Editor's note: This is an early impressions piece based on a weekend with Mortal Kombat X. Our full review will be up in the near future once we've properly tested online features.
Hey, you there. Yeah, you. Stop playing Mark of the Wolves and get over here! You need to see this.
Okay, perhaps you don't. But you should, because Mortal Kombat X's story is more than just five hours of brain-massaging entertainment in true Fast & Furious fashion. It's important, because despite the god-awful dialogue and plot, both as sophisticated as a Saturday morning cartoon, Mortal Kombat's story goes the extra mile. It tries. In a genre that for years hasn't even bothered, developer NetherRealm shows us the way.
Here's the setup: after musclebound warlord Shao Kahn is defeated at the end of 2011's Mortal Kombat reboot, dastardly fallen elder god Shinnok attacks Earth with a horrible army of Netherrealm demons backed up by famous good guys resurrected as evil-doing revenants. But series stalwarts Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and blind ninja Kenshi, along with moody thunder god Raiden (who, unfortunately, is not voiced by Christopher Lambert), get the better of Shinnok, trapping him inside his own death-dealing amulet. Done and dusted.
Jump forward 25 years and Johnny's gone grey and Sonya is now General Sonya. Worse, Shinnok's right hand sorcerer Quan Chi is kicking up a stink. Oh, and there's a civil war going on in Outworld between forces led by Aztec-inspired warrior Kotal Kahn and a group of rebels ordered about by munchy upstart Mileena. But never fear, because the next-generation of good guys is ready for battle.
Step forward Cassie Cage, daughter of the estranged Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade, Kung Lao's younger cousin Kung Jin, Jax's daughter Jacqui Briggs and Kenshi's son Takahashi Takeda, who must work together to save the world. You'd imagine the biggest stumbling block along this path would be the many warriors who are hell bent on killing every one and every thing in Earthrealm. But no. The biggest stumbling block is issues.
Cassie struggles as leader of the fledgling group even as her legendary soldier parents struggle to be civil with each other. Kung Jin is arrogant and brash on the outside, sensitive and troubled on the inside. Jacqui Briggs loves her metal-armed father, and takes offense whenever anyone dares to bring up the fact he was once a revenant who tried to murder everyone. And topping off this quartet of daddy issue-riddled newbies is Takahashi Takeda, who was angry with his father for abandoning him to a ninja clan led by Scorpion. Actually, Takahashi's got a point. The others just need to get over themselves.
It's proper Days of Our Lives stuff, if Days of Our Lives starred a bug lady who vomited face-devouring creepy crawlies. But it's also clued up. Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Raiden all mean something to those who spent their childhoods perpetuating the myth of SNES blood codes, Animalities and red ninjas. Do they mean as much to today's gamer? Perhaps the Mortal Kombat old guard are, in 2015, a little long in the tooth. Cassie and co are quintessential Generation Y. I mean, she's got a TopShop haircut and a selfie Fatality that uploads to a Facebook-inspired social network. Now the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have established themselves, Mortal Kombat's next-gen Brat Pack take centre stage, and even I, grizzled old fighting game fanatic that I am, must admit this is probably a good thing.
Mortal Kombat X's mindless plot buckles under the weight of its own silliness, but manages to keep it together and entertain to the bitter end. I'm not sure how many characters we're introduced to throughout the adventure, but it's a number high enough to trouble Game of Thrones. And the introductions come thick and fast as we zip from realm to realm, through this portal and that, and skip from the end of 2011's Mortal Kombat to 25 years later, via a variety of flashbacks that flesh out the backstories of the new characters.
