With the exception of Quake 3, where my opponents would regularly ruin me by crouch walking -- because who freaking does that? -- I've always preferred my games to be a bit slower. I'll take Command & Conquer or Civilization over StarCraft, if you get what I'm saying. As a result Mortal Kombat has always been my fighting game of choice. It's always been a bit slower than the Street Fighter games my friends all favoured, and thanks to mildly simplified controls it was easier to learn as well.
You combine that with amazing graphics -- the digitised sprites were photo-realistic to 10 year old me -- and it was an easy choice. If I had money for the arcades and Gauntlet Legends was occupied, I'd be pouring it into perfecting my Scorpion technique. On every console I ever owned I'd always get Mortal Kombat -- and yes, that includes the dark years from Mortal Kombat 4 onwards, when the series didn't seem to know what it was doing any more.
When NetherRealm Studios released Mortal Kombat (now known as MK9) in 2011, everything I'd seen looked great but I was still just buying it out of habit. In the back of my mind I just expected it to kinda suck. But then it launched, and it featured wonderful X-Ray combos, brutal fatalities and gorgeous looking fighting (still based on the same control system it's always been) and it seemed to me like Mortal Kombat was back, and in a huge way.
Mortal Kombat X appears to keep this brand new combo running. Even with just eight characters available you can see the core of MK9's fantastic fighting system is still intact -- and better still, you can see the team learned some things from Injustice.
A big new feature is taken directly from the DC Comics fighting game -- by pressing the R1 button near highlighted objects in the game world you're able to interact with them. A lot of these are agility based, designed to allow players to get out of corners or create space from their opponents. That means you'll see a lot of springing off walls or swinging off vines, adding just the smallest bit of speed to the game. On the other hand, there are some fantastic interactions available in the game -- you can kick a roasting boar at your foe, hit them with a tree branch and, on one of the available levels, throw an old lady at them.
The humour is a huge part of Mortal Kombat, and it's what stops the game from being straight up horrifying. When someone stacks it mid-grind on a skateboard and neuters themselves on the railing it garners instant sympathy and a gut-wrenching cringe from me. When Cassie Cage (daughter of Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage) does the splits mid-fight so she can punch a man in the dick so hard his testicles pop, it's still cringe-inducing but it's funny as well.
The above is the first step in Cassie Cage's X-Ray, the special moves that made MK9 so ridiculously popular. She finishes the move by shooting her enemy in the face, although naturally this doesn't kill them -- even if it reduces their health bar to zero, they still need to stand there for a bit while you work out how to do the Fatality.
Fatalities are back and as hilarious as ever. It's not enough for Sub-Zero to blast a hole in his enemy using a super-powered ice ball. He then has to reach into that hole and rip their spine apart. And he then needs to rip them entirely in half. The escalation in the fatalities is out of control, always going one step further in the pursuit of hilarious violence.
I talked to Erin Peipergerdes, Producer at NetherRealm Studios, and got him to explain how they work out what makes a good Fatality.
"It's actually a fun iterative process. The reality is anybody at NetherRealm studios is able to submit fatalities, or even X-Rays, which are equally over the top type moves. We take all these suggestions and we whittle them down to the ones that we feel are the best. There are occasions when even we as a team feel that we've crossed some boundaries, so there are definitely some things that are left on the cutting room floor. It is an open and iterative process though, with everyone in the studio and our designers brainstorming and coming up with some things, and we're always trying to outdo ourselves right? In the end we try to come up with something that's fun and funny at the same time, but it also retains that visceral feel that Mortal Kombat's known for."
In this case, when Erin says visceral on more than one occasion he means the presence of viscera. Does this mean the game might not make it to our shelves? The official response is that MK9's Komplete Edition earned an R18+ Rating, and so Warner Bros. fully expects Mortal Kombat X to make the cut as well -- completely fair reasoning, and the MK series is exactly why we have the R18+ Rating in the first place.
Injustice style environmental interactions aren't where the innovation stops for MKX. They've added a stamina metre to the game, giving players the opportunity to dash for a brief period of time (again adding to the agility of all characters). The stamina metre adds a layer of strategy to the game that I'll probably never properly utilise, but better players will definitely see its ability to extend combos and press their advantage. If you freeze someone in place as Sub-Zero from across the screen you'll be able to close the gap to keep attacking -- so long as you have the stamina.
Another addition are the fighter Variants, allowing players to choose specific versions of a character. This allows you to really focus in on your strengths while playing, but it also increases the depth of each fighter. Ferra/Torr, one of the new fighters in MKX, is typically a small lady riding the back of a hulking brute. Together their fighting style is a mix of power moves and ranged attacks (where Torr throws Ferra at people), but if you want you can relegate Ferra to the sidelines and Torr can fight alone. Doing this adds a swathe of grapples to his arsenal but removes his distance attacks -- dramatically changing how you play the character.
One other thing I couldn't help but notice -- Mortal Kombat X looks bloody gorgeous. The demo was distractingly pretty, and running at a constant 60 frames per second -- par for the course in fighting games, but notable nonetheless. I played Mortal Kombat X and Shadow of Mordor one after the other, and despite Shadow of Mordor being no slouch in the looks department I still couldn't get over how much prettier MKX was.
For the demo the only thing I got to check out was the Versus mode, featuring eight fighters (Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Raiden, Kano, Cassie Cage, Ferra/Tor, Kotal Kahn -- an Aztec-style blood priest and Dvorah, a wasp lady) and four Stages, but Peipergerdes assured me that the wealth of content we got with MK9 would return. "If you've seen our past games you'll know that we do our best to include other modes and other features in there. We haven't announced everything we're including with Mortal Kombat X, but suffice it to say there's gonna be more than just the one v one fighting." As long as they can deliver on that promise, it's safe to say I'm excited for Mortal Kombat X.