As a series, Mortal Kombat has had good times and very bad times. When the series first started in the '90s, it was able to carve out a niche by having a unique art style, ridiculously over-the-top violence, and a manner of controlling the characters that was different from other fighting games. However, since it made the transition to 3-D with Mortal Kombat 4, the series has been in a bit of a downward spiral, overshadowed by virtually every other fighting game on the market and slowly becoming the title that people know "because of those violent fatality things." In the spirit of games like Marvel vs. Capcom, Midway has gotten its hands on the DC Comics license and created a crossover title for its first current-gen effort. The end result is Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, an interesting concept that doesn't manage to reach its full potential.
As is the standard with fighting games these days, MK vs. DCU offers an arcade mode and a story mode. Since Mortal Kombat hasn't been released in arcades in years, the arcade mode is virtually identical to the older Mortal Kombat titles, right down to the pillar of warriors that your fighter must climb to reach the ridiculously overpowered final boss. Otherwise, the arcade mode serves its purpose, building up the difficulty as you go so you can learn the characters and master the game. This would be fine, if the AI followed any kind of coherent pattern. It generally does, but the AI's skill can vary dramatically from round to round. I've had matches where they hardly even fight back in round one, annihilate me in round two, and then put up an amazingly close fight for round three. This type of AI can sometimes result in the player making it further than he should or being stopped in his tracks early on due to blind luck. If you finish the arcade mode, your reward is a gorgeous illustration accompanied by a voice-over explaining what happened to the character after the story ends. Some epilogues are bland, but some are awesome and even manage to be funny at times. (Sub-Zero's is absolutely amazing.)
Most players will be spending most of their time in the story mode. By some force beyond my comprehension, MK vs. DCU actually has a coherent and interesting plot. It manages to break virtually every convention in fighting games by having an interesting story, and it manages to never break the continuity between characters. In a series like Soul Calibur, the story can be located somewhere in the shuffle, but each character's story doesn't fit the timeline of just about every other story. With MK vs. DCU, the stories manage to overlap and make sense. Of course, the story is a bit silly, which is evidenced by the reason for animosity between several characters (I don't recognize you! Let's fight!), but it fits into the ridiculous and over-the-top nature of both the Mortal Kombat and DC universes.
In the story mode, MK vs. DCU has you choose a side, and away you go. You'll spend a few fights as most of the characters from that story as the game builds up to a finale. The actual ending seems a bit lackluster when you consider that even the cover art manages to stir up excitement about the epic fight. Each character has a story chapter in which he or she goes around trying to accomplish a goal that furthers the plot. The Joker tries to kill all of his enemies with his newfound strength that even he can't explain, Captain Marvel tries to commune with the Wizard Shazzam, and Scorpion tries to track a princess. By the time you've finished the story from both sides, you'll probably have spent about seven hours with the game, and there's no real reason to go back and play the mode again. Completing one side's story gives you one of the few unlockables in the title: one of the two hidden characters.
There's a fair amount of gameplay that can be had by going through the story and arcade modes with 22 characters and several difficulty levels, but there isn't much incentive to master the game because it isn't a particularly good fighter to play. What MK vs. DCU gets right is the brutality and intensity of superheroes fighting the greatest warriors from a world where magic is king. Clothes will rip and tear, faces will get bruised, and large gashes will open on the bodies of the warriors. After a fight, many of your characters will look like they need medical attention, given the beating they just endured. Punches will make your fighters stagger, they'll get dazed, and the brutality is there in full force.
Making your fighters do these things to other fighters, though, is a completely different beast because controlling any of the fighters in MK vs. DCU is a difficult task. While most fighters these days are fairly fluid in their control and often rely on rolling the controller, this title feels stiff by comparison. Rolls are replaced with hitting down and then back, where rolling will not work most of the time, and even when you do it correctly, the controls remain unresponsive often enough that it becomes worrisome. The tempo of the fights dictates that in order to win, you must remain on the offense for the majority of the match. Things can be turned around on you so quickly if you give the other fighter any breathing room; you could find yourself going from what looks like a perfect round to you losing the round in a hurry.
