Mortal Kombat Retrospektive #13: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (2008)

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Ed Boon‘s original vision for Mortal Kombat 8 may have been the dark, gritty and “serious” reboot that would have looked like Gears of War, but that never came to pass and the project was canned before we saw anything from it. In hindsight, that was probably a good thing. Meanwhile, Midway Games was about to succumb to their financial issues for good, and for what would be their last project the former arcade giant teamed up with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment to produce a crossover between Mortal Kombat and the heroes and villains of the DC comic books. This game, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, was released on November 16, 2008 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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On paper, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea. As we all know, Capcom had been successful with their crossover fighters earlier with titles such as X-Men vs. Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom, so why shouldn’t Street Fighter’s longtime rival join up with Marvel’s longtime rival? Well, except for that little “Capcom in the 90s made far better fighting games than Midway in the 2000s” thing, which some fighting game enthusiasts out there may consider somewhat important. But hey, details! Besides, Mortal Kombat’s crazy lore and the stuff in superhero comic books are basically made for each other.

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Now of course, Street Fighter was never known for gory visuals and fighters ripping each other’s spines out, which just happens to be a core part of Mortal Kombat’s identity and the reason MK became a cultural phenomenon in the first place. While the DC comic books are often FAR from family-friendly and certainly feature their share of blood, death, dismemberment, the Joker cutting his face off and wearing it as a mask, and busty women dressing up like strippers, only that last thing would make it into Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe in full force — the game was rated T for Teen in the United States. I guess DC didn’t want players to see Batman and Superman get torn into pieces by the MK cast. Or Midway and WB figured they’d get more money if they could sell the game to a younger audience.

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Despite the T rating, there are still fatalities in MK vs. DC. People most definitely die in this game. They get frozen and shattered, explode, get shot in the head, and all that kind of stuff. There is a little bit of blood as well, although it’s now relegated to a glorified hitspark effect and doesn’t stain the ground or anything fun like that. Superman, Batman and the rest of the DC heroes don’t kill anyone, opting for a “Heroic Brutality” finishing move instead of the fatalities the MK crew and DC villains get. Personally, I’m not completely sure what’s so heroic about beating the absolute shit out of a defeated opponent and probably leaving them with fatal injuries, but whatever.

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Good job, Superman, you just beat up a defenseless woman! At least he didn’t cut her air hose while in space or something…

The storyline of MK vs. DC is the kind of nonsense you usually get in comic book crossovers, which makes sense due to the fact the whole thing was written by comic book writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. The story begins when Shao Kahn is thrown into an exploding portal by Raiden at the exact same time Superman does the same to Darkseid, which seemingly destroys both villains but actually causes them to merge into an entity called Dark Kahn.

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The creation of Dark Kahn has the side effect of merging the Mortal Kombat and DC universes together, and suddenly we have the DC and MK guys showing up in each other’s worlds. Not only that, but they also get affected by “Kombat Rage” which makes a kombatant see the nearest person as their worst enemy and causes all sorts of infighting and confusion as a result. The only way to fix things and return the universes back to normal is to somehow defeat Dark Kahn.

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MK vs. DC marks the first appearance of the modern NetherRealm Studios style of story mode, in which each chapter is played as a different character and the story is told like a movie. On this first attempt, the story mode is quite rough and really just a series of excuses to send the characters to different locations and fight each other, but it’s still very much an NRS story mode. The cutscene direction and voice acting could be better (none of the actual DCAU voice actors are involved), but it’s a decent first try nonetheless. There was also a prequel comic included with the collector’s edition of the game, drawn by none other than John Tobias.

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Instead of the 15-20 chapters of continuous storyline you get in the newer NRS games, MK vs. DC has one story path for MK and another for DC. All the events in both paths happen no matter what side you pick, you just choose which ones to participate in. The only time the events differ between paths is the final fight against Dark Kahn, as it’s either Raiden or Superman who takes out the big bad. Even then, the cutscene shows them working together to defeat Dark Kahn, so I guess they both officially fight him.

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Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe has a cast of 22 playable characters. 20 of them are playable from the start, and completing both paths of the story mode unlocks Shao Kahn and Darkseid. If you’re reading this, you already know full well who the MK characters are, so I’ll just go over their storyline stuff for the most part and only write introductions for some of the DC side. Hell, I barely know the backstories of some of the DC guys myself.

