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Mortal Kombat
Graphics: 8.2
Gameplay: 8.3
Sound: 8.7
Control: 8.4
Replay Value: 8.5
Rating: 8.5

Mortal Kombat is back. I say that with a nostalgic smile because after more than a few ill-advised installments that abandoned the very essence of this iconic franchise, NetherRealm Studios has provided a return to glory. There are still a few annoying eccentricities that keep it from being an elite fighter in my eyes but then again, it’s those very eccentricities that define MK. It’s bloody, brutal, gory, and plenty lame (in regards to the storyline), and that’s exactly what we expect from this series. Featuring great control, a return to the 2D combat plane, an intriguing new mechanic, and modes-a-plenty, Mortal Kombat is great for the hardcore fans. Just don’t play it in front of the significant other or your parents.

Graphically, the game excels when involved in gameplay, which is a big bonus. The cut-scenes aren’t anywhere near as impressive, as the character design and animations aren’t exactly refined. However, the instant we start the fight, we’re met with a fantastic background and beautifully drawn combatants; the special effects are awesome and the frame rate never stutters. I’ve always liked the evil darkness associated with the MK backdrops and that atmosphere is more than evident. The Story Mode stumbles in the visual category due to the aforementioned issues, but we’ve got it where it counts: when in the midst of an engaging, challenging fight, we can easily appreciate the best this graphical production has to offer.

The sound is a mixed bag for me, as the audio effects are top-notch, but the music needed to play a larger role and the voice acting is definitely hit or miss. Some characters are actually quite good while others are downright painful, and in terms of the soundtrack, it’s definitely fitting, but nowhere near as emphatic as I would’ve hoped. At the same time, I appreciate the relative variety and the crisp, clear effects put the combat in the limelight. It’s as if every aspect of the technical presentation is designed to let the fighting shine, which means our gameplay experience always receives a huge cosmetic boost. And you just gotta love the ghastly sounds that emanate from the speakers during some of the more…intense moments.

If you couldn’t guess, “intense” is an understatement when we consider the brutality quotient in Mortal Kombat. But before we dive into the game’s aptitude for visceral grossness, let’s address the solid, stable control: thanks to this 2D plane, the control functions exactly as it should, and we never have to deal with a sluggish camera or any such visibility issues. The view will change slightly during certain moves and skills but we never lose track of the action, and the accessibility of the combos is a refreshing surprise. I often remember trying to tackle the hardest combos in MK in the old days, and the good news here is that you can be successful if you memorize a few effective, three or four-button combination attacks.

Now, for whatever reason, I did sense a slight lack of responsiveness when it came to certain characters and abilities; there were times when I was downright convinced I had executed a combo correctly, and nothing happened. I’m also thinking that some of the basic attacks didn’t snap and crackle, so-to-speak. It almost felt as if there was a split-second delay between the command input and the executed action, but perhaps that’s all in my head. I do know that the battle remained entertaining throughout, and I always wanted to learn more moves for my favorite characters. I also know that this game rewards the skilled and patient, and also never lets up. Not even for a second.

But here’s my biggest issue, and there’s no delaying it- the balance is just plain spotty and can be infuriating. Too many characters seem to harbor a certain amount of cheapness, and there were times in the Story Mode where I very nearly stopped entirely. The problem is that some enemies don’t seem to abide by the same rules you do, and that’s the type of thing that gets under my skin. Now, I will concede that MK is MK and some will say this is bound to happen. I mentioned the eccentricities above, and this is a common eccentricity in the world of Mortal Kombat, and any honest fan will admit to this drawback. I just find it super annoying at times.

That being said, the core of the gameplay is spectacular. It really is. Each character feels accessible and distinct; each has a basic set of moves that are easily performed, along with a set of more complex combos that, with practice, can turn that fighter into a formidable opponent. As is often the case with fighting games, we spend the first few hours mastering many of the moves and combos of our favorite character; all the while taking some time to experiment here and there. And besides, we get one hot new mechanic that sets this battler apart: the super gauge, which fills as you administer and receive pain. There are three segments on this gauge and that acquired energy can be used in different ways:

Filling the first part will enhance your fighter’s special moves; filling the second allows you to break out of an opponent’s combo (crazy useful, especially later in the Story Mode), and when the gauge is maxed, you can unleash a bad-ass X-Ray attack, which deals a huge amount of damage in gut-wrenching fashion. The camera zooms in and you watch bones crunch beneath the skin of the victim; it’s just a terrible, disgusting viewpoint that fits MK beautifully. All by itself, this gauge gives the game a whole new level of strategy as the player becomes an instant tactician. It also greatly depends on your character of choice and your opponent; you won’t always want to wait for the gauge to fill, as the enhancement of your special abilities or the opportunity to break free of a deadly combo might be more valuable. You gotta think a little, you know.

Then there are the modes: we’ve got the classic arcade ladder, the Story Mode, which is uber-cheesy but still lets us play with multiple characters and acts as a nice change from the standard format, Tag Team, and both local and online multiplayer. Like I said, parts of the Story Mode can be immensely frustrating due to that balance issue, but it’s still fun, and the very crux of fighting entertainment centers on playing against others. Therefore, the multiplayer should get plenty of attention, and this is one game that might actually be better played offline with a friend. After all, it’s always more fun to trash-talk when your fuming opponent is sitting right next to you.

Mortal Kombat, sans a few irritating slip-ups, is exactly what the fans desire. Good control, the 2D winning formula, the great backdrops and settings, the huge roster (Kratos rules, by the way), the new strategy awarded by the super gauge, the many various modes; it all comes together in a very appealing package. The balance is definitely off (cheaters, cheaters, I say!), you can’t skip the cut-scenes in Story Mode (and I really wanted to at times), and the voice acting is spotty, but that doesn’t really tarnish the overall experience. If you’re an MK fan, this is likely what you’ve been waiting for, and you’ll get a ton of entertainment out of this one.

The Good: Great effects and awesome stages. Solid control among a huge roster of fighters. A lot of different modes. Brutality takes center-stage. Gameplay is both accessible and challenging. Multiplayer is a blast.

The Bad: A definite dash of cheapness; i.e., balance issue. Voice acting is iffy. Story is lame. Responsiveness a potential issue…?

The Ugly: “Who says you can do that? I can’t do that. …bi***.

4/20/2011   Ben Dutka