Mortal Kombat X
360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Here’s something we never thought we’d print: Mortal Kombat X is nice. It can still be deeply unpleasant when it wants to be – and it wants to be that an awful lot – but there are some heartening moments within the game’s five-hour story mode. Much of it comes from the way developer Netherrealm spent so much of 2011’s Mortal Kombat killing people off, with one series stalwart after another sent to their doom by a scriptwriter’s eager fingers. With Mortal Kombat X being a straight sequel, that’s something of a problem. What chance does a game in this series have without the likes of Sub-Zero, Liu Kang or Kung Lao?
Netherrealm’s solution is clever: set the game 25 years in the future and add a host of characters related to the fallen warriors who had their spines ripped out in the previous game. Sons, daughters, cousins and nephews all arrive, bringing with them recognisable movesets and emotional baggage, much of which they’ll get to work through when it emerges that the evil Shinnok has reanimated many of the dead and put them in his despicable service. Even those who survived have their own problems of the heart: in the intervening years, Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade have hooked up, had a daughter, Cassie, and split. This dysfunctional family provides many of the game’s sweeter moments, including a twist on the cliché about the marriage that fails because one partner is focused on their career. Here it’s Johnny, not Sonya, bemoaning how the love of his life never put enough time into their relationship.
That’s just one example of Netherrealm’s overdue, but gladly received efforts to level the gender playing field a bit. Sonya, once a blimp-breasted amazon with a distaste for appropriate clothing, has had reduction surgery and covered up. Almost the entire female cast is sensibly proportioned and generously dressed. It’s a diversity drive that extends beyond mere presentation – Cassie Cage is the Ryu of the piece, the likeable allrounder who plays a central role in the story – and even beyond gender, with some gently handled, easily missed hints about one character’s sexuality. Mortal Kombat is the last game we’d expect to be progressive – and there are plenty of retrograde steps elsewhere, not least the baffling use of cutscene QTEs – but it’s great to see a desire to be respectful from a series that has long gone out of its way to shock and offend.
Yet should the latter be precisely what you’re after, you’ll still be well catered for. Each character has two Fatalities, as ever designed to test even the hardiest of constitutions. Heads are pushed into circular saws; skulls are stripped clean by flesh-eating flies; hearts, spines and ribcages are torn out, stomped on, snapped. Family ties mean things get a bit weird when, for instance, Jax Briggs rips his daughter’s jaw apart and stubs out a cigar on her tongue. Cassie Cage slices her mother’s jaw off and takes a selfie with what’s left of her, the subsequent social-network post prompting a raft of puns (“now that’s an in-jaw-ry”) from other members of the roster. But whether they’re funny, freaky or somewhere in between, Fatalities are as bound as ever to the law of diminishing returns. Before long, they’re merely overlong cutscenes between fights, and were it not for the guilty thrill of humiliating a human foe, or the score bonus for performing one in singleplayer, we’d have soon stopped bothering.
While you can see all the Fatalities in short order, Mortal Kombat X has a new kind of finishing move that takes a little more effort to see. Each of a character’s five Brutality moves can only be performed by meeting a set of specific conditions. New fighter D’Vorah’s Migraine Brutality, for instance, can only be triggered if you have over 50 per cent health, end the round with the Ovipositor Charge special move, then hold forward on the D-pad. Sonya Blade’s Thigh Master requires that you have less than half health and finish the round with a five-hit combo ending with either a Leg Grab or Leg Slam. Others can only be activated by performing a single move five or six times over the course of a match; if Mileena starts spamming her Ball Roll special, for instance, you know she’s up to no good. Brutalities are a fine addition for those who just can’t get enough of this sort of thing, requiring more from you than a quick string of inputs at the end of a fight. Once you unlock them, anyway. As in the previous game, Mortal Kombat X hides away most of its secret moves and trinkets in the Krypt, which is now a bizarre firstperson dungeon crawler filled with tombstones, each holding a new finishing move, costume or piece of concept art in exchange for a pile of the Koins you’ve accrued elsewhere in the game. The catch is that there’s no way of knowing what’s in the grave you’re about to open. You might have arrived looking for Kotal Khan’s second Fatality, but you could leave penniless with a stack of concept art, a couple of costumes and some new finishing moves for characters you’ve never played. Spread across multiple areas and featuring items that only appear at specific times, it’s a frustrating, punitive way of gating off the kinds of content that other games feature in their pause menus.
