Mortal Kombat 11 (Review)

“maybe it’s okay if this is the last Mortal Kombat game we get for a while”

 

As difficult as it may be to believe, Mortal Kombat is nearly 30 years old. In that time, as one would expect, certain things have always been a constant – violent, blood-soaked battles, a revolving door of multi-colored ninjas, and an emphasis on its universe and lore that set it apart from most other fighters on the block. It’s for these reasons that MK has cultivated a fanbase accustomed to change.  It‘s become more difficult to shock audiences and the concept of a cool thunder man alone is not enough to carry a modern fighter. This is why the franchise has always had an underlying identity crisis. Starting from the arcades, through the 3D era, all the way to now, the need for constant reinvention has caused Mortal Kombat to grow and improve at an incredible rate, but also lose a bit of itself along the way.

Mortal Kombat 11 is defined by that need for change, clearly the product of a development team that’s always listening, looking for the next thing to adjust. Mortal Kombat X, though wildly successful and with a healthy competitive scene, had its share of complaints. It was heavily focused on rushing the opponent with split-second guessing games and punishing them with long combos when they failed. In response, MK11 is a much slower game – running is gone, combos are shorter, and both changes seem for the better. It’s now a more honest fighter, easier for newcomers to grasp whist still having enough for more dedicated players to discover. Gone are the X-Rays from the earlier titles (as NRS knew they were never used in serious matches) now replaced with Krushing Blows, contextual attacks that offer better combo opportunities when activated, and Fatal Blows, low health desperation moves that still scratch the itch anyone may have for slow-mo stabbings. Neither require meter, leaving the new offensive and defensive bars available for combo and knockdown recovery, or the ever-useful amplified specials. It’s a lot to take in for new players, though still more accessible at the start than its predecessor. It also may be jarring to any veterans that loathe too much focus on the basic “neutral” game. After an adjustment period, it’s easy to say this is still the best fighting system Netherrealm has ever devised, even in its early stages. As is customary, characters will transform dramatically throughout the game’s lifespan, but the foundation, if untouched, is solid enough to survive through this and presumably future titles.

Also returning from MKX are the character variations, though much has been made of the new ability to create your own instead of relying on static presets, mixing moves that may not have a thematic consistency but work much better together in execution. Indeed, there is a novelty to creating your own version of Sub-Zero with an odd red outfit and wacky variation name that doesn’t soon wear off. The interface itself could use some work, however, as there’s no actual way to test any of the moves before you assign them, meaning that you have to save your load-out and then head over to practice mode every time you want to see what they do. Moves are also sometimes assigned a points value that doesn’t always reflect on their usefulness, making it hard to justify ever equipping them. Turning D’Vorah into a smaller bug after death is funny, but not two slots worth of funny.

Still, it’s hard to complain when you’re ripping through the online rankings with your kustom kharacter that you’ve spent hours play testing. Well, it would be if you could actually do that.

For as neat as custom variations are, it seems like NRS either didn’t have the time or the confidence to fully commit to them. As such, you’re restricted to competitive presets for tournament or ranked games, leaving the custom players to casual matches. Not only are many of the presets laughably bad, but this also means there is no place for more serious players that want to use custom variations, forcing them to mix with everyone else in casual matches and making the pool of opponents worse for all involved. Casual matchmaking also inexplicably shows a win/loss record for both players before starting the match, meaning that you can spend a lot of your time having matches rejected because you’re too good or, as is often the case, not good enough. This creates another barrier for new players that would be intimidated by jumping online in the first place, already expecting to see 797-3 records the first week the game is out.

Online features are mostly carried over from MKX beyond that, though no one will likely miss the lack of the half-baked Faction Wars mode this time around. King of the Hill is still the optimal format for groups of friends and works great on this third generation of netcode.  AI Battles have also now been carried over from Injustice, serving as an interesting distraction online and an essential tool for the single player grind.

And grind you shall.

At the heart of everything you do in Mortal Kombat 11 is The Krypt. What initially started as a cute way to unlock costumes and concept art in Deadly Alliance has now evolved into a full-blown adventure game of sorts, starring a mysterious traveler visiting Shang Tsung’s island. The sorcerer seemingly has little issue with you raiding the various treasures of his domain, though everything comes with a price, be it c(k)oins, soul fragments, or hearts. Each one will open one of the hundreds of chests on the island, and you’ll have to do some light navigating and puzzle solving in order to reach new areas. On paper, The Krypt is undeniably cool – a scenic love letter to the history of the series that gives you reason to continue playing for hours. The same can not be said for its execution.

What is not told to the player is that The Krypt is randomized. Though the individual contents are curated (so that you will often get matching items for the same character), their locations are different for everyone. In theory, this is a way for two players that have spent equal time with the game to have different skins and gear to mess around with. It also means that a Scorpion player, for example, can spend hours upon hours trying to hunt down a specific mask they want and learn that their friend found it in a much earlier area. Chances are high that most of the time and money you spend in the Krypt will be spent unlocking items for characters that you will never use because there is simply no way of knowing what you’re going to get, and that money isn’t easy to come by.

Just about everything you do in MK11 will grant you koins, but often very little. Doing fatalities or brutalities will grant you hearts, though every heart chest requires 250 of them to open. This is a clever way to incentivize players to continue doing those finishers but also a very quick way to get tired of seeing them, no matter how well-directed and gruesome they may be. There are also the aforementioned soul fragments and time krystals, making for a grand total of four different currencies you have to maintain to unlock everything in the game, most of which can only be obtained through daily objectives or the Towers of Time. What results is a mobile-esque grind that would be annoying for a free-to-play title but is outright unacceptable for a full-priced product.

