Review copy provided by Warner Bros. Reviewed on PS4.
The latest entry into the decades-running Mortal Kombat series is here. MK11 brings the trademark ultra-violence in stunning 4k with 60 FPS and it looks incredible. Fans of the series may notice a few key differences from its predecessor, MKX, in the style of gameplay and pacing of the matches. First things first, this is a slower game. The overreliance on 50/50’s, relentless pressure, and flashy combos have been significantly turned down. What emerges is a slower, neutral-based, footsies-dominant, bait and punish meta that rewards outplaying your opponent and punishing them for mistakes. The MK trademark “Dial-a-Kombo” system is still present, but seasoned kombatants will have to put in the time to get used to this fresh take on gameplay. The game is better for these changes, in my opinion. Yes, button mashing is still an option – but if you try and play like that online against players who have learned a character or have experience with the matchup, you will get blown up hard and deleted faster than you can say, “finish him!” Luckily, Netherrealm Studios has included an amazing tutorial mode where everyone from casuals to pros can learn the mechanics of not only MK11 but also fighting games in general (playing the tutorial in this game somehow made me a better Smash Ultimate player… like what?). There are a plethora of other refinements, like the meter being split into offensive and defensive, powerful super move equivalents called “Fatal Blows” being separated from the meter, and the explosively damaging “Krushing Blows” being tied to certain conditions like countering or punishing.
The bottom line here is that NRS has managed to craft a game filled with content for Mortal Kombat fans, while still elevating the gameplay to a professional and e-sports centric level. I have no problem saying that MK11 is the best possible iteration of the franchise so far, and the reasons why become clear when you sit with the game for more than thirty minutes.
Netherrealm Studios pioneered the fighting game cinematic story mode in Mortal Kombat (2009), starting a story that they continued to build on in Mortal Kombat X. As an absolute scholar of MK lore and its universe, I look forward to these stories the most. In my opinion, MK11 delivered. Even if you are not a fan of the story, I recommend playing until you complete chapter 4, if not only to unlock a character but to get a taste of the absolutely bonkers facial animations and cut scenes.
Characters both new and old are featured heavily but still changed in satisfactory ways, with fan favorites like Liu Kang, Kung Lao, and Kitana returning. Among the characters returning from a debut in Mortal Kombat X are Kotal Kahn, D’vorah and Erron Black – each bearing a new coat of paint like the rest of the cast. The game’s roster isn’t perfect (as nothing will capture the sheer awesomeness of the MK (2009) roster) with MK staples such as Smoke and Mileena missing in action, but there is someone here for pretty much any type of player you can think of. NRS has done a fine job of making each character feel unique, and it shows through in the diverse move-set and personalities that are on full display.
The characters are used in interesting ways during the story mode, with unlikely combinations teaming up (like Scorpion and Sub-Zero, for the first time ever) and quippy interactions that would make even Marvel Cinematic Universe fans jealous. The bottom line here is that the story mode doesn’t follow the expected or “safe” route, and the narrative is better for it – the writers took risks here, and while some did not pay off (non-hero characters jobbing is still a huge problem), a lot of them kept the story interesting and gripping. I would recommend playing through the story mode so that you can try out a nice selection of characters and appreciate just how far the technology of motion capture and facial animation has come.
TOWERS OF TIME
Everything I have explained and talked about so far has been an extremely positive experience, but the game starts to have issues when looking at the single-player content outside of the story mode. Towers of Time are a returning feature from NRS’ previous title, Injustice 2 (called the Multiverse mode), where single player towers are made available on a rotation, with towers expiring and refreshing on timers ranging from one hour to one week. The Multiverse in Injustice 2 was bearable because of the fun modifiers, silly situations, and surmountable challenges. NRS had a lot of choices when developing MK11 on where to take this mode, and for some reason, they decided to suck out the whimsical situations, fun modifiers, and assists, and go the opposite direction entirely – the towers are oppressive. Some can be fun, yes, but most of them involve trying to take down an input-reading AI while dodging unblockable modifiers designed to destroy your spirit. But that seems to be the point because NRS has decided to add consumables, which allow you to bring toys and modifiers that benefit you to the fight. Instead of opting to make consumables easy to obtain, NRS decided to offer them as a random reward and as a guaranteed purchase. This is symptomatic of the biggest problem in MK11 – the game seems to be purposely designed to make you rely on these currencies and consumables while offering pitiful paths to earning them and then shoving microtransaction shortcuts to items in your face. Even unlocking individual towers can be connected to paying real money, and the game seems to draw heavily from mobile pay-to-win models, much to its detriment.
PATCH UPDATE: The Towers of Time have been patched to give more rewards and while this does not solve all of the game’s issues, it is a good start. Earning currency has been given a 20-25% boost, the AI has been told to simmer down, and boss enemy health has been lowered. There are still some issues here that need to be fixed but given the progress made in the first patch, NRS may be up to the task.
