Mortal Kombat Retrospektive #14: MORTAL KOMBAT (2011)

DISCLAIMER: From here on, Mortal Kombat gameplay gets a lot more involved. I’m reasonably well versed in fighting game terms and mechanics, but I’m far from an expert and may get some stuff wrong at times. If you find that I’m talking out of my ass when I describe some gameplay concept in Mortal Kombat 2011 (and Mortal Kombat X when I get to it), please let me know.

Also, some of my PC version screenshots may be slightly too dark or too bright, as I was having some technical difficulties with my capture software. Sorry about that.

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As 2011 rolled around, Mortal Kombat had spent quite a few years in the wilderness. The 3D MK games had been received fairly well when they were released, but fan opinion on them had soured over the years. MK vs. DC Universe in 2008 didn’t help matters, as many MK fans were alienated by the lack of the trademark Mortal Kombat gore in the T-rated game, and the competitive fighting game crowd still couldn’t care less about the series. Obviously, the series’ original publisher Midway Games closed down in 2009 and sold the rights to Warner Bros. No one really knew what to expect from MK’s inevitable return, although Ed Boon did occasionally mention that going back to the series’ “dark roots” was the plan and that he feared they might get an Adults Only rating from ESRB. Sure, whatever, we’d heard that before.

Naturally, they chose Scorpion as their mascot.
Naturally, they chose Scorpion as their mascot.

By the time the Midway Chicago team became NetherRealm Studios, fighting games were going through something of a renaissance. Capcom’s Street Fighter IV had come out in 2008, and suddenly fighting games were kind of cool again.While SFIV was never going to match the popularity of the illustrious Street Fighter II back in the early 90s nor was the gameplay quite as deep as hardcore favorite Street Fighter III: Third Strike, it was a massive hit with players and critics alike and revitalized the competitive fighting game scene. One of the reasons for SFIV’s reception was the fact it played like a classic Street Fighter game — while the characters and backgrounds were done using 3D graphics and looked glorious in hi-def, the fighting took place on a 2D plane and used 2D hitboxes. A 2.5D fighter, if you will. Street Fighter IV was not a simple nostalgia fest, but the familiar feeling was there for those who had played Street Fighter II in the Super NES days and hadn’t paid attention to fighters in years. Meanwhile, the hardcore fighting game players could appreciate the depth of the gameplay.

I have no idea if this screenshot is actually from Street Fighter IV or if it's one of the later versions. They're so similar that it doesn't really matter, but here at Outer World Labs we are all about authenticity.
I have no idea if this screenshot is actually from Street Fighter IV or if it’s one of the later versions. They’re so similar that it doesn’t really matter, but here at Outer World Labs we are all about authenticity.

After Street Fighter IV’s success, it was perhaps inevitable that its longtime rival would also go back to its roots. Not by just rehashing MK vs. DC with more blood and desaturated graphics, but actually going back and creating a classic Mortal Kombat game with all the modern bells and whistles. Which, as it turned out when the new Mortal Kombat was unveiled at E3 2010, was exactly what they did. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the new MK game for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (with later ports to the PlayStation Vita and PC) got more attention and hype leading up to its launch than any MK had in a long, long time.

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Simply titled Mortal Kombat (often called MK9 or MK 2011 to avoid confusion with the first game), this game is a complete reboot of the series. The 3D gameplay from previous games has been thrown out of the window, and Mortal Kombat now plays like a classic MK game. Well, sort of. Let’s face it, the old MK games were a bit overly simplistic and clunky in the first place and even more so nowadays, so just lifting the gameplay from MKII wouldn’t have worked, Instead, NetherRealm worked hard to create something that has similarities to the old school Mortal Kombat gameplay but could also be taken seriously in the competitive scene. While MK still has its share of detractors (as does every other fighting game out there) and the game still has its balance issues, NetherRealm succeeded at their goal and their games have had a good presence at tournaments ever since.

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Uh, Jade? What’s going on with your right leg? That doesn’t look healthy.

While the gameplay is far more nuanced than it has ever been, NetherRealm made sure that more casual players wouldn’t be left out and longtime Mortal Kombat fans would still feel at home. This is essentially an evolution of the classic Mortal Kombat games; you can pick it up after not playing an MK game for 15 years, and it’s like you never left. You absolutely can play Mortal Kombat exactly like you’d play MKII or UMK3, and while you won’t win any tournaments like that you’ll do absolutely fine against the computer and your friends. Even some of the combos you used in the 90s will still work! The action is fast-paced, the hits are big and bloody, it’s Mortal Kombat and it’s never been this good. There is even a proper tag team mode where you can tag in your partner or call them for an assist, and it can be played with four players online or offline.

