Mortal Kombat Review: Bone-Breakingly Fantastic

It has been a long, bloody road to bring Mortal Kombat to the PS3 and Xbox 360. After Midway’s bankruptcy, almost none of the company’s franchises were able to escape from the financial fatality unscathed. Even in the middle of the company’s financial woes, Ed Boon and his team at Midway Chicago (now NetherRealm Studios) continued to toil away on the next entry in the series. With Midway’s bankruptcy settled and the franchise now in the hands of WB Games, Mortal Kombat is ready to inflict its signature brand of mayhem onto the world once again.

Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Publisher: WB Games
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Genre: Gory One-On-One Fighting
Release Date: April 19, 2011
ESRB Rating: Mature

Like Scorpion emerging from the fires of Hell, NetherRealm Studios has declared this ninth game in the series to be a rebirth of sorts. To complete that metaphor, the team started at the end, but went back to the beginning. As Armageddon has come to pass, only Raiden and Shao Kahn remain. But before he can deliver the finishing blow, Raiden sends a warning back in time to himself. Using these visions, the Raiden we were all introduced to in 1992 attempts to change the events of MK1, MK II and MK3 to avert Armageddon.

What follows is a return to the basics in more than just the storyline. Gone is the 3D movement of the Deadly Alliance trilogy. Instead, all of the fighting takes place on a 2D plane, just as it did in the 90s. This has allowed NetherRealm to make the fighting in Mortal Kombat feel faster and more refined than ever before. But far from feeling stale, this has morphed the franchise into the “tournament-level fighter” the developers pledged to create. Combos hit with a powerful force that no longer require “Dial-A-Combo” button presses and special moves have been rebalanced to make the kombat feel more fair. The new Mortal Kombat also has more Fatalities than any other game in the series. It is, without a doubt, the definitive Mortal Kombat game.

But with all this talk about the basics, Mortal Kombat does plenty of new things as well. The multi-tiered Super Meter returns from MK vs DC Universe, now with three sections. Filling the first section allows your kombatant to perform an “enhanced” special move while filling the first two sections enables a Combo Breaker counterattack. Filling all three sections gives kombatants access to their X-Ray Move, a massively powerful combo that shatters bones, breaks teeth and gives us a brutal closeup of the carnage. The blood and bones fly freely in Mortal Kombat; between the X-Ray Moves and the very creative new Fatalities, the game earns every bit of its Mature rating.

In addition to the Super Meter, MK vs DC’s Story Mode returns with a deeper narrative that, this time, explores the first three MK games through the prism of Raiden’s visions. Players will be able to take control of 16 different characters and explore the MK backstory in a way that was only hinted at in the 90s. These kombatants include old friends, old foes, a much-expanded role for several side players in the Mortal Kombat saga and even a few surprises (Cyber Sub-Zero!). But beyond the Story Mode, the game is chock-full of content including an Arcade Ladder, a Tag Team Arcade Ladder (a first for the series), Training Mode, a second Training Mode just for Fatalities, the return of The Krypt, minigames like Test Your Might, and the brand new Challenge Tower.

The Challenge Tower is a series of 300 quests that test every skill you’ll need to possess to win in Mortal Kombat. In many ways, it’s a better training mode than the actual Training Mode. Many of the challenges are simple one-on-one fights involving pre-determined fighters. Others feature limitations on the kombat such as “Perform 50% Damage,” “No Jumping” or “Use Only Special Moves.” Still others require kombatants to use a certain special move (like Stryker’s Gun Shot or Jax’s Wave) to take down an advancing squad of Shao Kahn’s soldiers. The Challenge Tower also houses the Test Your Might/Sight/Strike/Luck minigames. It’s actually possible to spend hours in the Challenge Tower without ever even touching the rest of the game. Combined with the other modes, a dedicated Mortal Kombatant could be busy for weeks or months trying to unlock everything (for example, the “My Kung Fu Is Stronger” Achievement/Trophy requires at least 650 hours of playtime).

For gamers who would rather take part in Mortal Kombat against other human beings, the game also includes an extensive multiplayer mode that, in NetherRealm’s words, “tries to recreate the feeling of the arcade.” Standing alongside Player Matches and Ranked Matches, this arcade analog is known as King of the Hill mode and it drops several players into a room where they can hoot and holler at the two players currently battling it out and announce “I’ve got next” to take on the winner. Online play is not as smooth as you’d like (dropped frames in the animation are common), but the graphical hiccups don’t affect the gameplay.

In addition to all of these amazing modes and the insane amount of content the game contains, Mortal Kombat gets all of the little things right as well. The character designs evoke the “klassic” spirit of the series, while still going in new directions. All of the characters look great (with the exception of Sonya Blade’s rather ridiculous default costume) and they even sound great. Blows land with a satisfying crack and all of the unique species of the series are given their own sound effects. Battling with the cyborgs, for example, creates a particularly interesting auditory experience. On top of that, the backgrounds of the arenas are full of life with screaming corpses, fire-breathing dragons and Shao Kahn’s slave girl (who apparently borrowed her metal bikini from Princess Leia).

Mortal Kombat is the game die-hard fans of the franchise have been praying to the Elder Gods for years for. Ed Boon and his team at NetherRealm Studios have really outdone themselves this time, creating a gory masterpiece that is dripping with blood, guts and awesome. With the series on sound financial footing for the first time in a long time, the future of Mortal Kombat is looking bright. So bright that the franchise might need to borrow Johnny Cage’s shades.

Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Mortal Kombat was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.

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John Scalzo is Warp Zoned's Editor-In-Chief and resident retro gaming expert. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at john AT warpzoned DOT com.

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