Not a Flawless Victory

Growing up, whenever the subject of fighting games arose among my group of friends, everyone found themselves in one of two camps: Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. I readily admit I was in the MK camp (kamp?). The franchise seemed to put a larger emphasis on the story, which appealed to me, and of course, there was the blood and gore—and the controversy over that element would eventually lead to the formation of the ESRB.

Now, with the 10th main game in the series upon us—and as someone who’s been playing the series fanatically since the early days—it’s interesting to see that Mortal Kombat X is, in many ways, attempting to get back to basics when it comes to what the franchise has always been about.

The first aspect of this is MKX’s Story mode, which takes place primarily 25 years after the events of the previous game. Shao Khan is dead, and Outworld has been thrown into turmoil courtesy of a civil war between two of his lieutenants who’ve made claims to the throne—the ramifications of which are starting to spill over into Earthrealm. Meanwhile, minions of an old enemy, the fallen Elder God Shinnok, are moving in the shadows in an attempt to bring their imprisoned master back.

Whenever NetherRealm discussed MKX, the plotline was one of the key points of emphasis. We were told it would be an epic tale that brought kombatants old and new together against an unforeseen threat. But considering that it was a point of focus for the team and that MK9 provided a strong foundation to build on, I can’t help but see MKX’s Story mode as anything short of disappointing. Part of my frustration comes from the fact that NetherRealm touted a nonlinear story here, but MKX plays out the same way Injustice:Gods Among Us and MK9 did. It’s nothing new.

The nonlinear aspects simply come from flashbacks seen far too frequently that are meant to drive the main storyline forward in a singular fashion. They’re there to fill in the blanks, add missing backstory, and make desperate attempts at character development—necessitated by the drastic leap forward in time between games. If you lose a fight, whether in the past or the present, you still need to beat it if you want to move forward and see the next cutscene (or use a cheap “skip fight” token that can be earned in the Krypt, MK’s interactive way of unlocking extra in-game content via ‘Koins’ earned by playing the game).

The saddest part of MKX’s Story mode, though, might be the glimmers of greatness the game tantalizingly teases. Plenty of interesting subplots are hinted at throughout—like how character relationships between old fighters and new have evolved in 25 years, especially those with familial ties. There’s also Outworld’s civil war, which could’ve been more deeply explored and fleshed out, given how central a role it was supposed to play. Instead, it feels like Story mode tries to cram in too many ancillary tales that, while interesting, are never properly explored. And considering that MKX is 25 percent shorter in terms of chapters than MK9, I was left wanting more in the worst way.

On the flip side of that, admittedly, you can also get too much of a good thing. The game ships with 24 fighters, only a couple less than MK9, but each one has three variations that offer different abilities. For example, Kenshi’s three variations are essentially the moves he debuted with in Deadly Alliance, those he used in MK9, and a brand-new set for MKX that allows him to manifest the spirits that possess his enchanted blade and use them offensively. Personally, I found it too much trouble to learn all the variations for each fighter. Once I found one I liked, I’d simply ignore the other two.

The entire process of experimenting with the variations is frustrating in and of itself—I think people who are into fighting games want to figure out who their “main” is as quickly as possible, so giving them 72 options just feels like overkill. I’d rather have 10 more playable characters and none of the variations than to have all these degrees of gradation.

At the very least, the fighters who do show up—16 of which we’ve seen in previous MK games, along with eight new faces—all feel truly distinct, even if their own internal variations don’t. While a few elements seem lifted from Injustice, such as Ferra/Torr’s Bane-like charge attacks or Kung Jin somewhat resembling like Green Arrow, the returning characters feel like I expected (in a good way), while the debuting fighters all bring something new to the table.

The combination of Ferra/Torr, which sees the diminutive Ferra riding atop the hulking brute Torr’s shoulders as part of an odd symbiotic relationship, has amazing range when Torr swings Ferra around like a club. I also loved playing as Cassie Cage, because she’s such a smooth blend of her parents, MK icons Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage. She quickly became one of my favorites—not just for her fighting, but also her one-liners.

