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Review: Mortal Kombat
by Tom Acres

When a fighting game comes along that makes me stop and take notice, it's usually a sign that it's a damn good fighter. Street Fighter IV was possibly the first fighting game I'd enjoyed playing since Tekken 3 on the original PlayStation, but after hearing of the hardcore-centric arcade past enjoyed by the Mortal Kombat series, I have to say I felt a rather large degree of trepidation going into this game. I'd had a good time with the demo for sure, but delving into the larger overall single player and multiplayer experiences offered in the full game would surely be an entirely different story.

Don't get me wrong, this rebooted Mortal Kombat is just about as classic and hardcore as you're likely to get in this generation of console fighters, but even for a relatively inexperienced fighting game player like myself, this is still a damn enjoyable, blood-drenched good time.

Mortal Kombat's reboot undoubtedly stems from the 'easy to learn, difficult to master' template of approachability, and in the eyes of most people this is probably the ideal way to design the gameplay system of a fighting game. Mortal Kombat is set on a traditional 2D plane, a departure from the 3D plane of Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe; as a result, the action is far more immediate and intense. The style of fighting encourages an offensive strategy, with techniques such as projectile attacks and air combos far more dangerous and effective than they were in the more recent entries to the series. Indeed, this new Mortal Kombat has its feet firmly planted in the arcades. Learning defensive moves like blocking, jumping and teleporting are obviously important if you're to have any success on the harder difficulties, or when taking the fight online, but the way in which you are encouraged to play with an open and offensive style certainly caters itself to newcomers looking for a bloody good time.

Fighting is ultimately thrilling, as it should be, and the formula is given even more flash by the special moves. As you take damage or land hits, a combo bar fills up at the bottom of the screen. As it fills, you're able to perform special moves simply by landing a combo on an enemy whilst holding down the right trigger button. Alternatively, you can wait until the entire combo bar is filled up and subsequently unleash a devastating 'X-Ray' move, by simply holding down both triggers. These bone-crunching moves not only do ridiculous damage that can change the direction of a fight immediately, but they also look completely insane. Fighters are subjected to acts of complete brutality and, as the name suggests, players are given an X-Ray view of their opponent, as their spines are snapped, skulls are stamped on and crotches are kicked. Whilst obviously looking insanely brutal - and also rather cool, in a sick kind of way - these special moves ensure that the game isn't just a nineties arcade title with modern day graphics. Whilst the basic fighting is still fantastic despite the age of its core mechanics, the special and X-Ray moves keep the gameplay feeling fresh and unpredictable, even for veterans of the series.

Fatalities also make a return. These finishing moves are more for visual punch than anything gameplay-related, but it's undeniably more fun to finish a fight by ripping your opponent in half - or, eating their face playing as a scantily-clad, busty, deranged woman - than it is to simply kick them over. They look ridiculously violent, and you haven't lived before you've seen Johnny Cage rip someone's torso off in 3D.

The classic one-on-one fighting is what most people will get their kicks out of, but Mortal Kombat has also introduced a new tag-team approach to fighting. The game lets up to four humans play at once, if you're interested in tag-teaming with a real person; but you can also play alongside an AI partner against two other AI-controlled fighters, or can control both of the fighters on your team and swap between them as the fight plays out. The tag battles add some extra moves to the game as well, such as allowing you to call in your partner to perform quick special moves, or tagging out in the middle of a combo for additional brutality. Personally, I prefer the classic one-on-one style, but tagging in and out makes for a fun variant which may be even more enjoyable for some.

What surprised me the most about Mortal Kombat was the sheer amount of content on the disc, ensuring that there are plenty of ways for you to kick arse across a multitude of modes. The multiplayer modes are obviously worth considering, but what really impressed me was the breadth of single-player options available. In fact, the game probably has the widest and best selection of single-player modes that I've ever seen in a fighting game. The flagship mode is the story mode, which simply connects the traditional fighting with a decent story told through very well-produced cutscenes. To be honest, the story flew right over my head, but it will probably appeal to long-time fans of the series tenfold more. In fairness, a clear amount of effort and resources have gone into the story mode, and that fact alone impressed me, even though I really didn't have a great idea of what was going on half the time. From what I've gathered from friends who are somewhat more familiar with the Mortal Kombat lore than myself, the story mode here retells the events of the first three games of the series as if they had taken place in an alternate timeline. As a result, some characters end up in totally different states than they had done in the prior games, and so loyal followers of the lore will find some interest in seeing what happens to their favourite characters. For me personally (and for other newcomers as well, I'm sure) the story mode is just a well-presented excuse to rip people's heads off.

