Mortal Kombat X: Test your might

Graphic Violence Is pretty much the twisted, shattered backbone of the Mortal Kombat franchise, but something has changed. Now, in an era where visuals are only getting more lifelike by the day and games are growing ever more complex, players are in direct control of some of the most horrific acts ever committed in gaming. The difference between Mortal Kombat and other games, however, is the disconnect between input and outcome. A tap of the melee button in an FPS will likely result in a quick, lethal stab, while even a skull-shattering Sniper Elite headshot is guided to its location by the player’s true aim. Here, though, an arbitrary button sequence can lead to one of the most gratuitous and graphic body horror sequences you will have ever seen whether you meant to or not, you just spilled 1080p innards everywhere and broke your opponent to the degree that they could quite easily be removed from the character select screen. They are never coming back from that, after all. Seriously, we actually had to apologise to opponents after seeing what our wandering fingers actually did to them. In some cases, it’s almost a bit too far.

In a way, it’s the logical progression from the last game’s X-Ray special moves, effectively mid-match Fatalities that would blatantly leave their victims crippled forever, yet they managed to fight on regardless. This mechanic raised the bar in terms of what a body could take and still carry on fighting, and NetherRealm left itself nowhere to go but to significantly worse places when it comes to actually ending matches. Even X-Ray moves in Mortal Kombat X are more brutal than most of the
Fatalities the series has offered up over the years;  it’s one thing to see Sub-Zero pull off a digitised head to leave a dangling hand-drawn spine, but quite another to see Cassie Cage perform a twist on her dad’s Package Check groinal assault only to have an internal camera zoom right into the inner workings of the body and show testicles literally burst on impact.

This infatuation with all things violent has got to make Mortal Kombat a hard game to market, right? Apparently not. “I understand why you ask that question, but because Mortal Kombat has such a long legacy, there’s  a lot of recognition of the franchise,” explains marketing manager Brian Goodman. “In a way, all the work for the brand has already been done. Most people even those who aren't familiar with games in general know what Mortal Kombat is. Those who are familiar get it even more; they know what the game stands for. The hardest part about working on the game, really? Getting new people interested, and making each new experience feel fresh.”
In ways, that’s an unenviable task fighting games by their very nature are something that players will either be interested in or not, and it would take a hell of an effort to tempt an audience that doesn't care for the genre into playing its most bloodthirsty champion. Or so you would think, at least. But once again, it’s the X-Ray moves that play a game-changing role. Fatalities were a body-breaking reward for only those good enough to claim supreme victory, yet X-Ray specials allow you to eviscerate your opponent at any point in the round anyone with a modicum of skill can land these bloody Super attacks, especially since they can easily be combo’d into with any character. Some have it easier than others, sure, and damage scaling means diminishing rewards on your full super gauge if you land your X-Ray after a long string as opposed to landing it flush on a lucky counter hit. But whether you’re after efficiency or highlight reel combos, or indeed you just want to hurt virtual people with minimal knowledge of the core systems, NetherRealm has you covered.

“It’s all about creating features that appeal to new gamers,” says Goodman. “In the last few games, we’ve really taken steps to supply more single-player content it’s an easy road into the game, it’s more forgiving, and you don’t have to be incredibly skilled at the game to get a lot of enjoyment out of it. We've always tried to make the game as accessible as possible whilst still delivering a very deep and technical, core fighting game.” The studio has proven a clear talent in this field, actually while we’d struggle to place any NetherRealm title on the same technical pedestal as a Street Fighter, King Of Fighters or BlazBlue, nobody in fighters does solo content better. Unlockables, interesting new modes, story content… there’s just loads to do before you even think about syncing a second controller or heading online. “We found that the evolution of story mode from MK through to Injustice became more and more integrated,” Goodman explains. “You feel like the whole story is seamless. It’s more interactive that way the story plays out as one long interactive thing.”

That’s music to our ears, because as nonsensical as it was, Injustice’s story mode set a new benchmark for the genre cut-scenes fuse with the actual fights to create a flowing and oddly engaging narrative, as opposed to Street Fighter’s incidental pre-match chats or Guilty Gear’s mind-boggling removal of fights entirely in favour of telling a story nobody really understands or cares about. Expect a suitably ludicrous storyline that introduces familiar faces to all-new ones, with blood-soaked battles so perilously close at any given time that you can’t afford to put the controller down for a second.

It’s also worth discussing the interesting decision to offer three unique variants of each playable character, simply because this move effectively triples the roster these aren’t exactly subtle changes and in the most extreme cases, they can even allow the same fighter to fill three different roles. Kano, for instance, can be tailored for zoning play, grappling or even ghetto rushdown, while other characters use this admirable new mechanic to honour those who are left on the cutting room floor Kitana, for instance, has access to Jade’s staff and even some of her signature attacks in her Mournful variant, the name alone suggesting this is as close to the legacy character as we’ll get. It’s a smart way of doing things, to be fair. With this new feature, the roster needn’t be filled with palette swap ninjas and joke characters these now fill one third of a character slot, and those who lost a loved one in the jump from MK to X will hopefully be able to at least find a solid cosplay replica of their main. Or, as we’ve found, they could just embrace one of the new characters, because pretty much all of them are great fun to play.

For perhaps the first time in the series’ history, we’ve had more fun with new guys and gals than we have with the old guard. But NetherRealm has all bases covered. If you like one of the returning characters, they can still be played like they always have, albeit with a few new tricks depending on which variant you pick; if you’re mourning the loss of a favourite (bear in mind that the whole roster hasn't been revealed yet), chances are someone has been handed down a few classic moves you want to abuse; if you’ve lost interest in the series in recent years, one of the new characters could yet pique your interest and pull you back in if you’re in any way into fighting games.

The trio of variants is a double-edged sword, though as much as it opens up the game for different players and styles, it has to be a balancing nightmare, right? “It’s always a challenge, but it’s a challenge we’re worthy of taking on,” Goodman tells us. “Balance is actually something we’ve always been pretty good at, and it’s something we put a lot of attention towards. It’s a difficult thing to achieve, and we knew going in that three character variations would make it even more challenging.”

Strangely, and this is telling of NetherRealm’s past offerings, we’re not so bothered about balance right now. After hours of butting heads with old characters and newcomers alike, we’re not actually all that worried about that. Our hands-on time didn’t highlight one character as OP, nor did it leave us feeling like our fighters were lacking. The balance that Goodman mentions appears to be there, so we just end up looking longingly at the modes we don’t have yet. Faction War, where your brawler represents their team in a online war against the rest of the world; Towers, where unique effects shape the outcome of each match, from bombs lobbed into to the arena by Sektor to low gravity that make juggle combos easier; Story mode, where all the crazy shit happens. We want to understand you, Mortal Kombat X. There’s more to you than the 1080p entrails and familiarity of your cast lets on. You could be the best fighter on PS4, and we’ll find out soon enough.

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