The developers of Mortal Kombat X (from here on MKX, because my fingers are too numb from button mashing to keep typing the game's full name) are NetherRealm Studios, who were also responsible for Injustice: Gods Among Us and Mortal Kombat (the confusingly named 9th game in the franchise).
Their experience on these earlier games definitely shows, because like Injustice MKX sports a pleasingly rich single player storyline. The story does a great job of exploring new and old characters alike, making it a refreshing change from the usual 'Fight these people in order and then get an ending cinematic' "story" modes that we usually see in beat-'em-up games. The only fly in the ointment here is the inclusion of pointless Quick Time Events during the otherwise awesome cinematic sequences
The story is told in chapters, each focusing on one of the main characters. Rather than depicting a linear series of events the story hops back and forth in time, allowing it to showcase the different fighting styles used by each character at different points in their lives and to keep things fresh. The dialogue is well-written and really brings the characters to life.
Despite a few dubious design choices, this is pretty progressive for a beat-'em-up. The women are more realistically proportioned than in many games and there are some very practical outfits on display. Those who are more scantily clad come from the arid heat of Kotal Khan's lands or the steamy jungle of Kuatan, so even their costumes make sense--though they do look a bit impractical and uncomfortable. Two design elements particularly stood out to me as being a bit weird. For some reason there are chitinous high heels on the feet of D'Vorah, a brood-mother insect queen; and Cassie Cage has a weird boob-window in her military outfit that leaves her central torso relatively unprotected while the area surrounding it looks armoured. I also felt that some of the women's fighting noises were a bit on the 'girly slap-fight' end of the spectrum; they sometimes sound more like they're in the middle of a pillow fight than a brutal fight to the death.
Of greater note is the fact that, as of this game, Mortal Kombat has a gay character! It's hinted at in the storyline but designer Dominic Cianciolo has confirmed the speculation:
"@bcharred I see people are picking up on the subtle exposition contained in [REDACTED]'s flashback. Glad we have observant fans!"
I'm sure many will say this doesn't matter, and the characters' sexuality shouldn't be getting in the way of the game, but personally I think this is a beautiful thing! It's nice to have someone to identify with in the game, and the character in question has become a firm favourite of mine.
Once you're finished with the single-player story mode, what's to keep you coming back to the game?
First there are the Towers. The standard towers are fixed sequences of fights finished with a cut scene (much like the standard beat-'em-up "stories" I mocked earlier in this review). They work well, and certainly provide a nice focused burst of Kombat when you're not in the mood to play the story, don't want to play with anyone else, and you want more than a string of random fights.
There are also Live Towers, which refresh at regular intervals. Each of them features a sequence of fights with modifiers to keep things fresh. Of particular interest is the Premium Tower, which enables players to use extra characters for a while without having to purchase them as DLC, a great way to try before you buy.
There are also some really excellent online modes, including my personal favourite, King of the Hill. In this game mode the idea is to win as many fights in a row as you can against a succession of challengers. If you're beaten you immediately drop to the bottom of the list of fighters in the room and have to wait for an opportunity to regain your crown. While others are fighting you can watch the fight and chat to the others waiting their turn, or spar for a while with programmable AI opponents. Spectators can also award Respect to the fighters of the match that has just finished.
There's also a faction system, where you score points to aid your faction every time you fight and certain perks are unlocked for the faction that currently has the most points. There are also daily challenges that will let you earn even more faction points and which attempting to complete adds another element of interest to the game; for instance I completed a challenge earlier where I had to win a match without ever using the uppercut move.
Unfortunately the faction and online servers appear to be a bit shaky at the time of writing and I've experienced several drops in trying to connect for a fight or get on to the faction server to check my stats. During fights the game definitely responds more sluggishly than it does when I'm playing with a local opponent, and at times the lag has been noticeable and annoying. That makes the game difficult to recommend, at least for now, to anyone who's really serious about online play.
The fighting itself, at least in single player and local two-player modes, is fast and fluid. I never feel like the game has cheated me out of a victory due to input lag or janky animations or timings. Some characters have a bit of a reach disadvantage against larger foes, but that's only to be expected. I have noticed that the AI has an infuriating tendency to repeat the same move (at least with some characters) over and over again, which always feels cheap and detracts from the experience at times.
NetherRealm have kept in the stage interactions from Injustice (though there is an option to turn them off, which I'm sure will please some purists) and these definitely add to the fun. Some deal damage to your opponent (like hitting them with a little old lady) while others let you reposition yourself in the level by leaping from an object, hopefully getting yourself out of a tight corner.
Each character has three combat styles, and each style has a variety of different moves and techniques that keeps the game fresh. If you pause the game during a match it shows both players a handy reference of some of the more common moves (and it shows the move sequences relative to your current facing, which is a useful touch) with the rest of your moves and combos available to review another menu item deeper.
I did find that some of the styles and moves have stances and commands that don't have an obvious function, so I'm unsure how you're supposed to work out what they do. For example the Aztec warrior Kotal Khan can summon various totems, but I haven't yet found an in-game explanation for exactly what benefits these grant during the fight.
One controversial decision is the offering of simple fatality tokens as DLC. You can earn them during play or you can buy packs of them from the marketplace, but either way the effect is simply to allow a fatality to be triggered with the right trigger and one button rather than with a sequence of directions and button presses. Also for sale are skip fight tokens, each of which allows you to skip a fight in one of the single player modes.
Lazy players (or those with little time to spend) can also buy a DLC that unlocks all of the unlockable content in the game in one fell swoop. Fortunately the unlockables are perks and tokens rather than content that provide in-fight advantages, so this doesn't make the game 'pay to win'.
This is the goriest, bloodiest, most visceral game I have ever played. The graphics are sumptuous and the developers have capitalised on this to deliver some really incredible X-Ray, fatality, and brutality moves.
X-Ray moves are automatic combos that use all of your special attack meter and, if landed, deal around 30% of your opponent's health in damage. As your fighter lands each literally bone-crunching blow, the camera zooms in and your victim's clothing and flesh temporarily peel away so that you can see the damage being dealt inside. These are some incredibly wince-worthy animations and they definitely add to the fun of a match, though perhaps their length makes them a bit wearing after you've seen them a few times. They also take away from one's ability to suspend disbelief a bit; after you watch someone's eyes get shot out and their spine broken in three places, it feels weird when they just get up and carry on fighting you with just a chunk of their health bar missing.
The Fatalities and Brutalities really take this up another notch, and there is some seriously loving rendering of internal organs going on in there. We get to see faces being sliced off, eyes bugging out, squishy brains flopping out of gaping skulls, faces being eaten, bodies having their arms and legs torn off, spines being ripped out and a wide variety of other horrendous things. This game is seriously not for the squeamish. But many of these over-the-top animations are also ghoulishly humorous. For example, Johny Cage's fatality involves him ripping his victim open from the back and then leering through the gaping hole and saying "Here's Johnny!" in homage to that infamous scene in The Shining.
All in all I'm having a ball playing Mortal Kombat X both on and offline, but I'm a casual player and the lag and server frustrations I've had in multiplayer don't bother me much. I could see these being decidedly problematic for a more hardcore player, though.
I'm really looking forward to hearing my friends wince and go 'Oooh!' as they witness the horrendous fatalities, x-ray moves and brutalities during our bouts over the next few months (Cassie's nut-exploding groin punch, anyone?).