This week, Mortal Kombat 11 received its first DLC character, the brilliant villain Shang Tsung. I've spent some time getting to grips with his unique moveset, working out cool combos and stealing souls all over the shop.
Shang Tsung is a lot of fun to play, has a wonderful design that incorporates the likeness and voice of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who played Shang Tsung in the '90s Mortal Kombat movie, and has flashy Brutalities and shocking Fatalities. He's everything I could have wanted from Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat 11.
And yet, I've run up against a big problem, and it has to do with Mortal Kombat 11's custom variations system.
This system lets you create multiple movesets for each character, but you're restricted in the special moves you can use for each. Some special moves can't be used if others are used, for example, and there's a limit on the total number of special moves you can include in a variation. The upshot is, no single variation includes all of a character's moves. Decisions have to be made.
Now, onto the issue. Outside of ranked play - and the cool new Kombat League - you can play with your custom variations. So, if there's a cool combo you've worked out using a unique combination of abilities, you can take it into all the single-player modes and have fun with it.
Venture online into the competitive world of ranked mode, however, and you're restricted to using two pre-set "tournament" variations. These variations were created by the developers at NetherRealm, and if you care about Mortal Kombat 11's competitive modes, which I do, you're stuck with them.
These tournament variations are not everybody's cup of tea. They don't include some of the characters' best moves. This was an issue at launch - and indeed it was something players were expecting. But with the launch of Shang Tsung, it's a bigger issue now than ever.
What makes Shang Tsung unique is his shapeshifting ability - and he has some cracking special moves than involve him turning into different characters. He's got a great lift and slam that sees him turn into Ermac. He's got a slick slide that sees him turn into Reptile. He turns into Rain for his fun "around the world" kick. And he's got a fun counter that sees him turn into Smoke. You can even use multiple transformations in the same combo.
All these moves see Shang Tsung turn into a fan-favourite ninja character that's not currently playable in Mortal Kombat 11. But none of them are available in tournament or ranked play because they're not in any of Shang Tsung's tournament variations.
This is bad. I want to play as Shang Tsung in the new Kombat League, but I'm not going to if I can't have fun with him, and a lot of his appeal is tied up in these signature moves. Instead I'm left with working out combos that do not involve these unique shapeshifting special moves. It's really disappointing, and it means I can't do cool stuff like this:
I understand where NetherRealm is coming from here. The developer wants to create a balanced fighting game for ranked and tournament play, and it wants those who care about matchups to have some idea of what they're up against - and how to counter it.
But the case of Shang Tsung has shown how problematic this approach is. Playing Shang Tsung in tournament or ranked mode feels like playing with one hand behind your back. I want to do Ermac's lift and slam - apart from it being really useful, it's super flashy. I want to do Smoke's "shake" counter - again, useful and flashy.
There's no point playing with these special moves because I can't use them in ranked play. This means what makes Shang Tsung special is, effectively, dead to me. And it'll be dead to the professionals, too. I'd love to see what the likes of Dominique "SonicFox" McLean could do with Shang Tsung's special ninja moves, but since he can't use them in a tournament, he's unlikely to invest time in learning how they work in the lab.
Other Mortal Kombat 11 players are also voicing their disappointment with Shang Tsung's tournament variations. As DeliPancakez put it on reddit:
"I've been defending NRS's decision to not allow custom variations competitively, but this is the final straw. You can't continuously lock character's coolest moves away in single-player game modes. (Yes I know casual match is a thing.)
"I don't know if custom variations are the answer or simply adding competitive variations is the play, but they've got to find a way to get moves like these into the game at the highest level.
"And, I'm the kind of person who just sticks to the tournament legal variations no matter what mode I'm playing. I don't want to fuck with the muscle memory and end up trying to do a combo that I can't do because my moveset is different."
NetherRealm has said it will eventually look at the tournament variations it has created for each character and maybe add one or two that include unused abilities. But it - perhaps wisely - doesn't want to upset the balance of the game just a few months after release.
It's just a shame that at launch, the great Shang Tsung isn't as great as he should be.