This is the ninth major instalment in the Mortal Kombat fighting game series. But, in something of a statement of intent, NetherRealm Studios is calling it plain old 'Mortal Kombat'; and there's some justification for the game's policy of going back to basics. Updated, 4 May 2011.
Mortal Kombat has been losing its way over the past decade or so, and fans have been crying out for the return of the things that drew them to MK in the first place: simple, 2D fighting action, and bloody fatalities. Happily both are back with a vengeance.
And plot-wise Ed Boon's team have made a respectable job of taking us back in time: literally, in fact. The premise is that thunder god Raiden, about to get whacked by Shao Kahn at the culmination of Armageddon (MK vs DC seems to have been airbrushed out of the canon plot) sends a message to his past self, desperately hoping he'll be able to change history and avoid Armageddon entirely.
So we're back at the first martial arts tournament organised by Shang Tsung (well, actually the tenth, as historians of the series will remember, but the first to be portrayed in an MK game), and watching the events unfold all over again.
This is great, for numerous reasons: one is that the plot has become absolutely ridiculous over the years, with half the cast dying and being resurrected every other Mortal Kombat game, and going back to the original setup gives a relieving breath of simplicity to proceedings. Another is the old pleasure of observing things with hindsight, and knowing more than the characters do - listening to Sektor and Cyrax pre-robot transformation, and knowing what's going to happen to them; watching Liu Kang meet Kitana for the first time; or Hollywood actor Johnny Cage still thinking all the baddies are wearing make-up. And so on.
Mortal Kombat 9: Gameplay
But some of you will be thinking: 'To hell with the plot, what about the fighting?' The makers have talked up Mortal Kombat 9's credentials as a competitive fighting game, and I would certainly agree that the fighting gameplay is strong, and rewards practice. The roster of characters seems pretty balanced, and various play styles - cautious, special move heavy, kamikaze - have a fair chance of success. 'Spamming' a special move (or leg sweep) over and over is unlikely to win any more matches than friends. (The exception to this is one-player boss fights, of which more later.)
There are combos in there, but they've been toned down from Armageddon, where they seemed to last for ever. And there are combo breakers to be had, if you charge up the small meter at the bottom of the screen to two-thirds full. Which strikes a decent balance between constant combos and constant combo breakers, to my mind.
The fights are admittedly dominated by the new X-ray moves, which knock out almost half your opponent's health (and perform a brilliant animation showing the hideous damage you're doing to their internal organs), but these are appropriately hard to pull off - not as a button combination (they're the same for every character: left and right trigger simultaneously) but because you have to fill your meter completely first, and they can be blocked, wasting all that built-up power. This introduces a nice tactical element: do you risk going for the X-ray, knowing it'll be obvious what you're up to, or expend power stealthily on powered-up projectiles and the like?
Sub-Zero's X-ray move
Mortal Kombat 9: New modes and features
For all the work that's obviously been put into the fighting gameplay, it remains to be seen whether MK9 can knock a title like Street Fighter 4 off its pedestal as a competitive favourite. But Mortal Kombat games have never really been about the purity of the fighting, and MK9 has plenty to offer in other areas to tempt casual gamers, and (I would say) moderates and even some hardcore fighters too.
Take the one-player options, for instance. Fighting games are often sparse and unappealing as a one-player proposition, losing a player's interest as soon as arcade ladder has been cracked on a decent difficulty level. But I found MK9 surprisingly deep and rewarding even without a friend to join in.
There's the 'Challenge Tower', with 300 modified fights and mini-games allowing you to win 'Koins' to buy unlockables - this mode alone should last you hours, and is great fun. These challenges are hilariously unbalanced, with hard-to-fail Test Your Might games and easy comedy tasks (such as fighting with no head, or by tearing off your own limbs and throwing them at your opponent) interspersed with preposterously tricky ones - such as the two matches where you play as a malfunctioning Cyrax who's gradually losing power. But this doesn't really matter, and you can always spend Koins to skip a particularly annoying challenge.
