Latest "Mortal Kombat" restores game's greatness

Latest "Mortal Kombat" restores game's greatness

I remember the day well. It was in 1992, and I was a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I had wandered into my campus arcade inside Brady Commons, a regular haunt of mine, to find a new game had been installed.

Nobody was playing it, yet everyone was crowded around it, staring at the screen with a sense of wonder and fear. However, every once in a while, someone would pull his eyes from the screen and look around the room, almost as if they were ashamed of being caught watching what they were watching.

Intrigued, I shouldered my way into the small pack and was immediately captivated in the same fashion.

Before me was a 2-D fighting game of a kind I'd never seen before. The combatants flitted back and forth across the screen, trading punches and kicks, fireballs, lightning blasts and jaw-breaking uppercuts. The words "Finish Him" flashed across the screen as a sonorous voice spoke the words, and an uppercut later, one of the figures fell into a pit and was gruesomely impaled on a floor of spikes.

Then the display went back to the title screen.

"Mortal Kombat."

We began digging quarters out of our pockets soon after and got to playing, cheese-eating grins dotting most of our faces. And we still didn't even know about the "real" Fatality moves hidden in the game yet. When we started discovering those several days later ... yeah, the game was almost never unused from that point on.

But over succeeding years, the appeal of "Mortal Kombat" began to wane for me. It started with the release of "Mortal Kombat II." Sure, it added a host of new fighters, and that was good. But my fighter, the girl I played as all the time, knew best, could win with, Sonya Blade, was gone.

I still had my backup guy, Johnny Blaze, but it wasn't the same for me.

Plus, they had added some ridiculous clutter to the game in the form of Friendships and Babalities as finishing moves. Meh.

"Mortal Kombat III" was even worse. I've never understood the addition of the "Run" button. And I never got the hang of using it. Most all the characters were redesigned because of disputes with the "actors." Animalities and Mercy were added, as were a few other features, and the game became too much about memorizing move lists off tip sheets, rather than just sitting back and playing.

As more games were released, I largely ignored them. OK, I did play and review 2008's "Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe," and I liked it, but that's partially because I didn't really think of it as a "Mortal Kombat" game.

When I heard another "Mortal Kombat" was going to be released, I sarcastically wondered what they were going to do to the series this time around.

The answer, happily: Fix it. Make it great again.

The developers have separated the wheat from the chaff, tossing out tons of extraneous trash that's bogged "Mortal Kombat" down over the years. No more run button; no more crashing through walls and floors; no more badly executed "Create-a-Kombatant" feature. And Animalities? Babalities? Friendships? Mercy? All that rubbish? Gone or hidden away.

What's left is a solid 2-D fighting game -- and, unless I'm missing something, every character in the game's history is included, even secret characters from previous titles, such as Noob Saibot, as well as a few new variants that can be unlocked.

The fighters all look pretty good, with highly detailed character models that appear "damaged" as fights go on. And even if they don't take any hits, they tend to get covered in blood spatter from their opponents. I must note, however, that while the female fighters all have busty Barbie physiques, I'm not attracted to how their faces have been rendered. Kitana and Sonya have odd man-jaws, basically. Ugh.

Fighters' moves are once again as simple as they were when the series began, so arcade veterans and "Mortal Kombat" newbies alike won't have any trouble pulling off flashy attacks. I mean, it had been years since I and a coworker had played, and yet during our first time with this new game, I easily triggered Johnny Blaze's kicks and energy blasts, and he kicked my butt with Raiden's teleports, lightning blasts and flying tackles. And we never even bothered  with looking at the characters' move lists (which you can access by pausing the game.)

Yet things are more complex as well. Combos, which were added as the series went on, are intact here. Basic attacks have been beefed up too, and everybody seems to have a few more special moves. There are even grapples, in case you're stuck playing against someone who keeps turtling up.