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You can just see Noob Saibot fading out behind Cyrax. The tag mode is quite a cool addition to Mortal Kombat.

The control layout is more or less the same as MK vs. DC, with the front and back kick and punch system still in place (Personally, I like to change the buttons to match the layout of Mortal Kombat II). Obviously, all the ridiculous gimmicks like Klose Kombat have been axed and the fighting system is far smoother than MK vs. DC. The right trigger blocks, as usual, and the left trigger is used to switch stances. Stances in Mortal Kombat aren’t anything like the fighting styles in the 3D games, instead you just press the button to face towards the camera or away from it. This is only really used to help with frame timing in more advanced combos and doesn’t usually have any effect on gameplay. When the pre-release demo of Mortal Kombat came out, some players joked that the stance button is there just so you can stare at Mileena’s butt.

Or Sub-Zero's, if that's your thing. Here he is in his (DLC) MK3 outfit, defeating Shao Kahn in arcade mode and saving the world. All I can think of is
Or Sub-Zero’s, if that’s your thing. Here he is in his (DLC) MK3 outfit, defeating Shao Kahn in arcade mode and saving the world. All I can think of is “Nothing at all… nothing at all… nothing at all!” Oh, and the brightness is all blown out because killing Shao Kahn causes this huge explosion of light. My gamma settings aren’t *that* messed up.

When it comes to doing combos, there are some basic combo strings for each character, but the real damage comes from working out the big juggle combos. Doing combos is smoother than ever, and cancelling from a chain combo string into a special move now works like a charm. Combo breakers return as well, although the way they work has been changed: for the first time ever, Mortal Kombat has an actual super meter, and chunks of it can be used for breakers and EX moves (more powerful versions of your special moves). When the meter is full, you can press both triggers to unleash a fearsome X-Ray move — one of the major new additions to Mortal Kombat gameplay.

Fucking OW. Of course it's Johnny, so he may have deserved that one.
Fucking OW. Of course it’s Johnny, so he may have deserved that one.

The X-Ray attacks look massively painful and do a tremendous amount of damage (about 35%, more if a boss character is doing theirs) and seem like they would kill a person immediately, although they’re fairly well telegraphed and can be blocked or avoided with ease if you know what you’re doing. For this reason, higher-level players tend to use their meter for breakers and EX moves instead. X-Rays can be used in the middle of a combo by canceling into them like you would into any special move, although they don’t do full damage due to the combo scaling. Basically, the more hits your combo has the less damage each individual hit does. The frame timing for juggles also gets more difficult the bigger your combo is, and certain moves lose their launcher properties if repeated too often in a single combo. As such, pulling off huge damage in one combo is tough, but it’s doable and looks impressive whenever someone manages it.

Dan
Dan “TOASTY!” Forden returns!

Now of course, what would Mortal Kombat be without gruesome fatalities? Each kombatant gets a couple of regular fatalities, as well as a stage fatality input and a babality (which is a lot cooler this time, as the baby version of each kombatant now actually does something amusing instead of just sitting there). The fatalities are all incredibly gory, and it’s no wonder Boon had concerns about an AO rating. While they avoided that (from what I can tell, it’s impossible these days to get an AO for violence against willing kombatants), we’ve definitely come a long way from goofy digitized sprites ripping each other’s heads off with bright red pixelated blood flying around. All the violence and gore is shown in exquisite detail, and some of the things in this game occasionally even make a twisted freak such as myself cringe.

This is Shang Tsung's main fatality. NetherRealm were apparently so in love with that crappy Joker fatality from MK vs. DC that they just had to put in an extra gory version.
This is Shang Tsung’s main fatality. Yes, he’s about to pull out a real gun and shoot Liu Kang in the head. NetherRealm were apparently so in love with that Joker fatality from MK vs. DC that they just had to put in an extra gory version with a super-gnarly exit wound.

This time the gore isn’t even limited to fatalities, as Mortal Kombat implements a version of MK vs. DC’s battle damage system for clothing and body damage. While it does allow for some cool details like Kabal’s mask falling apart to show his burnt face, I can’t say I’m really a fan of the cosmetic damage in this game. It’s a bit too over the top, as even the winner of a match usually ends up looking like they got mauled by a bear. Personally, I’d turn it off if the option was there.

