Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: Mortal Kombat 9's both a trip down memory lane and a great new direction for the series

Growing up as a kid in the 90s, there were few things that seemed to scare my parents more than the incredibly violent Mortal Kombat series. It was a fighter whose iconic characters, interesting mythology, and over the top violence quickly cemented its place as a key figure in the gaming landscape, and this newest entry, simply titled Mortal Kombat, will definitely please fans, gain new ones, and undoubtedly ensure that the series remains popular for years to come.

Series co-creator Ed Boon had originally envisioned Mortal Kombat (for the purposes of this review, Mortal Kombat 9) as a complete series reboot with an all-new cast. Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, the previous entry if you set aside the DC Universe spinoff, ended with the images of the series’ characters dying off, which left the door wide open for the planned series re-invention. As it would turn out, though, fans didn’t quite want that to happen yet. If you look at the series throughout the years, big changes took place after Mortal Kombat 4, which was unfortunately the final Mortal Kombat game developed for the arcades. After the fourth installment, the series went on a hiatus for a number of years, its next generation rebirth eventually taking place with Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance in 2002, followed by Mortal Kombat: Deception and then Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. Though these were all quality games that were loaded with features and content, the gameplay at their center felt quite different from the Mortal Kombat that many of us grew up with. With Mortal Kombat 9, we have a return to the more arcade-style gameplay of the first 4 games (and in 2D, like the first 3) but with a couple new twists, and the result is easily one of the best Mortal Kombat games we’ve seen in a long time, one that definitely stands up there with the classics.

Mortal Kombat 9’s Story mode begins where Armageddon’s left off, with Raiden, Liu Kang, and the other characters dying in the midst of a bloody battlefield. With his final breath, Raiden sends a vision of this fate to his past self. We then cut back to the events of Mortal Kombat 1, where, in the midst of Shang Tsung’s island tournament, Raiden receives his own message, and, understandably alarmed by what he sees, becomes determined to change their fate. It’s all actually pretty clever, and this plot device gives the developers the chance to return us to the events of the first 3 games in the series. Unlike the story modes of the past couple installments, which took the form of full on action/adventure games, Mortal Kombat 9 simply features a series of fights strung together by surprisingly well-produced cutscenes. The dialogue and voice acting’s rather cheesy but I found myself amazed at how genuinely compelled I was to progress the story to see what would happen next. Not only does the story mode allow you to become somewhat familiar with all the characters and their moves, but it’s great to get to see the stories from the Mortal Kombat Trilogy presented in this way. If you want to see Cyrax/Sector pre-robot, if you’re curious to learn how Jax lost his arms and want to witness the birth of the rivalry between Sub Zero and Scorpion, then you’re this game’s target audience and you’re going to love this. The Story mode lasts quite long (for a fighting game) and proves to be both addictive and challenging, but that’s only a tiny portion of what Mortal Kombat 9 has to offer.

In addition, you of course get the classic arcade-style Ladder, where you pick a character and a difficulty setting, then get to fight off a series of opponents to reach Shao Kahn at the top. Upon beating him, you unlock the ending of whichever character you're playing as, which is narrated to you in front of some beautifully drawn concept art. This mode can also be played in co-op, which is done tag team style and it’s not only a fun way to ease new players into the game, but it can also be a blast if you’re with another experienced player who just wants to get in on the action. You can play Tag Team in Versus mode for up to 4 players, though you can only complete the Ladder with 2.

In addition to this, there’s the Tower, consisting of literally hundreds of bizarre challenges to complete as you ascend to the top, ranging from things like fighting with your arms (or heads) cut off, to fighting upside down, and of course to the return of the Test Your Might/Test your Sight mini-games. With challenges that range from funny to challenging, it’s yet another mode that can keep you busy for a long time.

All of these modes award you Koins, which, like Deadly Alliance/Deception/Armageddon, can be used in the Krypt to unlock new character costumes, Fatalities, music, and concept art. Though there are a lot of throwaway unlockables here (the damage concepts especially) I found the idea of picking one of hundreds of prizes to buy without knowing what the prize would be to be fun, and the large amount of throwaway prizes makes it all the more satisfying when you do unlock something cool. Each character's given one Fatality to start with (yup, the deadly finishers return, as bloody as ever) which is available from their moves list. You can also unlock each character’s second Fatality, a Stage-specific Fatality, and a Babality. If you choose to play this like the classic Mortal Kombat games and simply go online and look up all of your character’s Fatalities from the start, you’re able to do that, and you can perform these in the game without having unlocked them. Still, the added convenience of having all the Fatalities in each character's moves list provides incentive to actually unlock them, and I’m sure that many fans will opt to clear this massive Krypt of all its goodies.

In addition to all of this, there’s also an online mode, and though I can’t comment on it because I don’t have Xbox Live at the moment, it’s just yet another mode in a game full of content. You should note though that if you buy this game used or choose to rent it, you’ll have to pay an additional fee to have access to the online mode, as is becoming more common this generation.

As I alluded to earlier, the fighting system in Mortal Kombat 9 sees a return to the series’ 2D roots, plus the removal of the switch-on-the-fly fighting styles, which became a central element of the MK fighting system starting with Deadly Alliance. You no longer have the ability to move around a 3D plane, and though I never minded the move to 3D, I have to say that after playing Mortal Kombat 9, 2D fighting suits this series much better. The new addition to the combat system is a gauge at the bottom of the screen. As your character pulls off combos or takes damage, the gauge increases, filling up its 3 levels. At level one, you can perform a powerful special move, while reaching level 2 gives you the ability to interrupt an enemy’s combo on you. Level 3 allows you to trigger an X-ray move, which are hilariously brutal and cinematic special moves unique to each character, with the camera changing to X-ray mode and showing you the damage being done to the inside of their bodies. Triggering each phase of the gauge is as simple as clicking both triggers, and once you use it at any point, your gauge goes back to zero. Needless to say, knowing when to use a Breaker or when to hold out for your X-ray move becomes a big part of the strategy of each fight. The fighting system here feels much more fluid and balanced than I remember any previous Mortal Kombat game being, and pulling off a well-executed uppercut or roundhouse kick is as satisfying as ever.

