The biggest reason that modern Mortal Kombat is able to be more than a laughable artifact of ’90s shock culture is its self-awareness. Mortal Kombat is and always has been a dumb mishmash of puerile ultra-violence and action movie cliches, but its developers learned to embrace the silliness a long time ago. Netherrealm Studios’ goofy love for the series is earnest and infectious, an attitude the developers harnessed to great effect in its 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot. That game was a tribute to (and modernization of) the series’ roots. The follow-up, Mortal Kombat X, isn’t as transformational, but it takes the reboot’s formula and expands it in ways both subtle and spectacular. It’s a maturation, but it’s by no means mature. That’s the way it should be.
The evolution of Mortal Kombat X’s fatalities might be the most telling. Powered by modern game machines and the pressure to top the barbaric finishing sequences of nine other Mortal Kombat games, MKX pushes fatalities to a disturbing new extreme. They’ve become 15-second scenes with elaborate choreography and camera angles. Violence this graphic is never going to have a universal appeal, but Netherrealm tries its best to temper the executions with more humor than before. A new focus on comedic timing and cinematography goes a long way—with details like the camera lingering on a corpse’s waggling tongue after Scorpion slices its face off—but the absurd extravagance of these scenes is often funny in itself. It’s not enough to hug a guy so hard that his head explodes. No, the job’s not done until you squeeze a fountain of viscera out of his newfound neck hole. When every fatality is this ridiculous, the result is less torture porn and more slapstick by way of Takashi Miike.
That’s what a modern Mortal Kombat needs to be: excessive to the point of absurdity. It’s an ethos that permeates the game well beyond the cartoonish violence. Take the Krypt, which is where you go to spend the Koins you earn from playing the game on new finishing moves and costumes. It debuted several games back as little more than a fancy menu screen, and it became a navigable environment in Mortal Kombat 2011. But that still wasn’t far enough. MKX’s Krypt is a first-person adventure game, with simple puzzles and collectible items that open up new areas to explore. Netherrealm built a Krypt that could have been a separate (albeit shallow) game just to house unlockable doodads. It’s an unnecessary bit of obfuscation, but true to form, it’s a charming, decadent diversion.
There are plenty of more traditional activities for players who prefer to go it solo, and they too have been beefed up beyond expectation. MKX features a handful of static “Towers,” your typical string of unrelated fights against computer-controlled opponents, in which to cut your teeth and chase high scores. More interesting, though, are the “Living Towers,” three sets of challenges that Netherrealm updates over time—one hourly, one daily, and one when they feel like promoting a new purchasable character. I found myself coming back for these. Clocking in at around 10 minutes each, they’re the perfect length for killing some time or cooling off after a stranger crushes your ego in online kombat.
Netherrealm’s investment in humor pays off in the game’s story mode as well, but the real surprise there is how much heart is peppered in. Like in the 2011 reboot, story mode is where the developer’s love for MK’s world and characters pokes through the blood and gore. The plot, which jumps through time and from character to character over a span of 20 years, doesn’t matter much. In essence, it’s a long, lurid episode of the old G.I. Joe cartoon, with demonic wizards and B-movie kung fu mysticism thrown on top. All the one-liners and Saturday-morning-cartoon gags are lovable, though, and they serve a dual purpose of setting up your fights and introducing new characters. The runaway stars are the four fresh-faced rookies, a diverse group of daughters and sons descended from older MK characters. For all the corniness, MKX’s story mode manages to use family dynamics and the history between its older characters to deliver a few touching moments.
The actual one-on-one kombat at the heart of everything strikes a balance between accessibility and depth. When playing against the computer or a like-minded human, it’s fun and easy to jump around and see what crazy stuff each character—in their three different configurations—can do. But the rabbit hole goes deep for anyone looking to invest more time and learn to construct complex deathtraps from any given character’s relatively simple arsenal.
MKX’s accessibility, though, makes it even more of a slog than usual to wade into the murky waters of online multiplayer. As of now, it seems that everyone wants to play as Scorpion and either do the same three moves over and over again or wildly smash on buttons. It’s not much fun, and after a few of those matches—in which you sometimes also must deal with a slight but frustrating lag between pressing buttons and your character acting on those commands—I tend to retreat back to the more friendly single-player modes.
These are problems that time and Netherrealm will likely solve, and given the ludicrous scope of MKX, they’re just blemishes. There’s also Warner Bros.’ choice to load the game with purchasable items, like tokens that reduce the codes necessary to trigger Fatalities down to a single button press. It’s a slimy business decision that’s indicative of a miserable industry trend, but it doesn’t do much to diminish the game itself. The upsells are just a thin layer of corporate monetization atop a mountain of sincerity, love, and dismemberment.
Mortal Kombat X
Developer: Netherrealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One; PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions slated for future release
Reviewed on: PC