Mortal Kombat will turn 23 years old later this year, but from the looks of it, the fighting game franchise still has the raging insecurities of a teenager. With each sequel, the game’s designers – once at Midway, now at NetherRealm Studios – have beefed up the series’ technology, plot, and behavior, desperate to be taken seriously. That has never been clearer than in Mortal Kombat x.
Perhaps that’s because of the incredibly violent chip this game wears on its shoulder – one in the shape of a spine ripped from the back of a masked ninja – which forms a legacy he’s sure to never escape. Hell, it tried that in 2009 with a DC Comics mash-up game, and those non-fatal results turned out to be disastrous.
As such, the blood and dismemberment isn’t going anywhere, but as the tenth official game makes clear, neither is the game’s demand that we take the gory center of gravity of his fists. In many ways, Mortal Kombat x fails miserably with that ambition, as NetherRealm has draped proceedings with all sorts of mixed pomp and underwhelming circumstances.
Fortunately, the things that matter – the punches, the combos, the speed and guts of the game, both figuratively and literally – glisten like a bloody torso just ripped from its owner’s legs.
Can you afford my builds?
If you’re not confused Mortal Kombat in a long time you will find that the series stubbornly adheres to at least a few principles. Players still get into one-on-one battles that play out the old-fashioned, side-scrolly way – no 3D dodges or arena runs. Many of the basic moves from the 1992 original, such as uppercuts, blocks, roundhouse kicks and sweeps, are still activated with the same button combinations. Matches can still end with fatalities, which are triggered as a final blow; hit the right button combination for your fighter and you’ll spend about 12 seconds gruesomely slicing, smashing and deconstructing your opponent.
The biggest change over the years, which remains in this round, is a “special” gauge that fills up during battle. You can use a third of a fully charged meter to amp up a ‘special’ attack – to make that fireball bigger or add a few hits to that intense kick flurry – or you can wait for the meter to fill up completely is to trigger an ‘X attack’. Ray” attack that knocks out a third of your enemy’s energy.
What’s new this time? In addition to an updated roster of fighters – er, excuse us, Warriors—players now have to make an important decision before each battle. All fighters come with three different variants. We’ve seen fighting games do this sort of thing before, letting characters choose one “special” attack or, in team-fighting games, one “support” type of action, but Mortal Kombat x takes it a step further by breaking down the most intense special moves of characters into three separate archetypes.
That means characters don’t get some of their classic moves by default; only one of Raiden’s builds includes a teleport, and only one of Scorpion’s builds has him throw a fireball, for example. The biggest impact of those extra builds at this early stage is that we’re struggling more than ever to really judge the technical balance and fairness of each character. For now, we’ve definitely uncovered some duds, including: Sub-Zero’s “cryomancer,” which allows him to spawn very slow-moving weapons; Reptile’s “deceptive” build, whose invisibility move pales in comparison to his other combo-friendly options; and the “special forces” version of Sonya Blade, which allows her to generate a clumsy, slow-moving drone as an assistant.
These variations on each character theme were supposedly intended to add surprise and diversity to strategies you could use against two very different Johnny Cages. But in the long run, we fear that each character will be lucky enough to have even two versions that remain equally competitive tournament-style as players discover exploits and speed advantages inherent in each build. That said, our tune would definitely change if players could switch builds between battle rounds. That would at least be an interesting way to confuse your enemy after a first round loss, but unfortunately that feature made the MKX cut.
Fortunately, the roster is so diverse and the action so amenable to both slow and fast strategies, we don’t even break a sweat over the so-so “builds” implementation. In total, there are 23 fighters readily available, and many of them offer playstyles we’ve never seen in one Mortal Kombat game.
Our favorite newcomers include Kung Jin, a human warrior whose staff transforms into a bow for on-screen arrow action; gun-wielding outlaw Erron Black; and the giant beast Ferra, who is ridden by a small, sadistic girl named Torr – their tag-team tactics divide the difference between brute force and quick reactions. We also explore how swordsman Kenshi fits into the roster, his three-build structure being the most notable in the game, and how venom-throwing alien woman D’vorah can pull off some serious combos with an impressive array of bug-like tentacles.
Then there’s Takeda, who rocks from it Soul Calibur‘s Ivy in the form of a whipsword hybrid – but MKX‘s take is made doubly cool when the weapon transforms into a scorpion-style “come hither” grab. Really, we’re digging most of the fresh blood poured into the series’ roster, especially in how the characters open up lots of new strategies in the close-quarters, full-screen, and aerial combat stages. We’re so digging them that we’ve forgiven the bland new characters Cassie Cage (a hybrid of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade’s movesets) and Jacqui Briggs (Jax’s daughter, who’s sort of a clone of the man).
Lifetime MK aficionados and haters alike will find their key feelings about the series reinforced, namely that the controls still feel “wooden,” with characters jumping, landing, and performing maneuvers with weird little bits of slowdown and stilted animations to return to a button ready. The reason why we tolerate this fact more Mortal Kombat x than in any other version is that maneuvers now have an extra bit of “stickiness”. It’s a weird thrill to explain, but actually jump kicks, punches, and combos land a little more often than we’d expect. That’s in part due to the fact that the game pushes our moves and positions – or even reverses our desired direction of attack – as needed to increase the amount of offense by default.
As a result, despite that weird wooden toy feel to the characters that the series has always stuck with, we find that the game somehow feels faster than many of his modern fighting companions. Blood is spilled faster and as non-pro fighting game fans we love the thrill of it. We also like the special interactions that can be had in each arena, offering both special attacks and high-speed escapes from the corners of the levels. (Frankly, we think all fighting games should offer such “come out of a corner” options.) Special moves are also very, very easy to pull off, and we saw a slider in the options menu that d-pads down enough to help activate special moves. We are excited.