For years, the Mortal Kombat series has captivated fans with its brutal gameplay, memorable cast, and over-the-top gore. A favorite among retro gamers, the fighting franchise has carved a legacy in the genre by distancing itself from its cartoony peers and providing darker undertones and intense violence. For some time, the series was headed in a more contemporary direction, offering 3D fighting gameplay and even mixing in with the DC Universe. Mortal Kombat, the ninth entry in the series, returns to form in an experience that's nostalgic but completely accessible to today's crowd.
When the Mortal Kombat series ventured into the 3D fighting realm, a major part of what made the games so fun during their early years was lost. Granted, the games were still good, but they didn't provide that old school thrill that many fans expected. Mortal Kombat amends that by returning to its 2D roots and offering intuitive controls and brawling gameplay.
Characters have set number of moves at their disposal. Kicks and punches make up basic strikes, but as with every reputable fighting game, it's the combination that lands serious damage. By punching in succession with the face buttons and D-pad (or analog stick), players can pull off devastating attacks. Combos, for the most part, are somewhat similar between characters. That's not to say every character plays the same–each fighter has a distinct style and move list–but people who enjoy swapping between characters shouldn't have a hard time adjusting.
It's this accessibility and intuitive design that makes Mortal Kombat such a joyous game to play. No move in the game is too tricky to learn, and if you take the time to check out the button sequences, you'll learn them with brief in-game practice. It won't be long until you compile a mental list of your favorite moves.
While knowing how to execute moves might not be a confusing task, each attack still manages to translate onto the screen in a profound manner. Punches and kicks knock enemies back, combos deliver the hurt in a big way, grapples trip up your foes, and specials toss the other fighters around without mercy. Fatalities make a comeback, and these are just as violent as ever. Once you hear "Finish him!" after wiping the floor with your opponent for two rounds, that's your cue to get in position and tap a quick button combination. Doing so unleashes extremely brutal finishers that make your opponent look like a sap. Fatalities range from cutting enemies lengthwise to slicing their decapitated head in half. There are even hidden fatalities, and these add to the gruesome nature of the game even more.
If you think that sounds harsh, wait until you see how everything looks. Kicks and uppercuts cause blood to gush out of opponents' mouths, slices and stabs decorate enemies with cuts and bruises, and the all new X-ray moves add more beautifully nasty effects to an already violent game. X-ray moves are earned by filling your super meter, which consists of three sections: attacking, blocking, and getting beaten down. Once all three components of the meter are filled, you can perform an X-ray move. If done successfully, these attacks put the game in slow motion and zoom in on your opponents. Headbutt them and you'll see their skulls cracking. Step on their chest and you'll witness their ribcage breaking. Stab them in the leg and you'll be satisfied to see their muscles torn and their bones restructured. It's visceral; it's insane. It's a sight to behold.
Mortal Kombat's great look is backed by stellar sound effects. Strikes and special moves sound about as painful as they look, and X-ray attacks are cringe-worthy. Bones crack as you penetrate your opponents' flesh with blades, and a nice squishy noise occurs during fatalities as your character jams his hand into the other character's chest and plays handball with his heart. Additionally, characters literally sound like they're in pain when they receive punishment. Unfortunately, character moans, groans, and catchphrases get a bit repetitive after a while, but given the hectic nature of Mortal Kombat, that's to be expected.
Where the voice work doesn't get repetitive, though, is Story Mode. Mortal Kombat comes packed with a narrative-driven adventure that's sure to please past fans of the series. The game revisits the events of the first three games and tells a great story by pasting together fights and cutscenes. These cinematics look and sound great, and they're full of dialogue that's witty, clever, humorous, and yes, cheesy. The story is well-written and well-composed, spanning several hours to deliver what is easily the best story mode ever created for a fighting game.
Even after you complete the single-player Story Mode, there is tons to do in Mortal Kombat. The arcade-style Ladder Mode pits you against a series of fighters in a test to become the ultimate Mortal Kombat champion. You can also take on Tag Ladder and rise to the top with a two-character team. Tag battles work well and offer a nice spin on the traditional Mortal Kombat formula. There are also challenges to complete, Training Mode to teach you the ropes, and multiplayer for up to four players. You can play one-on-one against friends online or offline, or you can partner with a buddy to fight another team. Mortal Kombat has so much content and so much to unlock that you're bound to spend countless hours playing, whether you're fighting against a real person or the computer.
To call Mortal Kombat a fitting reboot for the series would be an understatement. The game, while offering plenty of nostalgia, is a major step up for the series. It's a fighting experience that's no-nonsense–thrilling, addictive, and pleasing for gamers new and old. This fighter is easy to get into, and mastering attacks and techniques is both fun and rewarding. Even if you don't play many fighting games, Mortal Kombat is an easy recommendation. It is arguably not only the best game in the series, but also one of the best fighting games available.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 3]