The fighting game series that has showcased over-the-top violence for nearly 20 years has finally made it to store shelves for its 9th iteration. However instead of simply tacking the number 9 to the end, this new Mortal Kombat is a reboot of the series, starting over with a clean slate and looking to attract a new audience.
The first thing to talk about is the sheer depth of content on offer. In addition to the fighting game standard 'ladder mode' where you tackle each combatant in order as if you were in an arcade, there's a veritable host of other things to do. Most significant is the surprisingly deep story mode, in which the presentation of the story via kutscenes blends seamlessly with the fight sequences for an experience which is quite unlike anything that's ever been before it.
There's also a multiplayer mode, assuming that a) you have the requisite kode (we assume one comes in the box, however there wasn't one in the review copy) and b) there's people to play against (you can trial the multiplayer mode for two days at no charge, however the servers weren't setup when we were testing it, so multiplayer is completely untried).
Another kompelling [Ed: help us, we kan't stop!!] feature is the rather nifty "challenge tower" - a series of 300 ever-increasingly-difficult challenges which will test you to the very limit should you try to defeat it (good luck). The challenges within this typically take the fighting system and muck around with the rules, removing the ability to block one round then removing the heads of the players for the next. It's a fun, experimental and genuinely surprising mode - just don't be surprised if you get stuck, it gets damn hard.
The kombat itself, while very familiar from the titles that came before it, has been tweaked and fine-tuned and manages to feel fresh. Characters have new moves and the timing and effectiveness of old moves have changed. There are new kombos to learn, including many secret kombos and chains that pull in your second character (if you are playing in team mode).
You can also manually pull in your second character at any time, either to do a Marvel vs. Capcom-like assist or to actually swap with them completely. This brings a good level of strategy to the mayhem, as the rock-paper-scissors nature of the various characters abilities, strengths and weaknesses mean that you can have a tangible advantage by kountering a particular character with a different one of your own.
There's a new power-bar system, which also powers the new "x-ray" special moves. You earn power by executing your special attacks and also by having your normal attacks blocked - but not by actually hitting the opponent (the argument for that being that you're already being rewarded for your attacks by their diminishing health bar).
The bar has three levels, the ultimate of which is the aforementioned x-ray special move - which is simple to execute (all characters perform the move by pressing the same buttons). If the tutorial is to be believed, the other two levels are useful too and choosing to use it (rather than save up for the grandstanding x-ray move) may often prove decisive in determining the outcome of a battle. The first level powers up a special move you use it with, while the second allows you to interrupt a kombo in mid-beatdown. This latter ability, once mastered, will no doubt be incredibly powerful and useful - particularly once the online crowd masters the lengthy kombos that are possible.
There do seem to be some balancing issues with the fighting mechanics, with certain characters having abilities that seem overly powerful (i.e. ranged attacks that are fast, unblockable and hit you at any distance) and some fights in the story mode which seem almost impossible. Like most fighting games, though, the deeper strategy behind game design decisions may not become apparent until the game has been out for some time and has been thrashed online.
The integration with the spectacularly good fighting stick is, unfortunately, not quite perfect. The L1 button, which you use to swap with your other characters (including for "tag" combos and special moves), is awkwardly placed, resulting in some moves being nigh-on impossible to execute if you don't have massive hands. To be blunt, the standard 6-button layout would have been a far superior choice here. It's still an amazing stick and comes highly recommended, but if you do use it as your main stick, there will undoubtedly be a few moves that don't make it into your regular repertoire. It's also awkward to navigate the part of the game where you unlock bonus kontent (a massive, free-roaming graveyard) without a second analogue stick, nor can you rotate character models in the special viewing area - an odd oversight.
Visually the game is a bit of a mix. The characters (in particular their facial animation) look really good, if occasionally a bit generic (they don't appear to breathe, either). The environments, on the other hand, are frequently bland with low detail textures and sparse geometry making for a decidedly dated look overall. It's certainly not bad by any stretch of the imagination but, this late in a console generation, expectations will likely be set somewhat higher than what's on display here.
What matters most with Mortal Kombat (and, indeed, any fighting game) is the fighting engine. It's good. It's fun, it's tight and it rewards skill. The balance issues we've encountered will likely either prove to be kounterable by techniques we've yet to master or they'll be tweaked in a patch, so we're not too worried about them. The difficulty of late-game story mode or challenge tower are, most certainly, a deliberate attempt to ensure there continues to be something to do as players learn the various characters (you'll need to know MK like only the designers currently do if you want to finish either).
Ultimately, Mortal Kombat is an excellent game and, hopefully, it marks a rebirth of the franchise rather than just a one-off. It's been a long time in the making and we can't wait to see the improvements that will undoubtedly kome over time.
Note: corrected the number of missions in the challenge tower to 300, rather than 100 as originally stated.