The Challenge Tower...
...in which one of the challenges is to fight upside down
Then there's the Story mode. In each of its 16 chapters, you fight four or five matches as a particular character. Every match is preceded by a cut scene explaining the story, and it's brilliant - like watching that old corny MK storyline dealt with properly, and taking part in all the famous grudge matches. Some of the voice acting is iffy, and you can't skip the cut scenes, which is a poor decision, but you only have to watch a given scene once per session - lose a fight and the rematch will start without any drama. Still, if you're stuck on a hard match and keep coming back to it day after day, you could get sick of its video intro. Progress is saved automatically, which is a nice touch.
Finally, there's the classic arcade ladder mode, where you fight 10 enemies in sequence, finishing with Shang Tsung, Goro (or Kintaro) and Shao Kahn. This is more limited in appeal, although there's the promise of unlocking alternate costumes when you finish the game with each character. But the bosses can be a pain to beat, with Shao Kahn particularly prone to seemingly unfair unblockable combos. As many have pointed out, you end up finding one move he's semi-vulnerable to (Cyrax's net seems to get good results) and using it constantly. This is a shame, and shouldn't work - but it seems to be the only way to get past the suddenly steep difficulty curve.
Mortal Kombat 9: Graphics and fatalities
And what of the fatalities, the gruesome finishing moves that made the series famous? Thankfully they're back on form, combining the ostentatious inventiveness of later MK games with the nastiness of early ones. None of that PG-13 nonsense here - I'm looking at you, MK vs DC - and the underwhelming Kreate-A-Fatality system in Armageddon has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Every character has at least two fatalities that are unique to them, as well as a babality (hooray!) and a stage fatality. And if that doesn't blow you away in terms of volume (it's not at all bad, but slightly behind the famously generous MKII in sheer number of finishers per character) just watching one of these masterpieces will make it clear where the time's been spent.
You'll struggle to find any throwaway, 'will this do' finishing moves, like the feeble somersault-and-uppercut fatality they gave Liu Kang at the last minute in the first Mortal Kombat - every one has been meticulously constructed and beautifully composed. Some of them hark back to classic fatalities of the early MK games, but with a bit more panache - Kung Lao, for instance, now has a fatality that combines both of his MKII finishers, first hat-decapitating his opponent and then chopping them in half down the middle. (His second fatality, on the other hand, is all new, and absolutely breathtaking.)
All the moves have a kind of cinematic sense of occasion about them, sometimes using slo-mo to heighten the effect. And there's a nice line in absurd humour.
Kung Lao's new fatality: things don't look good for Sub-Zero...
And the impact of the finishing moves is helped by the graphics of Mortal Kombat 9 being superb - which should be obvious from the screenshots here. Characters develop visible damage as the fight proceeds, and get gradually covered with each other's blood. There's one level with a spout at the side leaking blood all over anyone who stands there, which can lead to the fighters looking like they work in an abattoir.
Another nice feature is the way the game helps you to pull off some of the fatalities - there's a fatality tutorial mode, where it shows you the correct distance to stand, and tells you the button sequence - while revealing others through unlockables. I always found it odd the way fatalities used to be 'secret' - in principle it's fun to discover them for yourself, of course, but with so many possible button sequences (and other variables), the chances of finding more than a couple by accident or experiment seemed slim. The vast majority of players have always got their fatalities from games magazines or the web, so it's sensible (and nice) for MK9 to include one fatality for each character at the bottom of the special move list, accessible whenever you pause a fight.
Mortal Kombat 9: Reservations
So what's wrong with this excellent game? Well, aside from those annoying boss fights, it would be hard to deny that MK9 is backward-looking in more ways than one. It feels like an incredibly polished remake of an old game (unsurprisingly, I suppose) - things have moved on since 1992, but structurally this is pretty much the same game it always was. You line up against your opponent, fight them using a mixture of normal and special attacks, then move on to the next. It seems odd that we're still doing this sort of game all these years later, when groundbreaking titles like Grand Theft Auto have changed our ideas of what a computer game can be.