The eight-hour story mode isn't the only single-player mode here, though. The traditional arcade mode is present and accounted for, and plays out in a ladder-based tournament style. Playing through this mode with different characters will give you slightly different endings depending on who you choose.

The final single-player mode, the Challenge Tower, is a collection of 300 tasks, from traditional fights to some seriously crazy twists and variants to keep you guessing. Some of these variants are simple enough, such as requiring you to use a certain move or to perform a fatality, but some of them are much crazier - launching one of your limbs at your enemy, for example. Your limbs grow back over time, giving you a steady stream of heads, arms and legs to launch instead of traditional punches and kicks. Other twists include having the stage tilt from side-to-side as hits land, or even fighting upside-down. Some of the tasks come with silly bits of dialogue, such as one that has Mileena trying to give a teddy bear as a gift, or another that has Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn fighting over a baby that sits in the background as you battle. A crying baby sitting there as two guys tear each other limb-from-limb? It's at times like that when you wonder about the state of Ed Boon's mental health.

These single-player modes are worth playing before you dive into the online competition, mainly because you'll want to master at least a few of the twenty-seven characters on offer. Old favourites like Scorpion are available, and all the fighters have at least two fatalities and two costumes. These extras are unlocked in the Krypt by spending your MK Points, which are earned simply by fighting, completing challenges and advancing in the story. As well as costumes and fatalities, you can also unlock music, concept art and other goodies that can be viewed later in the Nekropolis. PlayStation 3 owners can also enjoy playing as God of War frontman, Kratos, which might be worth considering if you have the choice between the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions.

The aforementioned online experience is a key cornerstone of this new Mortal Kombat. Ranked and unranked options are both available in order to quickly dive into a fight, but lobbies make a welcome return and are a fun way of experiencing the online component of the game. As well as fighting, other members of the lobby can watch ongoing fights and perform gestures, as their Xbox Live avatar watches the fight on a cinema screen. PlayStation 3 gamers instead use cartoon doll versions of Mortal Kombat fighters (don't expect to see your much-loved PlayStation Home avatar jumping around anytime soon). In terms of online modes, regular fights as well as tag-team battles are available, and there are also some unique modes to the online experience such as King of the Hill. The concept is simple: the winner stays on, the loser goes to the back of the queue and is forced to watch the next few fights from the lobby as the next contender gets a chance to fight. None of the interesting mini-games from the Challenge Tower are available to play online, but with DLC promised further down the road, that may eventually become a reality for players to enjoy.

Clearly, there is a hell of a lot to Mortal Kombat, and it's all brought together in a very impressive visual package. Characters and backgrounds are exceptionally detailed, with a disturbingly impressive range of animations for the X-Ray moves and Fatalities. Fighters get battered and bruised throughout the course of a fight and their costumes become ripped and bloodied, which is another really nice touch. Of course, a further bonus for PlayStation 3 owners is the ability to play in 3D and - whilst I only have my experience with the PlayStation 3 demo's 3D capabilities to go on - it's a very impressive visual element which adds a nice layer of depth to the proceedings. In terms of mere graphical detail and performance, however, there are no noticeable differences between the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game.

There isn't much that's in any way negative about Mortal Kombat. It's a fantastic fighting game with a ridiculous number of modes for both single-player games and online competition, a terrifically approachable but fiendishly difficult to master fighting system, and it's incredibly good-looking as well. Whether you're a hardcore fighting game fan or someone who just wants to kick some arse and rip some heads off in a ridiculously violent game, Mortal Kombat is absolutely worth playing. Absolutely.

9/10 [?]

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- Tom Acres

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