Though soon to launch on last-gen consoles as well, Mortal Kombat X has the distinction of being the first in the series to take specific advantage of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Based on early reports, development began before the Unreal Engine 4 was available, and so NetherRealm Studios' fighter builds further on a heavily customised version of UE3 designed to target 60fps. Despite not using the latest build of Epic Games' middleware, the technology allows for a true generational leap in graphical quality over 2011's self-titled Mortal Kombat reboot - the game featuring considerably more detailed character models, environments, and a liberal increase in the use of post-processing effects and lighting.
According to an enthusiastic tweet by creative director Ed Boon, native 1920x1080 visuals and a 60fps update are the goal for Mortal Kombat X. However the reality is somewhat more complicated, as the resolution does vary between platforms while frame-rates fall short of the desired 60fps ideal in a number of areas. Booting up the PS4 version for the first time, we can confirm a 1080p resolution is in place along with anti-aliasing that falls closely in line with standard FXAA. Thankfully, sub-pixel heavy structures in Mortal Kombat X are rare - an aspect that post-process AA algorithms usually fail to correct - and so the use of FXAA works well in addressing the subject matter. However, some light texture blurring is present as a side-effect, meaning fine details in the artwork don't pop out as noticeably as they could do.
In comparison, the presentation of the Xbox One release isn't quite as refined: details are softer while edges feature a slight fuzziness not visible on the PS4 game's native 1080p image. In this case, pixel counting strongly indicates a drop in horizontal resolution, which hovers in the region of 1360x1080 to 1344x1080 instead of the more common 900p setup used on the platform. Anti-aliasing appears identical to the PS4 game, and the coverage provided by the FXAA helps to smooth over upscaling artefacts to a degree.
Limiting the Xbox One upscale to the horizontal axis does help reduce the appearance of jaggies, as compared to scaling the image in both directions at once. However, in the case of Mortal Kombat X, this form of sub-1080p presentation still impacts clarity, and appears to affect the rendering of assets themselves. For example, while the same core artwork is used across both consoles, we at times see lower-resolution textures and normal maps on Xbox One for characters and background details - particularly during X-ray moves and fatalities. The deployment of lower quality asset layers isn't consistent across the board though, sometimes only partially affecting an object in a scene on Xbox One. In these situations, it appears the engine mistakenly applies lower quality mip-maps on Microsoft's console, based on the game's massively reduced horizontal resolution.
On the PC version we select a native 1080p resolution and bump up all graphics options up to maximum, along with all post-processing effects. Curiously, anti-aliasing is limited to either FXAA or nothing at all, suggesting NetherRealm Studios' customised engine may feature deferred rendering elements that make the use of traditional MSAA problematic. Either way, as a result we're left with an image closely matching PS4's, with the same benefits and compromises that come with this type of AA. That said, the artwork on PC is less impacted overall by the FXAA blurring effect than on consoles, and resolves more fine detail.
Elsewhere, PC's visual benefits mainly come in the form of higher resolution decal textures. The differences are subtle and often hard to spot during fast-paced fighting, but the higher quality assets mean fine details come through more clearly than on console. Additionally, the level of anisotropic filtering is also higher on the PC release, operating at 16x compared to around 8x on the PS4 and Xbox One.
So far, the PC version of Mortal Kombat X brings subtle visual refinements over the console releases - but there are also some elements of its presentation that disappoint. The main story cut-scenes and real-time QTE segments of the game suffer from an erroneous gamma set-up on PC that crushes dark details and all information contained in shadows. This makes night-time scenes practically unwatchable, spoiling many of the game's excellently choreographed fight sequences. Normal gamma is resumed during gameplay (and the intro and outro scenes), so most of its playability is unaffected, but hopefully this issue can be fixed in a future patch as right now it detracts from a large portion of the single-player game.
Moving on, in other areas we see all three versions of Mortal Kombat X boasting the same high level of graphics settings. General lighting, along with effects such as light shafts, depth of field and object blur, appear identical on all formats. The upscale on Xbox One sometimes causes object blur to appear a touch rougher on Microsoft's console, however the effect itself is rendered at the same precision level as on the other platforms.
