And therein lies the conflict NetherRealm Studios faced in presenting its latest title in the rebooted “Mortal Kombat” series, the most historically important violent video game this side of “Doom.” Headed by series creator Ed Boon, the studio supercharged the franchise in 2011 by not only modernizing the classic “dial-a-combo” gameplay of the original trilogy, but displayed a surprising knack for storytelling with all the humor and wacky imagination of a serviceable Marvel movie.
In 2019, big-name publishers want games to be profitable beyond their wildest dreams. It means games always need to be online and finding ways to keep players engaged for months on end, ideally forking over a bit more than the entry price of $60.
So let’s get this out of the way: “Mortal Kombat 11” does not practice predatory practices. It comes dangerously close though. A viral Reddit post mischaracterized the game’s economy by saying you can pay $6,440 to unlock all the character outfits. Boon harshly refuted that claim in a tweet earlier this week.
Publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment is no stranger to economic backlash. The otherwise great “Middle-Earth: Shadows of War” game was mired by an artificially stretched out endgame that encouraged players to use microtransactions to speed up the process. The entire system was removed months later after some controversy, showing how the game could’ve easily been designed without it. Warner Brothers learned its lesson, but is still testing what it can get away with.
The outrage, then, lies in how long you have to play the game to unlock not just everything, but how you have no control over when to get what you want. Each of the game’s 20-plus characters have 60 skins that feature unique outfits, color variations and complete redesigns. On top of that, each character has slots for gear you unlock, all of which have to be leveled up. Oh, you also have to unlock the slots too.
Many of these rewards are locked behind randomized loot crates featured in the game’s “Krypt” feature, a beautifully designed tour around classic Kombat locations, littered with treasure chests with random prizes. However, NetherRealm Studios has just promised an update that would tweak the rewards that come from the game’s other modes, including the frustrating Towers of Time mode, which currently drip feeds rewards for these chests.
It’s encouraging news, especially for completionists. If you’re the kind of player who needs to experience everything a game has to offer, this one may take years of playing.
If you’re the kind of player who just enjoys the fighting, all of this may be simply a distraction. That’s because the core gameplay is excellent, an evolution of the 2011 formula that lifted the studios to success not only with this series but also its “Injustice” series, which involves D.C. Comics superheroes, like Superman and Green Lantern, battling parallel universes of themselves.
“Mortal Kombat 11” repeats some of these story beats. Kronika, a titan who controls time, is bent on wiping out history and rewriting it without thunder god and series protagonist Raiden. Her machinations force the Mortal Kombat warriors of the 1990s to jump forward 27 years later to meet grizzled (and sometimes evil) versions of themselves.
And amid ludicrous Saturday morning cartoon nonsense, there are flashes of sharp, clever writing. Consider this exchange between brash ’90s action star Johnny Cage and his older, wizened, middle-aged self.
“Dad always said, ‘Hungry people eat lunch, humble people serve it,’" the younger one tells the older.
The older Cage barks back, “Dad was an a------. Hollywood made us an even bigger one.”
It gives the writers a chance to bring back phased-out elements of old characters, a pleasant throwback to the game’s roots as a gory, campy tale styled with discount Halloween costumes. Nostalgia can be a tricky balance between recycling content and genuinely stirring fond memories, but in this case, it works.
The fighting is another throwback, removing the run button that was a series mainstay since 1995′s third installment. Instead, we get a system that’s slower and more grounded. Well-timed blocks reward countering opportunities and clutch-hitting “fatal blows” give more opportunities for the defensive fighter to level the playing field.
Splitting power meters between offensive and defensive might seem like more tedious meter managing, but once you get used to it, you realize it helps players have as many options on the table without worrying whether they’re using the wrong move at the wrong time.
And once I actually started to fool around with character customization (excuse me, Karacter Kustomization), I started to salivate at the unlockable items I might never get. I played online, where the connection stayed smooth. I didn’t notice any input lag for my Xbox One X copy, a flawless victory for an online fighter that requires a connection for its most distinctive features.
Without its robust, meaty fighting system and epic story that matches the ambitions of an expensive Marvel film, “Mortal Kombat 11” might be as much of a distraction as its other, more frustrating features. But for old-school players where the fight is the thing, you might be just fine with having so many excuses to fight.
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