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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.
What you won’t like
I’m not feeling the footsies
If you’re heading straight to the comments section to flame me over my review score, here’s your money quote: What I want in my preferred fighting games does not seem to plug into what Mortal Kombat X, and perhaps all NetherRealm Studios’ games, offer.
One of my major incompatibilities revolves around the mind games in Mortal Kombat X, which in a nut shell, seem awkward and limited.
All fighting games rely on this basic principle of baiting and switching your opponent. Veterans of the genre call this “footsies”, a term derived from Street Fighter II where a player would float in and out of the maximum range of an opponent’s attacks, and start tossing short and medium low kicks. The player performing the kicks is trying to bait his opponent into reacting in a bad way, perhaps throwing out an unsafe move that won’t hit the kicks, so they are open for a counter.
That’s not the one and only form that mind games take place. Intelligently throwing fireballs at each other from across the room can be a form of this. Footsies show up in a lot of different forms in many different ways. Great 2D fighting games will allow a variety of these situations to flourish. The thing is, Mortal Kombat X makes some design decisions that seems to strengthen one style of mind game while weakening the others.
One thing I feel that is causing this is that a significant amount of characters had their bread-and-butter damage coming from chain combos that hit in the mid or high areas. A chain combo system enables me to use a predetermined attack string by simply “dialing” in the right button sequence without worrying too much about timing. As long as the first hit connects, the rest of it will come out as long as I am not completely mashing the pad.
Some characters in the roster either lack, or have incredibly weak, chain combos that start from a low move. Even fewer start a chain combo from a low move that requires pressing down, which is unintuitive. Since one of the rules in Mortal Kombat X’s combo system is that special moves (Scorpion’s spear) can’t combo off of non-chainable normal moves, that hurts you when attacking low even more.
What I am getting at is that mid/high chain combos seem to trump everything. If an opponent screws up and are open to punish, the optimal counter is almost always a parth to or from a non-low chain combo.
So my match experience in Mortal Kombat X seemed to always come down to only one form of footsies in the end: close range hit confirm. Who could put their chainable normal out quicker than the other and catch someone not blocking. If I put my attack out and it hit, I could dial in the rest of the combo into a juggle. If the initial attack is blocked, I can either go back to block and hope my opponent can’t hit the move while it pulls back, or dial in the combo hoping the opponent will open up.
It’s not that the other forms of mind games aren’t there. For example, I can get into a situation where we’re tossing projectiles at each other across the room while jockying for an advantageous distance. I’ve also been in scenarios where I’m trying to get the opponent to block high so I can hit them low. Low isn’t terrible in this game, it’s just not as good as mid/high for a good chunk of characters.
The thing is, although these situations are present, Mortal Kombat X seems to favor the close hit confirm game over all of these other options. There are too many other fighting games out there vying for my attention that offer the same hit confirm situation, and much more, in terms of the mind game.
Running with block
Speaking of squashing other forms of footsies, let’s talk about running. I don’t mind the concept. Running in Mortal Kombat X is essentially extending the forward dash, which can be useful for offense. It’s even tied to a meter, so I can’t just run around the entire match. That’s good! What’s bad, then? I have to activate the run by double-dashing and pressing block.
I really hate this control scheme. It murders a really basic tactic, doing a dash into a block. I have several reasons to block after dash. In one case, it can close the gap on an opponent trying to stay away from me. If they’re mixing up their projectile game, I can dash during an opening and immediately block another projectile.
Where I use it the most is to try to fake an offense. I try to dash within range of an opponent’s counter and then block to see if they do it. If they do, tada! I have my opportunity to punish.
Instead, I’m sprinting right into my opponent’s arms. It’s aggravating that this simple, universal, tactic is shut down. Put the damned run option onto another button!
Animation frames are deceiving
Earlier I praised the art department, but now I have to ding them, because I am convinced they weren’t listening to those working on Mortal Kombat X’s frame data. The visual animation of some moves does not match what’s happening underneath the hood.
As I mentioned, NetherRealm Studios has put a huge emphasis on chain combos. So much so that they’ve adopted a rule where special moves (like Scorpion’s spear) can only combo off of chainable normal moves. Technically, trying to two-in-one a non-chainable normal into a special won’t work. It’s a weird decision, but the problem I have here is visual.
Mortal Kombat X has many instances where a combo that isn’t supposed to work under this system looks like it should work — often more so than the combo that actually works. Some non-chainable normals can be canceled, visually, quicker than their chainable counter parts! Yet they won’t combo?
Adding to this illusion are the overly long reel-back animations. When a character is hit, they go into a hurt … or reel back … pose. This visually tells me how much time I have to try to connect another move onto my opponent, creating a combo. In Mortal Kombat X, these animations take forever. These slight visual missteps give off the impression that the fighting engine, and the combo system, is arbitrary and broken.
Online is lagful
I don’t expect my online fighting games to be perfect representations of offline play. Too many roadblocks are involved to make that possible in 2015. Still, I do what I can to make my online experience as good as possible. I use wired controllers and a wired connection to my router, and I make sure no one is on the network when I play.
Mortal Kombat X’s online experience was still disappointing. I live right next to a lot of press organizations and developers, who I know had the game at the same time I did, and yet I couldn’t get one good connection going.
The in-game lag itself was a constant frustrating barrage of dropped inputs. Blocking something like Raiden’s Superman move on reaction, which is a very quick move offline, felt impossible.
This sort of laggy fighting game experience is just horrible. When I lose, it’s frustrating. When I win, I feel like a complete fraud. Hopefully this will improve, on my end, as more west coast players purchase the game.
Purchasing easy Fatalities?
Besides it just being an odd thing to monetize (please don’t sell an “easier move input” DLC), the whole point of Fatalities (besides being secret) is that they require a modicum of execution skill to pull off, and to that point, it’s like taking a victory lap all over your opponent’s battered body. This is like making a touchdown then paying someone to do the in zone victory dance for you.
In some ways, Mortal Kombat X surprised the hell out of me. The art direction is superb, the fanfare is lovingly crafted, and so much interesting single-player content’s going on that I’ll never have to deal with playing online. The Faction War, in particular, is just the right addictive factor to keep me considering logging in daily, if only for a quick session, just to help my group out.
In other ways, I really can’t find an enjoyable groove in the fighting system itself, which is the most important part of the experience. I’ll admit that it’s partially my fault. I like my mind games to have certain things going on, which maybe isn’t compatible with Mortal Kombat X. But part of the blame is definitely on NetherRealm Studios, with strange system decisions and move animations that are implemented poorly.
I want to go back to Mortal Kombat X after this review to unlock everything, but I also don’t see this game becoming one of my main fighting game staples, either.
Like I said, my relationship with this game…it’s komplicated.
Mortal Kombat X is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. NetherRealm Studios provided GamesBeat with a PlayStation 4 retail version of the game. Stephen is currently tagging BART trains with ‘Brotherhood of Shadow FOR LIFE!”