Beyond Toasty: A Komplete Review of Mortal Kombat X
It’s that time. The Thunder God has once again summoned me to the defend Earthrealm from evil forces that threaten our world with slavery and death…by beating them within an inch of their life and then ending their miserable existence in a hyper-violent fashion that would even make Jigsaw cringe.
I’m talking of course about NetherRealm Studio’s latest installment in the Mortal Kombat franchise: Mortal Kombat X.
I had a lot of hopes going into this game. I’ve been a fan of the Mortal Kombat franchise since 1992, when I still needed to stand on a stool to reach the controls of the arcade cabinet sacredly enshrined in the corner of the local pizza joint. Death matches between ninjas, monks, gods and sorcerers set my childhood imagination ablaze, to the point where I was actively trying to produce ice blasts from my hands. This usually involved the throwing of ice cubes (much to my parents’ annoyance). Each game that followed only served to deepen my love of the series. That is until Mortal Kombat 4, when the franchise made the jump to 3D. It, and the many sequels and spin-offs that followed were fun in their own right, but never seemed to reproduce that feeling I had standing on that stool as a child.
Fast-forward to 2011. I’m strolling through Best Buy, craving a good fighting game and…wait, what’s this? A Mortal Kombat reboot?! (Cue the Benny Hill music as I rush through the checkout line and run every stop sign and traffic light on the way home)
Finally! A Mortal Kombat that reminded me why I fell in love with the series in the first place! It managed to capture the core essence of the original, sprinkle in the better elements of the later games, give us an entertaining retelling of the story from MK to MK3, and wrap it all up in beautiful PS3 graphics. It was everything I had been missing from the MK franchise.
So when NetherRealm Studios released Mortal Kombat X back in mid April, a direct sequel to the 2011 reboot, I felt confident I was going to have a similar experience.
How wrong I was.
I thought I was just going to be getting another good Mortal Kombat game, one that tickled my nostalgia and gave me solid gameplay and a fun story. What I got was, in no uncertain terms, the BEST game in the franchise and possibly the entire genre and beyond!
Let’s talk about the obvious first: this game is fucking pretty! Mortal Kombat X takes full advantage of the high-end 1080p graphics running at 60 fps made available on modern consoles. From your very first character select, you can see the time, effort, and what I can only assume was just a sick amount of cash the developers over at NetherRealm put into the design of each fighter. I mean just look at them.
Each character, both old and new, stays true to that klassic MK style. What? You don’t care for the look of one of your favorite characters? That’s fine! There are a number of unlockable skins for each character to fit your sense of aesthetics.
The stages are equally sexy. Each stage offers a unique setting with active backgrounds that really put you there in the action. The stages themselves offer a new angle on gameplay as well by including objects that the player can interact with to gain an advantage. I’ll get more into to that later.
The special effects have been stepped up too. Beautiful ice crystallization effects produced by franchise favorite Sub-Zero, Scorpion’s scorching hell flames, and intense electric shocks from god of thunder Raiden are just a few examples of the effects that really give the gameplay that extra impact. Characters even show sweat and battle damage unique to the type of opponent they’re fighting. Char marks from flame based attacks, slashes and cuts from blades, bullet holes, etc.
And of course, no review of a Mortal Kombat game would be komplete without talking about the over-the-top, gut wrenching, bone snapping, ESRB founding violence and gore. No seriously, the ESRB was founded largely due to the extreme violence of the first MK.
Apparently society didn’t think it was ok for a six-year-old to tear the spine out of his friend’s character? Meh, but I digress.
The violence in this game is epic! And when I say epic, I mean if you’re not involuntarily yelling out “OH DAMN!” or “HOLY SHIT!” or at a bare minimum feeling some intense sympathy pains, I can only assume you are dead…or an axe murderer……or dead because of an axe murderer.
MKX features some of the most brutal Fatalities of the franchise to date, thanks largely to the improved graphics and physics engine. Each character has two Fatalities, a number of Brutalities, and an X-Ray attack featuring visuals of your opponent’s internals as you utterly destroy them. I’ll talk more about some of those later. Here are a couple of my favorite Fatalities:
First we have Jax’s T-Wrecks…
And next we have Kung Lao’s Face Grind…
I mean, fuck me, that’s some obscenely painful looking shit right there. Point is, which I think has just been demonstrated, this game is overflowing with the teeth-clenching violence and gore the franchise was founded on.
