Mortal Kombat X Review
A sleek, satisfying entry in the iconic fighting franchise
The history of the Mortal Kombat, both the in-game canon and real-life story, has been quite interesting. In 2011, new developers NetherRealm got back to basics, making a fighting game that put an emphasis on returning to the core of the Mortal Kombat experience. In the follow up, Mortal Kombat X, NetherRealm sticks to the formula that served them well, in both the previous Mortal Kombat 9 and the recent Injustice: Gods Among Us. While the recipe for success is getting stale, it’s still manages to deliver another quality title fans of the series will enjoy.
Mortal Kombat is still the most fun in its purest form. Sitting down with a friend and playing around with new characters, learning their special moves, and ending with grisly Fatalities is where Mortal Kombat truly shines. Fighting games have always been at their best when two friends go head-to-head in a room, watching their health bars drop, screaming curses at each other and overreacting when the final blow is dealt. Mortal Kombat X still captures the spirit of this competition.
It all starts with a good - though slightly less than Mortal Kombat 9’s - mix of characters that are well balanced. The franchise staples of Sub-Zero, Liu Kang, Scorpion, Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, and more are back, but MK X adds a few other characters that are surprisingly fun. Most of these newcomers are children of old favorites like Cassie Cage, Jacqui Briggs, and Takeda Takahashi. The second generation characters feels like they’re Mortal Kombat’s reaction to a newer, younger audience; following a trend of bringing younger character. They’re flippant, snarky, and filled with angst. You probably should hate them, but they grew on me quickly, offering interesting variations on their ancestral characters.
There are also new characters with looser affiliations to the series; the lightning-quick, insect-loving D’Vorah; the gun-toting, sharp-shooter Erron Black; the new Outworld ruler, Kotal Khan, and the symbiotic Ferra/Torr. Some of these characters make strong debuts - I like D’Vorah quite a bit - but others, like the Big Daddy/ Little Sister-esque Ferra and Torr, fail to impress. There are a couple of underpowered character (lookin’ at Erron Black as well as Ferra and Torr) but for the most part they’re well balanced. Much of this depends upon your play-style, but even characters I found difficult like Ermac or Kotal Kahn were used effectively by other people.
Even if you don’t like a character, each has a variant that you might like better. It doesn’t change their core moves, but adds certain additional attacks. Thus, if you’re having trouble with one version of a character, you can try the variants and see if they are more to your liking. This is probably the biggest change in Mortal Kombat X.
Recent NetherRealm games have had a strong emphasis on timing and combinations; Mortal Kombat X doesn’t veer from this formula. From the very start of the game, it’s made clear that while it can be fun to do special attacks or wait for the opportunity to uppercut an opponent, the most damage is done when you can chain a series of attacks together for devastating results. When you’re pulling off a long combo, there’s little your challenger can do but sit back and watch you beat the living crap out of them. The only counter to these combos is to use a combo breaker which pulls from the energy bar at the bottom of the screen. Doing this forces players to sacrifice their energy bar - which, when saved up, can allow you to execute brutal X-Ray attacks.
I have always found the timing in Mortal Kombat games to be a little eccentric. It often feels like a combo needs a half-second to breathe before initiating the second one. Getting the rhythm of these moves is easily the hardest part of MK X, but those who have been long-time fans of NetherRealm’s games won’t miss a beat. It plays and handles very much like Injustice and the MK reboot from 2011.
Unfortunately, the deep mastery of timing and moves needed to pull off the long combos in Mortal Kombat X means that there’s not much room for experimenting. When playing online, you’re gonna have to focus on one - maybe two - characters in order to really grasp their timing and attacks. Getting a general feel of other characters doesn’t provide the depth required to really compete in online matches. This reliance on singular characters seems to push players toward easier fighters like Sub-Zero or Scorpion, where the move sets are more familiar and simpler. This means that a handful of characters are blatantly ignored. In the many online matches I played, I never saw anyone attempting to play with the cumbersome Ferra/Torr. Only some would try out the warlock-esque Shinnok and Quan Chi. Even a staple character like Reptile was only used once by an opponent.
Part of this boils down the matchmaking, which isn’t great in the Ranked Mode. I would go stretches of playing three or four matches where my odds of winning were under 25% (calculated by the matchmaking system), meaning I would spend fifteen minutes competing against players who were wildly more skilled than myself. I don’t mind getting the occasional beat down from those who are a different class of player, but when you’re talking about three or four matches in a row, it gets to be a bit much. Fortunately, if you get into the unranked matches the matchmaking seems to be a little more even.
