I should preface this review of Mortal Kombat X with one, likely important, fact. I am a fighting game amateur. I am a fighting amateur full stop, more inclined to talk a man down than invoke the Queensbury Rules. As a genre though it’s one I have always admired from afar, wondering at the excitement of character reveals, frame counting, chip damage and guard breaks.
I’ve cut my teeth on plenty of the genres finest, that’s for sure, finding solace in the original Soul Calibur, and the criminally overlooked Power Stones series, but also fleeting glimpses of Tekken, Street Fighter, Smash Bros, Fighters Destiny, Killer Instinct, and of course Mortal Kombat. Soul Calibur was the only fighting game where I felt I’d achieved something, actually become a near-competent player.
Progression in arcade-style fighters has always been focused on battling away through a series of opponents, before ending in a showdown against a boss. Soul Calibur flipped this around, offering a campaign-style mode with differing objectives and limitations, forcing you to learn particular playstyles and movesets.
It was almost the impetus I needed to get into fighting games, but not quite. Mortal Kombat X takes this content is king mantra and runs with it though, adding a gamut of playing options to complement every level of player. There is just so much to Mortal Kombat X, it makes practically every other fighter out there seem threadbare.
A total of 24 fighters are available, 25 including pre-order bonus Goro. The usual suspects like Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Liu Kang, et al, are joined by a host of fresh faces such as Cassie Cage and Jacqui Briggs. Set a few decades after the events of Mortal Kombat 9, a number of the cast have certainly aged in the ensuing years, paving the way for a bunch of edgy youngsters. For the most part these are interesting enough, each is a unique character rather than a palette-swapped replacement, and the way NetherRealm has hooked them into the story can be neat.
In the age old battle between fighting game giants, Mortal Kombat has always been the vulgar pretender to the throne. It’s made a name for itself thanks to its crass violence and no holds barred action. Because of this, rather than despite it, Mortal Kombat X is without doubt one of the easiest jumping in points I’ve seen for fighting games, except for the obvious Smash Bros. Everything feels primed for immediate satisfaction, right down to the opportunity to practice the most brutal moves in your repertoire straight from the main menu.
Everyone gets Fatalities, and it's in a way other fighting games have never been able to replicate. They’re the ultimate moves, and from a casual fighting game fan’s point of view, this cheap thrill is the chief selling point. Mortal Kombat X knows exactly what it takes to hook players in, and to keep them engaged on a superficial level. For an amateur like me it's absolutely ideal, offering quick, visceral thrills with immediate visual feedback of your success and progression. If you’re not going to drill down to a game’s depths, you’ve every right to choose style over substance when knocking seven shades of crap out of someone. And boy do the Fatalities deliver. From the stomach-churning to the downright hilarious, it’s popcorn fighting game with all the tawdry nastiness of a cheap slasher movie. Like any powerful combo they can be tricky to pull off, but there’s a dedicated Fatality trainer if you’re struggling. NetherRealm has also conceded to the dark side somewhat with in-game microtransactions which make Fatalities easier to pull off. These consumables will set you back 79p for five, or £3.99 for 30. The choice is there but it’s never pretty to see.
While Mortal Kombat X might lack the depth Street Fighter fans are looking for, it’s certainly got the complexity. In an effort to appease the fighting hardcore NetherRealms has now granted each character three unique fighting styles to choose from. Each of these styles mixes things up with alternate combos, moves, and ultimately, Fatalities. Loi Kang for instance can have Dragon’s Fire, Flame Fist and Dualist. Dragon’s Fire is closest to classic Liu Kang, with flying kicks and a charged fireball. Flaming Fist adds flaming fist abilities as well as mid-air bicycle punches, while Dualist enables Liu Kang to switch between light and dark versions, each with unique abilities.
For a newcomer it can be a lot to take in, but all it takes is for you to focus on a single style before expanding. The quirks and nuances won’t become immediately apparent, but each comes with traits that make them a better match against other fighters. As you gradually peel back the layers you’ll find certain aspects about styles you prefer; not just more variation but also ensuring every fighter is three times as likely to be an attractive proposition for you to play as. From a balancing point of view this an absolute nightmare, and for hardcore fighting fans this is likely to be a turn-off more than anything. For those, like me, just interested in dipping their toes into some brutally violent fisticuffs, it’s an engrossing addition.
The basic single player campaign mode is pretty robust, stringing together fights with some hefty story sequences which are every bit as outrageous as you’d expect. These are littered with irritating quick time events, presumably an effort from NetherRealms to keep players engaged. It comes off as a patronising assumption its audience is too slack-jawed to focus its attention for more than 20 seconds, but all in all the 12-chapter story mode is a worthwhile 5-6 hour playthrough with some frankly bonkers happenings.
Where the real interest lies though is in the Towers. Classic Towers pits you against ten random opponents in increasingly hard towers, while Test Your Luck Towers mix things up with several buffs and modifiers to change the flow of the matches. this can include electrified floors, slow-motion punches, draining health bars. As if that wasn't enough, the most recent addition is the Living Towers. This comes in hourly, daily, and weekly flavours, with a changing series of goals and stipulations, each win allowing you to ascend the ever-changing tower and get your hands on the all important koins. This is currency which can be spent in Mortal Kombat X’s Krypt. While nothing new to MK fans, the Krypt offers literally hundreds of unlockables, including skins, brutalities, new areas, concept art and more. You explore the Krypt in first-person, and at times it feels like a proper dungeon crawler. At times you could mistake its aesthetic for Bloodborne as werewolves jump out at you, taken down with a swift QTE event. Once more NetherRealm has seen fit to include DLC to skip the unlock process, and that’ll set you back £16 if you just want to cut to the chase.
Now then, we segue from shady transactions to dodgy performance. To look at it Mortal Kombat X is certainly pretty, or at least as pretty as high-definition gizzards and crushed skulls can ever hope to look. Despite this it is just two combatants fighting in an arena. This isn't a 64-player battlefield or a 20-racer Grand Prix. To that end Mortal Kombat X's performance disappoints. It was diabolical on the GTX 650, but things were a fair bit better on the 750 Ti, but still nowhere near where we'd like. Perhaps most annoying is the insistence on halving the frame rate form 60 to 30 for Fatalities. That and the occasional jitteriness make this a possible wait and see for those worried about system performance.
Despite all this Mortal Kombat X is still an insane brand of fun, delivering the ultimate pick up and play bloodbath for those who don't necessarily want to take their fighting games too seriously. Absolutely packed with things to do, there's plenty there to encourage you to better yourself. If you're one of those hooked into Mortal Kombat lore then the story is definitely worth a playthrough here. What we've essentially got is a bigger and bolder version of Mortal Kombat 9, marred slightly by intrusive microtransactions and at times dodgy performance issues.