The Krypt returns in MK11, with both amazing advancements and questionable choices. The main idea is that you are an explorer on Shang Tsung’s Island, and the island holds treasures in chests scattered all around with puzzles, traps and references abound. The new style makes unlocking cosmetics, concept art, finishers and other content a lot more fun than in previous iterations, as the Krypt now plays like a third person adventure game, with items you can find to unlock new avenues to explore the island and more chests to open for loot. It is the most in-depth path to unlocking content in a Mortal Kombat title, hands down.
As I mentioned earlier, these advancements come at the cost of some questionable decisions made by NRS. For example, treasure chests no longer have set rewards where you can unlock something specific by going to that chest’s coordinates and plucking it open – they have all been randomized. This gives the Krypt a loot box based grind, which can be extremely frustrating if you are looking for a specific skin or finisher. On top of this, the pace at which you earn Koins, Hearts and Souls (the three main Krypt currencies) is absolutely pitiful, meaning that spending your hard-earned koins and come up empty-handed is an inevitability. These unnecessary changes to the unlocking formula exacerbate the issues I discussed with the Towers of Time, which make the single player content downright miserable to explore – and it’s a shame; the content in this game is top-notch and you will want to kit your favorite character with the coolest possible gear. The Kollector makes an appearance as the vendor of the Krypt, gouging players by offering them specific cosmetics for trade or offering them for real money – Jax’s introduction animation was $8, and the only word I can think of to describe that is ABSURD. Cosmetic unlocks seem to be based on the price of the chests you purchase, meaning lower priced chests have a higher chance to reward concept art or songs while higher priced chests offer skins, finishers or introductions. There is supposedly a hotfix coming that will ease the grind and make rewards for beating towers fairer, but the initial rollout of these features has been disappointing, to say the least.
NRS can do quite a few things to remedy the play loop of MK11. For one, offering a direct path to unlocking specific cosmetics, like set chest locations or a non-random forge, would reward players fairly and make the Krypt feel less like gambling. Another solution would be a knockout system, where earning specific rewards as skins prevent you from receiving duplicates of that item at any point in the future – as of right now, duplicates offer no benefit other than trading fodder for the Kollector. A lot of the problems in this game are similar to issues that Destiny 2 had at launch, and I’m confident that if Bungie could turn it around, NRS can too. Increasing the rewards for completing towers is a no-brainer, but NRS has said they plan on doing so in the upcoming hotfix. Overall, I would stay away from the Krypt and Towers of Time until NRS rolls out the fixes, otherwise, you will be wasting currency.
PATCH UPDATE: If NRS can work a few of these solutions into future patches, MK11 will be a much better game. The patch did not adjust Krypt prices, nor did it offer any direct paths to specific character items outside of the end game Tsung’s Throne Room. I found particular success unlocking skins and gear using the green soul caches that cost 100 Souls – the warrior’s shrine also gives you character specific chests, but only after performing 100 fatalities on that specific character (not WITH!) in Towers of Time. There are glitches to bypass major grind walls in the Krypt, and they may be worth looking in to for players who cannot find gear for their character.
The online for MKX started out a stuttering mess before NRS opted to partner with GGPO (Good Game Peace Out) late in the game’s lifespan to fix the netcode. NRS has learned from their mistakes on this front and playing the game online is a total treat. Any matches I have played have run at a buttery smooth 60 fps, with the only interruptions coming from players rage quitting. There can be lag if one player’s connection cuts out, but the game does a great job of running things smoothly. In the most optimal conditions (on my Xbox One X with a 500mb internet speed and a 96-inch 4K television) I had trouble telling the difference between offline local play and online play, which is a testament to how well the game performs.
MY FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE GAME (SO FAR)
I have been playing Mortal Kombat since I was five years old. I had MK 1, 2 and 3 on the Super Nintendo, and some of my best childhood memories come from playing my friends in the games during sleepovers and parties. Imagine my surprise when one of those same childhood friends, whom I have known since I was 5, showed up to my house, eight hours away from my hometown, ready to get down in this game. I am a 28-year-old man, and I swear to the Elder Gods, we had a sleepover, played the game, talked trash, and whooped ass like we were 8 years old again. Yes, the game can be overwhelming to a casual player, and a lot of times when you are playing with a friend the disparity can ruin the experience. Characters have complicated inputs that can make strings seem daunting to pull off, the mechanics of the new meta can be difficult to explain, and some friends may just want to button mash – if they have the time, sit them through the tutorial before you play and it will make the experience better. But honestly, my friend and I did not care about that stuff, and that night of playing the game like when we were kids was something special that could not have been possible had NRS not put so much love into the game and filled it to the brim with stuff for the fans. I think that may be the biggest accomplishment of the game – I feel like a kid again and that is absolutely priceless.
While the game is a stunning visual masterpiece, with a more in-depth fighting system catering to the pro circuit and silky smooth online services, I cannot help but feel disappointed by what NRS did with their microtransactions and overall loot cycle. Those two aspects are so oppressive towards my enjoyment of the game that I will probably wait for a patch before sinking any more time into the title. The first patch that was released was a good start, but there is still a few things in the game that need to be fixed. If there are any more game-altering patches in the future, I will revisit this review to update it as necessary.