There are attempts to try and spice up the online play of Mortal Kombat X with some interesting ideas. Players can participate in a Towers Challenge, where multiple players begin a Tower at the same time and compete to see who can score the most points in ten minutes through wins and special objectives. You can get in line for the King of the Hill mode where players are placed in a digital queue to battle a reigning champion. There is also a Team Battle Mode where ten fighters compete on one of two teams, whichever team gets more wins takes the match.
While the ideas are good, they feel poorly realized. The wait for these modes is lengthy. Starting a team battle takes ages as players constantly drop-in, realize how long they’ll have to wait, then drop out. King of the Hill mode is a good idea (a digital realization of winner-keeps-playing) but sitting around, waiting four or five matches to get in a game isn’t fun. There’s not enough payoff to keep you sitting around for your chance at these modes when they all are slight variations on the concepts of the vanilla multiplayer. For this reason, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in these modes from the community.
Luckily, the problems with Mortal Kombat’s multiplayer woes are limited to design issues. The game is pretty impressive technically. Once you’re into the main online hub, matches load quickly, and I rarely experienced any performance issues. It would be nice if there was a mute button though.
If you’re looking to play Mortal Kombat X on your own, there is a slew of single player options. The first is the story mode, something which has been a NetherRealm staple in their last few games. Mortal Kombat X takes place a couple decades after the events of MK9. The powerful former elder-god Shinnok is using his puppet, Quan Chi, to break his bonds and attempt to conquer both Outworld and Earthrealm. It’s all a little reminiscent of Mortal Kombat 4, though it deviates from the script more than the series' previous iteration. Like NetherRealm’s past efforts, the story mode is occasionally satisfying, but on the whole, it’s simply serviceable. The dialogue is filled with one-liners and the attempt to give most characters their own chapter feels a little forced.
After you’ve beaten the story - it’s not very long - and you still find yourself wary about playing with others, you can participate in the many different Towers available to you. There are traditional Tower modes, where players select a character and battle their way through a gauntlet of enemies. There are also the Living Tower challenges where you will have to fight through a Tower with a specific set of circumstances and objectives. Like much of MK X, the Towers mode is serviceable, but it feels like practice - just as necessary for success and just as tedious.
Mortal Kombat X also has a new overarching feature called Faction Battles. When you begin the game you will be prompted to join a Faction based on the in-game world. Every day Faction Challenges are issued, and players who complete these challenges will earn points toward their Faction’s overall standing. Faction Wars also leaks into the online matchmaking. Certain battles will be marked as Faction Battles, and Team Battles can be split up by Faction as well. These special fights also give players the ability to earn more points for their Factions and can end in gruesome Faction Kills.
As you play the game, you will earn Koins, which can be taken to the in-game store called the Krypt. Amidst the tombstones and other creepy elements you can pay Koins to unlock Brutalities, alternate costumes, and tokens which allow you to skip single player fights or perform fatalities by only pressing two buttons. These unlockables provide nice goals to work toward, but the process of earning Koins can be a slow affair, pushing players to the online store where many of these same things are available for purchase with real cash.
No matter how you play, you’re going to be confronted by its over-the-top gore. The series has a history of being gratuitously gruesome, but the latest game takes the X-Ray attacks and Fatalities to a whole new level. Part of this speaks to Mortal Kombat’s quality graphics. The shattered jawbones, diced up brains, and generally exposed viscera looks (for lack of a better term) amazing. It would almost be too much if NetherRealm didn’t seem so self-aware of it all. The battle arenas are mostly dark and menacing, but the interactable objects light up when you are close, making them easy to see.
Mortal Kombat X is sleek game, the kind you would expect from a studio with a pedigree for fighting games. It wears its heart on a sleeve (almost literally) and really grasps what has made the Mortal Kombat franchise a success over the years. To some degree, the road map for success which NetherRealm follows is its biggest downfall. Everything is serviceable in Mortal Kombat X, and there are moments where you revel in the overly-indulgent bloody spectacle, but it does little to evolve the series beyond the previous entry. This effort is much akin to what we saw in the last Mortal Kombat and Injustice: Gods Among Us. That being said, Mortal Kombat X doesn’t seem to care, and is happy to keep serving up more of the grisly fighting as long as it’s still fun.