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‘Mortal Kombat X’ Review: The Good Fight

I’m calling it. April is the month to be a Gorehound, because between Killing Floor 2 and Mortal Kombat X, fans of all things red and squishy have plenty to be thankful about. If ripping out your freshly crippled opponent’s spine through their anus after you kicked them so hard their legs popped off sounds like a swell way to spend an evening, there’s a solid chance you’ve had your copy since last week.

For everyone else, listen up, because a guy — me — who doesn’t like fighting games is about to review the bloodiest one of them all.

There are a handful of things one should expect from a Mortal Kombat game. The combat should be satisfying, the gore excessive, and the fatalities cringe-worthy. Over the years, I’ve even grown to love the things that originally annoyed me, such as the story, which I find silly and decidedly B-grade in its construction.

I have but a shallow understanding of what’s going on in these games, partly because I’ve been too distracted by the over-the-top action, but mostly because I have a tendency to tune out the moment any of my diehard Mortal Kombat fans — of which I have at least two — try to explain it to me with that pitiful don’t-make-fun-of-this-thing-that-I-love look on their face.

No matter. Not knowing what the hell is going on doesn’t have much of an impact on how much enjoyment I can glean from this series. I still can’t take the story or roughly 90% of the characters seriously, but I have managed to learn some facts. For example, the Mortal Kombat universe is populated by an alarming number of cyborg ninjas, Sub-Zero and Scorpion hate each other, and at some point, the letter C was banished from the lexicon.

I admire developer NetherRealm’s willingness to mess with a formula that’s worked for many folks for some time. They just keep adding to the series’ already sturdy foundation, reinforcing it with new ideas, clever mechanics, and brand new systems.

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One massive change in Mortal Kombat X is the introduction of character variants. Each combatant comes with three variants that offer subtle changes to that character’s appearance, moves and abilities.

Unless you count yourself among the most elite 1% who spend countless hours memorizing every character’s strengths and weaknesses, this feature makes each fight significantly less predictable. You may have fought Scorpion before, but was it the Hellfire or the Inferno version? Did he have swords on his back? Because that would’ve made him the Ninjutsu variant.

It’s a clever idea that gives players more options, more content, and more ways to tailor their fighter to their specific playstyle. I enjoyed spending time with each of them, exploring their differences and finding out that I’m rubbish with Inferno Scorpion, but I’m actually pretty good with Hellfire Scorpion.

I wasn’t in love with MK9’s story mode, but I think that if I were to play it again today, my opinion of it might change. I hadn’t yet embraced the series’ unabashed silliness back in 2011.

The old me was turned off when serious characters with serious faces delivered one cliché after another, progressing the serious(-ly silly) story toward whatever conclusion Boone and Co. decide to take it to.

Because it’s obvious and hasn’t changed over the years, I’m assuming much of its B-grade quality is purposeful. When I hear a wonky sound effect that sounds like it might’ve been downloaded for free off one of those online sound libraries, I assume it’s been put there to put a smile one my face before I tear some fool’s eyes out with my ghost crowbar (that’s a fatality, right?).

Where I am, on the outside looking in, the fighting genre seems to be guided by one of three things. Some are guided by a neverending quest to be the most balanced, refined and mechanically complex game out there (Street Fighter), or they’re mostly intent on delivering the best damn boob physics for their comically well-endowed combatants (SoulCalibur).

Mortal Kombat makes up the third category, as it’s always kept an impressive balance of the two. One glance at the latest game’s roster and you can tell it was mostly designed by men. Oversexualized lady fighters is something I greatly dislike about this genre, but this series is clever about it.

When I start to feel my activist self stepping onto the stage, ready to denounce another sexist fighting game and the gaming community’s juvenile obsessions, I pull off a tricky series of controller maneuvers and now I can’t remember what I was getting angry about because now my character is methodically pulling someone’s teeth out with an ice pick made of the ice that I just summoned out of thin air.

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In addition to a story campaign, Mortal Kombat X also features a robust online component that revolves around a metagame, of sorts, in which players pledge their allegiance to a faction so they can bring glory to their comrades by kicking mountains of butts in the other modes.

I’m not sure if the factions have been fleshed out enough to have any real effect on the lifespan of its multiplayer. It’s an intriguing idea, but it’s also an increasingly familiar one.

Unfortunately, I’m not quite confident enough in my abilities to spend too much time with the PvP mode. I like the idea of a team deathmatch style competitive mode that pits two teams of five players against each other, but I spend too much time worrying whether or not my temporary allies are fuming at me for only being good at losing to get into it.

Even still, the 5v5 mode is great, especially if you enjoy playing Mortal Kombat X as much as you do watching other people play it. I’m particularly fond of the latter, so I’m usually able to enjoy at least four out of the five matches.

The Living Tower is the other place you’ll likely be spending your time trying to conquer. This is the thing I can see having the greatest impact on this game’s longevity, mostly because it’s the thing that will keep the game interesting even for veteran players months, or possibly years, into the future.

The tower is essentially a series of trials that are constantly getting updated with new challenges. Special modifiers rule each fight, and they’re updated every hour or each day, with some that stay even longer.

Mortal Kombat X is a lot of fun. Brutalities are back, as are a number of familiar faces, and some brand new ones. Even the characters we’ve grown to love over the years have been reinvigorated, and the interactivity of the maps — one of my favorite things about these games — has been revamped.

The Final Word: Mortal Kombat X isn’t as refreshing as its predecessor, but it more than makes up for that an exciting roster, visceral combat, a ridiculous amount of content and a willingness to tweak a proven formula.

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