Review by scarlet_puppy

"Not quite a flawless victory, but still one of the best fighting games out there"

Before I start, I should point out that before I picked this game up, I had never played any Mortal Kombat games before. In fact, save for Super Street Fighter IV, I really hadn't played many 2D fighting games at all. So I wasn't sure whether I was going to enjoy the game very much, but I figured that I'd at least get some cheap laughs from the gruesome and over-the-top fatalities. I was very surprised (and thrilled) that it actually turned out to be a very deep and rich fighting game.

For newcomers like me, the game gives a very good first impression due to its comprehensive tutorial, which runs you through the basics of the game such as special moves, super meter, combo breakers, basically everything you need to know to get the ball rolling. This is very helpful, because other fighting games out there (such as Tekken 6), tend to be very complicated and overwhelming for beginners, and there isn't really enough there to help ease them into it. Here, the game makes sure that you're up to scratch before you start fighting properly.

In addition, the game has an impressive character roster to choose from – for those of us playing on the 360, there are 27 characters generally, plus an extra four available through DLC. Some may consider this underwhelming compared to previous entries, which sometimes supported twice that many characters, but in practice I think that 31 is plenty. Also, it's much more important for the character roster to be well-balanced and unique (which this game's roster manages no problem) rather than be filled with tons of characters only for one to totally dominate everyone else.

While fighting games are not usually intended for single-player, this game's single-player modes are comparatively impressive. There's the standard ‘arcade ladder' mode, where you progress through ten different fights and unlock an ending (plus an extra costume) at the end. Pretty much your standard ‘arcade mode' fare, though admittedly the AI for the boss battles can be very frustrating, especially in the case of Shao Kahn, who starts bombarding you with hammers that cause insane stun, has armour that stops him from flinching on loads of his moves, and to top it all off he has twice as much health. To beat you, you have to fight cheap yourself, and spam projectiles, rather than fight him fairly like with everyone else. What's really annoying is that by the time you've lost three times or so, he reduces himself to constantly spamming, so when you inevitably beat him then, you don't feel like you've achieved anything by beating him! So ultimately, the arcade ladder ends up being a bit lacklustre.

The other single-player modes, however, fare much better. There's ‘Challenge Tower' mode, which consists of 300 ‘challenges' in total, ranging from normal fights, to fights under specific conditions, and occasionally one of several mini-games such as “Test Your Sight”, “Test Your Strike” and “Test Your Might”. This mode adds a lot of replay value to the game, and on the whole it's pretty good fun. The mini-games themselves, however, are a bit too easy to be much fun outside of novelty value. One notable exception to this is ‘Test Your Luck', which pits you against a randomly chosen opponent, with various positive or negative effects being randomly chosen. This includes, among other things, ‘Armless Kombat' (no attacks using arms or blocking), ‘Floor of Flame' (fire pillars appear at random and burn you) and other similar handicaps/benefits. All in all, this mini-game has much more replay value than the others, and is great fun now and then.

However, the main centrepiece of the single-player experience is the story mode, and by all rights this game's story is pretty impressive by fighting game standards. Basically, Raiden sends a message to his former self, telling him how to prevent Shao Kahn from merging the realms and becoming supreme ruler. From there, the story essentially becomes similar to that of the first three MK games, only this time around there are various changes thanks to Raiden trying to manipulate events and save the future. However, this only makes things worse, and as time goes on, many of the fighters end up suffering due to these new events. The gameplay itself consists of going through several pre-determined characters, with each fighting several others until you move onto the next character. On the whole, the story mode isn't bad. However, there was one thing I disliked – the fact that you can't skip the cutscenes! I mean, it's 2011 – surely it wouldn't have been that hard to let people press ‘A' to skip or something, would it?

All this and I haven't even talked about the actual fighting mechanics yet! Anyway, the fighting system in itself is pretty well-balanced. When I play through the game, it feels like a cross between ‘Tekken 6' and ‘Super Street Fighter IV', with some new aspects thrown in for good measure. The ‘front/back punch/kick' system ultimately works out a lot like Tekken's ‘one button per limb' system does, and on the whole I think it was handled very well. Each character has a set of basic moves, such as low punch, low kick, uppercut, sweep etc. (though these obviously have differing properties by character), and from there they have various ‘kombo strings' and ‘special moves' which they can use to defeat their opponent. As stated previously, there are also many differences between the playstyles of different characters. Some excel in controlling the air, others need to be up-close to apply pressure. Yet despite these differences, the game manages to maintain a decent level of balance as well – not quite as good as the likes of ‘Tekken 6', but enough that very few characters feel totally helpless.

