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

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