Mortal Kombat Preview
Out of all the games that were both rumoured and confirmed for PAX East 2011, there were few that I was more excited about tasting than Mortal Kombat. I’ve never cared much for fighters, though in the distant past I’ve played Street Fighter and a curiosity involving dinosaurs; they’ve just never floated my boat. There is, however, one lone exception. When I booted up the original Mortal Kombat on my Amiga, more years ago than I care to count, the realistic characters, intriguing story and back histories, and gory brutality of the game instantly appealed to me. Most of all though, it was the moves: they were fun, varied, and weren’t stupidly difficult to pull off, which made it instantly more accessible.
No quarter sweep, cut across, thumb wrenching nonsense meant that I could consistently learn and pull off moves in order to progress. Where Mortal Kombat differed from others was that rather than the main move set being hard to tackle, it was the finishing moves that would prove more complicated – something that makes perfect sense. It was those same finishing moves that would catapult Mortal Kombat into legend and simultaneously mire it in controversy.
Over the years, the series grew bolder, playing on its warped sense of humour, deepening story, swelling roster, and penchant for gore to keep the fans coming back. By the time the third game was reached, finishing moves were joined by a host of other crazy endgame options, from the bizarre Babalities, to Animalities, Friendships, and mercy moves. Some old faces had been lost – notably Johnny Cage, who had been the victim of Shao Kahn’s assassination squads – and many more new ones acquired – Nightwolf, Sheeva, Mileena, and Kitana to name but a few.
For me, this was the last time I remember truly getting stuck into a MK game for countless hours, days, and weeks. A combination of life, gaming apathy, and foolishly sticking to Nintendo consoles meant that I skipped several titles, only arriving back on the scene late in the day. What happened with MK Vs DC Universe was something that only the devs can answer – but seriously, what had they been thinking? It was certainly Mortal Kombat’s darkest hour and not in a good way. Everything that made the franchise what it had been was stripped back: the gore was toned down and fatalities effectively neutered. Of course, this was to be expected, there was no way, that DC would ever let you slice up their family friendly superheroes, and this taming of the toughest kid on the fighting block was a huge blow.
When the series reboot was announced, hopes began to be raised, and with the first trailers and screens, it was immediately obvious: Mortal Kombat was back, with an attitude a mile wide and something to prove. From the off, we were reassured as to the dark intentions of the new game and treated to trailer featuring a number of vicious face offs, including a groin shrivelling finishing move delivered by Kung Lao. The series’ primary staple, fatalities, were clearly back; brutal and bursting with sadistic inventiveness. Not only that but NetherRealm Studios had upped the ante with the introduction of new X-Ray moves, which enable you to see inside your opponent’s body as bones shatter and organs rupture. This was more like it and as soon as I saw it on the bill for PAX, my heart leapt.
After absorbing the trailers, screens, and updated lists of characters for perhaps the hundredth time, I took the chance as soon as I could to make a beeline for the Mortal Kombat booth. It wasn’t hard to find, with the big, familiar logo hanging dominant over the Expo Hall landscape and I parked myself under the giant 3D screen; everything else was quickly forgotten as I watched two of the devs in action. The graphics were the first thing that caught my eye; crisp and eyeball-punchingly sexy, they were simply stunning – everything from the characters’ clothing to the intricate backgrounds and arenas were well realised and boasted a grand level of painstaking detail. I wrenched my eyes from the actual scrap and took the time to absorb the backdrop of the Living Forest in all its sinister glory. Bodies hung from trees or lay slumped on the ground, while the place resonated with organic evil. The detail was fantastic, a view which only became cemented with each additional stage, but by this time, the onscreen action was too much to ignore. The new ‘blood physics’ were impressive, but perhaps more so was the visual damage that the fighters sustained, looking the worse for wear as the match continued.