One aspect of the game that has evidently been inspired by Street Fighter is the super meter. This builds up over time when your opponent blocks, you take damage or you use special moves. Just like in Street Fighter, you can use a block of this meter to perform an ‘enhanced special move', which gives the special move new properties such as armour, increased damage or better range. Alternatively, you can save up three blocks of this meter and try to perform an ‘X-ray attack'. These are much like ‘super moves' from Street Fighter, only much more brutal. As these attacks are performed, the camera close-ups on the characters' skeletons, so you can see their skulls, ribcages and other bones being cracked and split, and it's brutally painful. Another way you could use your super meter is to perform a ‘combo breaker'. Unlike other games where you just have to eat the damage from a juggle, here you have the opportunity to break out of the combo and mess with your opponent's rhythm. However, you have to think carefully before doing this, because it takes up two blocks of meter – you have to quickly weigh up whether the damage not taken is worth losing such a huge chunk of meter for, and anything that encourages active thinking during a fight is good in my eyes.

On the whole, it's very clear that the system borrow heavily from the ‘Street Fighter' series. This isn't a bad thing, of course, since SSFIV was a pretty awesome game. However, there's no way I could do a review of Mortal Kombat without mentioning the one thing it's so famous for – Fatalities. So you've defeated your opponent, and your announcer is commanding you to ‘Finish him!' – what better way to rub it in their face than to kill them in the most outrageously over-the-top fashion you can think of? Yep, fatalities include (but are definitely not limited to) – ripping off your opponent's skin with your bare hands, slicing their stomach and then cutting their head in two and blasting their limbs off them smashing their head into the ground. All of this is of course accompanied by ludicrous amounts of blood and gore. There are also ‘stage fatalities' (you kill your opponent using part of the stage you're fighting on) and ‘babalities' (you turn your opponent into a baby).

The graphics in this game are, on the whole, pretty stellar. They aren't pushing the limits of the 360 games console by any means, but each character has a lot of detail on them, and there are various creepy background events going on while you're fighting. Animation is, on the whole, mostly fluid, and on the whole there are no major complaints in this area. One thing that's interesting, however, is how they put these graphics to such appropriate use – as well as getting to see many old fatalities in horrifically gory HD glory (nice little rhyme there!), even before you get to that point your character gets covered in cuts, bruises and other wounds, and after just one round both fighters look seriously beaten up. This, coupled with the very skimpy outfits most of the females wear, makes for a very disturbing feel, but then that's probably what they were shooting for.

Sound-wise, the game is OK, but nothing to write home about. The music itself doesn't stand out very much – it's very subdued and doesn't get in the way of the fighting, and on the whole isn't very memorable. Sound effects, however, are done much more effectively. This is especially true of the X-ray attacks, where the sounds of bones cracking are crisp and clear and downright cringeworthy. The developers did very well with the sound effects. Voices, however, are on and off. Given what the characters are going through, you'd be expecting to hear excruciating screams and other such pained sounds. A few characters deliver this (such as Mileena), whereas others sound… almost bored, somehow. And in some cases characters manage to scream even if their head has already been ripped off! So overall, the sound is pretty good, but with some flaws here and there.

In terms of online play, the game also does pretty well. You can choose between one-on-one and tag team play, either ranked or player match, and there is also a ‘king of the hill' mode, where a group of various people take turns to play each other, and as two are fighting, the others can directly influence the match at hand! The netcode on the whole is fairly stellar – there are some lag problems now and then, but overall that's mostly down to individual connections and not netcode. Unfortunately, like most online game it's blighted by people who ragequit, but ultimately the game at least makes an attempt to punish players for doing this. Overall, there's not much to complain about regarding the game's online mode.

On the whole, the flaws that do exist in gameplay are only minor in nature. For instance, regarding the super meter, it would've been nice if it built up a bit faster, so that enhanced moves could be seen more often. On that front, it seems odd that if your opponent blocks your attacks, you build up lots of meter, yet if they get hit by them you don't. Why shouldn't the meter build up if you succeed in hitting them? Also, despite the game generally encouraging offense (chip damage on block, the aforementioned meter build-up), there are next to no moves that provide advantage on block. Again, a minor thing, but it seems odd that such an offense-oriented game wouldn't have more block advantage moves.

Still, I can safely say that Mortal Kombat is definitely up there with the best fighting games of this generation. It's on par with the excellent ‘Super Street Fighter IV' in terms of the fighting mechanics, and there's a lot of bonus material here and stellar online, meaning that there's a considerable amount of replay value in this title. You should absolutely, definitely buy it if you see it in-store (or get someone else to buy it for you, depending on your age), even if you aren't that big a fan of fighting games.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/04/12, Updated 01/06/12

Game Release: Mortal Kombat (EU, 04/21/11)

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