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The battle damage is in fact disabled in story mode so it can be done, the option just isn’t there and I don’t think anyone has made a mod for the PC version either. This being the internet, modders seem to be more interested in removing what little clothing the female characters had. The closest thing to a “disable battle damage” mod I’ve found is some dude wanting to disable the body damage textures while keeping the clothing damage for “the females”. Right. Well then…

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I generally like using the klassic outfits with the characters that have them. Here’s Kitana in her least revealing outfit.

There is a very generous amount of single player content in Mortal Kombat. You’ve got your usual arcade ladder (with Shao Kahn returning as the final boss and kicking your shit in) and the story mode (more on that in a bit) and an excellent tutorial to show you the ropes, but the one that will probably consume the most time is the Challenge Tower, a series of 300 little missions for you to tackle. Some of these are just basic fights, others have different modifiers to spice things up (not unlike the fight challenges in Mortal Kombat: Deception’s Konquest mode), and then there are quite a few that are simply weird. At one point, you have to throw your own arms and legs at the opponent to do damage, just like in that “Street Overlord” POPstation game that Stuart Ashen has reviewed a bunch of times in various forms. Another challenge features zombie Goro, whose stench weakens you as the fight progresses. Yet another one has Mileena trying to give Scorpion a teddy bear she made herself, and Scorpion needs to beat her up because he hates teddies.

See? He hates them. Personally, I'd just take the damn bear so she'd leave me alone. The teddy bear is actually modelled and Mileena is holding it during the fight, but since I am awful at screenshots you can't quite see it here.
Personally, I’d just take the damn bear so she’d leave me alone. The teddy bear is actually modeled and Mileena is holding it during the fight, but since I am awful at screenshots you can’t quite see it here.

The tower also includes good old Test Your Might and Test Your Sight, as well as new minigames called Test Your Strike (time your strike right to break a particular block) and Test Your Luck (random modifiers for each round), and the minigames can be played from the menu as well. If a challenge is too difficult, you can pay some Koins to skip it. You’ll only get the Tower Master achievement if you complete every challenge, though.

The PS Vita port includes its own set of bonus challenges, many of which use the system's gimmicks. Even Tremor shows up, for the first time ever in a fighting game.
The PS Vita port includes its own set of bonus challenges, many of which use the system’s gimmicks. Even Tremor shows up, for the first time ever in a fighting game.

Before Mortal Kombat came out, Ed Boon was teasing a huge reward for completing the Challenge Tower. While there is a reward for finishing the final challenge, this turned out to be more of a case of Boon trolling everyone as usual. To unlock the reward, you need to beat Goro, Kintaro, Mileena and Shao Kahn in a single health bar while the game activates random modifiers to screw you over (BLOCKING DISABLED). Your reward? An alternate outfit for Mileena. Not just any alt, though, but the “BEST… ALTERNATE… EVER” as the achievement calls it. The outfit, if you can call it that, consists entirely of bandages. Thanks a bunch, Ed.

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This brings us to one of the big criticisms about Mortal Kombat: Every single female character in this game is terribly designed, and those who criticize these ludicrous oversexualized designs are absolutely correct. There is no chance whatsoever that the outfits you see on these ladies would stay on during fights, and of course they all wear heels to a fighting tournament. I’m glad NetherRealm is trying to improve on their character designs these days, as MKX is far better.

She's a military officer, guys! I'm pretty sure that uniform isn't regulation, though. Also note the clothing damage.
She’s a military officer, guys! I’m pretty sure that uniform isn’t regulation, though. Also note the clothing damage.

That being said, there are certain aspects of the character models in general that I don’t care for. They’ve got this sort of generic Unreal Engine 3 look to them and the faces seem a bit off, and while some characters do look pretty damn good (the cyborgs and the ninjas in particular) I wouldn’t necessarily call the character designs in this game great. This is more of a problem in the story mode, though, as that’s really the only time you see the flaws in the facial animation and such.

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I really don’t like Liu Kang’s design in this game. He looks like a goober with a stupid haircut, and what the hell is he wearing?

What are great, however, are the stages. Most stages in Mortal Kombat are redesigns of classic MK stages (nearly all of them return, and you can even unlock the original music), and they are absolutely packed with detail. There’s almost always something cool happening in the background — prisoners get lowered into the acid in the Dead Pool, birds fly out of the trees in Shang Tsung’s garden, a monster runs around smashing things up, and various MK characters fight on the Pit bridge.

