Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mortal Kombat (NetherRealm Studios, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2011)


By the time Midway went bankrupt in 2009, the strength of the Mortal Kombat brand had diminished greatly from its 16-bit heyday, when it was a controversy-courting cultural phenomenon. The series transitioned uneasily to 3-D with the lackluster Mortal Kombat 4 (1997), but it weathered the demise of arcades better than most fighting games, rebounding after director Ed Boon and his Midway Games team refocused to exclusively target the home market with 2002's Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. A generation later, however, Mortal Kombat was again struggling to stay relevant. 2008's Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe for the PS3 and Xbox 360 was a title suffering an identity crisis—too mechanically crude to satisfy competitive fighting game players, too bare-bones a package to long occupy more mainstream gamers, and too low-budget to try to get by on its looks. Even the die-hard Mortal Kombat fans were up in arms over the game's "Teen" rating and accompanying softer fatalities.

If nothing else, the underwhelming crossover perhaps paved the way for Warner Bros. to step in and purchase both the Mortal Kombat brand and its Chicago-based developer, to be rechristened NetherRealm Studios. Given this new lease on life, Boon and his team took the time to reevaluate what had worked about past successes, to truly get at the essence of Mortal Kombat, as a guide to determine what direction the series should take moving forward. The end result was 2011's reboot, titled simply Mortal Kombat.

Commonly referred to as "Mortal Kombat 9" (in order to distinguish it from the arcade original), this most recent installment dials the story and characters back to the beginning, retelling the plots of the first three games (i.e. the ones that most people are actually familiar with and fond of), though with subtle yet significant changes here and there. Every character from the original Mortal Kombat through Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 is included, although the traditional bosses remain unplayable, and the centaur-like Motaro is relegated to only appearing in the background and briefly in the story. Meanwhile, the only characters drawn from the 3-D installments are the villainous sorcerer Quan Chi from Mortal Kombat 4 and, as DLC or in the Game of the Year edition, the blind swordsman Kenshi from Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. Two new(-ish) additions to the roster include another robot ninja and another female ninja (DLC). Guest characters Kratos from God of War (PS3-exclusive) and Freddy Krueger(!) (DLC) round out the cast.

There was clearly a conscious effort here to take the series back to its roots, and that extends to the gameplay, which has triumphantly reverted to being entirely 2-D. The combat is classic and familiar yet also refreshing. Gone is the bloat of all the stances and weapon styles introduced in the 3-D games. There is a "change stance" button, but the effect is purely aesthetic; you can have either your character's front or their back facing the camera, but it won't alter their attacks in any way. This back-to-basics approach was initiated in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, but the reboot even dispenses with that game's sidestep. It's also a much sharper and more polished game besides, no longer plagued by floaty jumping or instances of weird collision. The combat is fast, maybe not the most fluid, but accessible while still possessing enough depth to give it some competitive legs.

Evo 2011 Mortal Kombat Grand Finals


Mortal Kombat remains confidently unique, a 2-D fighter that is not a Street Fighter derivative. Projectiles pass through one another, normal attacks inflict chip damage, and you have to press a button in order to block. Nor is the game comparable to 3-D fighters, such as Tekken and Soul Calibur. The ranged game in Mortal Kombat is more of a factor than even in Street Fighter, as virtually every character has one or more projectiles. There is a certain degree of homogeneity to the characters, as everybody walks and jumps about the same, and they mostly all have the same uppercut, jump kick, and sweep.

