The problem with fighting games is that there are players out there who see them in frames. Not strung-together as fluid animations like the rest of us, but broken up into minute clusters of stills.
Many top-level tournament fighters really care that six frames are devoted to a particular character lifting their arm, or that another’s leg swinging back after connecting consumes 12 more. Those fleeting moments are windows of opportunity for the best to turn a match.
The esoteric art of frame counting sees serious pugilists go to extreme lengths to secure wins. Their demand for nuance within beat-‘em-ups has pushed the genre into a difficult place, where satisfying the most devoted audience can mean ostracising the masses with absurd demands on skill.
It’s a fact the Mortal Kombat series has struggled with over time, and it has sometimes been ungainly in its attempt to please everybody. All of which makes the arrival of Mortal Kombat X especially exciting. This time developer NetherRealm Studios has delivered a fighter that is technical, refined and very much considerate of the competition player, whilst remaining accessible in a way that’s all too uncommon among the genre’s best.
That’s not to say that Mortal Kombat X is going to dethrone the tournament scene’s titans. But it is almost certainly the best Mortal Kombat yet.
Much of that quality comes from the game’s 24 playable characters, a third of which are entirely new. Across the cast there’s an impressive diversity, and with each available in three distinct variants, it is a game that engenders a bounty of different play styles and combat strategies. It may take time to find the fighter that fits you best, but on the way you’ll taste a broad cross-section of ways to play.
As for the fighting itself, it is tighter than most previous Mortal Kombats. The clarity of animation is improved, and even when handling one of the game’s unhurried sluggers, there’s a fluidity and precision, all of which makes evolving your skill a more pleasurable ride.
And for those that demand it, there’s all the frame data one could wish for, along with customisation options that cater for the competition player. Some will bemoan the use of a button for blocking in place of the more popular backwards movements, but overall it’s tough to pick more than small holes in the combat.
The modes, meanwhile, are many and varied, considering that ultimately Mortal Kombat X conforms absolutely to the template of a 3D arcade fighter played on a 2D plane. Tower mode presents the traditional arcade progression model, and offers several spins on tackling the game’s cast back-to-back. Then there’s the story mode; some five-to-eight hours worth – depending on your aptitude – of fights amidst reams of cut-scenes. Part character-spotters’ fan service, part guided tour of various fighters’ styles, the story mode is brimming with hackneyed dialogue. As such, while it’s no example of the video game form’s narrative potential, it does a marvellous job of evoking a sense of those absurd arcade cut-scenes infamously found in light gun games. And somehow, it’s a style that suits Mortal Kombat X rather well.
Elsewhere there are plenty of ways to play NetherRealm’s creation as a fighter should be, shoulder-to-shoulder with a real-world rival, as well as, unsurprisingly, a generous array of online modes, where over time Mortal Kombat X must truly prove itself as a game with longevity. Early signs suggest a robust connected experience, backed up by the Faction Wars mode, which means every fight, online or otherwise, contributes XP to an ongoing battle between the global player-base.
Visually, at times the game is superb. The lighting in particular can lend Mortal Kombat X’s characters and environments a striking presence, and often detail and decoration is as lavish as is seen in the most technically advanced modern console games. And yet there are equally moments when blandness dominates, or a weird facial animation drags things deep into the uncanny valley.
While it used to be the bloody finishing moves that caused heated controversy, in Mortal Kombat X it is likely to be the presence of microtransaction purchases. Fortunately, there’s never a hard sell, while the impact on the game is minimal, and predominantly aesthetic. Most of what you do in-game earns Koins. That fictional currency is traded for the likes of new costumes and concept art; or you can unlock the lot with real money. Unlockable single-use tokens for simplified fatalities can also be paid for, and while this is initially unsettling, it really only abridges moves carried out after a fight is decided.
Mortal Kombat X is many things. It is mechanically refined and stylistically muddled; it has a sometimes unpleasantly violent, sometimes charmingly hammy commitment to the traditional fighting game template. It has thrust the series forwards and succeeds in delivering nuance while offering a welcoming genre gateway for inexperienced players.
Early signs even suggest the competition community has embraced the game, though it remains to be seen how long that vitally important affair will last.
This article was written by Will Freeman, for theguardian.com on Thursday 23rd April 2015 09.18 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010