In line with Midway's policy of reviving its arcade glories, the rotting, blood stained cash cow corpse of Mortal Kombat has been exhumed one more time. Its recent attempts with Spy Hunter and Defender lent weight to the argument that some things are best left as you remember them, so will Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance be the chance to realise the series' 3D potential, or another ham fisted bodge at reviving a once glorious franchise?
One thing immediately in its favour is its straightforward approach - no torturous intro sequences trying to involve the player in some kind of pointlessly elaborate storyline, and bouts are rarely interrupted with anything other than the occasional piece of background text.
Blitzing it, because we rock
The usual proliferation of modes gives plenty of scope for replay value, including the ubiquitous Arcade, Versus and Practise modes. Arcade is your straightforward romp through eight foes of increasing difficulty, and follows the well worn formula which anyone familiar with beat 'em ups over the years will be comfortable with. Although we haven't played a beat 'em up for a while, it was still possible to blitz through to the end on our first attempt (admittedly with a few continues used on the way) without bothering to learn the moves or train beforehand. But as we all know, one must complete the arcade mode multiple times before the extra characters and arenas become unlocked.
Fortunately it's not merely a lazy, formulaic update. Elsewhere Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance tries to do something vaguely different, incorporating a training mode into the Konquest section of the game, and rewarding players with a host of hidden extras if they delve into this area. Effectively you're given the incentive of learning the game's ropes from the real basics upwards. Every time you complete one of the game's 'Konquest' levels, you're rewarded with various types of 'Kurrency' which you can spend on unlocking one of over 200 hundred tombs - each of which holds a surprise item, which can be anything from a minor power up, new character or new arena.
Not a game of button mashing trial and error
Having played plenty of beat em ups over the past 18 years, it's nice to see a game that actually tries to teach you the intricacies of the game in a worthwhile, and fun way - with some incentive at the end of it. Not only will you have unlocked plenty of items (there are 218 Konquest levels), but you'll have a far deeper understanding of the 'Kombat' system than if you merely played via the usual trial and error system.
One of MK's key innovations is its use of three different 'Kombat' styles per fighter. By tapping L1 during bouts, your character adopts an entirely new discipline, each unique to that fighter. Two of these disciplines are unarmed, while the other is using some kind of weapon, be it a sword, stick or other implement of death. While these weapons cause more damage, you're also susceptible to more damage yourself - as is your opponent, so the level of strategy required is somewhat higher than your average button masher.
It's no DOA to look at
Graphically, MK doesn't break any new ground by any means, but is none too shabby nevertheless. Everything takes place on a flat arena, with an invisible force field stopping you from straying outside of it. This is something of a shame after the pyrotechnics of the Dead Or Alive games, and likewise the amount of bone crunching destructible scenery is notably lacking in comparison to its rivals - as is the amount of background animation.
That's not to say that you won't be impressed with MK, because the character models are mostly superb and as grim as you'd hope, featuring very slick animation and other impressive incidental touches such as blood oozing out of them as they take a beating. One of the key features of the series are the gruesome fatalities, and having your entire skeleton ripped out, complete with squelching sound effects is just one of the things that'll put you off your food. The macabre in us wants to see more of them - and learn how to pull them off, as it were.
Vile, despicable and evil
All the familiar characters from the series are here, including Scorpion, Raiden, Sub-Zero, Sonya and Johnny Cage, along with a load more. Veteran fans will no doubt have something to say about how the old characters have been recreated, but for the rest of us, they're all as vile, despicable and evil as they should be. In some cases, however, certain characters have a harsh, angular look to them that seems at odds with the overall high quality on show.
The controls feel responsive - as they should for a game of this type, although we can't help feel that not allowing you to use the analog stick for movement is rather petty. After a couple of hours in the company of MK, your thumbs will be suffering. We don't even want to know what they will look like after 10. Just about all the buttons have some function, with the attacks mapped to the symbols, with blocking and attack changes on R1 and L1 respectively, as well as a taunt on R2, which if you pull off will restore a little of your health. It's all familiar territory - and exactly how it should be.
So far, we've enjoyed Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. It's good to see the series finally catch up with the Tekkens and Virtua Fighters of this world, although whether it has the class to usurp these behemoths remains to be seen. It's already out in the States, and when we last heard, it was No.2 in their charts, if that's any indication of its quality. It's not due for release in Europe until February, and by then we'll have had a fair crack on it and will deliver a full review shortly before its appearance on the shelves.