Watching the devs whizz through the character select screens was interesting, but nothing that I didn’t already know: the entire original cast is back, with numerous additions from MK 2 and 3 to boost the roster, such as Mileena, Nightwolf, and Kung Lao – all sporting a darker, sexier lick of paint. Knowing Mortal Kombat though, this won’t be all it has to offer. There are a few spots locked for DLC and creator Ed Boon is well known for his love of easter eggs; it wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat without at least a few hidden characters.
Returning as bosses are fan favourite Goro and Shao Kahn himself. What many MK devotees want to know though, is can we play them? I grabbed some time with one of the devs and among other things, asked the obvious: “Will Goro be a playable character?” While the reply was the expected ‘can’t say’ of developers understandably playing their best cards close to their chest, the knowing smile was more than enough for me to lay down a safe bet. In fact, anyone surrounding the game was tight-lipped and getting them to open up was like taking a paperclip to a giant clam, but that was always going to be the case. They’ve clearly worked hard and aren’t prepared to spill all their secrets just yet.
After having to peel myself away to work, I managed to return the following day and took advantage of the crowds rushing for the Portal and LA Noire booths to hop into a reasonable MK queue (from which I spotted some tasty tees being given away behind a display). Being on my own, with my compadres queuing elsewhere, I quickly skipped to the front when a second body was needed to play with a single stranger. Score! Not quite, as it happened. We step up to the towering cabinet and try to get back to the character selection screen so that we can begin. Hmm, I’m used to a pad, whereas in front of me are a sea of identical, incomprehensible arcade cabinet buttons. Bugger. I feel like Vivian in the ‘Living Doll’ Comic Relief video. We share a shrug and start pushing stuff. After precisely two point five seconds of nothing happening I take a technical approach and repeatedly pound the button which looks like it could be the B button on an Xbox. My reasoning: it was red. The thing crashes. It actually crashes. Dies. Scary words happen on screen about stuff ‘being dumped’. I can’t bring myself to look at the guy next to me, who I hope had been pressing something at the same time, so I could remove blame in my own mind. Shit. What if I just killed Mortal Kombat? We are rescued by two techie guys who fumble round in the back of the cabinet and reset the… Xbox? Anyway, thankfully they have us up and running and I settle on fan whipping-boy, Johnny Cage, while my opponent goes for Scorpion. Something tells me that I’m about to be hurt, and not in a good way.
Despite my aversion to arcade gubbins, I found the controls smooth, and the characters responsive. There was no lag or sluggishness and the action was both graceful and brutal, with frequent impacts producing suitably wince-worthy audio effects and sprays of blood which trailed over the ground. It is the end of the second round and JC is looking decidedly worse for wear and, sure enough, though I put up a respectable fight, he ends up swaying on his feet while those immortal words peel across the screen. “Finish Him.” The guy hits pause and turns to the official experts nearby. They reel the finishing move off from memory and he lets rip. Literally. Scorpion slices Cage’s torso and neck, kicks him backwards, and as the pieces go flying, slices his head in two for good measure. I let him win, naturally, since I felt bad about nearly destroying the MK PAX experience that he undoubtedly queued for ages for. I decide to slink off and snag a T shirt, complete with bloody tears and exposed ribs to soothe my soul. Toasty!
I couldn’t stay away from the booth though and ended up hanging around in a growing crowd who had gathered near the massive demo screen to watch the two devs play around in the new Fatality Training section. This represents a very welcome addition, with no need to dick around with two controllers, as with the older games, in order to try and practice those all important finishing moves. Now, you skip straight to the end and unleash all sorts of bloody carnage on your already swaying victim. I arrive to see Kitana slicing Sub Zero’s limbs off to cheers from the crowd. People start to call out new characters and the grinning MK team are more than happy to oblige, meeting each crowd request with that character’s finishing move, drawing cheers, wincing moans of sympathy, and yet more suggestions. One of the biggest reactions was when Noob Saibot summoned his double and, between them, they pulled Johnny Cage in half. Lengthwise. If your groin isn’t palpitating in abject terror then there’s something wrong with you. While they showed off many character fatalities, we weren’t treated to any stage finishers, so whether they were keeping them under wraps, or whether these are absent from the training mode remains to be seen, but regardless, there is more than enough to keep the average player busy here.
