There’s Much More Than Gore to ‘Mortal Kombat X’
With its barmy story and newcomer-friendly options, NetherRealm's fighter is a hardcore game with a soft, quite possibly skewered heart.
I'm not entirely sure what the right expression is for when somebody brutally murders one of their own descendants – extreme parricide, possibly – but I've just seen it happen, and not only was I complicit but wholly responsible.
My finger wasn't on the trigger, exactly; it was more a case of my thumb being pressed firmly on the appropriate button to crown a sequence of D-pad prods. As Mortal Kombat veteran Kung Lao, I've just, when prompted to "FINISH HIM", set my generously rimmed hat spinning like a circular saw in the ground and forced the face of my opponent into it. That adversary is – was – one Kung Jin, a younger cousin of Lao in Kombat lore. His skull is now sliced in half, his brain matter glooping out onto the floor beside what, seconds previously, was just some natty headwear.
Mortal Kombat X's gruesome fatalities have been publicised long before the game's release, earlier this week (on April 14th). The work of NetherRealm Studios, the tenth major instalment in the longstanding fighting series delivers alarmingly lifelike viscera like a paperboy does bad news – but, thankfully, it's got a lot more going for it than realistic vital organs.
The Chicago studio worked on 2011's retconned ninth entry in the franchise, a critical success that rekindled public affection for the game that wasn't Street Fighter II in the early 1990s. Back then it seemed that you were either for Ken and Ryu or Kano and Cage, never both casts of combatants. In the years since, Street Fighter enjoyed a glorious rebirth, after too many years in the shadows, with SFIV, while Mortal Kombat risked slipping into irrelevance through overwhelming ubiquity. "Nine" stopped that slide – and now with X, NetherRealm is ready to really let the fists fly. Indeed, there's (friendly) fighting talk afoot as soon as I've sat down to discuss the game with one of its makers.
"It was like West Side Story back in the 1990s, right? You were either a Jet, or a Shark." NetherRealm designer Derek Kirtzic is backstage – well, sort of side-stage, really – at the London launch for Mortal Kombat X, shouting at me from a few inches away to be heard over the din of a tournament playing out before a crowd of games media types. "So, what were you? A Jet, or a Shark?"
Truthfully, I was whatever Derek considers the Street Fighter II option to be. The last time I really played a Mortal Kombat game for longer than five minutes was in the mid-1990s, when I had the second game's home conversion for the, get this, 32X. Apparently it was arcade perfect, but that was a time of every other game claiming to be arcade perfect, and none really replicating the coin-op experience. I never got along with the controls – they didn't feel as fluid as those of the Street Fighter series, more a memory test of arbitrary inputs than neat sweeps of the D-pad matched with a heavy kick to the midriff.
But, I have to say, X is impressive. I've only been at it a few hours (on PS4, avoiding all that PC drama), seeing out several chapters of its solo story mode and participating in a run of random one-on-one encounters – which is where I introduce Kung Jin to the maddest creation any milliner will ever realise, while also seeing fatalities using drones and the bloodiest tag-teaming of all time. But already things are clicking. (And there are several more modes, local and offline, that I am yet to begin exploring.)
I'm not going to sit here and brag about how awesome I am at smacking down my AI rivals, because I've nudged the difficulty to one below average for the time being – better to get more out of the game, quicker, for the purposes of pieces like this. I expect that, when I switch it up, these high-attacks-into-flurried-punches-into-an-uppercut combos (ideally using the splendidly hirsute Sub-Zero, another series stalwart) will suddenly prove less effective. But right now, not even a sun god can stand up to my basic but effective move-set.
And this is very much The Point: Mortal Kombat X, for all of its depth, is designed to be welcoming to beginners, which I most certainly am. Once I'd got past the slight disappointment of the story mode opening with quick-time events, it was soon rollicking onwards with glorious abandon – plot-wise, it's both fan servicing and utterly insane, in a schlocky B-movie style. There's our world, right, the Earthrealm, and then there's the Outworld. And some tension between the two. And that's about as much sense as I can make of it all, right now. It doesn't matter – it's fun, and written with quite deliberate humour, tongues not so much in cheek as right through them.
"When you see this game's story mode, you'll see that it's basically an interactive movie," Derek says, immediately instilling in me the fear of Mortal Kombat goes Quantic Dream. (Wait, fear? I'd buy that in a heartbeat.) "And, of course, it's a little goofy, but that's who we are. We don't take ourselves too seriously, at all. When you're sticking bubblegum in people's heads, and doing selfie fatalities, there's no way we're that serious. Come on, right? I mean, it's gross – but it's still funny."
It's certainly gross, stomach turningly so at times – but Derek's emphasis of the game's technical achievements convincingly sells it as a title that goes beyond bloody death moves. He's after the hardcore like never before, aiming his sights on the fighting game community that's, for the longest time, preferred Street Fighter variants to whatever Mortal Kombat's had to offer.
"It's very rewarding for the casual player to just press buttons, pull off combos and see fatalities; but I think we do have a depth to this game that people are going to be digging into for the next few months, if not years. We're really looking to support the fighting game community here – we don't see ourselves as being part of a war (with Street Fighter), or anything like that. Let's keep the fighting game community alive, right?
"With MK9 we definitely began to cater to the eSports market, and with X we're definitely trying to break more into it, and become a larger presence. We're now kicking ass in the tournament scene, in the technical scene. We're putting in frame data here, stuff for the tournament players. But we're also helping by putting in a strategy guide for newcomers, too. If you want to know anything about the game, just pause it. I think we're doing a great job of balancing those sides of the game."
Works for me, so far. Kung Jin, less so, but nobody ever really dies in Mortal Kombat, do they? "This is an over-the-top game, a big game, and that's how it's been since 1992," Derek says of series' calling card fatalities, indubitably more disgusting than ever before. "You don't just fall down at the end of a round – we take it to that next level. But everyone's okay for round two – they come back, and they'll be just fine." Words, indeed, that can be applied easily enough to Mortal Kombat's progressing renaissance: NetherRealm brought it back from the brink, and right now it's looking more than just fine beside this generation's contenders – it's reviewing like a champion. Capcom, or the Sharks, if you like: your move.
(Mortal Kombat X was tested using review-ready code supplied by the game's publicists. There is every chance that the author did a shot or two off the frozen forearm of a Sub-Zero ice statue at the London launch event. There is probably photo evidence. Oh god.)