The one major new Street Fighter-esque mechanic is a revamped three-level super meter. At one bar, the player can perform an enhanced special attack (similar to "EX moves" in Street Fighter III and IV). At two bars, you can perform a combo breaker to get yourself out of trouble. Saving up a full three bars gains you access to your character's "X-Ray Attack." These risky yet devastating attacks are Mortal Kombat's take on the super combo—a first for the series. They also provide this installment's signature effect, wherein the camera zooms in and enters X-ray view to show the extreme damage inflicted as it happens—bones shattering and blades piercing the skull. Landing an X-Ray Attack can quickly turn the tide of battle, and yet, even as powerful as these moves are, the damage they deal to the opponent's health bar doesn't quite live up to just how horrific the attacks are made to look. It's a bit silly watching a character's skull get bashed in by an X-Ray Attack, only to have them get right back up and ready to continue the fight. You would expect such an attack to be fatal. In fact, Liu Kang's X-Ray Attack is his classic fatality—a cartwheel into an uppercut—from Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II. At the competitive level, of course, the hard-to-land X-Ray Attacks are seldom seen, meter being most often reserved for the combo breakers.

For the majority of consumers, who will never play at a competitive level, Mortal Kombat includes a ton of single-player content. The game has received much praise for its story mode in particular, which many reviewers have stated should be the model for all fighting game story modes. In reality, the format is nothing revolutionary. The structure, alternating between gameplay (i.e. fighting) and non-interactive story sequences, is essentially the same formula that has been employed in most triple-A games of other genres for as long as video games have aspired to be like movies. Within fighting games, Guilty Gear and the other Arc System Works games have included story modes that basically operate the same way, only they have had to make do with flat images and text (and maybe voiceover), compared to Mortal Kombat's fully animated cut scenes. This game's own immediate predecessor, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, included a story mode that was done in the exact same manner, advancing the plot through voiced and animated cut scenes in between fights, yet it received barely any notice, probably because the story was insufferably stupid.

What elevates this game's story mode so far above all those others, ultimately, is not any inspired narrative technique. Rather, the story itself is simply entertaining. At least, the back two-thirds of it is. The first part, which retells the story of the first Mortal Kombat, is overly familiar and simplistic—a vaguely mystical take on Enter the Dragon, or any number of early Van Damme movies based around underground martial arts tournaments. Or if you've ever seen the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie (as I have multiple times for some reason), this is just an uglier version of that. Although the game generally looks pretty good—better than Mortal Kombat ever has before, with even the various ninja characters appearing visually distinct—the cinematics, rendered in real-time, are merely serviceable, and are especially disappointing after the awesome pre-rendered opening to Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (2006).

The chapters based on Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3 are stronger, thanks in no small part to the addition of archvillain Shao Kahn, surely the series' most transcendent creation and one of the greatest video game antagonists, period. Beyond gameplay, the pitiless emperor of Outworld's personality comes to permeate the series. As the announcer, his booming delivery has become forever attached to such series-defining exhortations as "Fight!" and "Finish Him!" And, while cheap video game bosses may be common enough, perhaps no other has such brass as Shao Kahn to pause mid-battle to add insult to injury, taunting the player repeatedly with lengthy and cutting barbs. His obsessed schemes to invade Earthrealm through victory in Mortal Kombat tournaments frankly defy all reason, but his brutality and treachery at least provide for some enjoyably lowbrow material for the story mode.

Even for players who already know the plots of the first three games, this retelling is really the first time the story has been told via a (mostly) linear, coherent, and fleshed-out narrative. In the original games, the only in-game story material consisted of prologues and the various characters' bios and arcade mode endings, which often conflicted with one another. There was probably a story bible somewhere that detailed the canonical sequence of events, but you would have had to venture beyond the games themselves to learn why, for example, Johnny Cage was missing from Mortal Kombat 3. At last, in the reboot, players can learn what happened to Jax's arms between Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3, discover how Kabal came to be so disfigured, and experience the origin story of Noob Saibot. Some questions linger. For example, what the hell is Nightwolf's deal?

The movie sequences are easy to follow and enjoy, but, as a game, the story mode is not quite as fun to play, and it doesn't do a great job of teaching players the mechanics. Although every heroic character gets a turn in the spotlight, combat can quickly become a dull exercise of just repeating the same jump kick with every character, as the most efficient way to get past the AI and advance the story. As is typical with fighting game story modes, there are also way too many totally contrived matches, where one character will randomly run into another character, and they'll immediately start exchanging blows over some misunderstanding. I also have no idea how the Mortal Kombat rules committee justifies having so many tournament rounds pitting the player one-on-two against a tag team of opponents.

