Image: Mortal Kombat 11 (NetherRealm)

Mortal Kombat, as a series, has been around for a very long time, a multi-decade survival that’s often required it to fall back on easy gimmicks to keep itself afloat. Back in 1992, the original game had its violence and digitized human actors. Then the sequels got more violent. And then some of the entries in the middle were just as much about stupid gag modes as they were about the actual combat. (Deception had a huge adventure mode, for instance, while Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe had, well, Batman.) A funny thing happened when the developers at NetherRealm rebooted the series in 2011, though: Mortal Kombat turned into a real, serious fighting game, one that knew exactly how not-seriously to take its convoluted, generation-spanning storyline. The sequel, Mortal Kombat X, followed that lead and improved upon it with an even better story mode and some fun new characters that shook up the established roster—all without ignoring the gleefully over-the-top violence or the self-aware, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Now, with Mortal Kombat 11, the series has fallen into such an impressive groove that it’s practically unimpeachable.

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If you’re able to look past the extremely graphic violence (where else can a woman create a sword out of blood and then use it to slice down someone’s spine?), Mortal Kombat 11 actually feels a lot like the product of a studio that’s always tried to keep the franchise at arm’s length: Nintendo. Not everything said publisher puts out is a masterpiece, but every game shares a basic level of quality and polish that suggests that its developers accomplished precisely what they sought out to create. Whether or not something like Breath Of The Wild, or Super Metroid, or even Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker aligns with your tastes, it’s hard to deny that the developers knew what they were doing, and did a very good job at doing it. Mortal Kombat 11 is exactly like that. Not everyone wants to see a blood-sword rip someone apart in the grossest way possible, but you’re not going to find a better blood-sword than the one NetherRealm has lovingly crafted here.

That’s not to say that 11 is a perfect game, because it’s not. For one thing, the new characters are a little boring—at least when compared to the way long-time fan favorites have grown or changed since the rebooted timeline started putting a larger emphasis on story. (Scorpion and Sub-Zero are friends now, and Liu Kang is the zombie king of hell’s army!) Also, the new loadout system, which allows you to swap out each character’s special moves and combos for different ones that better suit your fighting style, doesn’t really lend itself to learning new characters—especially since the game neither supports those change-ups in its story modes, nor makes experimentation with them as easy or seamless as it should be. And—in an unfortunate holdover from NetherRealm’s Injustice games—the final boss fight in the story mode is simply awful, pitting you against an overly powerful opponent who is unaffected by most of your combos and special moves.

Even those issues aren’t catastrophic, though. The story mode largely revolves around the classic fighters everyone knows and loves, so you never really have to play as the cowboy or newcomer Kollector (a multi-armed creep who just seems way too lame alongside all these ninjas) if you don’t want to. Also, the training mode is a great teaching tool, providing playable introductions to the basic mechanics and specific character breakdowns. And despite its problems, the loadout system can be used to develop the perfect version of your preferred character (at least if the predetermined modifiers allow for it). You can make a version of Scorpion with multiple attacks based around his iconic spear move, and then you can throw in a move that lets you set the spear on fire and make all of those moves even stronger. Or, if you’re some kind of a maniac, you could make a version of Scorpion that deemphasizes his spear altogether, turning him into a sword-swinging, fire-breathing ninja monster.

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However, the real genius of the system comes through in the form of the game’s character customization options, which it liberally lifts from the earlier Injustice 2. In that game, you could unlock loot boxes full of different masks, capes, and belts for the fighting superheroes, with each one tied to different level requirements and stat boosts. That meant your Superman could look totally unique, and have completely different strengths, from someone else’s Superman, and it was the best justification for dipping into Injustice 2’s many different modes (again, a lot of which originated in Mortal Kombat and return here). For MK11, NetherRealm streamlined this system and removed a lot of the stuff that kept people away from finding or using the coolest equipment, ensuring you get the most out of your ability to play dress-up with your zombie ninjas and interdimensional assassins.

Unlocking stuff is as simple as playing the game, or taking your in-game money to the “Krypt” to pop open loot boxes in an area that veteran MK fans will likely get a kick out of. And the options are just as varied and fun as they were in Injustice 2: Your Scorpion and Sub-Zero can go without masks and wear similar goofy costumes to the ones in the original games, you can be mean old Raiden or young nice Raiden (with different hats!), and you can be serious adult Johnny Cage wearing cheesy-ass ’90s sunglasses. There are also dozens of different skins for each character, though a lot of them are just color variations—which doesn’t make a ton of sense since so many Mortal Kombat characters are closely associated with a single color. Still, you can be a character named Jade and wear any color other than green, if that’s something that, for some reason, you want to do.

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The key to Mortal Kombat 11’s success is in the way NetherRealm takes the development of these games absolutely seriously—ensuring that the fighting mechanics and side activities are solid enough to actually work—while the game itself is free to be as non-serious and goofy as humanly possible. Case in point: Everything this franchise has done since the 2011 reboot has put a stronger focus on the plot, but that doesn’t mean that the story itself isn’t still completely absurd. After the events of Mortal Kombat X—which ended with long-time good guy Raiden deciding to break bad by declaring that he would fuck up any aspiring villains who try to make trouble for Earth—Mortal Kombat 11 opens with an immortal goddess who has control over time deciding that the universe would be better off if Raiden had never existed, so she goes to the past to enlist younger versions of all of the characters who are worse off in the rebooted timeline to try to give him the boot. Mainly, this an excuse to dig up Easter eggs and fan service for things from older games—since most of the time travel shenanigans only happen in cutscenes—but at least the cutscenes all look great, with every performer operating on the same page about just how campy the whole thing is supposed to be.

Mortal Kombat 11 is a great fighting game, with lots of fun stuff to do and interesting ways to tweak the mechanics to suit your style. But also, that’s kind of irrelevant. The game, just like the last one, is the ultimate expression of what Mortal Kombat can and should be, whatever positive or negative connotations that may imply. It simply is Mortal Kombat. They did it, they’ve done it before, and this game seems like a good indicator that they’ll have no trouble doing it again someday. If anything, Mortal Kombat 11 makes a strong case that this series deserves its place in the pantheon of game franchises that will last forever.