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I believe that’s Daegon and Reiko back there. Truly a clash of the titans.

The story mode was one of the most-hyped aspects of Mortal Kombat leading up to its release, and honestly that was what made me take notice of this game. Seeing the events of the first three MK games told in the style of a movie, and I get to play the fight scenes? Hell yes.

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The actual story isn’t anything to write home about and some of the justifications for the characters fighting each other can be a bit questionable, but overall it’s a fun action romp and reminiscent of the 1995 MK film in many ways. Needs more The Immortals and Juno Reactor, though. The structure is very similar to Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe’s story mode — sixteen chapters, with a different playable character in each of them. The whole thing takes maybe five hours to complete, a fairly substantial length for a story mode in a fighting game.

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Each chapter has three four fights, and as you win fights the harder the AI gets. If you lose, it starts getting easier. This mechanic makes the tougher fights a bit less frustrating, although you might feel you didn’t quite earn the victory. Also, since you change characters after four fights, you don’t really get enough playtime to actually learn to play as them.

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Just as you get to grips with, say, Johnny Cage, you switch to Sonya and have to look up the moves and combos (fortunately, there is a comprehensive moves list in the pause menu) all over again. Well, unless you’ve spent hours memorizing everyone’s gameplay before you start playing story mode, I guess.

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The one thing everyone hates about story mode is the inclusion of handicap matches. As in, 1-on-2. I guess they had to squeeze in the tag mechanic somehow. The AI is quite rough even when you’re fighting one on one, and fighting a team on your own can get rather frustrating. One particular fight during the MK3 storyline had me going “ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS” when I saw the opponents. Somehow, it’s actually not the worst one in the game.

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The actual storyline begins shortly after the intro of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. The clusterfuck of a battle between the forces of light and darkness is over, and nearly everyone involved has contracted an acute case of horrible violent death. The only ones still standing are Raiden and Shao Kahn, although things are not going well for the thunder god — Shao Kahn has defeated Blaze and gained immense power, and now he’s beating the shit out of Raiden while gloating in his usual manner. Knowing that he has no chance to stop Kahn from bringing about Armageddon, Raiden gathers the pieces of his shattered amulet and puts them back together in an attempt to send a message to his past self. Just before Shao Kahn’s hammer meets his face for the last time, Raiden manages to send out three words:

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Well, that could’ve been more specific. These words reach past Raiden just before the start of the Mortal Kombat 1 tournament, and he spends the rest of the story trying to figure out who “he” is and changing the timeline in the process. By the time MK3 rolls around, Raiden has already managed to alter quite a few things and the events have really begun to diverge from the original timeline.

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Nearly all of the fighters in Mortal Kombat come from the 2D MK games, with every non-boss character except Khameleon and Chameleon showing up. The only returning characters from the later games are Quan Chi (first fighting game appearance in MK4) and Kenshi (introduced in Deadly Alliance) who shows up as a DLC character. There are a couple of new faces, though, and many of the old guard have had their biographies updated. Kabal, for instance, is now a former member of the Black Dragon and works as Stryker’s partner in the NYPD, and Smoke is now from Czech Republic. Cyrax and Sektor appear in their human forms for the first time ever. But yeah, about those new guys…

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In case you’re wondering where a certain Sony-exclusive character is, this screenshot is from the PC version using a mod for PlayStation controller prompts.

Skarlet

skarlet

Created from the blood of a thousand warriors, Skarlet is one of Shao Kahn’s most powerful henchmen. She is actually so strong that Kahn keeps her in chains at his arena until she is needed. She’s basically like Ermac, but made out of blood instead of souls. Skarlet is like Ermac in another way as well — she originated as a rumored glitch character in Mortal Kombat II, a female ninja with a red outfit. Of course, she was just as real as Ermac in MK1, meaning that the rumor was completely bogus. In case it wasn’t obvious yet, her moves and fatalities generally involve blood. More so than usual, that is. She’s also wearing even less clothing than the other female characters. I’m not sure how they managed that.

Freddy Krueger

freddy

Now that Warner Bros. owns Mortal Kombat, there are opportunities to put in all sorts of crazy guest characters from WB’s film franchises. Case in point, here’s Freddy from the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Shao Kahn somehow pulled him out of his Dream Realm and left him badly injured, so now he wants to kill Kahn. Freddy’s role in the game is entirely non-canonical.

