Mortal Kombat has been many things during its elongated lifespan. It started off shocking, gradually became more and more goofy (I still can't decide which was more stupid, Friendship or Babalities), until finally it was simply forgettable. The franchise struggled with its own identity for a while, apparently unsure of what it wanted to be. The fighting genre upon which Mortal Kombat had such an immediate impact when it debuted had become more sophisticated, and MK didn't seem to know how to adapt. The newest version, a reboot for the entire series, accepts that times have changed and unapologetically asks "So what?" before ripping you in half.
The game begins with Raiden suffering a vision of the grim future that will result should Earth Realm lose this tenth and most important Mortal Kombat tournament. It seems a bit ridiculous that the other nine tournaments meant absolutely nothing and this is the only one that counts For Reals, but roll with it. The upside of this being Earth Realm's big moment is that the fighting actually takes place here, which makes for some fun new environments.
Once you dive in, you'll be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff there is to do. The Story Mode introduces you to the characters while doing a surprisingly good job of weaving the story together with the fights in a way that just about makes sense. Granted, it does seem rather counterproductive for Johnny Cage to beat the crap out of Sonya Blade mere moments after professing concern over her well-being, but in fairness, she did start it. Every few fights you'll switch to a new character rather than following one all the way from start to finish before starting all over again with someone else. It's a far more satisfying way to sample the fighters than having to plow through slightly different variations of the plot in order to see and unlock everything.
The fighting is fast, furious, and full of oh-man-did-you-see-that moments. Learning the timing on the combos definitely takes a bit of work, especially if you're used to other fighters, but the sheer bombast of Mortal Kombat's super moves makes it well worth the effort.
Once you've polished off the Story Mode, the copious Versus options will keep you happily beating the tar out of your friends for a very long time. There are straight up one on one matches, but you can also play two on two if you'd like to use the game's Tag Team abilities. You can even join forces and work your way up the Tag Team ladder against the AI opponents. For the best laughs, I highly recommend Test Your Luck, which assigns random qualities to you, your opponent, and the arena. You might be zombies fighting during a meteor shower, upside down with invisible special meteors. Even masters of the game will find themselves challenged by these wonderful and ridiculous matches.
Fighting games can be tricky when it comes to balancing the learning curve, but Mortal Kombat lets newcomers jump right in, while making it easy for anyone wanting to move beyond button mashing to learn the nuances of the game. The standard Tutorial will teach you everything from how to duck to complex combos, and the Practice mode is handy for getting your timing just right, but the Challenge Tower is by far the most entertaining way to learn the nuances of the game's combat. Each mission has a specific set of conditions, like only using special moves or quickly pulling off specific moves. What makes the Challenge Tower so much fun is the inventive ways your newly-acquired skills are put to the test. Try winning with no arms! Or before you're shoved over a cliff! Or just take a break and Test Your Sight by playing a version of the shell game with eyeballs and skulls. The missions are a mix of genuinely challenging and utterly goofy, and if you come across a level you just can't defeat, you can use the Koins you earn from playing to buy your way past it.
Mortal Kombat has always been known for its gruesome fatalities (which are still just as hard to pull off outside of the Training room, dammit), but this version takes that giggle-inducing gore to a whole new level with X-Ray moves, which zoom in on your opponent's skeleton as you break it into bits. Each character has their own unique X-Ray move, each more over-the-top than the last. My personal favorite is Sub-Zero's, who actually reaches into his opponent's gullet to crush their frozen ... what is that, exactly, a pancreas?
This new Mortal Kombat is lively and creative, but its graphics are uneven. The fighting animations are fluid and the backgrounds are flat-out gorgeous (though often disturbing), but the character models themselves are terrible. They go beyond just being ugly, with joints that don't quite line up, mouths that are wholly unnatural, and plastic skin. It's pretty distracting during cut scenes, but you won't notice once the fighting starts.
Bottom Line: Mortal Kombat finally gets over its overwrought heritage and laughs along with us. It's a great fighting game, stuffed with things to do.
Recommendation: It won't make you suddenly love fighting games if you never enjoyed them before, but Mortal Kombat is a guaranteed good time. Even if Fatalities are still a pain in the ass to pull off. (Seriously, if you can do them with regularity, you are a god to me.)
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Susan Arendt thinks she knows what Sonya Blade's "Special Forces" are.
Game: Mortal Kombat
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3