With all the sequels and remakes I've played lately, I've had a lot of time to relive past triumphs and other pleasant memories. Some of my all-time favorite series have had new installments in the last couple of years, and many of them have been great. But what was I to expect from Mortal Kombat on the PlayStation 3, when I've never been a fan of the series? Despite having a little bit of fun with the infamous Mortal Kombat II, I've been either dismissive or apathetic to every previous episode.
Whether you're a fan or not, I want to disclose my feelings about MK right off the bat. I used to live mere blocks from where the first games was conceived and recorded (the originals used digitized images of real actors), I've met a couple of the actors (coffee with the Scorpion anyone?), and I even had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in the very room where the classic games' motion-capture sessions took place. But what did I do when I was at Earthrealm ground zero? I told the Midway guys that Mortal Kombat wasn't very good and that I just couldn't get into it when I could just as easily be playing Street Fighter II. Hey, they asked and it was an honest opinion.
Mortal Kombat has an almost shocking amount of single-player content to keep you occupied.
But the new Mortal Kombat . . . it's the same concept as before, same characters and setting, the same types of moves, but it comes together so well that my opinion, honestly, has turned 180 degrees.
The fighting engine is still built on directional taps, so you might tap back then forward with the Square button to release a projectile, for example, or down then up to teleport. The moves are similar enough from character to character that you can figure out most of them as you play, but if you want to win more than a quarter of your matches you will probably want to take some time to pore over move lists. There is a great deal of memorization and practice involved in becoming a good player. There are special moves, super special moves, super super special moves, combos, parries, team attacks, and fatalities that require you to master button sequences, timing, and positioning. You're going to be here a long while.
Of course, much of the appeal is in the secrets. The move lists (which, thankfully, are easily accessible via the pause menu) start out with most of each character's fatalities listed as question marks. Kombat Kodes, pre-fight user-input sequences that affect a wide variety of variables, are also back and waiting to be discovered. Almost all of the twenty-eight playable characters are available from the onset (including God of War's Kratos on the PS3), but there is definitely no shortage of unlockables.
Mortal Kombat, in fact, handles unlockables very well. Playing the game nets you coins that you can redeem in a virtual field of dismemberment and death called the Krypt (yes, even common words in the subtitled dialogue are spelled using the "k" gimmick - play with subtitles on to see more). The field is covered with graves, hanging corpses, and unfortunates waiting for you to initiate their demise. It takes a certain number of coins to activate each of these hotspots, and there are a couple of hundred. Each gives you a reward, from concept art to an alternate costume to a new fatality. There is a hall of heroes of sorts, called the Nekropolis, where you can review character biographies, costumes, and all the other cool things you've spent your blood money on. (I had a flashback to Kasumi Ninja while in there, so I may sue.)
If you don't feel like engaging in local or online multiplayer, there is an almost shocking amount of single-player content to keep you occupied and, maybe more importantly, school you in the intricacies of the game. Whereas many fighters would just throw a training and practice stage at you and call it a day, Mortal Kombat likes to keep you busy and knows that the best way to learn is on the job.
The story mode is a sweeping retelling of the events of the first three MK games that requires you to play as most of the selectable characters. You spend about three matches and fifteen minutes with each combatant, for a total play time of about seven hours. I don't need to tell you that's more time in a secondary mode than many other pricey games give you as their main attraction. The best part is that in using the different characters, you are encouraged to explore the various move lists and switch up your style a little, so maybe there'll be a little more variety both in your personal playing and in the online match-ups.
If your kombo-starved mind isn't satisfied with even that, there is also the Challenge Tower, which features literally hundreds of levels of action. To make it up the tower, you will have to meet different criteria (God, I almost typed that with a "k"). This may involve fighting a computer-controlled opponent using only special attacks, fighting on the ceiling, going one on two, being forced to use a fatality to win, etc. The Tower is a perfect introduction to the gameplay and the mini games that are available. In fact, beating mini games along the tower path will unlock higher levels of those games in their respective modes, and all the while you're earning more coins for Krypt unlockables. So you see, much of the beauty of the single-player experience is twofold: (1) you have a lot to do and (2) all the different options are integrated so that you can go back and forth making overall progress the whole time.
And, of course, the fighting engine itself is satisfying. The action is fast-paced, but unlike previous installments, not cheap. The computer can be very challenging, but it doesn't just run up and throw you constantly, and in most cases you can't get away with landing five jump kicks or five leg sweeps in a row. Some of the moves have changed since I last played, but it all feels right. Mileena's sais aren't thrown with a button charge anymore, and there is a whole list of new fatalities, but I've got nothing at all against learning new things in a game.
The most striking new addition is the X-ray move. Each warrior possesses a brutal sequence of moves that is activated with the simultaneous press of the two rear triggers when the warrior's power gauge is full. The X-rays cause an inordinate amount of damage, especially considering how easy they are to execute. The impacts of each of the two or three moves are shown with top layers of flesh and muscle stripped away, the better to see the fracturing of a skull, the puncturing of a liver, or the splintering of a vertebra. It's safe to say that most, if not all, hardcore fans of the series will be fascinated with the mini cut scenes accompanying X-ray attack, and they are distinctive enough from one another that it is worth seeing them all.
So if you're among the crowd where purchasing a new Mortal Kombat is not a no-brainer, I hope I've convinced you that this installment deserves a fresh eye. But be sure to block, because fresh eyes litter the ground all over the arena.