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When I last wrote about Mortal Kombat, I brought up how old-school fighting game players tend to fall into two camps: Those that broke away from the series after Mortal Kombat II, and those that stuck with the franchise up till today.
I occupy the group that abandoned the series in the ’90s.
This makes Mortal Kombat X (out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC) the first game in the series that I’ve spent significant time with in the last two decades. When I finally put the PlayStation 4 controller down to write this review, I found myself reflecting on why I avoided the series for so long — and if I could see myself picking up Mortal Kombat X, or any NetherRealm Studios game, on a regular basis.
The answer is … complicated.
What you’ll like
A lot of content for the lonely player
When I booted up Mortal Kombat X for the first time, I had to choose one of five Factions that occupy its universe. Everything I do earns special “Faction points,” which go to my clique. By the end of the week, the Faction with the most points wins the war and earns special items (what those are, I have no clue … my faction hasn’t won yet).
This makes the act of playing slightly obsessive, to the point where even on days when I am not planning on playing Mortal Kombat X, I am trying to sneak in a quick session just so I can help my Faction out a little bit more.
One of the optimal ways of doing this is through the Towers, which are also obsessive-compulsive traps for those that care about leaderboard rankings. Towers are sets of timed challenges where you climb a ladder of opponents as quickly as possible, often in environments containing whack-a-doo obstacles like randomly fired missiles or having the screen (and control inputs) flip upside down.
Some players may not appreciate the goofy nature of these extra elements, but the rewards make plowing through all three towers, at least once a day, worth it. Plus, let’s face it … online is full of awkward jerks. These options allow someone repelled by the worst of online culture to enjoy a sense of competition without dealing with anyone directly.
In order to unlock the various bits of flair in Mortal Kombat X, you need in-game currency known as “Koin.” You can earn it by defeating towers, beating down opponents, and doing certain things in match (such as big combos).
To cash-in Koin for goodies, NetherRealm Studios added a first-person dungeon-crawling minigame called “Krypt mode.” As you can guess from the name, I wind up teleported into a graveyard with various tombstones and crypts to explore. Items are hidden within grave markers that advertise a price. Pay the fee, defile the grave and you get your in-game swag.
The thing is, NetherRealm Studios wound up pushing what could’ve been a generic and cheesy store front UI and turned it into its own game. Krypt mode isn’t just about walking up to something I want and paying for it. The mode spans several different environments, all with their own monsters to fight and puzzles to solve. It even has its own inventory system with items to use to unlock doors and passageways. Secrets are everywhere, including treasure chests that appear only at certain times, in specific locations.
It’s a really cool and elaborate piece of fan service, while its slow pace provides a great break from the high speed of the main game.
Great story mode
Story modes don’t make or break fighting games for me. Besides, I feel it’s more important to portray a character’s motivations and personality through gameplay than cutscenes.
Yet the story mode in Mortal Kombat X is extremely well done. It adopts a similar narrative structure to Dead or Alive 5: Last Round, where the tale is not tied to any one character. Instead, it’s one epic conveyor belt of cinematics linked together by sections of fighting gameplay, where the controllable character is whoever happens to be that chapter’s protagonist.
Unlike Dead or Alive 5, however, the narrative isn’t a jumbled mess of nonsensical leaps from one character to another. It has a much smoother progression, with new playable characters being eased into the experience at a steady pace.
I was convinced that this style of narrative wouldn’t work well in fighting games, but NetherRealm Studios proved me wrong.
Art and sound direction are on-point
I’ve never had the best impression of the character designs in the Mortal Kombat series. I always thought they looked like something I would scribble in elementary school and then burn when I hit middle school so no one would discover my robot-ninja kung-fu man drawings. The slickness of the character modeling, texturing, and animation in Mortal Kombat X, however, makes these designs work in a cool way. Perhaps they are character concepts that only really come together for me once I see them animated in 3D?
Whatever it is, the visuals give me a sense of playing with really cool action figures, which adds to the goofy fun, and not abject horror, of the gore. The visual tone evokes He-Man the Masters of the Universe, and that warms my heart.
NetherRealm Studios’ environmental artists also did an excellent job. Backgrounds are interesting and have a lot of fun details going on. I can see that some of the artists had a good time putting these together, which pushes the entire experience up a notch.
One small detail that is an excellent example of how the creative team accomplished this is in the prematch dialogue. Typically, in other fighting games, developers would add maybe two or three opening lines and animated sequences to each character. These performances would usually be vague and unspecific, so even though the conversation is complete nonsense, it can sort of work.
NetherRealm Studios, on the other hand, has created at least two sets of intro dialogues per match. This means a Scorpion and Sub Zero bout starts with the two exchanging dialogue with each other that is pertinent to their relationship.
It’s a small detail, but dear lord! The extra man hours and late nights the creative team must’ve spent just to add cool little things like that shows just how important — and how good — such touches are in Mortal Kombat X.