I thought I was too jaded to be shocked by violence in games anymore. It turns out I was wrong.
Since Mortal Kombat 3, the Mortal Kombat series has often been gory in a bizarre, cartoony way that makes it difficult to take, for want of a better word, seriously. For every truly vicious quality kill, there'd be a half-dozen fatalities that were either deliberately played for comedy or were so conceptually flawed that they wound up that way anyway. Sometimes it was because of technical limitations, like how MK4 looks like a puppet routine, or the weird "bloody popcorn" that's all over the place in Deadly Alliance.
The new Mortal Kombat, a reboot of the series without a subtitle, turns up the gore level to 11. It's a strictly 2-D game, and all that next-gen horsepower is being used to make it the goriest damn thing I've ever seen in my life.
If you're Australian, just stop reading. There is no way you will ever play this.
While no details about the game's plot have been revealed (and MK usually does have a plot), MK as it stands is a sort of love letter to the series, the way that Armageddon vaguely tried to be but ultimately couldn't pull off. For the first time, characters have specific introductions and win poses, meant to convey their personalities and powers, the way that it's done in virtually every other fighting game on the face of the planet. (And it only took, what, 17 years?)
The backgrounds are all completely redone environments from past MK games, such as the Dead Pool, the Pit, and the Living Forest from Mortal Kombat II, and the cast is a mixed bag of returning characters from the first three games. Right now, Johnny Cage, Kung Lao, Mileena, Nightwolf, Reptile, Scorpion, Sektor and Sub-Zero are confirmed, and Raiden and Shao Kahn are in the trailers. There's room for another 16 characters on the select screen, with a box labeled "DLC." Ed Boon has also confirmed that there'll be hidden secrets and cheats in MK's content patches to re-create the way they used to add new codes into each revision of the arcade board.
Many of the Fatalities that have been revealed so far are gruesomely detailed re-creations of the characters' past moves, which sometimes combine more than one Fatality into a single example of blatant overkill. Mileena impales victims through the chest before ripping off their heads and eating their faces, using both her Deception Fatalities at once; Kung Lao takes off an enemy's head before splitting their body in half.
Some of the Fatalities are new, of course. Scorpion takes off his opponent at the knees before lopping off his head and then splitting the head in half in midair, complete with a lovingly detailed rendering of the inside of the skull. Sektor has one that involves blasting a character to bits, then locking on to each flying part and taking them each out with a salvo of homing missiles.
I really don't think I can overstate just how vicious these new Fatalities are. None of them are played for laughs or last short amounts of time. They're short filmstrips of elaborate murder, without censoring or flinching. Kung Lao's "bandsaw" fatality, as seen in the first trailer, is actually worse than it looks; at the end, when he's successfully chopped his opponent in half groin-first, he holds up both bleeding halves of his opponent by the feet, brandishing the corpse as a two-part trophy. Thanks to next-gen graphics, you can see the broken ribs and pulsing organs in either half of the corpse.
… I'm going to get this preview used against me in court someday.
As a fight progresses, battle damage rapidly accumulates on both fighters, including bloodstains and specific wounds. If Scorpion manages to put a spear into somebody, he'll have that hole in their chest until the end of the match. At the end of a long fight, both characters look like they've been through a grain thresher; clothing is torn, armor breaks, wounds accumulate, and blood drenches them both. (Mileena actually manages to acquire clothing damage despite the fact that she's wearing about a square foot's worth of cloth. I am not sure how this works.)
What's probably more interesting, at least in the long run, is that the game actually looks playable. Most of the past Mortal Kombat games were about spectacle first and gameplay second. While the fan base tends to argue otherwise (there's a small but dedicated tournament scene for UMK3 that persists to this day), MK games have traditionally been riddled with infinite combos, 100% combos, glitches, bugs, and the occasional game-breaking special move.
With 2008's Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, however, the series took an odd right turn into being a genuinely decent fighting game. It was about as gory as the average rugby match, yeah, but it was fun in a way that the other MK games have never even tried to be. The dial-a-combos and special move spam took a firm backseat to balance, counterattacks, mind games and strategy. Yeah, the DC cast ran away with the game (i.e., Green Lantern being able to combo off of his breaker), but MKvDC was actually entertaining.
In action, Mortal Kombat looks like it owes more to MKvDC than the previous games in the core series. Juggle combos are a big part of the gameplay, and each character fights in a distinctly different style.
Another feature that MK borrows from other fighting games is the addition of a three-level super meter. A single level of the meter can be burned to throw out an enhanced version of a character's special moves, making it more powerful in some individually defined way. Johnny Cage's Shadow Uppercut hits twice when enhanced; Reptile's old force ball gets roughly three times as big, making it much harder to avoid.
At level three, the player can hit his opponent with what NetherRealm calls X-ray attacks, which is what Johnny's hitting Sub-Zero with in the early trailer. This is a series of hits that deal a spectacular amount of damage while visibly fracturing parts of the enemy's skeleton.
While they do look like some kind of Guilty Gear-style instant kill, an X-ray attack is more of a game-ending super attack than anything else. On its own, an X-ray does 35-39% damage, and I'm told you'll be able to combo into it. If you've been watching footage from E3, though, meter is going to be a lot harder to come by in the final version of the game; it was accelerated for demonstration's sake in the E3 build. Hopefully, this makes comboing into an X-ray attack a way to score a come-from-behind victory, rather than turning every match into a race to see who hits level three first.
You can also play MK in a two-versus-two tag-team mode, which looks a lot like the first Marvel vs. Capcom. Tagging is done quickly and doesn't seem to have a cooldown, with the option to tag a character while attacking by burning a level of super meter. A new character simply arrives quickly and stands there, but you can actually combo into and out of the tag if you've got the meter for it.
Usually, there's something in an MK game that turns out to be hilariously broken fairly early on, like Cyrax's 100% combos in MK3, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't expecting that with this new MK. The X-ray level three super is probably going to get nerfed one way or another, depending on what various characters wind up being able to do.
With that said, there's actual gameplay in Mortal Kombat, mixed with an uncompromising, vicious approach to the series' trademark gore. It's the dark, bloody Mortal Kombat that people have been wanting for years but have never gotten until now.
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