The gameplay for Mortal Kombat X is every bit as enjoyable as its violence is gruesome. Controls are similar to its predecessor Mortal Kombat (2011) and most fighting games in general. Each character has light and strong punches and kicks, each assigned to one of the four main buttons on your controller. Special moves are executed by a combination of movement buttons followed by a punch or kick, blah, blah, blah, you know the drill. The point is the game feels familiar for anyone who’s played MK or other fighting games before, and should be pretty easy to pick up for those who haven’t (whoever the hell that is). That being said, even though MKX has those klassic Mortal Kombat controls, it also has a number of features that set it apart from other entries in the franchise.
The first of these new features you’ll notice during your first character select. Each character now has three different variations to choose from. Each of these variations, in addition to causing slight cosmetic changes, offer a unique special move set for your character. “But Ben! Scorpion just wouldn’t be Scorpion without his signature ‘Spear’ attack, so why would I want to play with any of his other variations?!” Not to worry, the variations have a core common set of special moves for each character that remain the same between them. Moves like Sub-Zero’s “Ice Ball” and “Ice Slide”, or Scorpion’s “Spear” (Get Over Here!) that are closely associated with their character are part of each variation.
So instead of having one character with more special moves than you know what to do with, you get three distinct flavors of each character to sate your kombat kravings.
Once you get into the fight and start beating the ever-loving shit out of your opponent, you may notice that certain objects in the background highlight as you move past them. By pressing R1 or Right Bumper depending on your controller, you can interact with these highlighted objects to various effect. Some allow you to spring, or swing, across the screen to help quickly reposition your character. Other objects can be thrown, swung, or otherwise launched to deal some unexpected damage. Others still are used as a wall to slam your opponent head first into to devastating effect. This system of interacting with the background mid-fight made its first appearance in NetherRealm’s previous DC comic fighting title Injustice: Gods Among Us and is a welcome addition to the MK franchise. Offering these different avenues of attack and maneuvering allows fights to be that much more interesting and dynamic without taking away from the core gameplay mechanics.
Making a comeback from the Mortal Kombat 2011 reboot, Mortal Kombat X features the return of the energy meter. The meter is charged over the course of the fight through various actions, such as taking damage.
At the cost of one charged bar of your three-bar-meter you can perform “enhanced” special moves. Enhanced specials are exactly what they sound like, an improved version of the base special move you’re enhancing. Enhanced specials typically deal extra damage or strike additional times, or in the case of moves that don’t deal damage, provide some beneficial effect (ex. Sub-Zero’s enhanced “Ice Ball” executes and travels much faster than normal).
With two charged bars available, you can interrupt your opponent’s combo with a devastating counter attack referred to as a “breaker”. Breakers server to throw off your opponent’s rhythm, giving you the opportunity to mount a counteroffensive. Even though performing it uses 2 bars of your meter, a well-timed breaker can really turn the tide of battle in your favor.
And finally, if you wait until all three bars of your energy meter are charged, you can perform the dreaded X-Ray attack. X-Rays are performed by pressing L2 and R2 together (or left and right trigger on Xbox controllers). Once triggered, your fighter will launch an initial strike unique to him or her (some initial strikes are close range, others long range, while others are counters, etc.) If the initial strike lands brace yourself, you’re about experience some of those “HOLY SHIT!” and “OH DAMN!” moments I was talking about earlier. Each character’s X-Ray is unique to them, but they all pretty much amount to this: a brutal chain of attacks performed while you have an “x-ray” view of your opponents internals, so you can see all the bone shattering, flesh piercing, ball busting damage being inflicted.
X-Rays can damage your opponent a whopping 33% of their total health, and when chained at the end of a combo you can pile on even more damage! But since you have to completely drain your energy meter to perform this attack, you typically can only use it once per round at most. Your opponent can also block the initial strike and therefore cancel the attack, so make sure you use it strategically!
As for finishers, I’ve already gone over Fatalities in all their visceral glory, but it just wouldn’t be right if I didn’t point out the reappearance for the first time since MK3 of an alternate method of snuffing out that pesky final spark of life in your opponents: Brutalities. In the past, Brutalities were more or less the same as Fatalities, executed after beating your opponent by pressing the appropriate combination of buttons resulting in a brutal beat down of your opponent until they, literally, exploded. (God I loved those games.)