Once the two MK officials have exhausted the flurry of suggestions, they begin to show off, in glorious detail, the X-ray moves (powered up in a similar way to the previous game’s rage meter), and we see Nightwolf’s tomahawk attack lodging and shattering Sonya Blade’s shoulders – in slow motion. We see Johnny Cage’s ribs snapping, Sektor’s skull punched into pieces, and watch Mileena’s spine stomped. While the fatalities have often been more comical with their over the top violence, and certainly drew more laughing reactions, the X-ray moves were the ones which opened the most mouths, and garnered wincing inrushes of breath. Not surprising; they are in your face, pulling no punches in true MK style, and the sounds alone will make you suck in your gut.
In addition to the story mode, there is also a Challenge Tower, complete with Test Your Might/Sight/etc, and various online options (plus some nasty ranked achievements, as we discovered recently). Not only that, but there is an enticing Tag Team mode, which I got to see in action. It offers a welcome chance to team up two of your favourite characters to deliver some frantic gameplay and seemed to work very smoothly, with characters swapping in and out to take down the other team. The mechanics were pretty seamless, though you’ll need to be on your toes during the changeovers to ensure an uninterrupted fight – the AI doesn’t wait around.
One of the big draws about Mortal Kombat for me has always been the story. Over the years the characters have evolved and the mythology has deepened, becoming increasingly complex and convoluted, with the addition of new characters, gods, and beasts to broaden the plot as the struggle for Earthrealm continues. One of the most appealing things about this reboot, for me, is the story. In the future, after Shao Kahn’s forces have all but destroyed those of Earthrealm, the Thunder God, Raiden, is about to be murdered by his grand foe. In one last attempt to defeat Shao Kahn he sends a message back through time to himself, in a period where Kahn is not as undefeatable as he is now. This gives our deity and his forces for good the chance to beat the evil Kahn before the terrible events of the future come to pass, and the game plays out over the course of the original three titles.
Of course, one of the first things that has to be asked is how will this affect or otherwise alter the existing history of the game and that of its characters? Will past events now be altered beyond what we know? How? Understandably, the developers, as with everything else, are remaining incredibly tight-lipped for fear of spoiling the story, but it is something that I especially look forward to finding out. The Mortal Kombat story has always been anything but light and frivolous, frequently pulling no punches and unafraid to stray into dark territory with its characters, even killing them off, which is perhaps what makes it stand out from other titles and, to me, makes it ultimately more appealing.
Everything that I saw, played, and chatted about during my time with the game and the enthusiastic staff at the booth gave me great hope. From the little I was able to experience, this looks to be the game that fans have been waiting for, taking the series back to its roots at last, but with a host of tweaks, features, and pumped up graphics to make it really fly. It casts off the restrictive shackles and spits in the face of its last, more vanilla outing, delivering solid action, stunning visuals, and smooth gameplay. The stack of modes, along with the training areas looks to be a winner, and the promise of hidden extras and easter eggs – yep, toasty is back folks – should warm any fan’s heart. Again, when it comes to the subject additional finishing moves out with Fatalities, enigmatic smiles are all that you’ll get, but the recent leaked list of secret achievements would suggest that we haven’t quite seen the last of some of the more bizarre ‘alities’ (though in what form, still remains to be seen); Ed Boon hasn’t disappointed yet, and I’m certain we can expect something suitably off the wall.
Mortal Kombat is back, darker than ever, and should be split-kicking shelves at the end of April. As one of my most eagerly awaited games of the year, just behind Skyrim, I personally can’t wait. As my PAX experiences went, it was a favourite, and if you’re that guy… sorry. I maintain plausible deniability, however, and think that you did it.
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