Mortal Kombat (2011) – Review

As the most violent Mortal Kombat game to date arrived (hey, the competition is tough nowadays), we’ve asked ourselves if the violence really was the key to the franchise’s popularity and survival. It wasn’t.

MORTAL KOMBAT (2011) is a videogame developed by NetherRealm Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the XBox 360 and PlayStation 3. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by ED BOON.

There is a magic moment in each Mortal Kombat game. It’s when you duck and, with perfect timing, throw a High Punch at your unaware enemy. The result is the Uppercut, the granddaddy of the headshot. The Uppercut symbolizes all that is good with a fighting game; that moment when everything connects, you hear a pop and your opponent is sent flying releasing a shower of virtual blood and real shame. If there were a reason why this series managed to stay relevant despite the constant complaints about the mechanics and the game’s “balance”, I think that reason is the Uppercut.

Well, the Leg Trip, with the humiliating thug it provokes, might also have a minor role to play, but the main factor behind Mortal Kombat’s relevance, even more than its branded violence, is certainly the Uppercut. Time Killers, War Gods, Deadliest Warrior, Xenophage, Killer Instinct and countless other fighting games tried to create a name for themselves with the use of violence and where are they now? The truth is that it was never about the violence. In fact, violence has become quite trite since Mortal Kombat’s heyday. Deep down inside, the reason we came back time and time again were the inner workings of these little mechanics, the Uppercut, the Leg Trip and the Throw, that were able to push the pleasure switch on and off in our minds.

Would you like Mortal Kombat were you not allowed to pull an Uppercut as a reward after managing to land a successful spear attack (that’s Scorpion’s Get Over Here move, by the way) on your enemy? Or a Leg Trip? Or even a little Throw? A special move without a reward is like a joke without a punchline!

Like the racing genre, fighting games are examples of pure gaming. There is nothing beyond the gameplay loop. Where other games have a fighting engine as a mean to something else, fighting games are nothing but the engine. The joy you get from it comes from the nature of competition. You won, they lost. Their submission is your crowning achievement. Yes, you are the best there is. Mortal Kombat understood this better than anyone. A “You Won” screen was never really enough. What matters, what only matters, is how humiliating your opponent’s demise is.

You see, Mortal Kombat was my fighting game. Back when there was an on-going feud between Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, I stuck with Mortal Kombat and never looked back, clumsy mechanics and all. I mean, remember that pesky “run” button and the dial-a-combos? Perhaps this is why I could never dominate pressing backwards in order to block in Street Fighter or how good fighting mechanics were supposed to work in general. I’ve read dozens of reviews praising Mortal Kombat (2011)‘s fighting mechanics and I can’t appreciate that kind of subtlety at all. All I know is that I enjoyed the idea of flipping through fighting styles in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance and that I am still pretty much enamored with the Uppercut.

What I do appreciate in this iteration of the franchise is how all the characters move like creatures of considerable weight. The gameplay is all chunky and when you land a blow it feels like you landed a blow. Mortal Kombat knows, it always knew really, the importance of theatrics and it revels in it. A punch has not only an impact, but leaves a mark. Clothing gets torn (oh, Kitana, why did you have to buy your clothes from the same store Hulk buys his magical pants?), bruises are opened, bones are exposed. And your opponent’s blood will slash on your face.

The only downside is the X-Ray moves. They are like mini fatalities brought into the middle of the fight. Their presentation delivers quite the impact the first time you see it. It’s only natural, for Mortal Kombat games treat the subject of brutality the same way a porn movie deals with sex. Throw an X-Ray move at that casual gamer friend who doesn’t quite know all the game’s rules and he will first think you are some kind of gaming demi-god. But once that knowledge is spread, these X-Ray moves feel quite trite, as they are easy to throw – just fill that little inexplicable bar at the bottom of the screen and press a special button.

As they become more and more abundant during a fight, the game becomes cartoony. And Mortal Kombat had pretty much stopped feeling cartoony after it got rid of Friendships, Animalities and Babalities in Mortal Kombat 4, mind you. And no, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe doesn’t count. Now the X-Ray moves break that reality feeling where every punch has its weight. The laws that govern the bone breaking of Sub-Zero must be the same applied to Wild E. Coyote.

Another thing the franchise perfectly understands is that the customer buys in for the fights, but stays for the features. There are tons of them in Mortal Kombat (2011). Too many! And points! Everything you do grants you points and coins! It’s like a giant Skinner Box that reinforces gamers to gather coins in order to waste them on random rewards – some good, but mostly garbage. It would be almost too evil. The upside is that it doesn’t really work. Getting coins can be so banal you rarely pay attention to that. From time to time you will simply go “hey, look so many coins I have accumulated” and then just blow them all at rewards and resume doing something else. Like playing the story mode.

Yes, there is a story mode.

This should be no surprise to any Mortal Kombat fan, after all, the franchise is one of the few fighting games with some kind of plot tying all the games. This is not like Street Fighter where a bunch of guys start punching each other for no sane reason: some to get honor (what the..?) and some to conquer the world (eh?). The combatants in Mortal Kombat have a story, a past and a future. The ninja of today will be the cyborg of tomorrow. Yeah, everything is sillier, but who cares?

And sure, the skeptic will say, this is only a cheap way to string fights together, but no! It actually tells us something about the universe of fighting games in general; a universe where two allies facing a global threat drop everything to beat each other to death just because one of them is a twat. My theory blames sexual frustration. Imagine a world where everyone has perfectly toned bodies, even at old age; where people can conjure the elements from their fingertips; where men walk around half-naked while women sport glorious, symmetrical, unattainable side-boobs. Now imagine they lack a reproductive system (which is supported by X-Ray evidence, by the way). Ah ha! No sex, world implodes in social violence. Makes sense, no?

Maybe that’s why the game is so immature. Maybe that’s why its final boss is the biggest dick on videogames. Shao Kahn is like the quintessential frat bro: he dresses ridiculously, somehow manages to be bigger, better, faster and stronger than you can ever hope to be and cheats at videogames. Plus, he never shuts up!

The other modes are not that noteworthy. There is the Challenge Tower, the standard Ladder challenge all Mortal Kombats feature for single players, a Tag Ladder mode… but these are all variations of the same theme. The Challenge Tower, which happened when somebody gave Gulp Gameplay a fucking checklist, goes down like potato chips in a lazy afternoon, but that’s it.

A game like Mortal Kombat can never hope to achieve the same kind of greatness a game like Portal did, due to the natural limitation of its genre. However, it does succeed in retrieving that crude, primal response, that kill or be killed survival instinct, better than any other Mortal Kombat to date, which I guess is to be expected from Ed Boon, a make whose sole purpose in life is to direct more and more Mortal Kombats. It is genre great… but only until the next genre great fighting game comes along.

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