Version tested: Xbox 360
Poor old Mortal Kombat. Everything seemed to go downhill for the world's most visceral fighting series when it hit the third dimension after the release of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3: Mortal Kombat 4 was a letdown, Deadly Alliance and Deception failed to make up for it, Armageddon was ill-conceived and the less said about the likes of Mortal Kombat: Special Forces the better.
But what was it about the early games that made Mortal Kombat so endearing? Was it gameplay that offered a viable alternative to the likes of Street Fighter II? Or was it the thrill of Sub-Zero's spine-ripping fatality, performed with the help of a tips section? No one seems to remember exactly, but with the series now languishing behind the likes of Soul Calibur and Virtua Fighter, Midway is hoping Superman, Batman and friends can rescue it from the brink in this comics vs. beat-'em-up crossover.
Crossovers sometimes work (Namco x Capcom, for instance), and the inclusion of Solid Snake and Sonic in Super Smash Bros. Brawl earlier this year proved popular. But the most obvious touchstone for MK vs. DC is of course Marvel vs. Capcom - with Tatsunoko vs. Capcom the most hotly anticipated. MK vs. DC doesn't have what it takes to dethrone Marvel vs. Capcom, but it's relatively competent.
The Story Mode opens as Raiden defeats Shao Kahn and sends him hurtling through a portal. At the same time on Earth, Superman defeats super-villain Darkseid by blasting him with his heat vision as he tries to teleport away. In a typical DC twist, neither villain is actually destroyed, and instead they merge to become Jeff Goldblum - sorry, Dark Khan.
As the universes slowly cross over, the various combatants on either side suffer from fits of rage, attacking everyone they encounter - even former friends! Everyone's power also fluctuates wildly, explaining away Liu Kang's sudden ability to fight Superman and so on. Characterisation is good, as the likes of Scorpion and The Joker behave in a way that complements one other's brand of malevolence.
Before commencing Story Mode, you're given the choice of the Mortal Kombat or DC side. Once you've pledged your allegiance, you fight through seven or eight character-specific chapters with cut-scenes in-between. These are irritatingly un-skippable and plagued with terrible voice-acting, but they're interesting enough to spur you through the two-to-three hours required. There's also the option of bicycle-kicking your way through Arcade, complete with the classically-stacked tower of conquest. The brief character endings are more or less throwaway, but dedicated MK fans might get a kick out of them.
Of course, Mortal Kombat has struggled with combat ever since it went 3D; it's reliance on simple pre-programmed dial-a-combos, basic juggles and cheap specials has left it way behind Soul Calibur's guard impacts or the sheer depth of Virtua Fighter. Yet in some ways MK vs. DC seeks to improve. Gone are the tacked-on style and weapon stances, with more emphasis on experimenting with a character's strengths, developing combos through manipulation of the in-game physics. Oddly, however, you have to use the analogue stick for 3D movement and sidestepping, and the d-pad for 2D movement and jumping, while holding the left trigger reverses this. Bizarre. At least include a few options for customising it.
MK vs. DC adds further pain to the onslaught with Klose Kombat, Free-Fall Kombat and Test Your Might. Klose Kombat is initiated when you grab your opponent, giving you about five seconds to target one of four areas with the face buttons - crotch kicks, arm breaks and haymakers. Should your opponent match your button press they'll perform a Kounter move and escape further damage. Free-Fall Kombat works similarly and occurs when you hurl your opponent off one of the multi-tiered arenas. As both combatants plummet to the depths below, attacks through the face buttons are active, and should your Super gauge rise high enough you'll be able to execute your character's Free-Fall Super, with a chance of dishing out the maximum damage possible. A successful Kounter here switches offensive and defensive positions, striking a good balance between risk and reward.
Test Your Might, meanwhile, takes us back to the board-breaking days of the early Mortal Kombats, and occurs when you slam your opponent into the wall of a flat-planed arena. Both combatants are then required to mash the face buttons, moving a damage counter across a sliding scale. There is no way to for the defending player to counter a Test Your Might, but should your fingers move like The Flash, you can potentially negate all the damage.
MK vs. DC also has a stab at its own Samurai Shodown-style rage gauge, also similar to the one in Tekken 6, which fills up as you receive damage or perform special moves. Half a gauge can be used to perform a Kombo Breaker, which works as advertised, and can be useful for escaping further punishment should Catwoman or Kitana be battering you flat against a wall. When the meter's full, you can squeeze both triggers for Rage Mode, where you take damage but your combos can no longer be interrupted, and every combo is also unblockable after the first hit. Sadly though it's too easy for an inexperienced player to cheese a losing round back by activating Rage Mode and rushing their opponent with cheap three-hit combos, and the only real defence is to back away until it ends or to fly into a Rage yourself.
In the past, not being able to compete directly with the finesse of Street Fighter or the later graphical sophistication of Tekken and Dead or Alive, Mortal Kombat's appeal has largely been down to its violent bouts and graphic Fatalities. The introduction of the DC licence therefore caused concerns about how far Midway would be allowed to beat seven bells out of Wonder Woman or torpedo-dive Batman to a bloody pulp. The end result is a compromise between gratuitous gore and squeaky clean; clothes rip, tights slice and faces break and bruise, with a bit of blood splashing around on most impacts, but even if the round goes the distance most fighters still look alright.
The Fatalities are toned down as well. Each character has two options, with no Brutalities, Animalities or Stage Fatalities to be seen, and compared to the highly inventive methods of the past, Fatalities in MK vs. DC are tame and simplistic, although most of them would still appear to have the desired effect. And before anyone gets excited about Batman murdering Sonya with the Batmobile, be warned that the six superheroes in the 22-strong roster only have Heroic Brutalities - effectively beating the loser to a pulp, but leaving then with a faint pulse and a future in wheelchair-testing.
Taking MK vs. DC online, matches range from just about playable to, "how the hell did Sub- Zero freeze me?!? I fully blocked that stupid ice blast!" Furthermore, most of the games we played with manageable lag turned into bouts comparing cheap special moves and who could Rage for the win quickest. Certain characters, like The Flash, seem to have a repertoire of abuse-able techniques, and it doesn't help that a day after the game's release an infinite combo for Superman came to light, whereby you just spam the pro-move version (uber-cheap specials requiring very tight timing) of his Ground Tremor. Still, if anyone was going to have a surefire winner, it had to be the Man of Steel.
As it stands then, MK vs. DC probably won't be seeing tournament play in the next Evo Championship Series. That doesn't preclude it from being a solid fighter for dabblers, but when so many other fighters, including Soul Calibur and Smash Bros., offer accessible gameplay for low-level play, while at the same time offering core gamers underlying balance and depth, we can't help feel this is yet another missed opportunity for Midway to craft a worthy Mortal Kombat.
6 / 10