It’s incredible to think that the Mortal Kombat franchise has been around for over 25 years now, and almost mind boggling to think the number of generations this bloody fighting series has entertained with its overblown murder kung fu. I was 12 when the first game hit arcades and I still remember the hushed tones a friend of mine spoke in when he told me about this mad arcade game he’d played on Skegness sea front – “There’s this bloke in it, right? He’s a god and he looks like one of the baddies from Big Trouble in Little China; he shoots lighting and everything and he can make your head explode!” Seriously, the amount of trigger words in that sentence to make 12 year old me want to just jump on a train and head to the seaside to see this magic for myself.
Jump ahead to 2019 and I’m a much older and wiser family man with far more refined and respectable tastes. Ah, who am I kidding – when Netherrealm Studios showed off the trailer for their latest bloody biff em up, Mortal Kombat 11, that 12 year old resurfaced, grinning gleefully at all the gore and guts. Yes, Mortal Kombat is back, baby, and it’s just as silly and gruesome as ever. Unfortunately, though, not all is so rosy in Outworld in this iteration of the classic franchise.
Mortal Kombat 11 is an absolutely solid fighting game
Let’s start with the positives, though, as there are many – make no mistake, Mortal Kombat 11 is an absolutely solid fighting game. While it could be argued that the first 4 or so iterations of Mortal Kombat were largely derivative, full of cookie cutter characters that all pretty much followed the same model and moveset, the first proper jump into 3D with Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance on PS2, XBox and GameCube (yes, I know Mortal Kombat 4 was a 3D game but I like to think of that one as a bad fever dream) started refining the formula. Characters felt unique, had different play styles and MK head honcho Ed Boon really started pushing the meta story in a way few fighting games had done before it, including cutscenes and a canon narrative that instructed the character development cover the next few games.
So here we are at Mortal Kombat 11, arguably Netherrealm’s most polished release yet. This is a tight fighting game, full of the usual special moves and combos you’d expect from a modern brawler with all the trappings that push it from being a casual affair and into a tournament contender. Rather than hammering away on buttons, modern Mortal Kombat invites players to learn characters unique combos, special and standard moves and how to use them to manipulate the flow of battle in their favour. There’s no more tapping back, back, forward as Raiden and just slamming your opponent repeatedly into the edge of the screen! Moves also come with essential frame information for pro players to study and learn to better understand move timings.
And it’s funny! Mortal Kombat 11 doesn’t remotely take itself seriously, with silly special moves and fatalities (Cassie Cage making “heart hands” in the empty cavity of her opponents chest gets me every time). Characters now also have new Fatal Blows, powerful combo moves they can pull out when their health is on the ropes but can only be used once per fight. The animations for these are silly, often involving multiple broken limbs and impalings and once upon a time would have been sufficient fatalities in their own right!
There’s a lot of showboating to be had in MK11
It doesn’t hurt that the game is also a hell of a looker, maintaining a fixed 60fps on stock consoles while in fights, dropping to 30fps in more detailed cutscenes and fight intros. Character models are detailed and gorgeous to look at, while stages bustle with activity; from a busy nightclub, to a sandy gladiatorial arena and even a robot factory, Mortal Kombat 11 gives its fights a sense of place in a world that feels living and breathing and, thanks to stage moves, malleable. See that barrel? Use it to leap over your opponent and get the drop on them. That spear? Grab it and impale them with it. There’s a lot of showboating to be had in MK11’s fast paced scraps.
The world building only helps to underpin Mortal Kombat’s obligatory story mode. This iteration follows on from the end of the Mortal Kombat X story, with many of the fan favourite heroes having been transformed into undead warlords by MK baddie Shinnok’s magic, and Raiden tipping over the edge into fascistic despot mode in an attempt to protect Earth realm from these forces of darkness. Amid all of this emerges Kronika, a time deity who fancies a little bit of rebooting reality by taking Raiden out of the picture. Thanks to her shenanigans, time portals open up and classic versions of our heroes from Mortal Kombat 2 era emerge to battle their now evil counterparts and reboot the continuity in the process. Now, I’ll be honest – it’s entirely likely that you have no idea what I’m talking about here and that’s understandable; the story in MK11 relies on an understanding of several years of continuity and, unlike Devil May Cry 5 a couple of months ago, doesn’t really give the player a chance to catch up. There’s no denying it’s all gloriously silly stuff, though, and easy to just jump in and let it wash over you. The story mode plays out as a series of motion captured cutscenes interspersed with fights just to keep things a little bit interactive, and is a great way to kill a couple of evenings.
Outside of that you’ve got the usual fighting game modes; one on one fights against CPU opponents, online fights underpinned by some solid netcode, an incredibly robust tutorial and Mortal Kombats classic tower mode, where you pick a fighter and scrap your way up a tower battling increasingly harder modes with the aim of ultimately facing off against Kronika. There’s plenty to do, and that’s before we get into the newest and somewhat problematic addition to Mortal Kombat – loot.