The Brutalities of MKX however, are altogether different. Brutalities are now executed as the final blow of the actual fight, the one which takes the last bit of your opponent’s health. Each Brutality is based off one of your character’s moves or special moves and has a set of conditions that have to be met in order for the Brutality to trigger. For example, Sub-Zero’s Brutality “Snow Ball” requires 40 seconds or more remaining on the clock, freeze your opponent with “Ice Ball”, and then from the far edge of the screen perform an enhanced “Ice Ball”.
Honestly, I probably would have been plenty happy if the game was just those core mechanics, specials, Fatalities and the like. I mean it’s pretty easy for fighting games like Mortal Kombat to just rely on the nostalgia factor. But apparently that wasn’t enough for Ed Boon and NetherRealm.
ED Boon: “What? Our target audience would probably buy our game even if it was just a carbon copy of our previous successes? Hahahaha, FUCK THAT SHIT!” (not a real quote, but it should be)
Not only did they bring the gameplay to the next level, but they also put together a fantastic story! “Come on Ben, I know Mortal Kombat games are about story about as much as a Mario games are about romance.” I know, right? The Mortal Kombat franchise has always been pretty lore rich, but the plot of most of the games has been more of an extra than a focus. Even when the story took more of a front seat in some of the post MK3 titles and spinoffs, the plot was…well a fighting game plot. Passable, but nothing to write home about. And up till now that was more than enough. You really don’t need an in-depth plot to explain why you’re beating the fuck-all out of the other guy. You’re beating him or her to a bloody lump of twisted flesh and sinew because you enjoy it…you monster.
Mortal Kombat, the 2011 reboot actually did have a pretty good story mode. Considering they were rebooting their entire universe from square one, this was their chance to set up the story as something integral to the Mortal Kombat experience. I’d say they were successful. The story was able to retell the events of the first three games, with a few added twists, give you a closer look at each character and the interactions between them and really immerse you in the colorful universe that is Mortal Kombat. That said, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was one of the better ones I’d experienced in a while, it still had that fighting game plot feel to it. That’s more or less what I expected going into the story mode of MKX.
Hear that? That’s the sound of the collective snickers and chuckles of Ed Boon and NetherRealm Studios, mocking my woefully inadequate expectations of what can only be described as the best story of any Mortal Kombat entry, and any fighting game for that matter.
The story begins two years after the defeat of Shao Kahn in the Mortal Kombat reboot, as Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, and Kenshi are battling a Netherrealm invasion force lead by the fallen elder god, Shinnok.
Shinnok’s ultimate goal is to corrupt the Jinsei chamber, more or less the source of Earthrealm’s life force, effectively killing everyone on the planet and adding them to his undead ranks. Thankfully, through the efforts of Johnny Cage and Raiden, Shinnok is defeated and sealed within his own conveniently indestructible amulet.
The story picks up 20 years later, with the introduction of four new characters, each the progeny or close relative of some of the major protagonists. Cassie Cage: daughter of Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage, Jacqui Briggs: daughter of Jackson “Jax” Briggs, Takeda: son of the blind, telekinetic swordsman Kenshi, and Kung Jin: younger cousin to the deceased hat-blade wielding badass, Oddjob Kung Lao.
These four form a team under the command of the now middle-aged Johnny Cage, and are tasked with keeping the peace with Outworld as it faces civil war post Shao Kahn, as well as investigating the disappearance of Shinnok’s amulet.
I don’t want to go too far and spoil the plot for those of you who might end up playing the game, which I highly recommend. I do, however, want to touch on a few elements/features of this story that really set it apart from your run-of-the-mill fighting game plot.
Let’s talk a little about the delivery. Once again, we have the modern graphic processing to thank for stunning visuals, particularly the cut-scenes. Now, I can’t tell much of a difference between the cutscene graphics and the actual game play graphics, which is fine since the gameplay graphics are beautiful as I stated earlier. What really impressed me was a true “cinematic” feel to the story. Games have been attempting to become more “cinematic” for years with largely mixed results. But Mortal Kombat X really brought its A-game. From motion capturing subtle facial expressions, to the superb voice casting, to the “camera” techniques, everything visually about the MKX story made me feel like I was in a theater enjoying a Mortal Kombat movie.
Here, take a look at the official trailer for story mode.
Also, unlike other games where the cinematic feeling ended the moment a cut scene was over, Mortal Kombat X keeps the immersion ball rolling by seamlessly flowing from story to gameplay and back again. No “Round One, FIGHT!”, no real indication that a fight is about to begin at all aside from cues from the story itself. I LOVED this new feature! It may seem like a small thing, but it really helped keep the flow of the story going.
