It took over 20 years but ultra-violent but camp fighting game Mortal Kombat has finally grown up. For the latest entry in the long series, NetherRealms Studios has upped the ante with extravagant production values, sublime visuals and mature character models so much so that everything they did before pales in comparison. Mortal Kombat began with characters digitized from a video footage of actors playing them. The circle is complete as Mortal Kombat 11 returns to the roots of using real people for its cast. Characters are painstakingly patched together from face models, performance and voice actors, and stunt doubles. Such a tasking process explains why the initial roster is limited to 25 fighters. The end result is so convincing that when I loaded up Mortal Kombat X, it looked embarrassingly outdated.
Let’s start with an epic story mode of Mortal Kombat 11 because it’s almost worth of admission alone. Kronika is the first villainess in the long history of Mortal Kombat and she wants to leave a lasting mark on it. In fact, she wants to wipe out the current timeline and so, she manipulates time in a manner that the past and the present collide. A lot of bewilderment and silliness ensue when several characters meet their younger selves. Action movie star Johnny Cage was cool as a cucumber in the 90’s but in today’s world, he’s just a womanizing jerk. However, both the young and the older Cage must stay alive along with everyone else, because otherwise their future is doomed. And how about those characters who are already dead, or to be more precise, were turned into living dead in the past games? Liu Kang and Kung Lao are happy to join the good guys after being relegated to the minions of evil in the several previous Mortal Kombat entries. In addition to Kronika, the game presents three new characters. An elder goddess Cetrion and an immortal spirit Geras look more like DC comic book rejects while four-armed Kollector is just a scamp. Luckily, the recurring cast is a curated list of old favorites and more recent champs.
The story mode consists of 12 chapters that each has four to five matches to fight. Most of the time, though, is spent on watching long and splendid cutscenes that easily rival any big action film you have seen. The story is seriously made and delivered in an appropriate pathos but it isn’t afraid to be silly when it needs to be. It’s all like a pompous soap opera showcasing new, gorgeous character models in action. Likewise, backdrops and settings are rich in detail and depth. A lot of voice actors have been replaced since the previous games, obviously to better match their new appearances. I liked how the voice acting is accented, bringing a smile whenever characters speak with determination or quip one of numerous one-liners, most of them paying homage to popular culture. Without spoiling too much, I was happy how the original hero of the series, Liu Kang, was back in style after many years of being ridiculed.
So, after the great story made is finished, what’s next, like the trophy for completing it asks? There are local games against human opponent or AI, Klassik Towers to see individual characters endings, and a tournament for local versus matches with fighting game tournament settings and rules. The main attraction for the single player, however, is Towers of Time, an ever-changing series of challenge towers of varying difficulty and rewards. Meanwhile, The Krypt is a third-person maze where you can raid various chests for loot and solve easy puzzles to advance further in it to reach even better rewards. Koins, the currency to open chests and other containers, are rewarded for doing pretty much everything in the game, from delivering kombos in fights to completing challenge towers.
For those seeking to test their mettle with people all over the world, there are comprehensive online modes from ranked and kasual matches to private rooms and lobbies, all divided into several forms of play. What comes to online performance, it really depends on whether you can find opponents from your own area for the best connection quality. Thankfully, you can politely refuse from games where the latency doesn’t seem favorable. Other than that, name of the game in online is pretty much that the strong characters tend to have an edge over the more technical sort, especially if there’s even a hint of lag, and zoning with projectiles has way too much emphasis in the action.
A comprehensive tutorial familiarizes with the basics and advanced mechanics of the gameplay. It lapses to explain too much as even ground rules of any fighting game, mostly comprehensible by any notion of common sense, are made to sound like they are something special. The tutorial’s sophistry aside, the gameplay is pretty basic fare. Further subtleties, like special attack cancels, are something that shouldn’t be forcibly attempted but more like woven into your own playstyle. Should the advanced techniques connect, that’s fine and if not, it’s not a game over either since you’re not betting on them. Fatal blows replace the X-Ray moves of the previous games. They can be pulled off when the own health bar is reduced to its last third for a series of brutal stabbings and mutilations in a cinematic, gruesome detail. However, the fatal blow can be used only once in the match so it’s better to save it for the deciding round. Environmental hazards or critical krushing blows can’t be spammed either, as they are regulated by a couple of two-bar meters, one for offensive and other for defensive assets.
