Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Summing up Mortal Kombat: Flawless Victory, FATALITY!

I was part of the Sega Genesis crowd when I was younger. So I remember sitting up with my friend through all hours of the night playing "Test Your Might" on the original Mortal Kombat. I remember tirelessly watching the Test Mode in Mortal Kombat II until I had viewed each character's fatalities (since some of the button combinations were too complex to pull off oneself). I remember studying the Mortal Kombat III moves list/strategy guide long before the actual game hit the shelves. And I also played Mortal Kombat 4 for the N64, but that game borders on a different continuity. I tried to follow the story down the strange, 3D, Next-Gen path, but I just couldn't get into it.

So when my buddies and I first plugged in the new Mortal Kombat for the PS3, I was excited to see that the cast of characters was drawn mostly from the first three games... mostly. There are a couple of newer characters and a surprise guest appearance. Being MK veterans (though somewhat out of practice), we felt no need to check out the tutorial. The first match we played was a marquee matchup between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the famous palette-swapped ninjas that appear on the cover of this game. Upon entering the actual Kombat mode, we were excited to see that the playing field had been brought back to 2D (although with 3D-rendered graphics), the uppercut was still the most powerful single move in the game, and Scorpion's "GET OVER HERE" spear was still back, back, A.

Or, it would have been A on an Xbox 360 controller; with the PS3 it was Square (or "Forward Punch" as the new confusing control scheme has it). We would also have been able to play that first match using "Klassic Sub-Zero" if the PlayStation Network had gotten its shit together enough to let me sign in and download it, but alas. But, even without the possibility of accessing my Downloadable Kontent any time in the near future, a combination of the gameplay mechanics, the devotion to the historical MK tradition, and the classically gory FATALITIES makes Mortal Kombat the best fighting game I've played since... Mortal Kombat!

Fighting Style

The field of play has returned to 2D; no more sidestepping attacks and losing track of where you are on the horizontal plane. In addition to placing the game more firmly in the Mortal Kombat style, this convention allows the return of such classic MK stages as "The Pit", which features Kombatants doing battle on a narrow platform, with the added Stage-specific Fatality option of uppercutting your opponent onto the spikes below. Of course, we had to look up online how to perform the precise button combination it requires to administer such a gruesome finishing move. And while we were happy to do so, let's just say it would have been nice to have the instant gratification of one-button-fatalities, so we could see all the blood and guts without having to expend any of the effort.

Once we finally figured out how to do the fatalities, and got some off, it was worth the effort. They're fun and gory and reminiscent of former games while still being innovative enough to be compelling. And it's nice that they allow you to pause the game during the Fatality prompt so you can hastily look up how to kill your opponents in the coolest way. That way you don't have to keep a specific move in mind through the entire match, and then only have 30 seconds to pull it off. Sure it takes away some of the classic Arcade-y stress/urgency element, but everyone just wants to see the Fatalities, so why not make them easier to access?

The cast of characters is very interesting too. We played around until we got to all the characters, and there wasn't one that made their playable debut post Ultimate MK3. It was as if all those continuities I never paid attention to, never existed in the first place. Alright, I'm right back in my Mortal Kombat komfort zone, in terms of the characters! But I wasn't yet familiar with all the new gameplay dynamics, so when I got the game home, by myself, I did open up that tutorial.

The Kombos and Special Moves are back, but they've added an "Energy Bar" at the bottom of your screen. You can build up this bar by hitting special moves, having your punches blocked, or taking damage, then you can expend this energy with either an enhanced special move, a combo breaker, or a player-specific "X-Ray Attack." The most powerful move in the game, these attacks are a complex series of blows, where the camera goes into slo-mo and x-ray vision to let you see exactly how brutally you're shattering your opponent's bones and/or vital organs. It's a little unsatisfying to watch them just jump right up and shake it off after the attack, but nothing beats taking out upwards of 60% of an opponent's life bar with one button-press.

The Story

Now that I have a firm grasp of which characters are available and a rudimentary understanding of the gameplay, let's see what happens to those characters in the Story Mode. That's right, the Mortal Kombat games have a story. And not necessarily the story that shows up in that fine movie, "Mortal Kombat". But the one in the movie's not necessarily false either. Let's just say that in the 7 previous games that have come out, the inner workings of the plot are hard to follow, even for die-hard fans of the franchise.

But here's a novel idea: Why don't we tell the story through the characters? Instead of having P1 control a single new character through a bunch of different random storylines - where all our other favorite characters play only minor roles - let's make single-player mode a way to learn how to play as all the characters, while also making it a way to learn about all the characters. It works for me, especially seeing as I'm the kind of guy who will read through all the character bios in the Options section before he even starts playing the game.

That's why Chapter 1 brings you back to the beginning of the Mortal Kombat story: Outworld challenges Earthrealm to a series of tournaments, and if the bad guys win this one, Earth would be forever controlled by the demons (just like in the movie). And that's also why you start as Johnny Cage, a character from the first Mortal Kombat. They're eventually going to rewrite the continuity of the entire series, but it's justified in a pre-story cutscene.

We start out seeing Raiden (mythical Thunder God and leader of Earth's warriors) doing battle with Shao Kahn (leader of Outworld's forces and main boss of the series) at the end of the culminating game in the series. All of our heroes are dead, and Raiden's strength fails. Earth is about to lose, big time, what with Shao Kahn about to take over and completely wipe out all life. In one desperate attempt before he gets Fatality'd, Raiden uses his Elder God Magic to send a telepathic message to his past self! All of a sudden he wakes up, before the first Mortal Kombat tournament begins, getting hazy visions of the future. All the better to guide his actions and make better decisions that will eventually lead to Earthrealm's victory.

To this end, most of the Story Mode cutscenes revolve around Raiden manipulating/influencing (manipfluencing?) the various characters to somehow help him in his mission. First we see him recruit Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade to Earthrealm's forces. Then we see him convince Scorpion NOT to kill Sub-Zero (as revenge for the massacre of Scorps's family and ninja clan) by promising to have his dead brethren brought back to life (again, with the help of his fellow Elder Gods). So in addition to letting us play as different characters, the Story Mode also shows our old favorites making character-redefining choices. Who says a fighting game can't have an element of drama!?


It also helps that it comes with a Katalog where you can order your favorite Mortal Kombat merchandise: Blu-Rays of "Mortal Kombat" and "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation", the official Prima game guide, and of course T-shirts, hats, and Scorpion/Sub-Zero bookends. Just submit your credit card info to the PlayStation Network to order... NO! DO NOT GIVE YOUR CREDIT CARD TO SONY, THEY'VE BEEN HACKED AND HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO DEAL WITH IT. But how can I resist? I really need the Arcade Sticks... NO. RESIST THE TEMPTATION...