Released on Wednesday, September 29, 2021: We’re bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of the PlayStation Plus franchise in October. The original text follows.
Mortal Kombat X knows what it takes to keep you busy. Think back to the early 90s, and series creator Ed Boon’s garish pretender was the scruffy chip time waster, while Capcom’s vastly superior Street Fighter II devoured competitive coins in nearby carpeted arcades. There was always a class divide between the two series: Midway’s former brand made a name for itself through violence and vulgarity, while Ryu and his crew showed a bit of restraint and class. But the PlayStation 3’s excellent Mortal Kombat reboot proved that the franchise was capable of more than tabloid headlines: it scaled back years of fighting game fiction, focused the roster, and developed a combat system that spanned the line between approachable and deep. This latest PlayStation 4 foray from NetherRealm Studios follows its predecessor very closely – and just like its ancestor, it’s not a flash in the pan.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this two-dimensional ballbuster is how much is behind it; other fighting games look bare in comparison. There’s the 24-character list to get you started, fortified by a new blood transfusion. Ninja nemeses Scorpion and Sub-Zero come first, of course, but new fighters Cassie Cage and Jacqui Briggs meet greats like Takeda and Kung Jin – each known in their own way but unique. The developers paid special attention to animation this time around to ensure that each one looks and feels unique – there’s no lazy pallet swap here. But it goes one step further: Variants mean that each Brawler can be further tailored to a particular style of play, adding different moves – and then combos – to your combative arsenal. For example, Jax can add guns to his armory – or swap them out for old-fashioned grabs.
There is a lot to internalize at first – but it works. Here’s how the game manages to get you hooked: you may find Raiden’s thundering techniques appealing, but after you’ve mastered his main maneuvers, you’ll prefer his teleportation attack style over his lightning trap alternative. And that’s not all: New modes like the Living Towers are all about variety, taking the core structure of a traditional fighter and adding an almost unlimited number of modifiers. For example, you can fight in slow motion or super speed – when the old darling Stryker is littering the stage with grenades. It’s undoubtedly the infernal idea of tournament players, but Testing Your Luck against ever-changing types of rules is undeniably entertaining – and of course the default settings are still very present and correct, so you don’t necessarily have to indulge in the silliness.
Whichever way you play, the combat system is rock solid: a new stamina meter limits spamming of certain moves – like z you need to think a little more carefully about whether it’s worth deleting a certain string of characters. At the high game levels, the key to success is engaging your opponent in some alien juggling – but at lower levels there is enough excitement to keep casual fighters entertained. In fact, the simplicity of the specials – which usually require three keystrokes or less – means anyone will be able to throw a poke of ice, and even the fatalities aren’t that difficult to perform. The brand new Brutalities then add a deeper level and require you to meet very specific conditions to land one of the awkward finishers.
They’re not that flashy, but they are probably more enjoyable – and they come into their own in the new King of the Hill game mode in online multiplayer. This works similarly to a winning resident leader, but it allows you to converse and post emojis with your fellow contenders through an AOL-like chat room interface. The coolest thing, however, is that you can find the winner in a. unless you stop training – which is also possible Dance with the stars-like fashion that gives reputation points to your future enemies. This means that playing a perfect round and ending up with the all-important brutality has added value – and with everyone watching, you’ll never want to be on the other side. It’s just a shame the title definitely has problems in the netcode department a few days before it’s released and some areas of the experience can’t load right away.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the online suite, as comprehensive as the functionality is, the offline experience will remain the title’s enduring perk. In team fights, you compete against groups of opponents as you fight multiple rounds to collect points for your comrades. For those who are not quite ready to take on real players, the Tower Battle option combines the best of single-player and multiplayer modes. You fight against a number of computer controlled opponents and try to collect as many points as you can with a time limit of 10 minutes. It’s also worth noting that no matter what you play, you’ll always earn points for your chosen faction and contribute to a global metagame that culminates in weekly events that give you and your allies a chance to usurp your opponents. We’re honest: we haven’t seen enough of this in action to understand how it works – but the mere feeling that you’re adding to a bigger conflict is nice.
And then of course there are the Koins, which you can pile up and spend in the first-person dungeon crawler style Krypt. This takes on a much bigger shape than ever, with creatures coming out to attack you in QTE-style battles and even a few puzzles sprinkled in for good measure. The move here is awkward – it’s clearly more of an perk than a crux – but it’s charming and only disappointed by the fact that a post-release patch reduced the amount of money you’ll be making, something that potentially impatient players headed for the ‘Unlock All’ microtransaction accessible from the menu screen. In fact, while we won’t talk further, this game has a lazy predilection for additional methods of making money, including ‘Easy Fatality’ consumables and more. NetherRealm may have done a smartphone game too much in the wake of sneaking extra dollars out of consumers’ pockets.
You can ignore all of that, of course, but we raised an eyebrow when we fought Baraka in the single player campaign – a character who is not currently part of the roster, but who will clearly be added later for a fee. It’s not that there is a lack of content to complain about here: this is the greatest first-edition fighting game we’ve ever played – but it still leaves a sour taste. It is similar with the story mode, which is presented beautifully, but lacks any cohesion. Given the already complex nature of the Mortal Kombat universe, the constant flashbacks lead to confusion about who is fighting whom. It’s an IQ that drains four hours of silliness, which is only really made up for by the fact that it’s largely unprecedented in the genre and some extraordinary looking cinematics with some of the most impressive cutscenes to gameplay transitions this side of the Order: 1886.
Which brings us to our last point, the game looks great. Some characters, like Scorpion, are more detailed than others, but when you have a few headlights – D’vorah and Goro – on one of the title’s lush backgrounds, the title is just stunning. The disparity in artistic inspirations – from kung fu films to heavy metal record covers – won’t really be to everyone’s taste, but the brawl outside a Shaolin monastery in the pouring rain is a sight to see. The music is probably less memorable, but the sound effects are great and add real weight to every punch, every step and of course every upper cut. When you play as the bionically armed Jax, the hollow metal ring will echo around the arena while Shinnok, a wizard in a silly hat, ripples and scrapes across the stages with dark arts. We also need to highlight the entrances that contain unique interactions between all characters.
Mortal Kombat X doesn’t hit quite as hard as its predecessor, but it still improves on a brutal blueprint. The story is stupid and badly written, but it’s all outside of the campaign options that preoccupy you – whether you’re playing with others or alone. With hundreds of modifiers, the ever-rotating Living Towers, and some really extraordinary online additions, this game really goes way beyond that. But the essentials aren’t left out either, using the new variant system to keep the battles fresh – even if you’re only playing as one character. Incorrectly placed microtransactions cloud the experience a little – but that’s just a few scratches away from a flawless win.