Upon first playing Mortal Kombat (Mortal Kombat 9 in some parts of the world), it at once feels both different and familiar. The series’ latest instalment eschews the three-dimensional plane of the last few games in favour of the classic 2D style that the original Super Nintendo Mortal Kombats used. As a result, combat is fast and frenetic, making you rely on sweeps, uppercuts, special moves and canned combos to survive the round. There is little room for improvisation here, unlike in the more freeform Tekken and Soul Calibur series. Often you have only a split second to plan your next attack, and must always be ready to change tactics at a moment’s notice. This is classic Mortal Kombat in all its jaw-shattering glory. While it all works very well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t slightly miss the more technical fighting of Deadly Alliance and Deception, with their multiple fighting styles per character and eight-way running.
A new addition is the Special bar, clearly inspired by the Street Fighter games. Filling up as you fight, the bar is split into thirds, and expending more of it at a time has differing effects. Using one third in conjunction with a special move enhances the attack; for example, Cyrax’s grenade becomes a missile, and Johnny Cage’s fireball becomes two. These can be very helpful in a pinch, and should not be underestimated. Expending two thirds of the bar allows you to break an opponent’s combo. This is less useful, as it merely knocks them down for no damage. If you’re low on health and being pummelled to death, this one might just save you the round, but in most cases it’s better to save up for the full three thirds.
Using the whole bar activates your character’s unique X-ray attack, a wince-inducing moment of savagery that shows your opponent’s bones crunching and snapping inside their bodies. These do significant damage and are easy to activate, but something of a gamble as it only takes your opponent to block at the right time to render your entire special bar wasted. Overall, the special bar goes over a treat, adding to the combat without necessarily redefining it.
The new Story mode is exactly what I’ve been waiting for; a trip through Mortal Kombat’s mythology, exploring each character’s backstory and motivations. In a genre that is traditionally light on narrative, Mortal Kombat has always fascinated me with its diverse settings and twisted characters. One of my favourite parts in this Story mode was meeting and getting to play as Cyrax and Sektor before they became Cyborgs. Some of the dialogue is a little hammy and clichéd, but compared to the atrocious Mortal Kombat: Annihilation movie, this is a definite step up.
I enjoyed the classic Ladder mode a lot less. This still carries over the original games’ design of having difficulty scale up as you go from one fight to the next. This means that even on beginner, while the early fights are so easy as to be boring, the last two or three can be maddening. It wasn’t fun when Mortal Kombat did it the first time, nor when Killer Instinct did it, and it’s not fun now. A less steep difficulty curve would have made the game a lot less frustrating, allowing players to choose exactly how hard they wanted the majority of their fights to be.
Not only do opponents display more skill as you progress up the ladder, the last few fights keep up the Mortal Kombat tradition of breaking its own rules. Kintaro, Goro and Shao Khan are brutes that take less damage while dishing more out, can’t be thrown and often won’t be knocked down when any other character would. They’re statistically difficult, and that’s neither fair nor fun. It means that half of the strategies you’ve compiled up to that point now become useless, and I resorted to spamming projectile attacks just to whittle the bosses down. That said, it does seem to be less extreme than Moloch and Onaga of earlier Mortal Kombats, but just isn’t enough of a shift in the right direction for my tastes.
Speaking of taste, the fan service here—something of a staple for fighting games, if Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive are any indication—seems a little out of hand. While female characters are at least spared the indignity of “jiggle physics”, all of them still strut around with fleshy bowling balls glued to their chests. These frankly alarming breasts are held in place by mere scraps of clothing, parts of which tear off as the woman takes hits. While I recognise that this is more or less the way Mortal Kombat has always been, should it not be making at least some effort to grow up with its audience? We’re not thirteen anymore; blood-drenched boobs no longer have quite the appeal they once did.
And what blood there is. The amount of red liquid sloshing around this game borders on absurd, but usually doesn’t cross the line. Fighters gain vicious gashes as they get hurt, going so far as to have eyelids or lips torn clean off. Fatalities are fittingly gratuitous, with only a few that make me want to look away. The way Smoke cooks his opponent from the inside out is a horrifying way to go, and Scarlet bathing in the gushing blood of her victim made me a little nauseous. On the other hand, some are more on the silly side, such as Johnny Cage planting a trophy in his opponent’s head, and Shang Tsung morphing into a hysterical clown, an obvious nod to the Joker from Batman.
I can’t say that any of my gripes with the latest Mortal Kombat come as a surprise. Most of them are simply carried over from previous games, staples of the series that have irritated me for some time. Conversely, the good parts answer prayers we didn’t even know we made, and definitely outweigh the bad. I don’t expect that I’ll ever finish the Story mode or unlock everything, but I don’t need to. If you can accept Mortal Kombat for what it is and always has been—a bloody, booby, uneven brawler—you might just find yourself having a great time. I know I am.
A return to its roots, for better or for worse.