MORTAL KOMBAT CAST (KAST?):

Scorpion

scorpion

MK vs. DC takes place sometime after the events of MKII, which means that Scorpion should be acting as the younger Sub-Zero’s guardian by this point. Yet, he’s introduced in the story as Quan Chi’s enforcer, out to kill Sub-Zero like he was in MK4. Now, to be fair, this game is entirely non-canon, so some liberties may have been taken here and there.

Early on in the story, Scorpion fights Liu Kang (who had stopped him from attacking Sub-Zero) and disappears in a flash of yellow light, reappearing in the Batcave right in front of Batman himself. Batman promptly beats the shit out of him. Scorpion redeems himself later by defeating Superman, who has been weakened by the realms’ merging and can’t handle the spectre’s hellfire powers.

Sub-Zero

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Sub-Zero appears as the first opponent in Story Mode, challenging Liu Kang as he believes the Shaolin monk is responsible for the disappearance of several Lin Kuei warriors. Sub-Zero ends up fighting several of the DC heroes, and actually manages to beat Batman in hand to hand kombat.

In his arcade mode ending, he leaves the Lin Kuei and becomes the MK version of Batman.

Sonya Blade

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Sonya doesn’t do much of importance in the storyline, although she does manage to beat Captain Marvel and Green Lantern. At one point, she has to work together with Kano, which of course she is less than thrilled with but manages not to kill him.

There are… things… to be said about her design, but all I’m gonna say on that subject is this: whenever I see Sonya in this game and the next one, I appreciate the designs on Mortal Kombat X that much more.

Shang Tsung

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Shang Tsung still kind of sucks without his morphs. He is, however, not affected by Kombat Rage in the storyline, and actually saves Liu Kang’s life at one point.

One of his fatalities is the backbreaker stomp he used to kill Liu Kang’s brother in the Mortal Kombat film, which is a neat reference.

Kitana

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Kitana witnesses the merging of Outworld and Darkseid’s home realm of Apokolips, and gets a more severe rage infection than the other characters as a result of being so close to Dark Kahn. While the others would generally snap out of it after they get beat up, Kitana’s rage is only cured when Quan Chi uses all of his remaining magic power to remove the infection (in order to gain Raiden’s trust and co-operation against Dark Kahn). Despite being a prominent character, she does not have her own chapter in the story mode.

For some reason, Kitana can do Mileena’s roll in this game. It actually works as it should, and can be used as a launcher for juggle combos.

Jax

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Much like Sonya, Jax doesn’t do anything particularly important in the story mode, unless you count beating Lex Luthor (who just wanted to admire the Special Forces’ portal technology) and Wonder Woman. I do like the scene where he tries to punch the rage-afflicted Captain Marvel in the face and is shocked when it does nothing.

Jax still has his SMG and can fire it during kombat, although he’s not allowed to use it in his fight against Wonder Woman. He can still shoot rockets out of his arms, though.

Liu Kang

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For once, Liu Kang is not the chosen hero who saves us all for the umpteenth time. He may be the hero of Earthrealm after winning the Mortal Kombat tournament and messing up Shao Kahn’s evil plans in Outworld, but in this story he doesn’t really do much and his chapter is more of a tutorial than anything.

Later on, he gets beaten up by Batman and has to work with Shang Tsung at one point. Tsung killed his Shaolin masters earlier, so this partnership is even more uneasy than it could be.

Raiden

raiden

Raiden blames himself for creating this whole mess (it was, after all, his lighting bolt that sent Shao Kahn into the portal) and ends up being the sole MK warrior who gets to fight Dark Kahn alongside Superman. The rest of the kombatants have been knocked out after Dark Kahn showed up and had them all fight each other. Raiden and Superman are also forced to fight, but eventually they realize they have a common enemy in Dark Kahn and should focus their rage on him instead.

Kano

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Still the evil bastard we all know and love, and now obviously very Australian. Kano doesn’t have his own chapter in the story mode, but he does make several appearances in other people’s chapters.

At one point, he attacks Shang Tsung because the sorcerer insulted him for losing to “a clown”. He also loses to The Flash and is almost killed when Flash is afflicted with Rage, but Batman saves his life.

Baraka

baraka

Baraka doesn’t have a story mode chapter of his own either, and he is there mainly to get his ass kicked by everybody. Which he does. I’m not sure why he’s even in the game because he’s really just some henchman for the heroes to beat up, but I suppose they had to include a certain number of villains and ended up choosing him.