The Krypt feels like content for the sake of content, something that looks good on the fact sheet, but is a bit pointless in reality. That’s something of a theme for Mortal Kombat X’s seemingly generous singleplayer component. In Test Your Might, you’re tasked with karate chopping through a series of increasingly resistant materials by mashing face buttons to reach a target, then squeezing L2 and R2 to chop. Test Your Luck mode adds gameplay modifiers to battles, such as see-sawing arenas that chip health from the player on the top of the slope, the screen fading to black every
It’s great to see a desire to be respectful from a series that has long gone out of its way to shock and offend
few seconds, or puddles that interrupt combos appearing randomly. However, the balance is always tipped in favour of frustrating players.
Almost every idea is undermined by its execution. The Faction War metagame asks you to pick one of five sides, then tallies the results of online matches and the weekly, daily and hourly singleplayer ladders. It’s a fine idea until you face your first Faction Invasion boss fight against a foe that doesn’t recoil when you hit them. The objective, tellingly, is not to win, but just survive for 30 seconds, which feels like Netherrealm holding its hands up and copping to a bad decision.
It’s all held together by the ropiest server network in all of fighting games. While Netherrealm will surely improve server capacity over time, and demand will naturally tail off in the weeks to come, even Mortal
Kombat X’s menus are struggling beneath the weight of the playerbase at the time of writing, with long waits for Faction data and online modes to load in. When you do find an opponent, matches are unplayable, despite the decision to limit PS4 matchmaking by region; fighting games are notoriously susceptible to latency, but here it is simply ruinous, and we are yet to play a single match where the fight has been against the player onscreen instead of the netcode. Matchmaking is poor, too, the game frequently putting our low-level D’Vorah up against killers with 90 per cent win rates and hundreds of games under their belts.
These missteps are a tremendous shame given the advances made elsewhere. There have been some thoughtful additions to the core design: a stamina bar, for instance, limits backdashes and the new sprint move, giving you tools to counter both zoning and rushdown play while ensuring neither can be abused. Each fighter has three variations, chosen at the character select screen, that have subtle yet significant effects on their playstyle – replacing projectiles with grabs, for instance, or counter moves. In the context of a game obsessed with content, it might not seem like much worth shouting about, but variations help smooth out uneven matchups and add a much-needed layer of flexibility and depth to a combo system that is still fundamentally built on rapid input strings, canned combo animations and simple juggles.
There’s a frequent complaint about videogame scriptwriting, mostly heard from people who write videogame scripts for a living, that the writer comes on board too late to make a difference to something that is already beyond saving. Mortal Kombat X’s story mode, however, runs counter to the spirit of almost everything else on the disc: tight and focused where the rest is loose and bloated; smart and sensitive while all else is dumbly gruesome. Netherrealm has taken a number of welcome steps forward with Mortal Kombat X, but no momentum is gathered, because it’s stopped in its tracks by an avalanche of needless distractions, some miserable netcode and – oddly, for a game so obsessed with death in all its grisly forms – poor execution of decent ideas. In its more thoughtful moments, Story mode suggests a game with its heart in the right place, one aware of its own flaws and of wider issues in games and the world beyond them. But before long it’s been plucked out, stomped and spat on by the desire to overwhelm the player with stuff to do.
Damage scaling, which makes attacks do less damage than usual the longer a combo continues, is far more aggressive now, though those prepared to spend a chunk of meter can still take off half a health bar