The first time I played Mortal Kombat, I was too young. I remember the chilled unease in my chest as I watched life-like characters get knocked into pools of acid, limbs torn asunder, and other lovely images not fit for mini-Ryan. More than a decade later, I'm sitting in front of the latest Mortal Kombat, conveniently titled "Mortal Kombat." After years of spin-offs, 3D fighters, and other efforts, the developers at the newly coined NetherRealm Studios are bringing the series back to its core: violent, 2D fighting with an outrageous aesthetic.
While many Mortal Kombats in the past were remembered for their excessive gore and not for their fighting engines, the latest Mortal Kombat is a legitimate competitive fighter... and it has enough gore to make parents run for the hills. Even though the single-player modes are rife with imbalances, the core experience in Mortal Kombat is exciting, challenging, and hella bloody.
I think we all know that the plotlines in Mortal Kombat are a little ridiculous. Ice ninjas, half-dragons, thunder gods, and busty policewomen are commonplace in this series. In Mortal Kombat, you'll be reliving the events of Mortal Kombat 1, 2 and 3, so newcomers to the series won't actually be lost here. I don't know the lore well and I felt comfortable following along with the zaniness. Here's a summary: big, bad Shao Kahn is seriously f*****g up the world. He kills everybody at the end of the Mortal Kombat storyline, so Raiden sends a message back through time to prevent it. The result? Alternate history!
The story is weak compared to other recent, non-MK video game efforts. I was entertained from start to finish -- partly because of all the dismembered limbs and the fact that Baraka is a total joke -- but it was a cheesy ride.
Mortal Kombat has returned to a 2D plane, which I've always preferred for fighting games. Both one-on-one and tag team matches are available, so there's plenty of options when you're setting up a fight. When it comes to the basics, each character has a set of simple moves as well as a bunch of special attacks. I found combos and special attacks easy to execute, but stringing together attacks and keeping an opponent stunned/juggled will take some time to get.
The crux of Mortal Kombat's fighting engine is the super gauge, which fills as you give and receive damage. This is where a fair amount of Mortal Kombat's strategy comes into play. The gauge is divided into three segments, and those segments can be spent in different ways. Expending one segment will enhance any of your character's special moves. So instead of Nightwolf's single glowing green arrow, he fire's three.
If you fill the gauge more and spend two segments, you can break out of an opponent's combo. This is a critical defensive option if you find yourself flailing through the air with a rapidly depleting health bar. Lastly, spending the whole shebang will unleash a devastating x-ray attack, which deals terrible, terrible damage to your victim. It can turn the tide of a fight, but missing it will put you in an awful spot with no super gauge to spend.
To me, this gauge is one of the best parts of Mortal Kombat. It's a simple concept (spend more, do cooler things), but it's rich with possibilities. I found myself favoring the combo breaker and x-ray attack, but I'm sure there will be players that use enhanced specials more often.
The gameplay in Mortal Kombat will be different for those of you accustomed to the speed and fluidity of games like Super Street Fighter IV. I appreciate those types of fighters as much as the next guy/gal, but the savage, deliberately paced fighting in Mortal Kombat feels great to me. Landing a combo and executing special moves is more visceral here then in other fighting games. This is, in part, thanks to the glorious sound design, because effects like Kitana's fans and Jade's staff sound incredible.
So with exciting combat, bloody Fatalities, and tons of things to unlock, Mortal Kombat sounds awesome, right? It is, especially when playing with friends locally or online. Local play is the best because it doesn't suffer from any lag, whereas I detected a slight delay in online play. But not all all is well in the land of Mortal Kombat. I was bewildered by the imbalances found in the single-player modes. You're very often thrown into two-on-one matches and confronted with bosses that actually break the game's rules (like not being staggered when hit).
Whenever I voiced my frustrations to other IGN editors, the response was always the same: "Sounds like typical Mortal Kombat." Sticking to tradition isn't a good excuse, and I was so frustrated with certain sections of the story mode I almost quit playing through it. Sure, I beat it by falling back on special move spamming and plenty of sweeps, but why play a fun game in a boring way?
Furthermore, there's some odd presentation issues that I wouldn't have expected from Mortal Kombat. Chief among them is your inability to pause or skip cutscenes in the story mode. There isn't even a chapter select of any kind. It's a terrible setup.