Once done with the sizable story mode, there is still the more traditional arcade mode as well, where you can fight through a ladder of opponents and unlock your character's ending upon defeating Shao Kahn. With a playable cast of 27 characters (+4 DLC/GOTY additions, +1 PS3 exclusive), that's a lot of endings to unlock, although these are done up in the classic style—narration over still images—and considerably more inane than the story mode cinematics.

Most of the offline player's time will probably be spent in the "Challenge Tower," consisting of 300 short challenges. These include fights with special victory conditions, as well as a number of mini-games, including a shell game (which uses severed heads in place of shells) and the classic "Test Your Might" bonus round. Many of the challenges are conceptually clever, although, without an attached story to motivate progress, there's no real hook to keep players going for round after round. I wish some of the challenge content had been integrated into the story mode to give it more variety, a la the story mode in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure for the PS1 (1999), which I still consider to be the greatest single-player mode in any fighting game.

Completing challenges earns the player coins, which can be spent to unlock concept art. There is enough art to unlock that it would take the average player weeks to complete the collection. I personally had no interest in this, so I didn't delve very far into the challenges. I should point out that I did not grow bored of the game in a vacuum. Were I a younger gamer, or one with only funds enough to buy a new game every few months, I'm sure Mortal Kombat could have kept me happily occupied for a very long time. As it is, I simply have other games to move on to that I'd rather spend my time on.

But I truly admire NetherRealm for its commitment to producing a fighting game that actually includes substantial and worthwhile (and, unlike in the previous generation's Mortal Kombat titles, germane—no puzzle or kart racer games this time) single-player content, and not at the expense of the competitive component. Comparing Mortal Kombat to Street Fighter IV, certainly Capcom's game has more refined art and has cultivated a much healthier competitive scene. But, to almost anybody who is not a part of that competitive world (i.e. the vast majority of gamers), Mortal Kombat has so much more to offer. And most of the modes and features that Mortal Kombat has over other fighting games are actually incredibly obvious inclusions to anyone who hasn't already been conditioned to expect only the bare minimum that is the standard in the genre.

One feature that I especially appreciate is Mortal Kombat's tag team mode. You can play versus matches with up to four players, and you can even fight through the arcade mode with a partner cooperatively. It's not perfect. The arcade mode endings only recognize the first player. This led to an awkward moment, when my brother and I completed it as Liu Kang and Raiden. After my Liu Kang fell to Shao Kahn, my brother as Raiden finished the fight... only to watch as Liu Kang jumped in to steal the kill in the succeeding cinematic, followed by an even more awkward ending, where Liu Kang actually killed Raiden in order to take the thunder god's powers and position for himself. Nevertheless, it's a lot of fun being able to take the fighting beyond one-on-one, and it boggles my mind why this isn't more standard an option. Capcom doesn't have tag modes, it has tag games. Namco is the same. The only times Tekken includes tag team gameplay, the word "tag" has to be in the game's title. In Mortal Kombat, it is humbly included as though a matter of course.

Much as it has always forged its own path as a fighting game, apart from its Japanese peers, here Mortal Kombat looks not to Street Fighter as the standard for what a fighting game should include, but is rather more comparable to such a genre-transcending industry leader as Call of Duty, which receives equal attention for its campaign and online components, or to EA's sports games, which are full of modes and options to accommodate playing alone, online, or with three friends locally.

Mortal Kombat, as a brand, will probably never again be as prominent as it was in the '90s. It's certainly not as novel anymore. If anything, the gratuitous gore is, along with the ridiculously skimpy outfits for the female characters, the most unbearable aspect of the game for me, as some of these HD fatalities are truly stomach-churning. But 2011's reboot is, better than novel, a legitimately great game, which all other fighting game developers should look to and learn from, if they mean for this genre to survive and expand beyond the hardcore competitive audience.

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