Poor guy, he used to be cool once.

Shao Kahn

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Shao Kahn isn’t fought in the story mode, but finishing it on the MK side unlocks him as a playable character and he also shows up as the sub-boss on the MK arcade ladder. The Konqueror looks more imposing than ever but is actually nowhere near as fearsome as he used to be, and you can even do fatalities on him. Now don’t get me wrong, he can still beat the hell out of you and probably will a few times, especially on higher difficulties (although everyone will wreck your shit on those). He’s just not what he was back in the day.

DC UNIVERSE CAST:

Batman

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It’s the goddamn Batman. Even if you’ve never read a comic book in your life, you know perfectly well who he is.

Batman relies heavily on kick-based offense and his bat-gadgets including smoke bombs and batarangs. One of my favorite special moves in this entire game is his “sneaky batarang” where he tosses the ‘rang into the air and it clobbers the opponent in the back of the head. He also does what is basically a Shokan teleport stomp and lands on your chest. Don’t fuck with Batman.

The only MK character to beat Batman in the story mode is Sub-Zero, although he does lose to some of the DC cast when the rage takes over.

Superman

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Another character that needs no introduction. Putting Superman in a fighting game is always a bit of a tricky prospect, because he has to be weakened somehow in order to make him beatable by less powerful characters. In this case, the magical nature of the merging of the realms weakens him, the MK cast use all kinds of magic-based offense, and the rage makes other characters more powerful. He still punches pretty damn hard and uses his heat vision to great effect.

Superman is, of course, the leader of the DC heroes and fights together with Raiden to defeat Dark Kahn.

The Flash

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Barry Allen was a scientist who got struck by lightning and exposed to various chemicals in a laboratory accident. When he awoke, he found he had superhuman speed and reactions. He created a special frictionless suit and took to the streets of Central City as The Flash, the fastest man alive. You can probably guess what kind of offense he prefers in the game.

The Flash is the first character you play as in the DC story mode path. After defeating Deathstroke in Metropolis, he is overcome with the Kombat Rage and fights his friends, eventually switching places with Scorpion in the MK universe.

Personally, I think the best-ever moment involving The Flash is still that episode of Justice League Unlimited where he and Lex Luthor switch bodies. Lex figures he might as well find out The Flash’s secret identity while he is in his body, so he takes the mask off in front of a mirror. After staring blankly at the man in the reflection for a second, Lex just goes “I have no idea who this is.”

Catwoman

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Or, as the great Adam West would say, ~Caaaaaatwoman~.

Selina Kyle is a notorious cat burglar in Gotham City and ally/adversary/occasional love interest for Batman. In MK vs. DC, Catwoman is one of the villains on the DC side and first appears trying to steal a jewel from the Gotham Museum. The Flash stops her, and eventually she finds herself fighting Sonya at the Special Forces base. Sonya locks her up in a cell, but she escapes with the help of Lex Luthor and the two form a team. Despite appearing in the story fairly often, Catwoman does not have a story mode chapter.

In kombat, Catwoman likes to use her whip and acrobatic skills. She can also become immune to projectiles for a short time.

The Joker

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Ah yes, the Clown Prince of Crime, Batman’s greatest enemy. Everyone loves The Joker, especially hack comic book and video game writers who think he’s just the bestest and coolest and smartest and can do anything, and everything should always revolve around him at all times! Now hold on, I’ll go put on my Heath Ledger Joker makeup! The Joker! The JOKER! The Joker.

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That said, The Joker in MK vs. DC isn’t too bad. He’s fun to play as, his fisticuffs fighting stance and silly special moves are amusing and his voice actor (who also plays Raiden) does a passable Mark Hamill Joker. His fatality caused quite a bit of controversy when it was censored for the US release of MK vs. DC — he shoots the opponent in the head with a revolver after a fakeout with a “BANG” gun, which was deemed too violent and so the camera cuts away from the victim before you see them get shot. The fatality is uncensored in the European release, though, and frankly it’s quite underwhelming. The other one with the lethal playing cards is much cooler.

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I wish they’d done a fatality where the victim is doused with Joker toxin and laughs themselves to death, that would’ve been more fun than a dumb old gun and given kids nightmares if done well. I still remember how much the BTAS episode “The Laughing Fish” freaked me out when I was a little kid.

