The many styles of Mortal Kombat X
How do the new mechanics in NetherRealm's brutal fighter mix together?
When I think back to my time at this year's EGX London, the thing that stands out the most was the abundance of blood. Maybe it has something to do with the games I chose to play, but whether it was the unmistakable crimson of the succinctly titled Bloodborne, the claret carnage of The Evil Within or the outlandish neon of Sunset Overdrive, there was enough heart juice on show to open a blood bank. Still, if you think about it more in terms of quality over quantity, there was one game that took the crimson crown by a landslide, and that was none other than Mortal Kombat X.
Considering the series' tempestuous history, it's no surprise that NetherRealm Studios has kept true to form in the brutality sweepstakes. The 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot was a carnival of broken bones and contorted cartilage, and by tapping into the extra horsepower offered by the new generation of consoles, this new game pushes the level of detail even further. This is particularly true of the returning X-Ray moves. They still show off the inner workings of the human body as you crack skulls and shatter ribs, only now, you can make out each individual tooth and each overlapping strand of muscle tissue.
One of the more inventive X-Ray moves that's been shown so far involves a spear made out of frozen entrails and an unprotected eye socket. No prizes for guessing which ice man pulls off that particular routine. But as impressive as this slugfest looks when running (even now) at a steady 60fps and 1080p combo, a fighting game ultimately lives or dies by the sophistication of its fighting system. It doesn't have to feature more sub-systems than you have fingers to count on and it doesn't need to lock its tastiest combos behind a wall of precise inputs. It just needs to be easy to learn, hard to master and heart-poundingly intense when fighting a human opponent.
The good news is that NetherRealm Studios still feels like the exception to the rule. You know, the one that claims that only Japanese developers can do the fighting genre justice. Ed Boon and his team clearly know their way around a combo system, and although I was disappointed to see the return of the block button (especially after Injustice did such a fine job of banishing it from the equation), not all the good ideas have been forgotten. The interactive stages, for instance, are back in full force. You can escape the corner of the Outworld Marketplace by vaulting off a stall roof and you can hinder your opponent's advances by using a frail old woman as a makeshift projectile.
If that's not enough to convince PEGI to slap the customary 18 certificate on the front of the box then the new Fatalities will certainly seal the deal. Indeed, it'd probably take till at least 2040 before guillotining through a virtual human face is deemed suitable for mid-teen viewing, but regardless of how the classification board changes its regulations in the coming years, it seems that Mortal Kombat X is ready to change now. And we're not talking in terms of adding a few bells and whistles to an existing template. We're talking in terms of character variety.
It's not uncommon for a fighting game to give you options that go beyond character selection. Street Fighter 3 made you pick from three super moves; Mark of the Wolves made you commit to one section of your health bar; Arcana Heart 3 let you customise your character with an elemental alignment. What Mortal Kombat X sets out to do, however, is far more intrinsic. The game will feature at least 24 playable characters and each one will possess three different fighting styles. Some special moves will be shared between all three styles, but the hope is that each configuration will promote a different style of play.
With only a limited time to play the game (as in I had to queue just like everyone else) most of my time was spent with two of the new characters. Cassie Cage is the 20-something daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade, and judging by her blonde locks and penchant for punching people in the crotch, she takes after her parents. Ferra and Torr, on the other hand, are a classic Master Blaster-esque duo. In their Vicious fighting style, they function similarly to how Chang and Choi play in Capcom vs. SNK 2. The titanic Torr is the one you take direct control of while Ferra can be thrown like a human cannonball.
Their other fighting styles are Lackey and Ruthless. The former relegates Ferra to the side-lines and turns Torr into a more intimidating grappler while the latter turns Torr into Ferra's personal pin cushion. The advantage of this is that you can increase Torr's damage output at the expense of his health. In contrast, Cassie Cage's fighting styles are geared more towards her family lineage. Hollywood sees her donning the iconic shades with mid-air gunshots and the classic Nut Cracker special. Brawler makes her hands glow green with an MMA-style takedown and aerial power slam. And Spec Ops lets her call in missiles which can be used to extend for juggling combos.
Compared to the tag-team shenanigans of the last game, these fighting styles feel much more meaningful, and if NetherRealm can maintain this level of creativity throughout the rest of the cast, it'll give players more incentive to experiment. But there's also a fear that this game will be really hard to balance. The best case scenario is that each fighting style will be viable, and, by learning them all, you'll be able to counter bad match-ups. The worst is that each character will have a dominant fighting style that will make the other two redundant. The outcome looks promising but only time will tell for sure.
The EGX London demo offered a generous glimpse of what Mortal Kombat X can do. Even so, there are still a lot of unanswered questions in regard to the single player content. This was one of the trump cards that set Injustice and the MK reboot apart from some of the leaner competition. The expectation is that NetherRealm Studios will come out swinging with a cinematic story mode and a long list of challenges that will satisfy even the most bloodthirsty AI killers among us. But whatever secrets Ed Boon and his team still have left to tell, it's clear that the heart of the series is still beating strongly.