Kratos (PS3 and Vita only)

kratos

God of War is one of Sony’s biggest exclusive games and one I’ve never particularly cared for. It’s got a truckload of gratuitous violence and gore and nudity and “visceral action”, but the actual gameplay is shallow and repetitive and nowhere near as solid as other character action games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden. Hm, I think I just figured out why that series’ protagonist is in Mortal Kombat.

Grr. I am a very angry badass from a mature game for adults. Grrr. Generic rage.

While I’m not a fan of him or his games, NetherRealm certainly did a fine job implementing Kratos into Mortal Kombat. He even has QTE button presses during certain moves! Unfortunately, some fatalities had to be toned down because Sony refused to allow a SUPER MANLY BADASS like Kratos to be humiliated — for instance, one of Johnny Cage’s fatalities involves him ripping the opponent’s head off and shoving an Oscar-like trophy down their throat. When this is done to Kratos, the whole bit with the trophy is missing. He’s not allowed to show fear either, so he’s just angry when someone’s about to murder him horribly. Naturally, Kratos is also a non-canon addition to the roster.

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This is the face of a man who just realized that his neck is about to be broken.

Unless you’re playing Mortal Kombat: Komplete Edition which gives you access to all content right from the start and has all the DLC to boot, each character initially has only one fatality (although you can use the other ones if you look up the inputs) and outfit unlocked. This is where the Krypt comes in, and it certainly has gone through a major overhaul for this game. Instead of just one room, the Krypt is now this massive graveyard-like area that is divided into four sections.

deadlands

The Krypt is really a bit of a slog and far too expansive for its own good. There’s so much crap in there that you may want to look at a walkthrough to unlock the worthwhile stuff. Of course, it wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat if they didn’t throw in some surprises — occasionally, a hideous monster pops up in your face and screams bloody murder at you like an interflash prank from 2001. Thanks for that, lads. Really appreciate it. Obviously, the monster herself (yes, that’s a lady) isn’t scary and just looks like Eddie from Iron Maiden’s album covers, but the Krypt is annoying enough without jump scares.

Oh, hello there. This is the “Flesh Pits Mutant”, one of Shang Tsung’s rejected experiments and seemingly an early attempt at creating Mileena. You can see the (clearly female) model floating in a tank in the Flesh Pits stage with other clones.

Mortal Kombat has some fairly decent online options including a King of the Hill mode, although the actual netcode is a bit suspect and it might be difficult to find opponents with good connections. The PC and PS3 versions are especially laggy. Since this is an older game, most of the playerbase has moved on to other games and it’s really just the diehards who are still playing. As such, I don’t really bother with online in Mortal Kombat. Trying to learn Super Street Fighter IV by playing it online several years after launch was an experience I’d rather not repeat.

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The console versions are mostly identical, with the 360 version obviously lacking Kratos but making up for it with more solid online multiplayer. The PS3 version also includes support for stereoscopic 3D, if that’s your thing.The PS Vita port was released in 2012, back when there was still some chance of the Vita having a future that didn’t involve anime shovelware, and that version is no slouch. The graphics have been downgraded and the characters in particular look like they’re from a PSP game (although screenshots don’t really do the game justice — it looks pretty decent on the Vita’s OLED screen), but the game runs at a solid 60 frames per second and has all the content from the console version. All the DLC is included as well, and some bonus modes that make use of the Vita’s touch screen and gyroscope have been added. There are also some alternate outfits that have never been made available for other platforms, even in the Komplete Edition releases.

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The PC version was released in 2013 after two years of port-begging by PC gamers. Ed Boon didn’t think the game would be successful on PC, but eventually the port did come out and sold far better than NetherRealm expected. It was ported by High Voltage Software, who managed not to screw up too badly this time and gave us a decent port. For some reason, though, the prerendered cutscenes in story mode are in lower resolution than on the console version, which makes them look like crap next to the actual game. There is a pack of videos from the PS3 version you can download and use instead of the default ones, which at least upgrades them to 720p.

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All in all, Mortal Kombat is a pretty damn good game and a fine return to form for the series after so many lackluster releases. It may not be up there with the very best of competitive fighters, but it was solid enough to establish NetherRealm as a serious fighting game developer. Their games would only get better from here. Mortal Kombat is back.

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Next: The next generation of Mortal Kombat

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