Green Lantern

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Hal Jordan was a fighter pilot in the Air Force, known for his fearlessness. One day, Hal was testing an experimental aircraft and was suddenly transported into the desert where he met a dying alien. The alien gave him a glowing ring, and Hal became a member of the Green Lantern Corps, an interstellar police force. Using the powers the ring give him (its energy lets him conjure up anything he can imagine, but has to be recharged regularly), Hal acts as Earth’s primary Green Lantern.

In MK vs. DC, Hal uses the ring to create various giant weapons including hammers, buzzsaws and brick walls. It can also protect him from attacks. Dark Kahn’s magic causes the ring to malfunction during the story mode, allowing for Hal to be defeated by non-superpowered warriors.

Captain Marvel

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Billy Batson was a twelve-year-old orphan, who wandered into a deep cavern one day and met the ancient wizard Shazam. Shazam chose Billy as his champion, giving him the ability to take on the powers of seven gods and become the mighty hero Captain Marvel by speaking the wizard’s name.

The Rage weakens his powers considerably, but the Captain is still a strong fighter and capable of using lightning powers granted to him by Zeus.

There’s been a lot of confusion over Captain Marvel’s name over the years, since it happens to have the name of DC’s rival company in it. His book has been called Shazam! for as long as I can recall, but the character was always called Captain Marvel. Except that nowadays he’s apparently called Shazam! as well. I have no goddamn clue.

Lex Luthor

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Lex Luthor is one of the richest and most intelligent men in the world and has the resources to basically fix all of mankind’s problems, but he’s also extremely ruthless and willing to take shortcuts to get what he wants. Luthor sees Superman as the one thing keeping him from truly attaining his goals, and is obsessed with killing the Man of Steel. In MK vs. DC, he naturally blames Superman for the creation of Dark Kahn.

Luthor has no superpowers, but his strength-enhancing armor allows him to fight against the DC superheroes and hold his own. The armor is also equipped with rockets and flamethrowers as well as limited flight capabilities.

Deathstroke

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Slade Wilson (not to be confused with Wade Wilson aka Deadpool, who was created by Rob Liefeld as a totally different original character, do not steal) was given greatly enhanced abilities in a secret military experiment intended for the creation of an army of metahuman super-soldiers. He eventually became a mercenary and assassin-for-hire, known as Deathstroke the Terminator. He is a brilliant tactician and exceptional hand-to-hand fighter who can go toe to toe with the likes of Batman, and also possesses a healing factor that allows him to recover from injuries inhumanly fast (with the side effect of driving him temporarily insane).

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In MK vs. DC, Deathstroke fights with guns and swords and acts as Baraka’s DC counterpart in the story (and doesn’t have a story mode chapter either). One of his fatalities also involves him shooting the opponent in the head and was censored in the same way as the Joker’s, but for some reason (read: because he’s not nearly as well known as the Joker) this didn’t cause much controversy.

Wonder Woman

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Princess Diana is the daughter of Queen Hippolyta, the leader of the Amazons living on the female-only island of Themyscira. Having been bestowed the powers of the Greek pantheon of gods at birth, Diana eventually left the island to travel to “Man’s World” as an emissary of peace and now fights crime as Wonder Woman. Her main tools are her unbreakable bracelets and the golden Lasso of Truth, which is also unbreakable and forces anyone captured by it to tell the truth. Back in the old days, Wonder Woman would get tied up with her own lasso very, very often — the guy who created her, William Moulton Marston, had… uh… a bit of a thing for that kind of stuff.

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Of course, Wonder Woman also fights with the lasso in MK vs. DC. Her finest moment in the story mode is defeating and capturing Sub-Zero.

Darkseid

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Darkseid is one of the New Gods from the world of Apokolips and one of the most powerful beings in the DC universe. He merges with Shao Kahn to form Dark Kahn at the beginning of the story, and as such you don’t get to fight regular old Darkseid in the story mode. He is, of course, unlocked by completing the DC story path, and acts as the sub-boss in the DC arcade ladder. Darkseid likes to use various area of effect attacks that hit you quite hard.

I swear I can’t not pronounce this asshole’s name as “Darkseed“. I know it’s supposed to be “darkside”, but I can’t help myself. Mike Dawson would be proud.

