Release Date: April 23, 2019Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, Switch, PCDeveloper: NetherRealm StudiosPublisher: Warner Bros. Interactive EntertainmentGenre: Fighting
Despite its name, Mortal Kombat 11 isn’t so much the 11th installment of Mortal Kombat as the fifth installment of NetherRealm Studios’ modern footprint on the fighting game genre. Since being recreated from the ashes of Midway, NetherRealm has ping-ponged its efforts between the Mortal Kombat franchise and its DC-themed sibling Injustice. So Mortal Kombat 11 is a significant milestone for the studio, which released its first title in 2011. Is this latest outing an evolution for the studio or has NetherRealm already perfected the formula?
The game certainly isn’t perfect, but it gets the important stuff right. The core gameplay is arguably the best its ever been. While the gameplay hasn’t really changed from the last couple of Mortal Kombat games (two punch buttons, two kick buttons, a throw button, a block button, a meter burn button, and two buttons pressed together that will trigger a super), there’s enough new here to justify the sequel.
Mainly, the gameplay feels a bit slower, but also more hard-hitting. There’s more weight to your movements and attacks. NetherRealm has nixed the ability to run but replaced it with Crushing Blows, which are special attacks that lead to a slow-motion close-up x-ray shot of the opponent taking damage. Everyone has the ability to do a Crushing Blow with an uppercut, which allows you to juggle off the move. Each Crushing Blow can only be done once a match.
The last bunch of NetherRealm games featured a segmented super meter system. In previous games, this was the catch-all system for performing enhanced moves, wake-ups, and supers. It was a really big deal in Mortal Kombat 9, but in this game, NetherRealm has decided to give players more options. Now the system is fragmented into three separate meters, meaning you don’t have to put all of your eggs in one basket if you want to save up for that tide-turning super attack.
There’s a meter for offense (ie. enhanced attacks), a meter for defense (ie. escapes, such as powering your way out of an air-juggle), and the Fatal Blow. Much like the Rage Arts from Tekken 7, the Fatal Blow is only in play if your character’s health is down to about 30%. It allows you to hit a super attack, much like the X-Rays of previous games (just not, you know, with the x-ray bit), where the gruesome damage makes you wonder why we do Fatalities in the first place. Noob Saibot’s scythe just went through that guy’s skull and brain! You don’t recuperate from that unless you’re Deadpool!
Fatalities are back, though. Each fighter has two, except for the final boss Kronika, who has one really long one. This time they’re more dramatic, ending in an action close-up where time slows to a crawl while blood and viscera spray everywhere. The highlights definitely belong to Johnny Cage, who breaks the fourth wall in both instances. One Fatality has him tear an opponent in half across the waist, hold them up like a dummy, then do a ventriloquist act complete with spotlight, terrible pun, booing crowd, and thrown tomatoes.
For when Fatalities lose their muster, we have the welcome return of Brutalities. These mini-Fatalities aren’t as cinematic but are way more fun to pull off. By pulling off the right combination of maneuvers (hitting a move three times in a round, not blocking for the whole round, holding down the attack button during the final hit, pressing certain buttons during the move, etc.), your special move or throw will visually murder your opponent instead of just knocking them out.
The game also brings back Mercy, a relic from the days of Mortal Kombat 3 where instead of hitting a Fatality, you can allow your opponent to continue with a little extra life. As far as I know, this is only worth using to complete certain Brutalities and is otherwise completely pointless.
Mortal Kombat X introduced variations, which allowed you to choose a specific bundle of special moves and abilities for your chosen character. Mortal Kombat 11 expands further on this mechanic by providing two default variations to choose from and the ability to customize your own. You can also unlock costumes and costume pieces, allowing you to put your own fingerprint on your character.
Also returning is NetherRealm’s kickass story mode, a mix of fighting your way through four matches per character and impressive cinematics. At the end of Mortal Kombat X, Cassie Cage defeated Shinnok and Raiden helped save the world. But adventure poisoned Raiden’s soul, turning him evil. Mortal Kombat 11 begins with him torturing and beheading the unkillable Shinnok. This annoys Kronika, a deity who controls time itself. She feels that Raiden’s actions are an affront to how things are supposed to be and plots to recreate the timeline without his existence. A big part of her plan is creating a time rift that brings a bunch of Mortal Kombat II characters into the present.
This is a clever way to play up all the different variations and costume types, as young, idiot douche Johnny Cage is very different from his wiser, middle-aged self. With all the crazy things that have happened in this universe over the years, the only young character 100% happy with the way they turned out is Kano: “Over fifty and still a ripper!”
If you can stomach the series’ batshit nonsense – and Lord knows I can – story mode is an absolute blast. Unfortunately, there is one major drawback to it all: Sonya Blade. While Sonya was fine in the last few games, this time she’s been voiced by UFC and WWE star Ronda Rousey. If you follow WWE like I do, you know that her ability to cut wrestling promos is limited at best, but she’s able to drop the occasional well-delivered line. Here…not so much. Every Sonya scene is laughably atrocious.
The rest of the cast has to deliver serious lines about gods, time travel, and stolen souls, and they pull it off. Then Sonya opens her mouth and pulls you completely out of the game. It’s especially apparent late in the story where she gets what’s supposed to be a totally badass moment followed by a bit of emotional closure and it all sounds flat and lifeless.
On the upside, the graphics are an absolute treat in this game. Not only do the fights look great, but the facial animations are completely on-point. This is the best Mortal Kombat has ever looked, which may be to your detriment if seeing a close-up of Baraka eating a brain makes you queasy.
Much of the rest of the game is the usual package of modes. There’s Klassic Towers, which is an arcade mode where you get to choose different amounts of opponents to fight, complete with endings where we can see what the various characters would do if they had control over history itself. Nothing different from how Injustice 2 played it and that’s fine by me.
There’s also the Challenge Towers, which has lost its luster in Mortal Kombat 11. This time around, Challenge Towers mainly exists for the sake of grinding for koins and the occasional unlockable.
Speaking of unlockables, the Krypt returns. Now, this is an aspect of Mortal Kombat that’s been getting more needlessly complicated ever since its creation back in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. It used to be a simple, enjoyable way to unlock costumes, concept art, and so on. But the mode has become more elaborate since those days to the point that the Krypt feels like it’s becoming its own game. The contents of each treasure chest are also randomized, so cross your fingers that you get that really cool Erron Black costume you saw on YouTube.
Luckily, Challenge Towers and the Krypt aren’t the most important parts of the package. There’s still plenty to love about the main modes and the engine will surely have legs for another year or so until NetherRealm gets tired of releasing DLC and move on to the next Injustice game. Or maybe we’ll get another Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe game, this time based on shipping Kronika with Dr. Manhattan.