To watch the viscera-replete finishing move of Ermac, with its sadistic and oddly humorous overtones, is to know humanity at its truest. Why does watching a mummy use his magical brain powers to slowly draw the digestive tract out of an undead fire ninja make me laugh? Because death is inevitable for all of us, and its potential spontaneity is our species’ existential crisis. The idea that we can suddenly not be here is frightening, but Mortal Kombat has always made light of this fear by showing us the polar opposite of our terror. Not the suddenness of leaving this life–our legacies pulled from our clutches and left with our peers to do with what they wish–but the abstract silliness in the idea of an over-calculated death. If someone said, “I’m gonna cut your head off,” you may react differently than “I’m gonna break your jaw clean off with a nightstick, and take a selfie with your busted face.” At least one of those threats are smirk-able.
I like to think that Mortal Kombat’s longevity in the genre is strictly due to its appreciation for the human condition. The over mutilation of combatants is a pragmatic joke that we play on our friends every time we hear the words “Finish Him!” We reinforce the connection we have with each other by beating on one another virtually, and showing the battered corpse no respect, because we appreciate the lack of realism in it all.
Mortal Kombat X is easily the most sophisticated entry in this decades-long experiment. Taking cues from the series reboot in 2011 (MK9) and the excellent Injustice: Gods Among Us in 2013, NetherRealm has realized that there is significant worth in building a great game that can also be a funny, self-aware joke. It’s improved in almost every aspect, and may finally be ready to be taken seriously.
The most conspicuous change is the way it looks. Mortal Kombat 9 focused heavily on creating locations and characters that felt more real than they looked. Shao Khan was a Conan rip-off who surrounded himself with scantily clad warrior women who would probably be wise enough to wear more than a loin cloth to battle, if given the opportunity. The locales where bright and evocative, but more caricatures of real life places than replicas. MKX changes all of that.
The hyper realism is incredible. The way cars look rusty and trashed or the convincing visual story of statues being reclaimed by the earth all work exactly as designed. On top of that, many of the older characters have been redesigned to fit a more toned down, less hyper-sexual vibe. Not only does Mileena not have an “I’m wrapped in conveniently sticky gauze” costume, she is decked out like a fully fledged assassin. Sonya Blade, now General of Special Forces, doesn’t show up to combat in cargo yoga pants and a cut off t-shirt. In short, the women look like women who fight for a living for the first time in the series.
Then new characters take the overall toned down approach to heart, as well. Not only are Cassie Cage and Jacqui Briggs well designed visually, but men like Takeda or Kung Jin don’t suffer from the often goofy over design many Mortal Kombat characters get (Sub Zero’s fur collar comes to mind). This modernist approach to the visuals extends to the menus and title cards, which are elegant and simple. Things that are only supposed to display useful information should be, after all.
The story mode is back, though arguably less impressive than the studio’s past efforts. It still follows the established holding pattern of telling a story in chapters, each chapter being a series of fights focused around a single protagonist. Much of the story is pretty standard B-list kung-fu movie fair, but less compelling. There are still stand out moments here and there. They mostly involve the new additions to the cast (the most new entries at once in series history, by the way). There are also pretty interesting moments of character development, in the form or tender narrative moments that don’t involved face punching or overall contextual conflicts of interest. Kotal Kahn makes a great anti-heroic emperor, and is believably only self-interested, not consumed with “good” or “evil”. Some characters are all flash–D’Vorah comes to mind. She’s enjoyably twitchy and quippy, but is a source of the story’s big “why the hell would they do that” moment.
If the story does anything consistently right, it attempts to characterize the cast beyond their gimmicks. Raiden is the God of Thunder, but no one drinks Earthrealm’s Kool Aid as much as he does, and that fact is more important than his ability to jumpstart a man’s nuts. Scorpion and Sub Zero have been mortal enemies since the first game, but fire vs ice is demonstrably a metaphor for their completely conflictory lifestyles. Hell, they even take their masks off in this one. These little extra touches really help players new and old nestle into a character for more than just the way they play. There’s enough person in each cast member to latch onto emotionally, even if it ultimately fails to be anything more than just the best fighting game story around.
And then there’s the gameplay.
Those familiar with NetherRealm-style games should step right into MKX with little issue. Some of the timing when it comes to cancelling combos into other moves is different, but not too much so. The block button is back, and so is full on running, which helps close distance to those pesky zoners or give you the space to continue a combo just a little longer.
So lets recap: Fatalities help us laugh at the heavy burden of our mortality, and the story mode provides little avatars of personalities that we like and can relate to. The way these characters fight–the way their punches find their ways into the enemies’ faces with that satisfying thud, and the way they put three or four of them together–attracts our own little preferences on controlled aggression. Mortal Kombat X takes its human thesis statement a little further by adding variations to their customary styles. Each character has three different move sets, some that change their special moves, some the change combos and some that change both. The Master Blaster-style tag team of Ferra and Torr has a variation where Torr throws Ferra around like a ball, and one where Ferra cheers from the sidelines and Torr fights alone.
Gameplay wise, this has an obvious effect on your metagame strategy. Torr fighting alone is powerful and overwhelming at close range, but has no ranged attacks to speak of. If players are struggling against range heavy characters, like freshman gunner Erron Black, maybe adapting to a new variation with ranged alternatives is best. Each character now has more answers to the match-ups they’ve traditionally had issues with, and have offensive and defensive possibilities they never had before. It’s a great way to keep old standbys like Liu Kang fresh without making him a foreign language to traditionalists.
As far as where you can take your favorite fighter to do battle, the options are fairly limited. Towers are your standard arcade set of matches, with a relatively broken boss fight at the end. There are also Endless and Survival towers, to test your longevity. Living Towers are your standard series of fights, but with modifiers that make the trek up to the top difficult. Things can be as tame as being shoehorned into playing Goro for 10 fights, or as nuts as meteors falling from the sky as hands from hell reach out to grab you from below. They definitely add spice to these fights, but the replayability of them will solely depend on your threshold for slapstick mechanical mischief.
Mortal Kombat X looks to make a substantial play at social connectivity, too. The addition of factions allows players to choose one of five houses to fight for. Each and every fight you participate in gains experience for your selected clan. Faction Wars and Faction Bosses allow you to do work directly for your set, facing ultra tough bosses to see how long you last, or fighting other players online for faction bonuses. Online is finicky, and I have yet to have a solid game of lag free action throughout a fight. It’s failure is disappointing, but not game breaking. After all, real fighting should come from the people in same room as you.
Mortal Kombat X is the best in the series, and that is without much debate. It is loud and gaudy wish-fulfillment. It’s an ostentatious joke at the expense of our own human frailty. But finally, its one that we can all enjoy. It’s designed, in visuals, gameplay, and writing, to be a game that makes attempts to speak to our humanity in the various ways we consume that sort of communication. And it only took 20 years.