This is pretty normal for Mortal Kombat games, and anyone who has played one before will know what to expect from the clunky controls and skirmishes. Not much has really changed in the fighting; there's a unique button for blocking, and stringing together long fluid combos is an incredibly difficult task, so it's more about getting the enemy into a stance where he can't block so that you can whale away. It's not very deep, so it doesn't leave room for serious fighting game players to master anything, and casual players will grow weary of it within a few days.
MK vs. DCU tries to incorporate a few new elements to the fighting. Klose Kombat and Free Fall Kombat are very similar in execution; they're both button-pushing sequences where the defender must try to counter the beating that he's taking by guessing which button the attacker will press. Klose Kombat is a grapple where a successful counter will break the grapple and result in some damage to the attack. Free Fall Kombat takes place while both characters are falling; the one on top is the attacker and can eventually finish the move for extra damage by hurling the enemy into the ground. If you manage to execute a successful counter during Free Fall Kombat, the attacker and defender will trade places. The biggest change is Rage Mode, where your fighting moves fill up a meter that, when filled, makes you ignore any attacks (you don't stagger around, but you still take damage). However, you do double the damage and can break through blocks. This ability can change the outcome of matches in a hurry, and deploying Rage Mode at the right time can add some strategic elements to the title.
This is the first Mortal Kombat game to get a "T" rating in the U.S., and this was likely a demand from DC Comics during the development of the title. As a result, the ridiculous Fatalities from previous versions have been toned down to the point where many aren't even that interesting to watch. The shock value and twisted humor are gone from most of them. DC Heroes, being the highly moral people that they are, do not have Fatalities; instead, they use Heroic Brutalities, where they simply beat their opponent to a pulp. To a small extent, this hurts the title because when you were playing Mortal Kombat against another person, it was always great to have the final say by killing your opponent in a completely absurd manner. MK vs. DCU only has a small selection of these that made the final cut.
MK vs. DCU looks and sounds very nice. Character models look great thanks to the Unreal 3 engine and tend to look better as fights wear on because of the cuts and bruises. The frame rate never falters, and things animate well. Environments have a ton of variety to them, and yet they manage to not look too interesting. The music fits the game but is fairly forgettable, and the voice acting is incredible for a fighting game.
Other than the arcade and story modes, MK vs. DCU offers two training modes: versus and online play. Within training, one mode allows you to practice, while the other option offers up several Kombo Challenges, which are 10 very difficult combos for each character. In this mode is where the awkward controls really rear their ugly head because even in a game that controlled well, most of the moves would still be very difficult to execute. Versus mode works just like any versus mode should, and the online generally works, although it feels as if it would've worked better on a PC. When you go online with the title, the easiest way to find a match is to enter the chatrooms, talk to other players using an awkward keyboard mechanic, or scroll down the list of players and directly challenge them. It's a little awkward because it's a bit annoying to scroll through a list of hundreds of players to find one who might be a good challenge. Online play is hit-or-miss; lag was nonexistent when playing with people I knew, but it was usually very noticeable and affected my matches when I was playing against strangers.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is a game where there's fun to be had with it, but unless you're a hardcore Mortal Kombat or DC Comics fan, you aren't going to find $60 of fun here. An enjoyable story mode and pleasing visuals are overshadowed by the mediocrity of everything else. From a gameplay standpoint, the fun wears thin after a few hours, and there's not much reason to return to it. The online doesn't work as well as it should, and the main selling point of the MK series, the Fatalities, have been toned down for the sake of a "T" rating. If you are interested in the game, rent it, and if you're still having fun with it after the week-long test run, then pick it up. Most people are going to find that the fun wears thin within a day, which doesn't merit the $60 price tag.
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