In terms of performance, NetherRealm targets a 60fps update on both consoles in line with what is expected from any respected fighting game, and for the most part both versions deliver a presentation locked at that frame-rate. In the case of the PS4 game, we never see the frame-rate drop while performing special moves and regular combos, thus delivering a solid gameplay experience without any variances in timings or controls response.
Microsoft's console hands in a similar level of performance, but doesn't quite manage to maintain a complete lock at 60fps - occasional one- or two-frame drops appear intermittently during play, usually with the introduction of alpha effects. Given the Xbox One's sub-1080p framebuffer, it's surprising to see the game drop frames at all, but thankfully these are minimal enough to go unnoticed, at least outside of the frame-by-frame scrutiny of high-level play.
Disappointingly, X-rays and fatalities, along with the pre- and post-fight sequences, operate at 30fps on both consoles. This change in refresh during gameplay is very evident in practice, and these scenes miss the silky smoothness in animation provided by a 60fps lock. With the advent of current-gen hardware we were hoping that 30fps scenes in 1v1 fighting games were a thing of the past, but this is clearly not the case. The reason for this cap isn't exactly clear. It's possible that 60fps on console is an issue for these sections, where the use of skeleton rigging and muscle deformation - in tandem with post-process effects such as motion blur - might incur a significant frame-rate drop otherwise.
Likewise, all main story cut-scenes are capped at 30fps and feature a different lighting model to the pre- and post-fight scenes. These use a mixture of real-time and FMV encoded sequences that segue into each other without any noticeable transitions. In terms of performance, frame-pacing is a problem for both PS4 and Xbox One during these half-refresh scenes, with an uneven frame cadence producing judder. The Xbox One release fares a little worse in this respect, producing an experience that isn't as smooth as on Sony's console when the 30fps cap is engaged, with slightly more stuttering occurring overall.
By comparison, the PC version mostly avoids the same level of stutter on our Core i5 3570 and GTX 780 combo. However, these artefacts do still creep in from time to time, mainly when switching from one scene to another set in a different location. Unfortunately, the erroneous gamma set-up makes these story cinematics difficult to enjoy anyway, and until the issue is patched, the improvement is hard to appreciate. Frame-rates are also arbitrarily capped at 30fps in these sequences on PC, despite the availability of hardware that should easily be able to deliver a solid 60fps across the board.
Mortal Kombat X: the Digital Foundry verdict
Mortal Kombat successfully makes the jump to current-gen consoles, ramping up the gore factor while refining the solid gameplay mechanics that helped put the series back on the map in 2011. For owners of both current generation consoles we get a solid fighting game that brings a clear graphical leap over the previous instalments on the 360 and PS3, and last year's PS4 and Xbox One release of Injustice.
From a multi-platform perspective, the PS4 game clearly leads the way with its native 1080p presentation and solid level of performance during gameplay - outside of the slight judder in story cut-scenes we're looking at a locked 30 and 60fps throughout. Meanwhile, Xbox One holds up reasonably well given the sub-native presentation, although the reduction in horizontal resolution results in poorer image quality and some partial degradation in artwork quality. Performance shouldn't be an issue for more casual players, with its occasional 1-2 frame drops small enough to pass by unnoticed. However, hardcore players will be better served by the PS4's solid frame-rates.
Usually, the PC version of a game manages to brute force its way to the top spot with higher graphics presets, resolutions, and frame-rates compared to consoles. However, this isn't quite the case with Mortal Kombat X. The mild boost in texture decal resolution adds an extra layer of refinement to its visuals, but the game is partially let down by the 30fps performance cap during X-rays and fatalities, which serves little purpose on a constantly evolving platform. Combined with the horrible black crush that effectively ruins the cut-scenes central to enjoying the single-player story mode, this leaves us with the impression we're not getting the best experience. Hopefully High Voltage Software - the studio behind the PC release - can address these issues in a future update, but right now the PS4 game is the best way to take the fight to Shinnok in this new Mortal Kombat.