The fate of fighting game of the year will be decided as it should be... This highly anticipated release from publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and developer NetherRealm Studios is a "reboot" of the classic series. And it was able to utilize the "elegance" that fight fans want from their game today while staying true to the MK Universe.
The core of any good/great fighting game is solid, well rounded, easy to pick up - hard to master gameplay, and this incarnation of MK does not disappoint. With some games in the series, you could have marginal success against most foes by simply button mashing. That strategy will not get you by this time around. Of course it isn't hard to execute standard punches or kicks, but unlike an extremely "twitchy" game like UMK3, the game will not report every time you tap high punch. There seems to be a "cap" of sorts on simple barrages of "face" button presses, which means to get really good at this game (which is usually the goal for most fighting game fans) you will have to embrace a much more "practice makes perfect" approach. Find out what fighters you think suit your style best and put the time in needed to commit their combos, juggle combos, ect. to mind and muscle memory. From talking to a range of gamers that like other fighting series like Tekken or Soul Caliber, the stigma that a lot of hardcore fight fans had was the lack of "elegance," or one's requirement to observe aspects like spacing, chaining, and so on. The reboot acknowledges these needs and they are crucial for battling at high difficulty levels or against other folks. When I first got the game, I thought I'd try a bit of everything before really getting down to going through everything extensively. So I wandered onto the LIVE servers to pick a Player Match fight. My hopes were that I could utilize the classic Sub-Zero freeze/uppercut/rinse/repeat strat (cheap, I know) and "steal" a win. No sir, I got my ass whooped. This is the way it should be, I should never be able to beat someone who is solid in the game with such a gimmick gameplan, and I didn't (trust me).
Beside just the elevated importance of chaining together combos, MK has a nice breaking system installed as well. Much like the Marvel vs. Capcom series, this game has a Kombat Meter, that fills up as the match progresses and you are able to execute different abilities as you gain "juice." This ranges from an enhanced Special Move at the first level to the extremely awesome/brutal/cool X-ray moves at the top. But in between those two is a very useful defensive ability called Breaker. This turns a well timed block into a mechanism for extinguishing your opponent's combo and send them to the floor. Just this relatively simple addition shows NetherRealm's dedication to building a fight franchise that is just as technically sound and rich as the competition. But the real "plus side" to this is the way that the game still oozes with that certain MK panache that glorifies brutality, violence, and just down right kick-ass. Uppercuts still give you that little extra feeling of gratification and send the opponent flying in the air, the frantic Kombat gameplay still requires you to think and press fast, and Fatalities are back to being what made a bunch of Congress people way back when go up in arms against Kombat. Bravo NetherReam for hitting the mark between new and old beautifully.
While it might be tempting to dive right in and flip through the game's "tried and true" fighter library to find your favorite(s) and start the melee, take my butt kicking as an example not to follow, and go through the quick, but comprehensive Training selections. The first is the basic tutorial, which is a very deep starter tool that teaches you everything from moving back and forth, to pulling off complicated combo juggles, tag assists, and Kombat Meter moves. The only drawback from this otherwise brilliant feature is that you can't select each individual lesson independently. So while you may just want to brush up on Enhanced Special Moves, you'll have to prove again that you know how to jump. The Fatality Tutorial allows you to pick a fighter and shows you the one listed fatality against a "Finished" opponent. What's really cool is that not only does it give you the needed controller input, but also the required distance to execute the finisher. Practice Mode is probably the best way to get the needed time in to excel at this game, with the plethora of options: different positions for the opponent, difficulty of the AI, input HUD, ect. There is also Tag Practice, which follows the same layout with double the fighters. Speaking of tag, this is yet another great innovation in Kombat. Playing two-on-two adds a level of complexity and strategy that hasn't been seen in the series previous. Do you pick two characters that are similar or completely opposite? Once the fight begins, do you consistently "match up" their tags with you own or leave the "starter" in until they go down? All of this sounds like a headache, but it actually feels very natural and is just more fun than 1v1 for some reason.
Another huge plus in this title are the many, many modes available. Yet another new thing in the reboot is the Story Mode, which is a strictly single player endeavor that follows the usual MK narrative. Shang Tsung plays host to the tournament of all martial arts tournaments. But besides just honor and glory, the contest was set up so that Earth Realm could defend itself against the forces of Outworld and the evil Shao Khan, who is hell bent on conquering the planet. Old story that most of you are familiar with, but for the purposes of the game it works. Each Chapter you'll play as a different character in the tale that must fight an array of characters in different situations (1v1, 1v2, and so forth). The game promises around an 8 hour campaign and the cut scenes look pretty good. And the surprisingly solid voice acting delivers a script that is fitting for an MK game, with just the right amount of cheesy, tongue and cheek humor. I won't go into too many details, because outside of this info I'd be playing spoiler. Just know that many fights come out of no where, and it's this spontaneity that makes it more interesting that the other main single player offering.
Ladder is the classic "win and advance up" solo offering that is included in almost every game in the franchise. It takes 10 fights to win: seven against the normal cast, and then three against boss characters (with the Outworld version of Shredder himself awaiting you at the top). Oh, and by the way, the boss battles in this one aren't fair either, and it will take real skill (or a cheap maneuver or two) to come out on top. Tag Ladder works in the same way, except with two characters per round that can be played solo or cooperatively. The one odd thing about it, though, is the boss battles seem to be the exact same as the are in regular Ladder. I thought perhaps you would need to empty their health bar twice or something, but alas you only need to win two rounds straight up. MK features a series of mini-games called "Test Your" which set up different scenarios that work on the "finer" points of the game. These include: Test Your Luck (1v1 in which you "spin the wheel" to randomly select the opponent and match modifiers like no blocking, different damage percentages, upside-down screen, and more), Test Your Might (rapidly tap the face buttons in a limited amount of time to break objects like wood and bricks), Test Your Sight ("follow the ball" game with three skulls and a human eye that are switched around) and Test Your Strike (like "Might" but you must hit the triggers in a certain area to pass). The final, but just as great, single player mode is Challenge Tower. This offering contains 300 challenges Ladder style and have you doing an array of different tasks that require you to utilize a certain skill (blocking, combos, tag moves, ect.).
Moving on to multiplayer, this is also a story of the old with the new. Of course there is straight up Versus, but why limit yourself to that when you could play Tag Versus with up to four players. And because of the tag team element, MK allows for a cooperative experience that is new to the franchise, with the aforementioned Tag Ladder and Tag Versus over Xbox LIVE. LIVE is the icing on cake with all of the game types listed here plus the all new King of the Hill, which is a "round-robin" style battle for up to eight in which the winner "stays" and the other combatants alternate between fighting and watching the battle unfold with all of those waiting for their shot at the leader. This is an incredibly simple, but awesome addition that is a real "feather in the cap" for NetherRealm's online section. And the lobbies are a great place to talk trash and pick fights with others.
Few more things. As I suppose most of you can attest to by simply watching trailers and gameplay footage, this game is just beautiful. Among even the most frantic of action, there was never a hint of slowdown or "shudder" coming through on my LCD. And considering the vibrant colors, exquisite character models, and gore effects, this is quite a feat. The graphics design team should be quite proud of their work. The sound design is just as good in its own capacity, and compliments the on screen action to the tee. Of course, what would an MK game be without some hidden extras? The Krypt is a portion of Outworld in which you flip through hundreds of poor, stranded individuals that hold certain items like alternate costumes and fatalities to which you can use your battle earned koins to tear them apart and attain the hidden prize. Outside of this, there are many other "Easter-eggs" that will just have to be discovered as you play countless hour upon countless hour of this awesome game.