Yes, let’s talk about the Krypt, a game mode which sees you taking your hard earned fight rewards and using them to unlock mystery boxes containing anything from production art, to new costume options and fatalities for your fighters. Yes, the Krypt is Loot Box: The Game. On the surface it’s a pretty good mode. Played out in third person, you explore Shang Tsung’s Island from the very first Mortal Kombat, discovering classic locations rendered gorgeously in 3D. To add to the fan service, the whole thing is overseen and narrated by the ancient sorcerer himself, voiced by no other than The Man In The High Castle’s Carey Hiroyuki Tagawa, the actor who famously played Shang Tsung in the cheesefest 90’s Mortal Kombat movie!
The Krypt itself is nothing new to Mortal Kombat. It first appeared in Deadly Alliance serving a similar purpose, but where in that game ask the chests were fixed both in cost and content, MK11’s iteration presents players with a randomised selection of boxes that need to be opened using a mix of four (four!) virtual currencies that the game dishes out for doing different things
What are these currencies (or Kurrencies if you’re going by Kombat parlance) I hear you ask? Well let me tell you. You’ve got Koins, which are rewarded for just doing stuff in the game like taking part in fights – these open standard chests in the Krypt; the more expensive the chest, the more likely you are to get some high tier loot in it. Then there’s Hearts, which you get for performing fatalities; these open up special chests which are guaranteed to contain a high quantity of decent gear. Soul Fragments are used to power special weapons you find in the Krypt which let you access new areas to find new chests. Again, these are awarded to you after fights. Finally, there’s Time Krystals. These you get for levelling up (yes, you get XP for doing stuff in this game which allows you to gain levels because why wouldn’t you need that in a fighting game?), by winning certain tiers in the Towers of Time (oh yes, more on that coming up) or by spending hard earned real life money in the console storefront of your choice. Yes, folks, Time Krystals are MK11’s “premium” currency. You use these in a storefront which will net you instant access to a rotating selection of high tier loot pulled from the Krypt. Don’t want to wait and get that Scorpion skin? Just plump down some Time Krystals for it.
Players will have to do some serious grinding
This is all mad and utterly convoluted. Even writing it I’ve had to double check facts to make sure I’m on point about all these types of currency and how they’re used. It’s fiddly, unnecessary and gates off what is some genuinely nice customisation options from the player – let’s be honest, some of the default skins in MK11 are a bit naff, almost like those action figure variants that are headed straight for the bargain bin. Zombie Armour Lui-Kang? No thank you! I’ll take that Icy colour scheme for Scorpion and pair it with a demon mask, though! The customisation potential on the characters here are incredible, but those players interested in them will have to do some serious grinding.
Which brings us to the aforementioned Towers of Time mode. Different to the single player, offline classic towers, these are time limited challenges which allow players to battle up themed towers. You’ll encounter variants like enemies which move fast, or have a co op character they can call on. The floor might be poison or jumping restricted. These towers can only be played online and will reward you with decent quantities of currency for the Krypt and even unlock some of the rarer pieces of gear for characters. The only problem? They’re often hard as nails, even after a recent patch which was supposed to even out the difficulty. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been juggle locked by cheesy computer players leading to some incredibly infuriating losses.
But wait, what’s this? In the Krypt and certain tower confrontations you’ll get things called Konsumables, items you can use during tower fights to regain health or activate a temporary shield, or even bring on other characters to attack your opponent. The idea is that these even the playing field for hard AI, but their use is on cooldown timers and, to make matters worse, tied to the right analogue stick. Why is this a bad thing? Well, MK11 is a fighting game, something best played on an arcade stick controller – and these don’t have analogue sticks, meaning it’s joypad or gtfo. In addition to this, you may not even earn Konsumables as you progress, but might get ingredients instead with which you can Kraft (not like the cheese, although it is cheesy) Konsumables by using a specially unlocked forge in the Krypt. Yes, it’s more and more layers of unnecessary complexity.
…convoluted, fiddly mechanics
And I think that’s my biggest issue with MK11, that all of this stuff feels… unnecessary. It’s convoluted, fiddly mechanics designed to maximise the grind and keep players coming back with a glimmer that they just MIGHT get a chance to win some new shiny for their favourite character in a crapshoot. I’ve got no problem with unlockable content in games, just make it more obtainable. If you’re going to make me grind, at least let me grind specific characters so that I can work on getting that sweet gear I really want; and this is all before you add the DLC characters in – again, I have no issue with adding DLC content post release, but locking what are effectively two launch characters (Shao Khan and Frost) immediately behind a paywall and THEN have unlockables for them crop up in the Krypt regardless of whether you own them or not? Again, it’s unnecessary.
I know that sounds like a lot of negative and, yeah, there kind of is. MK11 is a premium priced game full of skeezy and downright pointless F2P mechanics. And that’s a huge shame, because the core game, the story, the design, all the gruesome fatalities are fun, funny and brilliantly executed. MK11 is a fantastic evolution of the classic formula that seems completely at odds with the more tiresome aspects of modern gaming that have been shoehorned in.