In a way, it feels as if many fighting game characters have stepped right out of the pages of a comic book. They wear bizarre costumes, spend a lot of time punching and kicking other people, and possess inexplicable powers. Pitting fighting game characters against comic book heroes and villains has been done before, and in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, the meshing of Raiden's crew and Superman's posse makes for some pretty exciting action--especially online. But even as the game moves the series back toward the fundamental strengths of Mortal Kombat in some ways, it departs from the series' essence in others. As a result, longtime fans may be left with mixed feelings, and newcomers drawn to the series for the first time by the inclusion of DC characters may find it hard to get a handle on things.
The story that explains just how these two distinct sets of outlandishly attired, superpowered beings clash is such pure, unabashed comic book silliness that you'll have a hard time not being won over. Simultaneous mishaps involving Darkseid in the DC universe and Shao Kahn in the MK universe result in these two evil beings merging into the exponentially evil Dark Kahn. Dark Kahn's power causes the two universes to begin fusing, and the heroes and villains on each side of the universal divide mistakenly blame the weirdos from the other side for invading their land. This merging of universes also causes severe imbalances in the powers of some characters, and serves as a convenient excuse for how the Joker can go toe-to-toe with Superman and have a fighting chance. As you play through the game's two story mode offerings, the flimsy excuses that cause the unlikely matchups almost become something of a running joke, and help make these modes fun for the few hours that they last.
Unless you've somehow managed to avoid playing a fighting game for your entire life, you'll immediately grasp the basic concept of MK vs. DC: punch, kick, throw, and otherwise bludgeon your opponent into submission before they do the same to you. While some Mortal Kombat games have offered two or three fighting styles per character, MK vs. DC does away with that, creating a back-to-basics feel that switches the emphasis back to the special moves that really differentiate the characters. And while the action takes place in 3D and you can move left and right in the environment as well as back and forth, sidestepping is slow and only occasionally useful. The majority of the action takes place on a 2D plane, which also contributes to the game feeling very much like a solid return to the roots of the Mortal Kombat series. The action is fast-paced, controls tightly, and is just a lot of fun.
With a total of 22 playable characters, the roster may be a bit short compared to what fans of the series have come to expect, but it makes up for that by making each character play very differently from the others. The 11 Mortal Kombat warriors on hand are all top-shelf, and while one or two of the DC characters may seem like odd choices the majority of them mesh surprisingly well with the MK crowd. While the powers of some DC characters have been toned down a bit as a result of that darn universe-merging fluctuation of energies, the characters themselves have been created here with a great deal of loyalty to the source material. Their personalities are intact, and the arsenals of special attacks at their disposal are impressive.
While the core gameplay is largely a return to the feel of the early Mortal Kombat games, there are some elements here that are pretty minor when taken individually, but add up to make MK vs. DC distinctly different from its predecessors. There are a few minigames that pop up when certain circumstances occur, and they all blend in to the action seamlessly. For example, if you're close to your opponent, you can attempt to grab him or her and initiate Klose Kombat. If you're successful, the camera will pull in, and for a short time, you can perform a variety of painful-looking moves by pressing one of the four face buttons. There's a great risk-versus-reward dynamic at play: your button presses are displayed onscreen, and if your opponents match them, they'll counter your attack with powerful blows of their own and escape from Klose Kombat in the process. It's a cool system that gives the attacker a decent advantage but still offers the defender a pretty good chance of turning the tables.
A very similar minigame is initiated any time one player knocks another to a lower level of the arena. As in Klose Kombat, the attacker can pummel the defender by pushing face buttons, and the defender can turn the tables by matching the attacker's inputs. In Free Fall Kombat, the attacker is able, after a damage meter has been filled to a certain point with standard attacks, to execute a special move that sends the opponent flying into the ground below in a particularly painful, damaging way. Like Klose Kombat, there's a good risk-versus-reward principle at work here, and the fact that these fisticuffs are taking place while the characters dramatically plummet through the air gives the action a larger-than-life, comic book feel.
Last and least among the minigames is Test Your Might, which occurs in certain areas when one combatant lands a powerful attack on the other and sends the opponent flying back against a wall. The initiator then charges at the defender and propels the latter through the walls of the office building or dungeon. Both parties then pound on the buttons as furiously as they can. If the attacker out-pounds the defender, more damage will be done, while the defender pounds buttons in the hopes of reducing the amount of damage he or she suffers. The simplicity of this minigame makes it less compelling than the other two, and only three of the game's 14 arenas have the horizontal arrangement for it, so it occurs far less frequently.
One final, important addition to the action here is the rage meter, which fills up as you take damage or are blocked by your opponent. Your build-up of rage can be used for one of two things. If the meter is halfway full or more, you can spend one full segment of it on a combo breaker, immediately putting a stop to the flurry of attacks your opponent is unleashing. If both sections are full, you can opt to spend the whole thing to enter rage mode, which allows you to pummel your opponent uninterrupted by his or her attacks and fight your way through his or her blocks, though you'll still take damage from any blows he or she lands. Either of these can turn the tables in a fight if used well, and since using rage for one purpose sacrifices your ability to use it for the other, this seemingly simple feature calls for some significant and often split-second decision-making.