Even if Mortal Kombat X looks like yesterday’s leftovers now, its gameplay was fast-paced and ultra-responsive, often working like a thought. While Mortal Kombat 11 plays out in a steady 60 fps, the gameplay is more akin to stiffer and slower nature of Injustice 2. Of course, it fits the cinematic flair of the game but the Western obsession with presentation over the gameplay has a trade-off; the core fighting mechanics aren’t as responsive or natural as in Tekken 7 - or in any big Japanese fighting game for that matter. Building kombos feels forced, stringing together moves that don’t seem connected at all. Often, the gameplay is mechanic with fighters trading off punches and kicks by turns.
You just have to accept that Mortal Kombat 11’s value is elsewhere than in the finer art of fighting. It’s in the game’s violent aesthetic, in fighting choreographies that are played back like they were rehearsed. There just isn’t room for Tekken-like improvisation in the rigid gameplay that ensues from bombastic visuals. Static, strictly 2D fighting areas only emphasis the pre-planned feel of the fighting, scrolling calmly left and right as the combatants do their stuff. Character models, when they’re not being ripped apart, are great as are their animations. Fatalities, the infamous and gory finishing moves of Mortal Kombat series, look more stomach-churning than ever but at the same time they are so over the top that instead of vomiting you either smirk or laugh at them.
I must emphasis the appeal of the game’s female cast. Finally, Mortal Kombat respects the fairer sex. Mortal Kombat X already hinted at it with Johnny Cage’s and Sonya Blade’s perky daughter Cassie Cage emerging as the heroine of the hour. Mortal Kombat 11 takes the gender equality further with cultured, striking character designs and story beats that appreciate female fighters’ efforts. No exaggerated body parts or scanty clothes are needed to convey the girls’ natural charm that comes from their attractive and characteristic features and convincing facial animation. Of course, you want to see the characters geared up at their best, like having Outerwold princess Kitana and the emphatic assassin Jade without their face masks. Customization helps in that, with lots of skins, gear, and ability-enhancing augments for them attainable either from The Krypt or Towers of Time, and put together in easy-to-understand character sheets. You can even name your custom sets for some clever plays with character names.
Too bad, then, that the Towers of Time is so frustrating to play. Enemies have modifiers that feel unfair, leaving you outnumbered right from the start. It just isn’t fun when you have to deal with two opponents at the same with you having only one health bar while lifesucking missiles and whatnot fly around. You can counter these modifiers to some extent with your own konsumables, rewarded from playing different game modes, and rather incongruously, mostly from completing towers themselves. A recent patch tried to balance the disadvantage by adjusting konsumable cooldowns among other things but it didn’t fix what’s inherently wrong with the gameplay: unlike the player, the AI doesn’t need to do move inputs, giving it a clear advantage. While this is a common problem in any fighting game against the AI, it feels accented in Mortal Kombat 11 due to its unresponsive gameplay.
But if the AI is your greatest enemy, it’s also your best friend. You can create your own AI builds for characters to make them fight for you in the towers. Watching the AI playing against the enemy AI only emphasizes the issue with inputs. Computer-controlled characters can spam moves in such a manner that human players who need to fiddle their thumbs on face buttons simply can’t keep up with them. Also, your AI combatants don’t need konsumables to come up victorious so it’s easy to set them up to grind for you in the towers. As of writing, I still haven’t got Kitana’s Poise and Power mask, showing her lovely face, from The Krypt so I keep on sending my AI Noob Saibot to harvest Koins (and other rewards as a bonus) for me from the towers to spend in The Krypt shrine where the mask should be attained from – eventually.
Mortal Kombat 11 looks gorgeous, it’s just a shame it doesn’t play as gorgeously. What could have been a pinnacle of Western fighting games is somewhat ruined by the cheap AI and stiff gameplay. You can counter some of the bad by exploiting the AI routines to your favor but you should ask why spend 60 bucks on a game that you watch playing against itself? The next time, NetherRealm Studio could try trading the movie quality for more flair in the action. Of course, that would be disarming the studio of its core competence and take the fight squarely against the Japanese who dominate in the genre’s gameplay but in turn tend to skimp on content that MK11 has bucketloads. As it stands, Mortal Kombat 11 is violent and extremely brutal but at the same time insidiously sexy and suave. Its more grown-up take on matters enhances its cast’s appeal and that’s all the personal preference I need to keep up with often unfair gameplay.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.