Mortal Kombat X is a near-perfect evolution of MK9, blending nostalgia with new roster additions that feel like worthy successors to those lost.
“Wait, that guy isn’t dead?” my roommate asks, mouth hanging open. It’s a fair question—after all, he just watched me knee a guy in the chin hard enough to break his jaw and launch him in the air, then impale him with two blades through the skull which were then used to yank him back down to earth onto his face, breaking his neck in the process.
And then he just rolled to his feet, ready to throw an uppercut in my direction. Because Mortal Kombat.
A moment of violence
Mortal Kombat X isn’t too different from 2011’s Mortal Kombat (which from here on out I’ll refer to as Mortal Kombat IX or MK9 for simplicity’s sake). It’s one part ultraviolent fantasy, one part fast and technical fighting game, and one part overly-serious lore that has more in common with comic books/soap operas/professional wrestling than anything else.
What Mortal Kombat X does is hone the presentation of all three of those components. Story, fighting, gore—this is the most refined Mortal Kombat since at least the arcade era.
And that’s a relief, because in many ways Mortal Kombat X is at a significant disadvantage compared to its predecessor. Mortal Kombat IX had it comparatively easy, rebooting the series back to the beloved Mortal Kombat/Mortal Kombat II/Mortal Kombat 3 era, bringing back a nostalgia-ridden roster of characters in the process.
Mortal Kombat X doesn’t get to rely on nostalgia. Or, at least, NetherRealm isn’t allowing Mortal Kombat X to rely on nostalgia. Instead, it’s pushing the storyline 25 years into the future, drastically overhauling the roster in the process. Goodbye, Noob Saibot. Goodbye, Sektor. Goodbye, Kabal.
That’s not to say there are zero callbacks in Mortal Kombat X. On the contrary, it basically explores the timeline of Mortal Kombat IV again—with Shao Kahn defeated, the fallen elder god Shinnok now threatens Earthrealm. It’s up to Raiden and a band of mortals to defeat Shinnok and the forces of evil.
So yeah, Mortal Kombat X has to be Mortal Kombat IV except…well, except it has to be good. It’s like NetherRealm got a second chance to make the sequel Mortal Kombat III deserved—one that’s better at making you care for new roster additions, even if you still have a soft spot for Johnny Cage, Sub Zero, Scorpion, and the crew. Oh, and it has to be a great sequel even for those who never played the earlier Mortal Kombat games and jumped onboard with MK9.
Luckily it’s easier to tell a story in modern Mortal Kombat than it was in the arcade. MKX brings back MK9‘s excellent Story Mode, which seamlessly integrated fights in the middle of lengthy cinematics. There are twelve chapters in Mortal Kombat X, each centered around a different character on the roster, with four fights per chapter and approximately half the chapters focusing on new roster additions.
In between fights you’re treated to what amounts to a pretty great Mortal Kombat animated film. Two or more people enter a room, they yell at each other, and then for some reason they decide to fight. That’s where you come in, making sure the “correct” person wins. Does the story always make sense? No, and some of the characters do really dumb things this time around. But it’s fun to watch, at least.
Story Mode in MKX is also somewhat easier than its predecessor. Gone are the awkward difficulty spikes of MK9—the annoying 1-versus-2 battles, the ridiculous Shao Kahn boss fights with tons of unblockable attacks. If you can beat the first battle in Mortal Kombat X‘s story, I guarantee you can beat the final boss. That’s not something I’d say about MK9, where the two Shao Kahn fights road-blocked plenty of people along the way.
It’s a much more pleasant, streamlined ride. You don’t even have the omnipresent announcer barking out “Round 1! Fight!” or anything to start matches. The two combatants talk trash at each other, and then it’s no-holds-barred fisticuffs until one or the other lies dead on the ground. Then the “movie” part starts back up.
But where Mortal Kombat X is most successful is in making you care about its newcomers. Some of the roster gets better treatment than others—cowboy-esque Erron Black is notably shorted by the story, although he’s so cool to play he’s become one of my favorites regardless—but in general the game is good about selling the new characters as equivalent in importance to the old guard.