On the default difficulty setting, the game seems to adjust dramatically in response to your skill level. Lose a match in the story or arcade modes a few times and it suddenly gets a whole lot easier, which means that players of just about any skill level can fumble their way through these modes. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the game feel more like a brawler in which you can button-mash your way through just about anything, rather than a well-tuned fighting game that rewards precise, skillful play. This impression is deceiving, though, and upping the difficulty of the AI, or better yet, playing against other people, reveals the depth of a fighting system that's sure to please veteran fighters. With precise timing, you can chain together combo attacks that juggle your enemies in the air helplessly for a bit, but these are extremely difficult to pull off. Neophytes drawn to the game by the DC characters may find themselves a bit out of their league, and while there's a standard practice mode in which you can attempt attacks at your leisure, the finer points can be difficult to pick up without a proper training mode.
Of course, past Mortal Kombat games have been known as much for their over-the-top gore as for their gameplay, and for those fans who feel this is an intrinsic part of what makes Mortal Kombat what it is, MK vs. DC will be disappointing. While there are still ridiculous amounts of blood that go flying each time you so much as punch your opponent, you won't see any comically grisly beheadings, dismemberments, and other bombastic acts of violence that have characterized the series. The victor still gets the opportunity to pull off an extremely painful fatality or, in the case of the good guys on the DC side, a heroic brutality. Many of them are clever and funny, but they're still far tamer than what we've seen in the past. Ultimately, this change doesn't impact the gameplay itself, but that gore is part of the MK experience, so the way it's been toned down here may turn some fans off.
A more material issue is the surprisingly limited amount of content you get in this package. There are the two stories that don't take you long to complete, and after you finish them, you'll have unlocked only two additional characters and seen just about everything the game has to offer. There's an arcade mode which, in typical Mortal Kombat fashion, has you fight your way to the top of a ladder, and in a nice touch, you can choose to have your opponents made up of exclusively Mortal Kombat characters, DC characters, or a combination of the two. But the short, disappointing endings you get for finishing arcade mode with any given character provide little incentive to come back to it much. There's also a mode called Kombo Challenge in which you pick a character and choose one of 10 combo attacks to attempt to pull off. At first glance, this looks like a useful mode to help newcomers pick up the finer points of the game's combat, but the timing required to successfully do even the easiest of the combos in Kombo Challenge is unforgivingly precise. With only 22 characters, 14 arenas, and no special costumes or anything else worth unlocking, the single-player experience dries up a little too quickly.
So ultimately, whatever longevity the game has lies in its multiplayer offerings, and playing the game with others, either locally or online, is great fun. There aren't any special modes available online. It's all just no-frills, one-on-one matches, which is really all you need. Xbox 360's online setup is a bit more fleshed out, with options to jump right into a ranked or unranked match, and a TrueSkill matchmaking system for ranked matches. On the PlayStation 3, you need to enter a lobby where you'll see a list of everyone else hanging out in the room, and you can challenge or accept challenges from the other players. In both cases, once you're actually down to the business of punching and kicking each other, the action plays smoothly, provided both parties have a steady connection. The only caveat about online play in our experience is that a disproportionate number of players are currently trying to rack up wins using the same few overpowered special attacks by The Flash (and a couple of other characters) ad nauseam, and while this isn't impossible to defeat, it sure is annoying. You might prefer to quit a match than bother with it when you come across such a cheap competitor, but doing so counts as a loss, and in the case of ranked matches on the 360, hurts your TrueSkill ranking.
The game looks great. The characters animate well, their attacks look powerful, and there's a consistency of design that helps make the bizarre crossover seem natural. There's an especially great detail to the game's presentation in the way that damage isn't just reflected in the energy bars across the top of the screen. As characters suffer attacks, their skin gets bruised and bloody, their costumes get torn, and by the end, if the loser put up a good fight, even the victor will look much worse for wear. Of the 14 arenas, most of them look pretty cool. There are a few Mortal Kombat arenas, but the majority of locales come from the DC side, or reflect a merger of the two universes. There's a devastated downtown Metropolis and a high-tech Batcave, among other noteworthy locations, and they're packed with details that will please fans of the characters. Dynamic elements such as the elevated train you see rattling below you as you plummet from one level of Gotham City to another also help bring the environments to life.
The game's audio isn't amazing, but it gets the job done--matches definitely sound like those in previous Mortal Kombat offerings, and the voice acting for the characters is solid, but sadly you rarely hear them outside of the cutscenes of the story mode. The music doesn't draw much attention to itself and isn't exciting enough to match the action. If you're trying to decide between versions, it's a bit of a toss-up. They both look and play pretty much identically. The Xbox 360's online system makes it more convenient for just jumping into a match, but the PS3's D pad is better suited to fighting games and feels more precise. The PS3 version has trophies to match the 360's achievements.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe feels a bit like a mutant of a game. On one hand, the fighting mechanics are solid and fun and represent a refreshing return to the fundamental strengths that made Mortal Kombat's gameplay so compelling in the first place. On the other hand, the shift in tone from completely insane amounts of gore to only outrageous amounts of blood will put off some fans of the series' usual ultra-violence. Newcomers, on the other hand, will have little trouble button-mashing their way through the game's single-player offerings, but may find it difficult coming to grips with the more technical aspects of the gameplay necessary to get the most from the multiplayer. If the idea of beating the hell out of Liu Kang with Lex Luthor (or vice versa) appeals to you and you don't mind going online for serious competition, you'll find a satisfying fighting game in this strange but enjoyable crossover.