BOSS: DARK KAHN

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Of course, then there is this dickhead. Dark Kahn uses the special moves of both Shao Kahn and Darkseid, except they’re more powerful because he’s the manifestation of Kombat Rage and the final boss. I’m pretty sure his AoE attacks are unblockable, and several of his special moves have super armor so you’re not interrupting that shit. To make matters worse, he takes a lot less damage than other kombatants. When you beat him, he explodes.

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In short, he’s a Mortal Kombat final boss. Have a nice day. Once Dark Kahn is defeated, Darkseid gets sent to the Netherrealm and Shao Kahn is imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, although they naturally break out in their arcade mode endings.

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Scorpion: “Grrr. Arrrrg. I’m a zombie. Brains.” Liu Kang: “Oh FFS”

MK vs. DC runs on Unreal Engine 3. It is still a 3D fighting game like the last four entries in the series, but the kombat is at least less sluggish than it was in the PS2 games and the fighting styles have been done away with. The combo system is still a bit basic and it doesn’t seem like you can cancel combo strings into special moves (that, or I’m just bad), and while it all works okay it’s not nearly as enjoyable as the newer MK games. The yellow bars underneath the health gauges are the Rage meter, which fills up as you fight (more specifically, when you get attacked, your attacks are blocked and you get hit with special moves). Once the meter is full, you can press both triggers to activate Rage mode, which makes your attacks stronger and gives you super armor that makes you immune to hitstun and pop-ups.

The other major additions to the fighting gameplay are Klose Kombat (demonstrated by Liu Kang and Scorpion in the above screenshot), which is a glorified QTE that happens when you press the grab button, and Freefall Kombat (demonstrated in the screenshot below) which is also a glorified QTE that occurs when you knock the opponent to the lower level of the stage. When you press the right buttons, you fill the meter to the left of the screen and get to use a super move by hitting the grab button.

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I like to think the Joker made a Tom Petty joke and got a steel fan in the face for his efforts.

You can also smash opponents through walls to initiate Test Your Might, where you mash buttons to increase the damage you do while the opponent mashes buttons to decrease the damage they take. All of these special kombat modes are gimmicky at best and annoying at worst, especially Freefall which has a brief pause between the animation ending and the fight continuing.

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The graphics are kind of a mixed bag. Some character models look really nice (Scorpion and Sub-Zero in particular are great) while others look all wrong (Wonder Woman, Batman, Sonya), but at least the game has well-implemented clothing and body damage, with cuts and bruises appearing where necessary. I especially like how more and more of Scorpion’s skeleton is revealed when he gets beaten up. The damage doesn’t show up in the prerendered (in-engine) cutscenes, which may look a bit silly, but overall it’s a nice effect and they didn’t go completely overboard with it.

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Like the character models, the stages vary wildly in quality. Some of them, like Netherrealm, Oan Senate and Themyscira, look absolutely fantastic and feature top-notch lighting effects and great use of color, while others like the Fortress of Solitude and the Graveyard just look drab and featureless as if they were imported from Mortal Kombat: Armageddon.

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Hell yeah, a Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero reference! You may remember the original Sub-Zero climbing up a cliff to the Temple of Elements much in the same way Sub-Zero enters the Sky Temple here. Mythologies is even referenced in the dialogue!

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe was met with mixed reactions. Most professional reviews were fairly positive and the story mode in particular was praised, but many MK fans were less than impressed by the toned-down violence and the gimmicky additions like Klose Kombat and Freefall Kombat, and most people consider this the black sheep of the Mortal Kombat fighting games. There is also a major lack of content compared to the PS2 games — while I don’t think anyone is particularly clamoring for the return of the likes of Motor Kombat, something more would have been nice. As it stands, the only modes you get are Story, Arcade, Practice, Versus (local or online) and Kombo Challenge, a series of combo tutorials for each character. That’s it. It’s very bare-bones.

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Midway Games filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. Many of the company’s assets, including the Mortal Kombat intellectual property, were sold to Warner Bros. Interactive. The future of Mortal Kombat was uncertain for a short while, although it was obvious that WB would do something with the franchise sooner or later. Ed Boon’s Midway Chicago team became NetherRealm Studios (after a brief stint as WB Studios Chicago), and the next Mortal Kombat was officially unveiled in June 2010. This time, Mortal Kombat was going to go back to basics and start over from the very beginning.

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Next: THE REBOOT

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