It helps that many of the new characters are the old guard. Sort of. Cassie Cage, for instance, is the daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade. Jacqui Briggs is daughter to Jax Briggs. Kung Jin is cousin to Kung Lao. The new combatants might not pull the same heartstrings as Johnny, Sonya, Jax, and crew, but they at least feel like worthy successors in a way that Mortal Kombat IV‘s roster additions (Reiko, Jarek) never did.
These “heritages” also play into the game’s new fighter selection screen. Rather than simply choosing a character, you’ll now choose a character and then one of three variations in MKX. Scorpion, for example, has a version that uses dual swords, a version that leans on fire attacks, and a version that summons a demon. All three have his signature move, the spear, but it’s an extra layer of tactics that will undoubtedly be picked apart incessantly by tournament players.
Many of the new generation of fighters borrow from those they’re “inspired” by. Cassie Cage, for instance, has variations that spoof both her dad Johnny Cage and her mom Sonya Blade. The same goes for Jacqui Briggs, Kung Jin, et cetera.
Of course, there’s more to Mortal Kombat X than Story Mode. My favorite returning feature is Test Your Luck, a silly and irreverent take on the standard 1-on-1 Mortal Kombat match which I really missed in NetherRealm’s other fighting game, Injustice: Gods Among Us. Each Test Your Luck match features up to seven randomized effects that change the game—everything from “characters don’t have arms” to “a constant hailstorm of severed heads.” I’ve found Test Your Luck works best at parties, where even friends who don’t typically like fighting games are sucked into the sheer mayhem of the mode.
These randomized effects also play a big part in Mortal Kombat X‘s Living Towers. Basically the idea is that instead of MK9‘s single, monolithic tower mode (which featured 300 fights for you to battle through), MKX will have smaller towers that are created by NetherRealm and refreshed frequently. For instance, last night there was an Hourly Tower (which is, as the name implies, changed every hour) called “Don’t Jump”—every time you jumped you took damage.
There’s also a more traditional Tower for those who love arcade-era Mortal Kombat. The Klassic Tower is just eleven fights, culminating in a boss battle and then a bit of narrated story for each character.
And then I guess we should briefly talk violence. Mortal Kombat X is in peak form. If you’re coming to these games to see violence-as-entertainment, to see arms ripped off and heads lopped and organs shredded, then this is NetherRealm at its finest.
My personal favorite comes courtesy of the aforementioned Erron Black, who loads his revolver with a bullet inscribed with his enemy’s name. It shoots into the opponent’s hip, ricochets off the pelvis, again off the shoulder, and then blows out through the chin.
It’s ridiculous. It’s violence as an art form. It’s grotesque. It’s shocking. And…it’s definitely not going to be for everyone. The sight of someone’s face falling off, and then their tongue wriggling across the ground? Yeah, probably going to give some people nightmares. But it’s also so over the top that it left me laughing, wondering “How the hell did they even think of that?”
This is Mortal Kombat. This is what people come for.
If you liked Mortal Kombat IX, I think you’ll like X. It’s in many ways the same game, albeit bolstered by lessons NetherRealm learned in both MK9 and Injustice: Gods Among Us. The Story Mode is smoother, the interface is cleaner, the action and animations are more fluid.
The real challenge going forward will be seeing how the inevitable sequel handles an ever-shrinking roster of classic characters. Can the game bear losing more fan favorites? Are the new characters strong enough to prop up an entire game on their own?
But that’s a problem for the future. For now, Mortal Kombat X is a near-perfect evolution of what we had in MK9, retaining enough of the nostalgia and strong technical execution that made the game special while also pushing the Mortal Kombat series forward.
Note: Annoyed that none of the screenshots in this review are actually screenshots? Me too. Unfortunately, we had to review the game on the Xbox One because PC code wasn’t going to be available until launch day. Assuming it runs as well as or better than the console version, however, the score will stay the same. Otherwise, we’ll update our review appropriately.
UPDATE: Due to continuing issues with the PC version of MKX, we’re yanking the score off this. Be aware that if you buy the PC version it may have a host of problems, specifically with the netcode. If you’re just in it for the singleplayer though, you should be fine.