I’ve grown up playing a lot fighting games and one of my favorite series has always been Mortal Kombat. My affection might be a bit ironic, though, as I’ve never really enjoyed the games in the same way do other entries in the genre. Rather than focusing on the fighting, I’ve always liked the goofy but cool universe, the cartoony but grotesque violence, and the overall atmosphere the games exude. Basically everything but the fighting.
The previous Mortal Kombat games were fun to play with friends and beat up the AI in, but they were never something I got serious about learning. The 2011 entry to the series started to refine the fighting mechanics into something I could take a little more seriously, but it felt stiff and it just wasn’t enough to win me over. So now that Mortal Kombat X has appeared on the scene, I was curious to see what I would enjoy more: the fighting mechanics or everything surrounding them.
Mortal Kombat X builds off of the base established in its 2011 predecessor. Fights take place on a 2D plane, complete with Mortal Kombat staples like the block button and the triumphant return of running. Oh, and plenty of fatalities to finish your opponent off with. I think Mortal Kombat has always played best in two dimensions so I’m glad they stuck with the established formula. The game feels very familiar to play, but the animation work seems to be of much higher quality this time around, making the game feel like a much more refined and fluid version of the previous iteration.
What sets Mortal Kombat X apart from the last game is its variations. Every character now has three different versions, each focusing on a different gimmick. For example, one version of Reptile emphasizes his ability to go invisible, while another lets him slow down time. The idea is to eliminate the idea of a “bad match-up” by giving you dramatically different ways to play each character. A noble cause to be sure, but I find that in practice the results are a little mixed.
Not only do special moves change between variations, but normal attacks can too. I found myself confusing which variation does what a lot. They try to make each variation of the character look slightly different, usually by removing a mask or a hat, but it’s still difficult to tell what variation is what until you’re familiar with the character. Some variations are more unique than others, but the combination of carry-over moves and the character looking the same can really make things confusing. Obviously this problem goes away as you invest more time into the game, but it took me quite a while to adjust.
For what I would consider to be one of the most mainstream fighters around, variations complicate the game a lot more than I expected. I’m just not sure how many people are really going to be getting their fullest of the system. Learning fighting game characters is hard, and Mortal Kombat X basically asks you to learn three if you want to use a character to their fullest.
Once mastered, variations add a lot of variety to the game. There’s so many different playstyles available that it’s almost impossible not to find one you like. For those who are loyal to a specific character, now you don’t necessarily have to settle for “low tier.” Now being a “Scorpion player” could mean a lot of different things depending on how well you know every variation of your character. But what if you don’t care about who’s in what tier or playing against other people competitive? Mortal Kombat games have also garnered a reputation for having a lot to offer beyond the fighting. Mortal Kombat X is no different in terms of having stuff to do, but it’s in a different vein than its predecessors.
One of the most iconic features of older Mortal Kombat games was the giant towers used to represent your opponents in the arcade modes. Mortal Kombat X takes that concept and stretches it out as far as it can go. There are traditional towers that have the typical arcade modes, survival modes, and the Test Your Might mini game. Some towers change depending on when you play them, morphing every hour, day, or week. There are randomly generated towers that you can use to challenge your friends to in a battle for the best score. It’s all towers all the time in Mortal Kombat X.
I like that there’s so many different ways to play the game now, but I wish there were a little more variation in the styles of play presented. Previous Mortal Kombat games mixed things up with bizarre things like an adventure RPG or kart racing. The 2011 game features an extremely long tower that featured mini games and unique fighting scenarios you couldn’t encounter anywhere else. Mortal Kombat X’s towers stick firmly to the main gameplay, which is fine, but ends up making them better for short bursts of play rather than spending a whole day on them.
The biggest non-tower related single player activity comes from the story mode. While the gameplay stays true to the past, one of Mortal Kombat X’s most defining characteristics is how it pushes the series toward the future. 25 years have gone by, and now the Mortal Kombat universe looks very different. I’m going to be honest here—I’m a huge nerd when it comes to the Mortal Kombat lore and I could tell you more about the Kamidogu than what I ate for breakfast. After playing through Mortal Kombat X’s story mode, I think they’re going in the wrong direction.
The story focuses on “the next generation” of heroes, namely the kids of Jax, Sonya, Johnny Cage, and Kenshi. And Kung Lao’s cousin, I guess. These new characters are very witty and have generally fun banter, but they’re also kind of boring. I’ve always thought the Earthrealm people have been the least interesting part of the Mortal Kombat universe by a country mile, and the story builds them up to a ridiculous degree. Johnny Cage is supposed to be a joke character and yet suddenly he’s taking out Scorpion and Sub-Zero at the same time. I get that they need “normal” people to be the relatable heroes of the story, but I think they could have done a lot better here.
There’s also a big emphasis on changing things that don’t really need to be changed. I’m going to be vague for spoilers, but there’s a lot of side switching and characters going through fundamental changes to their design. I don’t really see the benefit of most of it, and I also don’t see much of these changes lasting more than a game or two. Some of the biggest changes to the universe are never fully explained, and they often sound the most interesting. It just feels like there are a lot of wasted opportunities in this 25 year time skip, and that makes certain characters less cool overall.
Despite some questionable story focuses, I am happy that they’re trying something new. People like to pick on the PS2-era games like Deadly Alliance and Deception, and perhaps rightfully so, but one thing that always impressed me about those games was how they managed to expand the Mortal Kombat universe and change the status quo. The previous Mortal Kombat was very much a fanservice game, and while I enjoyed that, Mortal Kombat X is the perfect opportunity to take up the mantle of the 3D-era games and forge a new path in the narrative.
Overall, I’m happy with Mortal Kombat X. It doesn’t shake things up dramatically from the 2011 Mortal Kombat in the gameplay department, but it really didn’t need to. They’ve finally found a formula that works and as a result I’m more interested in learning the intricacies of the game than ever. The extra modes like Story and the Towers are nice, but I feel that they’re a bit lacking compared to their predecessors. For the first time in the series, I think I’m more interested in actually getting good at the game rather than messing around with the single player or geeking out about the dumb lore.
Food for Thought:
1. A lot of the Tower endings involve or at least mention Shang Tsung in some way. The writers must be hinting towards a big comeback for the sorcerer in the next game. (Although, they may just miss him, too. I know I do.)
2. The move list gives you an absolutely ridiculous amount of information. Every single move also tells you about frame data, block damage, regular damage, etc. It really makes me wish I had more time on my hands to properly study all of the information.
3. The Krypt in Mortal Kombat X destroys every other version in the series. It’s a weird mix between a first person adventure games and survival horror quick time events and it’s just really fun to experience. The rewards themselves are kind of meh, but going through the environment is really good enough for me. This Krypt represents the variety I wish Mortal Kombat X’s other modes had more of.
4. Word of warning: every online (and versus mode offline) match you play gets recorded to the hard drive, at least in the PS4 version. I got a notification that my PS Plus storage was somehow filled up one day, only to see that I had like a gig worth of match videos uploaded to it. I haven’t been able to find a way to turn this feature off, which is pretty obnoxious.