Mortal Kombat’s defining quality among 2D fighters is that its combat centers around two punch buttons, two kick buttons, and a block button. This is actually more unique than it sounds. While other 2D fighters typically have some combination of light, medium, and/or heavy attacks, with weaker attacks linking into stronger attacks, Mortal Kombat has no such concept. Instead, MK employs a “dial-a-combo” system that requires knowledge of very specific button combinations in order to build a combo. It’s definitely not a super-accessible combat system for newcomers, but fortunately, Mortal Kombat 11 comes with one of the best fighting game tutorials I’ve ever played. It covers everything from basic fundamentals all the way to the most advanced techniques such as frame traps, jailing, and block strings, all while highlighting key concepts and clear instructions on how to implement these techniques.
In some ways, less is more, and faster is not always better.
In some ways, less is more, and faster is not always better. To that end, Netherrealm has slowed the action down substantially relative to the last few games, especially compared to the hyper-rushdown-focused Mortal Kombat X. The run button is gone, walk speeds have been reduced across the board, and super-far-reaching and forward-moving combo strings are much rarer. At first, I wasn’t a huge fan of how slow Mortal Kombat 11 felt, but the more time I put in, the more I started to appreciate how these seemingly small changes added up to change the flow of a match in a great way. With a greater emphasis placed on careful positioning and whiff punishing and less of a focus on all-out blitzing to impose your 50/50 mixup game, fights feel more tactical and rewarding of smart play.
In another dramatic and inspired departure from previous games, Mortal Kombat 11 completely changes up how meter management works by splitting it in two. The defensive meter is used primarily for special wake-up options, environmental interactables, and a combo-breaking move called a breakaway. The offensive meter is used for amplifying your special moves to make them safe on block, increase their damage, open up combo opportunities, and more.
The best thing about the split, though, is the fact that it allows Fatal Blows – a powerful move capable of doing 35% damage on its own – to exist independently of meter. Fatal Blows are often extremely fast and difficult to react to, but that’s balanced out by the fact that you only get one per match. If even one player has saved it, the closing moments of every close Mortal Kombat 11 fight feel extraordinarily tense – almost like an Old Western standoff.
There’s so much to love about this mechanic, even on just the surface level of it being super satisfying to see an otherwise-normal punch cause a complete bone explosion inside your opponent’s body. On a higher level, though, the addition of Krushing Blows adds yet another level of depth to each character, and rewards a deep mastery of their moveset. It’s also a limited resource, because you can only use each move’s Krushing Blow once per match, so it’s a huge advantage to learn the requirements for each Krushing Blow to maximize their effectiveness.
The story’s six hours are big, bombastic, and ridiculous in all of the right ways.
Netherrealm fighting games have always been the best at delivering story modes that are essentially the video game equivalent of absurd popcorn movies, and Mortal Kombat 11 is no exception to that rule. It has no new gameplay innovations to offer, but its six hours are big, bombastic, well-acted (other than Ronda’s Rousey’s portrayal of Sonya Blade, which comes across as woefully inexperienced), and ridiculous in all of the right ways. But most importantly, it fleshes out the entire roster and gives each character some time in the spotlight.
The story picks up right where MKX left off (check out my handy Mortal Kombat story recap video to catch up before diving in) and quickly introduces a new game-changing character: Kronika, an all-powerful being with control over time who sets the plot down a path of another impending timeline reset, due to Raiden’s upsetting of the balance of good and evil with his decapitation of the Elder God Shinnok.
The amount of customizable options for each character is utterly staggering.
Some of these items can be unlocked by playing through the story mode, but most are obtained through the Towers of Time and the Krypt, two modes that go hand in hand. Mortal Kombat 11’s Krypt, like those in previous Mortal Kombat games, is a sprawling dungeon filled to the brim with treasure chests that require some sort of currency to open. This time around the loot is randomized, which is a big problem because of the fact that there’s just so much undesirable loot. You may open up an expensive chest hoping to find a new Fatality, skin, character intro, or Brutality, and wind up with just a bunch of gear augments for a character you don’t use, junk tower consumables, concept art, or some extra currency. There are some cool puzzle-solving elements and neat Easter eggs to find in the Krypt, but it’s basically an explorable dungeon of lootboxes and occasional jump scares, and that’s a disappointment.
Then there’s the Towers of Time, which is a collection of challenge towers unified by some sort of theme, and it’s in this mode that Mortal Kombat 11’s biggest problems lie. Some of the towers employ modifiers that make fights actively un-fun to play. Imagine trying to win a fight against an opponent who starts with twice your health, while also having to deal with a constant torrent of projectiles and assist characters. Or an opponent who will shock you for standing close to them for more than a second or two. It’s a challenge, yes, but one that’s more frustrating than fun.
You’re able to use various consumables to give yourself a fighting chance, and they do make otherwise-impossible fights surmountable. But having to resort to miserable tactics, like projectile or consumable spamming, is frustrating, to say the least.
As is the case with just about every other Netherrealm game, Mortal Kombat 11 has a Kombat Pack featuring six DLC characters – of which only one, Shang Tsung, is currently announced. The Kombat Pack comes with the $100 Premium Edition of Mortal Kombat 11, or can be purchased separately for $40. That’s pricey, for sure, but it’s not outrageous due to the fact that the starting roster of 20 characters is already so deep.
More of a concern is the Premium Shop, which is currently empty, and as such, I don’t know what is going to be offered to buy with real money. Mortal Kombat 11’s customization progression is designed in several ways that could be fairly scummy towards consumers: the Krypt is full of random lootboxes that all cost gold and the Towers of Time are full of unfair fights that seem designed to entice you to hunt for Skip Fight tokens in order to bypass them. Keep an eye on this space and I’ll update when the store goes live.
Fortunately, not all towers are awful.
Fortunately, not all towers are awful. A few of the gimmicks are fun, like having to fight with the screen turning to black every few seconds, and these do a good job of breaking up the monotony of standard AI matches. And, since they refresh with new challenges regularly, you can always jump to a different tower if the one you’re stuck on sucks.
Taking it Online
The way character customization is handled in ranked play is interesting. You’re able to set your cosmetics however you wish, but every character has two preset competitive variations that you must choose from. What’s weird is that these variations do not exist as premade variations anywhere but in competitive play, so it’s strange that you must actually go and create them yourself if you wish to practice with them. It’s also a bit of a bummer that you can’t customize your movesets in ranked play, especially since some of the best and most effective moves, like Scorpion’s Misery Blade, for instance, aren’t usable at all in ranked. Fortunately, the casual playlist allows you to use whatever you want, and unlike Injustice 2, there are no stat upgrades tied to gear, so everyone’s on an even playing field.
It’s a rare fighting game that hits just about every note as strongly as Mortal Kombat 11 does. Everything from its methodical and deep combat to its fantastically absurd story mode and its rock-solid netcode, right down to its extraordinarily comprehensive tutorial is absolutely exceptional. It’s only when you get into its drawn-out progression that it trips up: the keys to unlocking Mortal Kombat 11’s rich vault of customization options are locked behind the frustratingly gimmicky and grindy barriers of the Krypt and Towers of Time. This series continues to prove that there’s real fighting depth beyond its notoriously gory Fatalities, and this one in particular stands out as a spine-ripping good time.
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