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.