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Mortal Kombat

“MORTAL KOMBAT!!!”

So, one might assume that I’ve been occasionally exposed to this oft-controversial fighting series since its debut, having been raised in that general time period – this is not wrong. Furthermore, you could assume that I would, therefore, be a fan of Mortal Kombat, with a moderate to high knowledge of the series’ trivia – which includes knowing who Shao Kahn is (the ruler of another world called Outworld) or when the tenth Mortal Kombat tournament occurred (very first game).

Well, that part’s not quite as true.

I never played the games, and my exposure to them was limited at best. It always felt like something was pushing me away from liking this franchise’s over-the-top antics and love for extreme violence, besides which I was never the right age for it. Now that Mortal Kombat 2011 is out, however, I can tackle it as an adult, with no distinct bias or opinion, and see if it finally serves as the stepping stone for Kombat virgins into these games.

Mortal Kombat throws aside what I gather were the shackles of 3D fighting games and instead returns to the series’ roots in the 2D perspective, with the difference lying in the impressively-detailed and incredibly believable 3D character models. Two “kombatants” (as they’re called) face off on a flat stage, never changing perspectives unless special moves or Fatalities are involved.

Fatalities, for those Kombat virgins like myself I mentioned above, are the game’s way of rewarding focus and careful control in battle with a brutal finale that requires specific input. These actions vary in gruesomeness (punching through a fighter’s chest, believe it or not, is relatively mild) as well as effect – trust me when I say it’s the secret moves that surprise most of all. Of course, if you don’t want to wait, you can utilize this game’s special X-Ray moves, which can be easily activated once the game’s Power Meters are fully charged and result in equally brutal attacks.

Yes, the controls for all combatants generally allow for fast-paced button-mashing and simple manoeuvres, but the real treat is that there are also plenty of simple-to-understand, difficult-to-master combos for each of the combatants. Players who spend a bit of time with the intuitive and genuinely helpful Tutorial modes can notice an improvement in the quality of their fighting technique. For instance, you can use the Power Meter to resist special attacks or use lower-level special attacks yourself.

Practice definitely does make perfect as the sheer breadth of content (or kontent) in this game is usually worth the effort to wade through. In addition to the typical tournament-style Arcade Mode (complete with fitting and entertaining endings), there is a complete Story Mode, the Tag Ladder (basically Arcade Mode with two-people teams), the Challenge Tower (which offers 300 challenges that range in task and difficulty), the Krypt (a four-section mode where the game’s currency – Koins – can be spent on unlockable costumes, concept art and music), and four challenge modes based around certain tests – Test Your Might asks you to chop solid objects in half, Test Your Strike requires just enough strength to break specific objects, Test Your Sight asks you to play a game of “Follow the Object”, and Test Your Luck adds modifiers to a fight between Kombatants which leads to some weird “kombat” scenarios.

Plus, that’s not even discussing multi-player. The game offers King of the Hill alongside its solid online matchmaking, which allows lobbies of players to spectate and cheer on matches. There is a good amount of stages, and 27 core characters at your disposal (not including Kratos or the DLC characters), and the game also offers up to four player battles offline (through tag battles).

To say there’s a lot to do is an understatement; to say none of it matters would be an insult. The Challenge Tower has a lot of weirdly entertaining scenarios to play out – from stopping a horde of creatures from Outworld (they’re called Tarkatans, and they are nasty to humans) to fighting a stuntman (Johnny Cage really is a lovable prick, isn’t he). Although not everything in the Krypt is interesting, the fact that there’s so much to explore and so much of it is decent should be impressive.

The big thing that will draw in rookies, though, is the Story Mode. If it had been any less polished in its aesthetics or more campy in its writing, I could only recommend the experience to fans. However, Ed Boon and his oh-so-gifted team at NetherRealm Studios knew where their strengths lay, resulting in what can honestly be called the best story in a fighting game (and personally, one of the best of 2011).

Mortal Kombat 2011 initially starts off where Armageddon, the last canonical Mortal Kombat, left off: with all of the kombatants super-charged and fighting for dominance. Sadly, in a quick scene that carries a surprising amount of weight, we’re given the impression that Earthrealm (the main setting of Mortal Kombat) is royally screwed. The only warriors left to fight for Earthrealm are Shao Kahn, the overlord of rival realm Outworld, and Raiden, Earthrealm’s mystic guardian.

However, Shao Khan is now god-like and Raiden has been beaten to a pulp. On death’s door, Raiden pulls one of the more recently famous reboot tricks – calling out to his past self – in an attempt to prevent the apocalypse. This causes the past Raiden to receive visions of this dark future with a single phrase, “He must win”, to guide him in a series-wide quest to change Earthrealm’s fate.

In essence, this is a retelling/amalgam of the plots of Mortal Kombat through Mortal Kombat 3, but what makes this an effective story comes down to its structure. The story is split into sixteen chapters, switching between sixteen of Earthrealm’s guardians, and experiencing the Mortal Kombat tournament from their perspectives. Each character gets the spotlight just enough to be fleshed out as complex and intriguing, but not enough to wear you out.

The story’s well-paced, and balances action and drama well. There’s even time for some emotional moments as the flawed Lord Raiden comes into conflict with his comrade, Liu Kang, and deals with the consequences of his actions. Granted, some side characters and antagonists aren’t fleshed out beyond simple motivations like “beat Shao Kahn” or “conquer Earthrealm”, but again the range across the entire story is greater than the sum of each story element.

If there are any complaints to be had, it’s with some of the fights. During the campaign, kombat occurs between cutscenes, and these fights are usually enjoyable. That being said, there are some fights later on, particularly where Shao Kahn is concerned, in which the opponents are overly difficult and even programmed to use cheap battle tactics.

Whatever issues there may be with the quality of the unlockables or the balancing of A.I (or, admittedly, some imbalance with certain characters), nothing can really harm the presentation. The graphical fidelity is impressive, character models are nicely rendered and every stage feels dynamic and lively with action and colour. It doesn’t hurt that the art design feels varied and the liberal use of blood and entrails is effective in emphasizing the brutal nature of this tournament, while still being over-the-top in entertainment value.

More can be said about the voice acting, which gives life to each character and battle as well as making the story more engaging. From Raiden’s calm demeanour to Scorpion’s barely-contained rage, Liu Kang’s dutiful champion-like tone to Shang Tsung’s arrogantly aloof nature, everyone fits their roles well. The soundtrack’s simply okay, but not exceptional – it kind of fades into the background when you’re tearing apart your enemies.

What more needs to be said about Mortal Kombat? This is truly the first time that NetherRealm Studios has actively tried to expand their audience by making the combat, the storytelling and the visual spectacle more impressive than ever. I can safely say that if you’re a fan or a newcomer, you will find something to enjoy in this sick (in a good, 90s lingo kind of way) game. Or, as Scorpion might put it, “GET OVER HERE!”

Score: 9/10

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