And the cameos. Oh the cameos! Most of the characters from across the Mortal Kombat series make an appearance, getting stuck in before disappearing into the Mortal Kombat lore ether, destined to turn up in some future spin-off. Or app. Or comic. Or whatever Generation Y is into these days. It sounds sigh-worthy, but it's not, and that's because the game never takes itself too seriously. Amid all the seriousness of everything these days, Mortal Kombat X is just the tonic for a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Dare I say it, there's some top-notch video game martial arts action on show during cutscenes, with flashy camera work and complex, multi-character fights (watch out for a cool nod to Neo from The Matrix). The fights are well-animated, weighty and fast-paced. Mortal Kombat X's The Expendables-style special-forces exploits are delivered with aplomb and a dash of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. At times I found myself wondering just how good a Mortal Kombat movie could be, before shaking myself out of such a shameful suggestion, the memory of the summer of 1995 still fresh in my mind.
The story is structured in such a way as to keep it as breezy and involved as possible. Well, as involved as a fighting game story can be. It's divided up into chapters, each revolving around a single character who you play as throughout. The story gives us the chance to see events through the eyes of most of the newcomers as well as a handful of established names, which is good because it gives new players a useful overview of the roster of playable characters.
Throughout, you get a healthy dollop of cutscene with the odd QTE thrown in for good measure. Messing these up isn't disastrous - you'd just see Johnny Cage or whomever get smacked in the face instead of doing the smacking. But there are unlocks tied to landing these QTEs perfectly, so you'll want to play close attention. And, you know, they're just a bit of fun that spice things up. Then, there are plenty of actual Mortal Kombat fights, during which you need to defeat your opponent in a best of three rounds match.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the story's many parts are skilfully blended together. The in-engine cutscenes transition seamlessly into and out of fights, although after combat you get that off-putting shiny Unreal face effect front and centre. The arenas are lifted from the environments in which the story takes place, so there's an impressive sense of continuity throughout. And if you're having trouble with a fight, you can use one of your skip tokens to move on.
I earned a healthy number of Koins (yes, with a K) on my first story playthrough, enough for me to go on a spending spree in the Krypt, Mortal Kombat's long-standing first-person unlock shop. Everything you do in the game earns Koins, which is great for completionists who want to unlock character finishers, extra costumes and all the rest. And everything you do in the game contributes to Faction War. When you first start the game, you're asked to select a faction to join, and as you play the game you earn and contribute War Points to your faction. Right now I'm unsure of the point of it all, as Faction War starts proper when the game comes out tonight. But from what I can tell it's unobtrusive, and there are some fun Faction Kill finishers to mess about with. So why not?
It's a similar deal with Mortal Kombat X's Living Towers, which were offline ahead of the game's release. But there's still plenty of single-player Tower action to be getting on with, such as Klassic Towers, Challenge Towers, the modifier-filled Test Your Luck mode and the nostalgia-fuelled Test Your Might mini-game. The latter is a personal favourite. Fail to smack your block into smithereens and your character is subjected to a gruesome - and hilarious - finisher, set to the hearty laugh of Mortal Kombat's famous narrator. This is the thing with Mortal Kombat X's single-player: there's just loads to it. Not bad for a fighting game in which player versus player action is the point.
The story, though, was my pre-release focus, and I'm delighted to report Mortal Kombat X retains the sense of humour, over-the-top violence and so bad it's good dialogue that I've enjoyed from the franchise down the years. And it's pure fan service for Mortal Kombat lore masters. What, exactly, is Rain? No, not that rain. Demi-god Rain. Who's Smoke working for these days? Remember Erron Black, the hundred-and-something-year-old cowboy who debuted earlier this year in the Mortal Kombat X prequel comic? No, of course you don't. This is the sort of silliness NetherRealm embraces, and Mortal Kombat is all the better for it.
Of course, Mortal Kombat X's story is, compared to actual good stories, not very good at all. And when you've played through it once you'll likely never touch it again, unless you're an obsessive compulsive who wants to nail all those QTEs (okay, that's me). But it's gleeful fun while it lasts, and it tears the heart out of Street Fighter's pathetic single-player offering. There. I said it. So get off your arcade cabinet seat. Mortal Kombat X's story is a guilty pleasure you should shout from the rooftops.