It all began back in 1992. Those that were of age heard whispers about a new game, one that not only showed blood, it showed gruesome digital deaths. Phrases like “Get over here” and “fatality” entered the public lexicon, and while gamers flocked to the arcades, Congress and concerned parents went ballistic with warnings that this game would warp the precious little minds of impressionable youth. Naturally, this only strengthened its appeal and brought even more people to the game so they could stare in awe as one character ripped the head off of another. It was shocking and amazing, and changed the way people looked at video games.
Fast forward 19 years, and the world has changed. Ripping heads off and exploding bodies no longer shock us. In fact, if a violent game that doesn’t have blood, gamers complain. Parents have more or less given up, and members of Congress are one step away from delivering fatalities on each other. And so Mortal Kombat has returned to its glorious and ultra-violent roots.
A reboot that isn’t a reboot
The ninth game in the series, simply titled Mortal Kombat, is something of a reboot but not really. The story begins at the end of all things. Shao Khan has pwned all the fighters and left their bloody corpses to the carrion birds. Raiden is the last man/god standing, but even he can’t stop Khan, who is about to deliver a fatality on the thunder god’s dome. But before Khan can introduce hammer to skull, Raiden sends a message back in time to himself immediately before the very first Mortal Kombat tournament is set to begin.
While this is the foundation of the story, the more important thing is that the long, and confusing mythology of the Mortal Kombat series which was developed over nearly two decades, has been streamlined. It is a fresh start for the franchise, and it manages to pick and choose the best bits of the series and put them into one package—and it works well. Mortal Kombat manages to recreate itself without sacrificing any of the things that made it great over the years. It also doesn’t try to reinvent itself, thankfully. Mortal Kombat remains a 2D fighting game, as it should be (it does offer a 3D display on the PS3, but that doesn’t effect the gameplay, which remains 2D).
One of the more interesting features of the game is the story mode, which walks you through new events as they unfold by pre-selecting your character and playing through a few moments from their perspective. You begin with Johnny Cage, who meets and fights Sonya, then you fight Kano to save her life. From there you jump to Sonya who is trying to rescue Jax, and from there Scorpion, and so on. The original characters are the focus at first, but as you progress you will be introduced, and then fight with, many of the newer characters as well. It shows you how the characters ended up in the tournament, what their motivations are, and where they fit into the universe. It’s an interesting mechanism that fleshes out the universe, and makes the game more than just a fighter—it is a story that involves fighting.
For those who don’t know the over-arching plot of Mortal Kombat, or who weren’t able to follow the increasingly convoluted mythology through the years–which began to involve rogue robots and other very weird elements–the story mode is an excellent introduction to the series. For fans of the game, it offers a new perspective on old events, which should appease those that were willing and able to follow the nearly 20-year long plot. Some of the dialogue is cheesy, and certain moments are kind of “out there,” but in general it is a good narrative. There are some balance issues though, and what would a Mortal Kombat game be if it didn’t blatantly cheat every now and again. It’s almost tradition at this point.
As you progress, you will typically battle two opponents as a specific character, then be forced into a handicapped match were you face two opponents at the same time. Now, if you are familiar with the character you are playing, you should be able to beat the tag-team quickly enough, but the point of the story is for you to play as several characters, so there will come a time when you are facing two opponents with a character that you don’t like. This can be frustrating, and more than one controller may receive a fatality due to the nature of these anger-inducing games.
The level of difficulty also seems to change on a whim. Some enemies will be crushed beneath you easily, while others will string together insane combos. Typically though, if you have to replay a fight again and again, you will eventually get to a new round where you utterly dominate the character that was just whoopin’ you. And then there are the bosses…they flat out cheat. They will launch into combos even while you are in the middle of a combo that is landing blows, and they will drop the odd unblockable attack just for giggles. It can be an exercise in frustration and even the most seasoned MK fans will be pressed to steal a win.
In general though, the story does an excellent job of taking a long history and redoing some of the points that worked well. Oddly, there is no way to skip the cut scenes, nor can you go back through the previous chapters you have already passed. Kind of a shame.