Plus, every character also has a super-special, ultra-damaging X-ray attack, which can be triggered when a certain gauge is filled. If this attack connects, players will be treated to a slow-motion display of literal bone-crunching. But it's an attack that can miss or be blocked, so there's still a fairness to its use.

Of course, once you've defeated an opponent in the arcade mode, the game demands you "Finish Them." Kill them in brutal fashion, in other words. To be honest, most of my attempts at triggering Fatalities back in the days of the arcade met with complete failure. So I'm thrilled that: A) each character has multiple Fatalities in this game; and B) each character's move list spells out the necessary inputs for one of them. The default ones listed aren't the classic moves you'll know from the arcade, but those are probably still around too. (And you don't need to resort to a website or guide book to figure out the hidden ones, which I'll explain in a minute.)

As you can probably imagine from what I've written so far, the traditional one-on-one Arcade Mode, where you fight your way up a ladder of opponents, is present and accounted for. You can play against the machine or take on a friend in versus mode, as far as one-on-one goes.

They've also added a new mode, tag team, for one to four players. Each side in a match has two fighters at their disposal, and they can tag in and out with the touch of a button or two. If there's only one player, they pit their team of two against the computer. Two players can choose to fight against each other, two-versus-two, or work cooperatively, each controlling one half of the team against a computer opponent. I think you can probably work out on your own how three- and four-player games work.

The other main game-type in this version of "Mortal Kombat" is Story Mode, and I'm not talking about the individual character stories you unlock each time you beat the Arcade Mode. This is a full-on retelling of most of the history of the game, starting with the first tournament against evil sorcerer Shang Tsung, and going all the way through Outworld's invasion of Earthrealm ("Mortal Kombat" through "Mortal Kombat 3," in other words) -- though because of a little bit of time travel, events this time around don't play out as they did in the past.

You don't get to pick your character in Story Mode. Instead, you hop from hero to hero as the narrative progresses. Thus, it helps to have a good grounding in the basic mechanics of the various characters if you want to succeed. Adding to the difficulty is the occasional two-on-one matchup -- and you're never on the "two" side.

I thoroughly enjoyed this mode, even if I did have to lower the difficulty to win the final battle against Emperor Shao Khan, who is a cheap-shotting piece of ....

Anyway, the story ends with a setup for a sequel, which I look forward to, especially as ... well, let's just say that not all of Earthrealm's heroes survived this time, so it'll be really interesting to see how that's dealt with.

There's other stuff in the game too, including a special Challenge Mode, where you try to accomplish a whole bunch of different tasks, as well as "Test Your Might" board breaking; "Test Your Luck," a fight where a roulette wheel determines your opponent and what help or hindrance each of you get; "Test Your Sight," a shell-game; and "Test Your Strike," a new variant of "Test Your Might."

There's even a Fatality practice arena, where you can learn and practice these deadly finishers in a no-pressure environment.

Throughout all of the different game modes, you earn coins to spend in the Krypt, a sort of store for in-game unlockables. But you never know what you're buying there until you've committed yourself to the purchase. Possibilities include such items as cheat codes (to turn off blood or blocking or remove everyone's head, for example), alternate costumes, extra Fatality codes, and artwork from the game.

Of course, there's also an online multiplayer mode to all of this, but because I have the PlayStation 3 version of the game -- and the PlayStation Network has been down for more than two weeks now -- I've been completely unable to test it. If I get the chance, I'll update this review with my impressions later.

But even without the multiplayer, "Mortal Kombat" is completely worthwhile as game.

"Mortal Kombat"
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. Reviewed on PS3.
Price: $59.99.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: This is a great rebirth of the series, and if you're into "Mortal Kombat," you definitely want to buy it.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros.
First: Kitana holds ninja cyborg Cyrax helpless in the air with a wave of her deadly fans.
Second: A painful ball of energy is headed Mileena's way, courtesy of movie superstar Johnny Blaze.
Third: Kung Lao dodges the bite of Scorpion's spear-tipped chain.

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