Visually, Mortal Kombat 9 continues the series’ tradition of ambient levels with some truly vibrant colors and nice attention to detail. The pouring rain you can see outside the windows of Shang Tsung’s throne room looks beautiful, as do the various souls you’ll often witness flying throughout certain stages. Though many of these stages are remakes of places from the first 3 games in the series, they still look and feel different enough so as to come across as nostalgic while still seeming like new levels. The characters become bloody as they get beat up, and the Pit Bottom level now has pipes literally pouring blood onto the stage, and, yes, onto the characters if the fight happens to take you under it. I’ve always been a fan of the Mortal Kombat games' art direction and this game definitely continues that tradition. Musically, things are a bit less impressive, but there’s still some good stuff in here and it complements the action well. The remixes of past Mortal Kombat tunes definitely proves to be a nice touch.

As far as flaws go, I have to say that as satisfied as I am with this pretty incredible fighter, it’s not quite perfect, and there are some (comparatively small) things that still can be improved upon in future installments. You can’t do a Versus match against the computer unless you start playing the Ladder, which would be fine if not for the fact that in Ladder mode, unlike Versus mode, you can’t choose your stages or your opponents. That’s not a game-breaker but it would have been nice to have simply been able to do Versus matches against the computers without starting a Ladder game. On the topic of Versus matches, there are some slight issues with the character select menu that make things a little less easy than they could have been. Changing your character’s costume’s a pain because not only does the game give you no indication of how to change your costume (push Start over your character if you want to select their second costume) but you can’t see the costume that you’re changing to. All you can do is select either Costume 1 or Costume 2, and your character’s appearance isn’t reflected until the match begins, which is sort of annoying. After the match, you have to return to the character select screen if you want to choose a new level, as simply selecting Rematch puts you both back on the same level that you just played. Again, this is not a huge issue by any stretch but it's rather unintuitive and feels like an unnecessary inconvenience. I also have to also point out that while Mortal Kombat 9 features a great Fatality tutorial that makes it easy to learn how to pull these finishers off, the game’s actual tutorial (which is thankfully optional) pretty much sucks, as it prevents you from progressing through it if you’re stuck. For example, a few minutes into the tutorial, the game instructed me to pull off a certain combo, which, for whatever reason, I couldn’t do. I didn’t have the option to skip this part and continue the tutorial, so I had to miss the rest of it, having no choice but to look up the information on the other features, like how the X-ray gauge worked, online. Of course these are the types of things that an instruction booklet would have helped greatly with, but Mortal Kombat 9 is continuing the industry’s unfortunate trend of phasing out instruction booklets, so all we get in the box besides the disc is the code to play online and a booklet advertising merchandise that we can buy…..great…

I guess the only other flaws I’d have to point out aren’t exactly flaws, but they are still things I’d like to bring up. This roster’s made up pretty much entirely of classic characters, with Cyber Sub Zero being (to my knowledge, anyway) the only new playable character. Just like with the level roster, this doesn’t mean that the game feels like a rehash, it definitely doesn’t. Still, it would have been nice to have seen a few fresh faces in there. For one final complaint, some of the Fatalities are pretty weak. Though there are some truly awesome ones in here, in the age of games like MadWorld, it’s hard not to feel that with some of these Fatalities, things could have been taken even a step further; not that they should be more violent, they’re certainly violent enough, but that they just feel a little too short and unimaginative. Mortal Kombat 4 I think still has the series’ most elaborate Fatalities, and I wish Ed Boon would go back and watch some of those before beginning work on the next game.

Verdict: With the exception of those complaints, though, I have to say, Mortal Kombat 9 has proven to be a huge comeback for the series, and for a series that’s been as consistently good (well, excluding ports and spinoffs, anyway) as this one has, that’s a huge achievement. Not only is this game loaded with features and unlockables, but it has a great fighting system (probably the most balanced yet for the series, in fact) a fun story mode, tons of challenges, nice visuals, strong multiplayer, and lots of nostalgic touches. Unintuitive menus, the lack of an instruction booklet, and an optional tutorial that frankly isn’t much help are only slight bumps in what’s otherwise a very accessible, not to mention deep, fighter. I’m certainly no expert on the genre but I had a blast with this game, as I have with almost every Mortal Kombat installment up until now, and I’ll most likely continue enjoying this one for a long time.

Presentation: Corny but but surprisingly compelling story, tons of content to be found in each mode, and a huge Krypt filled with unlockables and plenty of fanservice to go around. On the other hand, menus can be somewhat unintuitive and there’s no instruction booklet in the box, which really sucks.

Graphics: Art direction is “Mortal Kombat” in every sense of the word and I love it. Strong art direction, characters look great and animate well, and the game keeps up a rock solid framerate. Levels resemble classics from the first 3 games but mostly manage to feel fresh.

Gameplay: The most balanced Mortal Kombat game yet, the move back to 2D clearly serving the series well. New X-ray moves prove to add a lot of strategy and switch things up, and I can’t stress enough, there’s a ton of stuff to do in this game.

Sound: Voice acting’s very campy but you don’t play these games for the acting. Music’s good, though I still feel that Mortal Kombat 4 remains the best in this category.

Replay Value: Off the charts.

Overall: 9/10

(Note: This review was of the Xbox 360 version.)

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