WORDS BY: Mikel Reparaz
Kung Lao lies dead, crushed beneath massive skeletal fingers. Baraka slumps against a tree, bisected by Kung Lao’s hat. Johnny Cage’s sunglasses lay shattered next to his severed head, while a vulture pecks at the top half of what used to be Sonya Blade. And atop a corpse-strewn pyramid, just as gloating warlord Shao Kahn delivers a final blow, dying thunder-god Raiden sends a cryptic message back through time: “He must win.”
Call us suckers for continuity, but it’s good to see that the new Mortal Kombat isn’t just a reboot of the gore-soaked fighting franchise — picking up at the end of 2006’s MK: Armageddon, it’s an in-canon reboot. After the nod to what’s come before, the story rapidly rewinds to the beginning of the first MK tournament, where a younger Raiden receives his future self’s message and tries to act on it. His efforts lead to a somewhat altered retelling of the first three MK games’ storylines, and generally throw things into turmoil — which, of course, provides an excuse for more gruesome bloodshed than ever before.
Possibly inspired by Street Fighter (yet again), MK ditches the 3D approach of its last few predecessors and brings back 2D simplicity. Gone are the multiple fighting styles and weapons, replaced with a satisfyingly brutal, combo-heavy system that looks and feels like a refined version of MK vs. DC Universe’s fist-flying action. Simple “kombos” are easy to execute by mashing buttons (though fighters have plenty of more complicated ones for serious players to memorize), and certain old-standard moves, like uppercuts and sweeps, are once again as easy to pull off as they were in the early MKs. So are most of the old special moves, like Sub-Zero’s classic ice blast and Scorpion’s harpoon, which retain their original-MK controller motions.
The old-school moves are accompanied by old-school characters: the 25 starting fighters are all familiar faces, representing nearly the entire cast of Ultimate MK3, plus Johnny Cage and Baraka. They’ve received updated designs and new abilities, but just the same, it would have been nice to see more than a couple of (secret) new fighters.
However, there’s a lot that is completely new, like the three-part super meters at the bottom of the screen. These enable enhanced special moves, combo breakers, and — when completely full — devastating “X-ray” moves that show cutaways of your opponent’s bones and organs as they shatter in slow motion. That leads us to MK’s biggest selling point: its gore. The new Fatalities are silly, but they’re also more over-the-top brutal than ever before, thanks to the fully rendered bones and organs inside each fighter. Throw in disfiguring, muscle-exposing damage on the fighters’ bodies as they take hits, and this version is easily the nastiest Kombat yet.
True to form for MK, there’s much more to the game than pure one-on-one fighting. Those who want to jump straight into the brutality can tackle the arcade-style Ladder, which you can play with tag teams as well — and if you want a friend along, they can even contribute to the action as your tag-team partner. If versus is your thing, you can play one-on-one, two-on-one, or two-on-two tag matches, and online play even features an eight-player King of the Hill mode in which two players at a time fight while the rest spectate. Winners face off again, while losers are sent to the back of the line.
If you’re somehow bored with straight-up fighting, you can try the enormous Challenge Tower mode filled with bizarre trials and minigames, including fights with special conditions, variations on Test Your Might, and zombie-shooting challenges. Meanwhile, those seeking something more epic can play through the story mode, which features multiple playable characters and, as we said, covers the events of the first three MK games. It’s pretty involving (if relatively bloodless), but be warned: its cutscenes are long, unskippable, and replay whenever you reload a saved game.
Mortal Kombat still isn’t quite up to Street Fighter’s level of complexity, but it’s a deep, incredibly brutal fighter nonetheless, offering tons of variety and hidden extras. It’s a goofier reboot than we were expecting, but it’s also the most fun the MK series has been in years
+ Surprisingly deep fighting makes the action loads of fun.
+ Tag battles, multiplayer, and other modes add lots of replayability.
- Story-mode cutscenes can’t be skipped.
? Why does the story mode’s final boss have to be so frustrating?