I'm also not convinced by the Xbox controller's ability to handle a fighting game, although MK9 can scarcely be blamed for that. You get caught in a quandary, since the analogue mini-stick is far better for quarter-circle moves but the D-pad is much better for 'back-back-forward' type moves and fatalities - neither seems right for the whole game. I ended up using the D-pad for virtually all of it, but switched to the mini-stick for the odd projectile-heavy challenge.
Mortal Kombat 9 is the latest instalment of the most bloodthirsty and notorious fighting game franchise out there. What follows is our original review of Mortal Kombat 9, by GamePro US's McKinley Noble, from 20 April 2011
Mortal Kombat 9 - officially just 'Mortal Kombat', to reflect the fact that this is a reboot that takes the game back in time to its long-ago roots - is the latest instalment of the most bloodthirsty and notorious fighting game franchise out there.
Mortal Kombat isn't for everyone. That's never been clearer to me since a retail copy of the latest entry in the franchise landed in our office a week ago. Some GamePro editors don't know Smoke from Noob Saibot, while others have digested every Mortal Kombat movie, TV show, and comic book. Buckets of blood, the violent 'Fatalities' and the disproportionate anatomies of the female characters disgust plenty of our staffers, while the deliberately over-the-top carnage just makes the rest of us laugh.
In several ways, Mortal Kombat is the same divisive video game franchise it was when the original title first hit arcades. But at the end of the day, this is easily the most fun I've had playing a fighting game since Street Fighter IV.
Amazingly, hardcore MK fans have stuck with this fighting series through thick and thin. Even when the games started to lose their impact; even when the movie franchise tanked (thanks, MK: Annihilation); and even when the original MK development team split up, the fanbase was still there, supporting each increasingly ridiculous release. For those fans, Mortal Kombat 9 will be a godsend, an oasis in a desert of mediocrity, and a return to form that honestly couldn't have come a moment too soon.
Mortal Kombat goes back to its roots
If the name didn't tip you off, Mortal Kombat - titled exactly like the original game - is playing the "let's reboot everything" card. Much like the films Rambo, Fast & Furious, and Star Trek, this new MK instalment is a "sequel that's not really a sequel," reviving an aged franchise with a shiny new image.
With that formula in place, the main story mode in Mortal Kombat kicks off with the ending of MK: Armageddon. Raiden, about to die at Shao Khan's hands, sends a message back in time to the past, warning his younger self about the impending events that will lead to the Earthrealm's destruction. As the plot reverts back to the beginning of the original Mortal Kombat tournament, the newly omniscient Raiden tries to change history in order to prevent his alternate future from turning out the same way.
Mortal Kombat isn't just the best-looking game in the franchise - it's one of the most interesting-looking fighters we've seen in quite a while
From a narrative standpoint, Mortal Kombat does something entirely different, since this story mode essentially acts as the "canon" timeline for the game. That being said, the plot is just as ridiculous and needlessly convoluted as any other MK title, but it's actually interesting to see the series lore revisited this way. Simply put, it's little more than a series of fights separated by cutscenes, with the story broken up into acts - each one focusing on a single leading character at a time.
It took me about five hours to play through, and the game throws you a curveball every now and then with a handicap fight or a boss battle. By far, the final boss battle is the worst, and the game will stack the odds wildly against you.
Most of the voice acting is laughably bad, complete with various story cliches and terrible one-liners, but there's a definite fun mixed in with the absolute absurdity. However, as cheesy as things get, nothing in this game really feels crammed in or half-done - except for the loading screen character illustrations, which one of our designers said looks like "Deviant Art amateur hour". Still, the presentation holds up well, though some things have been woefully cut down, like the smallish roster.
