If I were to name the most tantamount features of the Mortal Kombat series, Fatalities would rank in the top three, if not steal the number one slot. The convoluted plot (or what passes for a "narrative") would have to fight tooth and nail before I'd even consider the multiple character endings for an honorable mention. Just try to identify the canonical winners of the original tournaments. NetherRealm Studios recognized this inherent flaw when revisiting their heritage for the current generation of consoles. With vintage combos, revised backstories, and gorgeous visuals to boot, the ninth iteration of Mortal Kombat cements itself in the annals of fighter glory.
Following a display of disemboweled fighters, Shao Kahn nearly claims victory over Earthrealm when Raiden sends a message to himself in the past. Tasked with rewriting history, players assume the roles of the series’ numerous protagonists as they fight their way through the first two Mortal Kombat tournaments and the invasion of Earth by Outworld. The Story Mode handles the various character origins remarkably well, including the birth of Noob Saibot, Kabal's need for a respirator, and the fusion of Jax with his steely metal arms. The voice acting further sells their divergent dispositions. Raiden speaks with a calm reverence, Johnny Cage broadcasts his movie fame, and Mileena whispers in a psychotic yet seductive tone.
The end of the world, or the best breasts Johnny has ever seen?
Besides the occasional rough edges on some characters' less-revealing armor, the fighters boast a stunning attention to detail, inside and out. Likewise, many stages see a return from from the original trilogy, including The Pit, the Living Forest, and the Dead Pool, now with beautiful 3D modeling. The upgrades don't stop there. Competitors accumulates damage the longer a match lasts, although this feature remains absent from Story Mode. Missing chunks of flesh, torn clothes, and exposed bones highlight the power of the Unreal Engine 3. Another first, characters can now perform X-ray moves that unleash huge amounts of damage once their super meter fills. During an X-ray, the action zooms in on the skeleton, muscles, and bowels of the victim, only to show their bones being shattered or organs being crushed.
The gameplay is standard Mortal Kombat, though: pound your foe into submission until you can enact a gruesome Fatality or humorous Babality. With the added details and varying gore models, Fatalities have never looked better. Fans of the original trilogy will instantly notice some of the more classic executions, such as Liu Kang turning into a dragon to bite off his enemy’s torso. But I still have my disappointments. Fans of the more comical Fatalities, like Liu Kang dropping an arcade machine on his opponent or Cyrax blowing up the Earth, will have to look elsewhere. And while some of the finishers are extremely creative, such as Noob Saibot and a shadow clone pulling his enemy apart from groin to head or Sheeva literally ripping the skin off her opponent’s bones, most Fatalities merely consist of decapitating the victim. After a few dozen beheadings, the repetition, not the bloodshed, becomes hard to stomach.
As you win each match, the game awards familiar Koins handy for purchasing random unlockables buried in the infamous Krypt. The standard assortment of prizes apply. Concept art, alternate costumes, and Fatalities haunt the graveyards and torture contraptions dotting this hellish landscape.
Some X-rays are more ruthless than the Fatalities.
Luckily, Ed Boon and the developers at NetherRealm were not content with adding the same old modes and calling it a day. Including Arcade Ladder, Test Your Sight, and Test Your Might, new skill-based minigames like Test Your Strike and Test Your Luck enter the fray as well. Of these, Test Your Luck remains my favorite. Once you select your character, you spin a slot machine to determine your opponent and match modifiers. Modifiers may range from fighting without arms to not being able to block to dodging meteors that rain down on the stage. But undeniably the biggest edition to the mode line-up is the Challenge Tower. Comprised of 300 separate challenges, players are tasked with completing a bevy of matches that offer a unique twist on traditional gameplay. One second you’re beating up Mileena as Scorpion in order to defend your hatred of teddy bears, the next you’re fighting off a group of zombies as Stryker and Johnny Cage with their projectile attacks.
Multiplayer further surpasses its predecessors. Not only can players compete with and against up to three friends on the same console, but you and a buddy can take the fight online as a two-man tag team. Similar to Super Street Fighter IV’s Endless Battle mode, King of the Hill makes its debut. Each game consists of eight-man lobbies, and two of those people fight it out as the other six spectators look on in wonder. The winner stays, and the next person in the lobby advances to challenge the victor while the loser is sent to the back of the queue. It’s extremely fun and all, but not without gripes.
The winner of a match receives points at the end of a bout, but instead of being rewarded based on how well he or she performed, the amount of points earned is determined by the spectators. You could be the reigning Mortal Kombat champion, but if you continue to destroy less skilled players online, don’t expect to receive individual scores higher than 2 or 3. Normally I might be able to look past this discrepancy upon seeing someone’s massive ego get bruised. However, there is an achievement and trophy tied to earning 2,500 points in King of the Hill. Imagine the play time required given a cumulative of ten points a match spread throughout seven competitors. The mode is still worth playing, but it’s better enjoyed with friends.
Kratos also joins the bloodbath, as long as you have the PS3 version.
Regrettably, there are still a couple complaints that need to be addressed. First off, the opponent AI is unbelievably cheap. The AI is relentless in their attempts to annihilate you, and their combos will often leave you a blood smear on the stage floor. Whereas you might need to pause a second or two in order to execute your next combo, the AI’s combos can be performed instantly and their timing rarely misses a beat. I frequently found myself needing to abuse their flaws in order to win even on Medium difficulty. My second complaint is more of a grievance with design choice, but it was a source of frustration. During Story Mode or Challenge Tower, the game constantly switches characters around so players get to experience their unique play styles, but it wears on my nerves when I’m just getting used to a character, then all of sudden the story swaps to another champion with a completely different moveset.
Overall, Mortal Kombat, or Mortal Kombat 9 if you want to be technical, feels like old-school Mortal Kombat. The Story Mode is faithful to the characters, the gameplay is smooth and accessible, the Fatalities are brutal, and the slew of new multiplayer and single-player modes will keep players glued to their controllers for hours. Although the AI needs some mild tweaks, there is a little here that should dissuade you from checking out NetherRealm's most polished fighting game to date.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Release Date: April 19, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 1-4 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PlayStation 3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360