There are also a number of Quick Time Events (QTE) in various portions of the story. Usually, I’m not a huge fan of QTEs. Even though they are designed to keep you immersed in the game by basically participating in the cutscenes, in most cases they just feel disruptive and can even hamper your progress forward by making you restart the scene just because you were too slow or pressed the wrong button.
MKX, however, seemed to have the right idea about how to use QTEs. First off, they only came at points that made sense to have the player interact with the scene in order to enhance the experience. So many games will just bombard you with QTEs to the point of exhaustion. Second, they aren’t overwhelmingly challenging. I never felt like I was under the gun to complete whatever action was being asked of me. I think, with only one or two exceptions, I successfully completed all of the QTEs. And third, and maybe most importantly, there are NO penalties for failing. No game overs, no damage handicaps, no penalty conditions of any sort, NOTHING. You could literally fail every last QTE in the game, and aside from feeling like a dumbass, there would be no repercussions at all. All they are there to do is engage the player in the events of the story, which is EXACTLY what QTEs should do.
Now, I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot than I already have revealed, but I did want to touch briefly on the characters themselves, as they are the real driving point behind the story. When I think about it, more than even the gameplay or the gruesome violence, it really has been that characters that have kept me coming back each time I pick up one of these games. MKX continues the tradition of presenting us with rich characters to play as, both old and new.
New characters have been a little hit and miss post MK3, with an emphasis on miss. A few have had enough staying power to merit further appearances, but by in large those characters were huge disappointments and were thusly forgotten. Imagine my surprise when the new characters introduced in MKX have all been solid additions! I particularly enjoyed Kotal Kahn, the new ruler of Outworld.
Unlike his blood thirsty world konquering predecessor Shao Khan, Kotal Kahn is a competent ruler with a sense of honor who is equally adept at political maneuvering as he is in kombat. And considering that his character is painted as the individual who was worshiped by the ancient Aztecs as the God of The Sun/War, this guy is no slouch in his physical prowess. Now, Kotal’s no hero. He still follows the Outworld code of conduct, in which basically everything is solved through Kombat. In the end, Kotal Kahn comes of feeling like a bit like the Sub Mariner Namor from the Marvel universe. Whether he is an enemy or ally is solely dependent on if Outworld benefits from the arrangement. If screwing over all of Earthrealm would serve to improve the position of Outworld, you best believe we’re gonna get fucked over without a second thought. But it’s nice to see a ruler of Outworld who isn’t a complete monster.
The klassic characters are as awesome as they ever were. Raiden is still the ever vigilant protector of Earthrealm and father figure to most of the cast. Of course, Johnny Cage is still a likable douche bag. Scorpion, still the embodiment of vengeance, although there are some fun developments with him during this story between him and eternal rival Sub-Zero. And speaking of Sub-Zero, this is my absolute favorite design for his character of all time and ever! It’s like Sub-Zero and Star Trek: TNG’s Commander Riker used the fusion technique from Dragon Ball Z to create this distinguished looking, bearded Lin Kuei Badass!
So. Fucking. Awesome! But I digress. All of the things that made these characters so fun in previous titles are present in MKX. All this made even more awesome by the awesome cast of veteran voice actors they put together to perform in this game. Notably voice acting legend Steven J. Blum, known for his voicing of characters like Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop, is aptly cast as franchise favorite Sub-Zero and his awesome regal beard! (Sub-Zero + Will Riker + Spike Spiegel = Sub-Spiker?)
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about all the things that have come together to make Mortal Kombat X an amazing experience for me. In the end it can really be simplified to this: Mortal Kombat X is a unique fighting game experience that offers lovely/gruesome over-the-top visuals, solid gameplay that incorporates both new and familiar elements, and a well put together story that immerses you in the lore rich MK universe. In a word, “Awesome!”
Still, despite all I’ve said, a fighting game is still a fighting game and if that’s not your blood soaked cup of tea then MKX probably isn’t for you. And the continued blatant attempt to further milk the consumer base though overpriced DLC that should have been included in the game to begin with is also irksome. But at least unlike other games that come DLC gutted, (COUGH, COUGH EVOLVE), I am satisfied with what was offered in the base game of MKX.
So, if you even partially enjoy fighting games, or want to experience a fun story set in a lore rich universe with colorful characters, or just love some good old fashioned blood, guts and violence, then I highly recommend Mortal Kombat X. It’s… BEYOND TOASTY!