Mortal Kombat X: Fighting’s naughty schoolboy finally reaches adulthood

For a long time, playing Mortal Kombat has been a lot like maintaining that embarrassing hold-over friendship from school. You know the one. They were never the smartest of the bunch, but they were funny, and back then that was enough. And hey, they’re a mate. What were you going to do?

But then you grew up and suddenly their adolescent antics didn’t quite make up for their shortcomings. But you stayed friends, because they’re a mate, and what are you going to do? It does get a bit awkward at times though…


That’s Mortal Kombat. The series has perfected the art of distracting from its faults rather than truly fixing them, its various entries upping the gore, expanding the story and flooding the franchise with goofy extras, all in the aim of hiding one consistent, fundamental flaw. The core fighting model has just never been up to the standard of the genre’s best. Simple and built around spectacle rather than finesse, MK has always made for a great party game, but never a truly great fighting game.
“There’s no one big game-changing refinement making the difference it’s a raft of pleasing little ones.”
Even after the last-gen’s winsome, crowd-pleasing reboot, neither Capcom nor Arc System Works had much reason to worry. So surely we couldn’t expect the similar-looking Mortal Kombat X to radically change the serious fighting fan’s perception? Well maybe we couldn’t, but perhaps we should have. Because MKX, aside from being the best looking, most polished, most wholeheartedly likable MK package to date, also takes a big step up where it really matters.

You’ll notice the shift in intent when you first hit the options screen. All sorts of toggles and switches pipe up to merrily hint that we might be encroaching upon proper fighting game territory here. The option to change special move inputs to a more rolling, Street Fighter-style interface makes for more organic, instinctive control, even if the new commands don’t always gel with MKX’s combo timings. The chance to determine whether inputs are acknowledged via ‘negative edge’ i.e. when a button is released rather than pressed shows all kinds of aficionado savvy. Even the option of easy finishers indicates an intent to shift attention away from end-match set-pieces and back toward the actual fights that lead to them.

There’s no one, big, game-changing refinement that makes the difference, but rather a raft of pleasing little ones. The core feel of the fighting is just better; more open, fluid and flowing than in MKs past, with a greater sense of control and possibility. A more noticeable number of manual cancel opportunities dilute MK’s previous system of preset combos and its ‘Simon Says’ vibe, injecting a balancing element of unpredictability and experimentation. And the swathe of new characters, facilitated and necessitated by MKX’s time-hopping, two-decade-spanning plotline, are the freshest, most smartly realised bunch in a good long time. No longer are the series’ cast distinguished predominantly by special moves and Fatalities. Now, every movement, from a jump to a block, feels unique, purposeful and considered.
“The story mode can be a surprisingly warm and affecting experience.”
Kharacter Klass
New Outworld boss Kotal Kahn is a lumbering brute, terrible in the air and seemingly lacking in options at first, until you discover his ability to buff and recover himself by summoning totems rather than using traditional specials. Kung Jin, descendant of Lao, is quick and capable from the off, but rapidly reveals a wealth of powerful zoning potential, and is deadly when he builds pace, particularly off the ground.

And that’s before you even get into the Variants system. Now each character comes in three different flavours, united by their overall feel but angled differently to suit differing play-styles. Johnny Cage, for instance, can be played in his traditional brawler setup, or specced for more powerful charge moves, or he can sacrifice his anti-air flip-kick for stunt doubles, allowing him to remotely ‘project’ multiple copies of the same special move in order to maintain long combos from range. It’s a great system, blowing options wide open and encouraging experimentation in matchups while grounding everything in a comfortably familiar feel.

Speaking of character, MK’s personality has never been put to better use. The five-hour story mode which embeds a multitude of fights between the majority of the cast within a giddy, knowing, and raucously fun narrative is the sparkling highlight of the solo experience. Using smart perspective switches throughout, it’s a fantastic showcase for MK’s absurdly rich lore and offers a surprisingly warm, endearing, and dare we say it affecting experience at times.

Faction or Fiction
Alas, its greatness does rather emphasise how underwhelming the single-player options are elsewhere, with traditional and gimmick-laden tournament Towers proving, respectively, uneventful and drowned in novelty. Instead, Netherrealm has put its trust in online play.

Faction War is a persistent, ambient multiplayer experience in which players sign up to one of five canonical cabals and earn XP for everything they do in-game, with the highest-ranking faction each week winning various rewards. It’s a great idea in theory, but only time will tell whether it maintains a compelling reason for the solo player to stick around, or fades into the background. The same goes for the gimmicky challenge of regularly rotated, constantly curated, timed Living Towers.

But let’s not dwell on the peripheral negatives and unknowns, because finally, it’s Mortal Kombat’s core that shines. With fighting this much improved, gore this witty, knowing and hilariously wince-inducing, and a giddy sense of genuine fun about everything it delivers, MKX heralds a troublesome series hitting its long-missed potential.

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