fighter that will keep you occupied during the long wait for Street Fighter V, you can’t go far wrong with Mortal Kombat X.