Takeda feels the most distinct of all the new characters in terms of gameplay with his whip attacks and arsenal of different weapons. Both Erron Black and Kung Jin took some getting used to, but they’ve got some absolutely punishing combos once you begin to master them. Kotal Kahn is your typical slow, powerful brawler, but his sun beam that heals him but hurts opponents makes for interesting zoning strategy in battle. Jacqui didn’t really move my needle either way, since she felt like just a faster Jax, and the insect-like D’Vorah was a fighter I just couldn’t get a handle on no matter how hard I tried.

When I finally figured out what variations worked best for me, what characters I wanted to stick with, and who I’d be comfortable competing with online, I found that perhaps the most important part of a fighting game—the actual fighting—was better than ever. The combos flow smoothly, and no character feels too overpowered. Some moves are tweaked from previous versions, like slowing down Sub-Zero’s ice ball and Scorpion’s spear, but only in the interest of preventing spamming. I was surprised at how quickly I was able to adapt to the changes, which makes me think they’re all for the better.

For as good as the combat is, though, the post-fight action might be even better. Fatalities are easier than ever to pull off—and, at this point, it’s almost comical how gory they’ve gotten. Of course, it’s still immensely satisfying to make someone’s head explode with Raiden, rip apart someone’s spine with Sub-Zero, or absolutely eviscerate them with new characters like Ferra/Torr.

What surprised me more, however, was how great it feels to pull off the returning Brutalities. While they’re not as bloody, Brutalities are sometimes more difficult because they need to be executed as the last move of the final round—and some of the conditions are as brutal as the punishment one could end up delivering with the moves. So, suffocating someone with Reptile, kneecapping them with Erron Black, or punching them in the face until their neck breaks with Kung Lao is sometimes even cooler. The game even includes stage-oriented Brutalities.

But that’s not all that will make you want to keep fighting until the wee hours of the morning. A new feature in the form of the Living Towers and an old one in the Krypt provide a tremendous amount of additional content. The Living Towers are three ladders that provide fresh battles with new stipulations every hour, day, and week, constantly pushing you to test your skills in different ways.

The Krypt, meanwhile, has been transformed from a glorified gallery into almost an adventure game within itself as you explore a graveyard, caves, a mausoleum, and more from a first-person perspective, with more of the world unlocking as you find iconic Mortal Kombat weapons—Scorpion’s spear or Kung Lao’s hat, for instance. There’s even random quicktime events that have you wrestling with threats that can pop out of nowhere now and that reward you with more Koins if you succeed. In the Krypt, you’ll find concept art, Test Your Luck modifiers, and more Fatalities and Brutalities for each character, but after unlocking nearly 100 tombs in the Krypt, I do wish there were a few more interesting things to find.

Mortal Kombat X feels, in many ways, like one step forward and two steps back. I can’t get over the lack of depth when it came to Story mode, and the fighter variations aren’t as interesting as I’d hoped. However, once I finally found my favorites, the actual fighting still felt great. And with the Living Towers promising to keep the game perpetually fresh, I found there’s still plenty here to keep me coming back for more in the future.

Developer: NetherRealm Studios • Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 04.14.15
7.5
When it comes to the gameplay, Mortal Kombat X is a solid fighting game, but a small roster and shoddy story hold it back from being a complete experience.
The Good The combat feels smoother than ever, and the Living Towers keep the game fresh long after Story mode is over.
The Bad The narrative has a ton of interesting subplots—but not enough time for any of them to breathe or properly come to fruition.
The Ugly You fight against three fan-favorite characters in Story mode, but they’re not a playable part of the roster. I smell a second “Kombat Pack” already around the corner.
Mortal Kombat X is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, with versions for Xbox 360 and PS3 coming later. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review.
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