In an age where hyperviolence is the norm, is Mortal Kombat still relevant?
That's a question I find myself asking when I look at the copious amount of brutality that takes place in Mortal Kombat X. Whether you're taking in a cutscene, fighting in a match, or finishing off other players, there's all sorts of nastiness on display here. Yet, can the franchise continue to subsist on shock value alone? The days where Ed Boon and his partners in crime were the undisputed lords of gory games have long since passed, meaning that the newest entry in the franchise is, ultimately, just another gory game in a market full of them.
That means that Mortal Kombat X needs to offer more than blood, guts and fan service in order to survive.
I'm happy to say that, for the most part, the ever-changing franchise manages to pull it off. Unlike the franchise in its infancy, as well as many of the entries in the early 2000's, gore is no longer the selling point. Yes, it's there, and it's just as extreme and unrealistic and laughable as ever. But you can get the brutal X-Ray shots in a Sniper Elite game, or the heinous violence in any of the numerous God of War titles. If that's the case, what is it, exactly, that Mortal Kombat X brings to the table that makes it a worthwhile purchase? Simple: sheer mechanical perfection.
It may come as a surprise, considering this is a series that's never been about in-depth combat. Up until Deadly Alliance, virtually every character played the same outside of specials and fatalities, and even then, a lot of them still bled together... erm, pardon the expression. Point being, while most fighting franchises continued to evolve into highly technical games based entirely on perfecting elaborate button combos, Mortal Kombat was sort of left in the past, its sloppy combat failing to engage dedicated fighting game fans, myself included. While the 2011 reboot, Mortal Kombat (MK9 for the purposes of this review,) managed to infuse some much-needed precision and technicality into the franchise, the package as a whole felt a bit uneven. Still, it was a step in the right direction, and a vast improvement over misfires like Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
Mortal Kombat X is, essentially, more of the 2011 game... just done umpteen times better. It's the same basic set-up. You've got Towers to conquer, a Campaign to beat, and a nice smattering of characters to master. It's the same 2.5D gameplay, roughly the same variety of characters, so on, so forth. It might not be the most eloquent thing in the world to say, "it's the same, only better," but that's really the only way I can think to describe it. If you liked what NetherRealm put out in 2011, you'll probably like this too.
But if you didn't, or just didn't pick it up, I'd contend that you'd probably get something out of Mortal Kombat X. That's because, on top of being a highly technical fighter, one that rewards patience and precision, there's plenty of stuff here for button-mashers to fall in love with. There's a basic pattern to every combo, depending on the character (some are definitely reserved for more expert players,) and once you figure them out, it's pretty easy to piece together the rest and pull off huge combos and elaborate special moves with minimal effort. While some of the more "elite" fighting game crowd might balk at this accessibility, I really don't mind it. It means that practically anyone can pick it up and start hacking off limbs with ease.
At its heart, that's what makes the core gameplay of Mortal Kombat X so great. Nobody will be left out of the fun. If you want to cut your teeth on a deep, intricate fighter to train for EVO, you're set. If you're going over to a friend's and just want a fun, relaxing time, that's fine, too. You can fight in traditional Kombat, or try to duke it out with several ridiculous status effects in Test Your Luck. You can have plenty of fun alone, or take the battle to friends or strangers. It's a rarity these days, but this is a fighting game where virtually any type of player can have their own kind of fun, alone or with other people, casually or seriously.
This is reflected in the roster, which ranges from "you can mash to win" to "being constantly aware of your movements at all time." For example, D'Vorah (a new favorite) is a sadistic bee woman whose basic attacks can be strung together quite easily for devastating damage; by contrast, playing Mileena requires the utmost degree of precision, and one wrong button press can doom the rest of the match. The thing is, unlike MK9, the roster isn't ridiculously unbalanced by easily spammable characters. There is no equivalent to Stryker here. Even with the ease of access, it never feels entirely unfair.
I wish, though, that could be said for virtually everything else about the game, especially as it pertains to the fundamentally broken and, in some places, morally bankrupt online practices. On paper, it all sounds great, and some features are, indeed, awesome. Daily Towers and challenges keep things fresh, and the Faction Battle aspect, a metagame where players all over the world contribute to a Faction they pick, is excellent.
Where things fall apart are when you want to actually play the game. NetherRealm's last two titles had notoriously bad netcode, and Mortal Kombat X is unfortunately not exempt from this. Matches stutter, lag, or just stop outright. Most of the time, I can't even log in. This is an anomaly for me; I don't have the best internet connection in the world, but virtually every other game I want to play online, even major releases, works fine at launch. For a game in which all that needs to be loaded are two fighters and a background, the state of online at the time of this writing is completely abysmal.
This is compounded by some of the worst DLC practices I've come across since last year's biggest AAA failure, Assassin's Creed Unity. Don't want to learn a button combo for a Fatality? It's alright, pay for some single-button-press ones. Want to unlock everything at once? WB Games made that easier for you by decreasing the rate at which in-game currency is dropped and charging 20 bucks to get it. Fight against a cool character in the campaign that you want to play as? You'll be covered by the eventual DLC rolling out that will unlock them, despite the content basically being on the disk.
Is it really that bad, or am I just really reactionary to this stuff in 2015? I'm going for the former, because in conjunction with the spotty online, it cheapens the entire experience. An experience that, otherwise, is one of the best (and best-looking) fighters in years, one that I'd suggest to almost anyone. But with on-disk content gated behind future DLC, deliberately slowed down unlocks, and microtransactions, in a game that already costs sixty dollars and launched with two bits of DLC on top of that, it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend getting at full price. Aside from the lackluster internet play, Mortal Kombat X could have made a large sum of money on its own merits. It's a strong enough package by itself. But WB Games has shown an insulting lack of faith in their own product by hobbling the experience in a cynical, corporate attempt to turn even more of a profit.
That's why, unfortunately, I can't, in all good faith, make a complete recommendation of Mortal Kombat X. Without those two major handicaps, I'd probably be urging everyone to go out and buy it without hesitation. At its heart, this is one of the best games of the past few years. It plays, looks, and sounds the part. But the content that surrounds it, the sleazy, slimy muck that's attempting to drown out whatever good NetherRealm has done, undercuts that at every turn. It's hard to ignore a game in which almost every menu reminds you that you can buy extra bullshit.
For sixty dollars, packaged with insidious DLC strategies and lackluster online play, it's tough to recommend this game with the inevitable reality of a "Komplete Edition" coming out within the next year or so. Still, it's hard to deny that Mortal Kombat X is one of the best fighting games to hit store shelves in years, especially out of a Western developer. If you're a fan of the genre, or just want something fun to play with friends, you could do a lot worse... even if the publisher could have done a lot better.