Mortal Kombat 9: Graphics
Moreover, every Mortal Kombat game since MK 2 has had one common problem: being visually distinctive, but not exceptionally polished. For the first game, that's not a problem. Right from the start, the added attention to the graphics is notable and impressive. Each fighter has a slick looking character model that rivals the attention to detail normally seen in games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter. When your chosen warrior takes damage in-battle, their clothing rips, bruises swell up, blood sprays like water from an uncorked fire hydrant, and the very flesh on people's bones starts to peel off.
Even the various stages have the appropriate amount of window dressing, with tons of background action and little moving props here and there. It's easily the best-looking Mortal Kombat game in the series, and the key difference is that it looks good technically. With the core trilogy, the big innovation was the photo-realistic sprites that were captured from live footage of actors dressed up in costumes. Mortal Kombat's technological improvements certainly aren't anything new by comparison, but it's still a relief to see an MK game that finally looks on-par with modern console titles.
Mortal Kombat's fighting system is significantly slower than that of the core MK trilogy, but the tweaks and adjustments should make the game much more approachable for new players
But true to the Mortal Kombat brand, Ed Boon's team at NetherRealm doesn't hesitate to cross the line and go from gruesome to ridiculous. Each one of the Fatalities is fun to watch, and the new X-Ray Attacks are just interesting enough that they don't get annoying with repetition (although it sucks that each fighter only has one).
Anyone who's played the original three MK games will feel right at home with the combat system, although it's still pretty clunky in comparison to Virtua Fighter, Tekken, and Street Fighter. Going back to the series' roots, Mortal Kombat is strictly a 2D fighter with no 3D movement whatsoever. You'll spend most of your time dishing out throws, jump kicks, teleports, and brutal uppercuts, but the combo system has been scaled back to prevent "move spamming." Sure, there is some technique to be used, but it's one of those cases where you're going to have to put in some practice. Still, where the fighting engine simply whelms, the extra content really shines.
For certain modes, your battles will earn you 'Koins', which can be spent in Mortal Kombat's Krypt, a map of concealed unlockables that contain extra goodies like concept art, extra Fatalities and alternate costumes. A single run through the main story mode on the normal difficulty will net you enough currency to unlock half of the Krypt, but the real challenge is completing the 300-level Challenge Tower.
For me, this was the best part of game, as the tower is filled with quick missions that force you to fight under tons of outlandish rules. One of the more memorable ones involved ripping off my own limbs as Sub-Zero and throwing them at Kitana while all my special moves had been deactivated. It's genuinely surprisingly how varied some challenges can get - even when you hit the odd one that's a bit too hard.
And that's just the single-player mode. Mortal Kombat also comes to the table with multiplayer tag battles that support up to four players, plus a 'King of the Hill' spectator mode that lets you watch other players duke it out and rate them on their performances. Overall, there's plenty of content packed into every feature, and you'll have to spend at least a week squeezing everything out of the game you can.
Character damage in Mortal Kombat goes beyond bruises and ripped t-shirts. At the end of a fight, some characters will literally have their flesh barely hanging from their bodies
Once again, Mortal Kombat 9 isn't for everyone. If you think that the series is all about shock value, you probably won't see a lot of substance beyond the flash. Heck, it's a completely valid point that the series hasn't evolved very much since the 1990s. But for casual fans who want to have a fun bloodbath, plus the hardcore crowd that keep the franchise alive with their financial support, this definitely won't disappoint you.
Mortal Kombat 9: Specs
- Game for Xbox 360 and PS3 (tested on Xbox 360)
- Game for Xbox 360 and PS3 (tested on Xbox 360)
Mortal Kombat 9's boss fights can be annoying, and I'm not totally happy with the Xbox mini-stick and D-pad - it may be worth investigating a dedicated control stick - but this remains a fantastically fun fighting game. The gameplay mechanics have been polished enough for competitive gamers to show some interest - who thought we'd ever say that about an MK title? - the atmosphere and fatalities are stronger than ever and the single-player modes are deep and thoughtfully designed. Finally, the fans have been given a next-gen Mortal Kombat worthy of the name.