This could be somewhat eased if the Towers were similar to the incredible curated challenges of MK9 or even the chaotic themed offerings of MKX, but what MK11 has is neither; a constantly changing stable of enemies that seemingly have no structural reasoning. Though the various level hazards work similarly to the previous game, they’ve now all been changed to only affect the player. These could be anything from a poison status to unblockable rockets, and the only recourse you have is to spend consumables which will either negate these or give you weapons of your own. There’s really no strategy involved beyond sheer attrition and having to go through so many of these fights in the standard loop of the game will have the unintended consequence of making you a much worse Mortal Kombat player. Many of these battles operate in such a way that you’re tempted to cheese the AI instead of attempting combos or proper strategies since you’re at such a disadvantage. This is made even more baffling by the fact that the game very clearly wants to you learn and get better, offering what is easily the most useful training mode a fighting game has ever had, going even so far as to explain and demonstrate frame data to you. None of that matters when you’re getting hit with endless fireballs in a quest for 15,000 precious coins, which is enough to open roughly 3 chests.

After a full set of 3-5 towers, you’ll have enough currency to walk around The Krypt for about a minute and a half before you have to do it all over again. During that visit, you’ll be lucky to find one thing you can use for your character. Most likely, you’ll find nothing. To put this in perspective, you can play Mortal Kombat 11 for 40 hours, using only one fighter the entire time, and still only have 4 of their 50 skins unlocked. Say you wanted Jacqui Brigg’s incredible rainbow jacket (and of course you do), you can pray to the Elder Gods to somehow find it in The Krypt, or even worse, find out that it’s only available from a very specific Tower, most likely one that you have to pay koins to access. Even with announced adjustments to this system, it is one that is fundamentally broken, constantly taking you out of situations where you are improving at the game to instead either make you hunt for a grocery list of items or treat your character like a Pokemon that you need to send to do Towers for you. Better drop rates/lower prices are coming and they will help, but you’re still forced to engage with a system designed to waste your time.

It would make sense, though not be any better, if this structure were somehow in place to coerce you into spending real money, though even that’s not entirely possible. The only thing you can buy are time krystals, and they can only be used to acquire one of the five items that are on offer that particular day. There is no way to unlock everything in The Krypt, or even simply buy the one item you want directly. The grind doesn’t exist to make you give up and just spend more money. It seems to exist just to… exist, to make you spend more time with the game and force you to eventually resent it. It gives the impression of a product made under great duress, that either didn’t have the time to refine the ideas within or simply didn’t know what it wanted to be.  It’s the continuing story of Mortal Kombat and its failure to have a real thesis, to have an identity beyond change for the sake of it.

Perhaps none of this is more apparent than in Mortal Kombat 11’s story.

Since 2011, Netherrealm has been able to hang their pointy hat on the strength of their story modes, drawing praise for the direction and comparatively strong writing that went above and beyond what any other fighters were attempting. It’s important to remember that in the dark ages, before MK had any competitive clout, that lore and the universe were an essential part of their continued success, arguably even more than the blood and gore. Long after the novelty of fatalities wore off, that oddball combination of ninja clans and warring realms of gods kept fans invested. Starting with MK9, an attempt was made to wipe the slate clean, and for good reason. Original story lead John Tobias was long gone and the Dragonball-like trope of newer bigger bad guys had written them into a corner. MK11 is seemingly the culmination of that potential realized two games ago and is a damning indictment of Netherrealm’s inability to do much of anything with it; an end to their modern trilogy that is bittersweet, but not in the way they intended.

Fans of previous story modes will likely enjoy this one just fine, as it’s exactly what they’ve seen before – cutscenes, you control a kombatant for four fights, rinse, repeat. It’s beautifully directed, made even more pleasing by the fact that NRS has never made been better at modeling and animation. Casual fans won’t have much to complain about, especially considering MK has little in the way of competition in this field, though most anyone will find it hard to forgive the painful vocal performance by the problematic Ronda Rousey. She feels completely out of place surrounded by such a talented voice cast, struggling to do much of anything with the already one-dimensional  Sonya Blade. One has to wonder if she wouldn’t have been more appropriate for the role of one of the cyber-ninjas given her complete inability to make any sounds resembling that of a human. This is made worse by the fact that Sonya is written to be one of the emotional centers of the story despite not having any development to her character since 1993.

As with MKX, the game spends far more time than necessary on the Special Forces cast of characters, never caring to do much with them as they pad the already too-short story with a plethora of gunfights. Johnny Cage is, ironically, the only one to show any growth, his older self contrasted in interactions with his cocky past counterpart. Everyone else is a cipher. Cassie is inexplicably still a sassy millennial in her intros and a gormless soldier in the story. Kano hangs around with his past self, who would be indistinguishable if not for their different hairstyles, shining a big ugly spotlight on the fact that his character hasn’t changed in three decades.

Kronika, the beyond-Elder God threat, pulls an arbitrary assortment of characters from the past, including people that can stop her, for arbitrary reasons. She is then beholden to arbitrary rules as her nonsense plan seemingly comes to fruition. Couched in all of this is a much more interesting story of Outworld politics that could have been enough to carry an entire game of its own, free of all the time travel shenanigans. For the first time, you’re given a glimpse of just how a realm that has absorbed so many other worlds and their races is forced to operate. Baraka’s Tarkatan clan are seen as more than just generic baddies for the heroes to conquer. Phil LaMarr’s Kotal Khan is a damaged warrior that wants to do right by his people but is still driven by bloodlust and discrimination, made even more complicated by the fact that a long lost love has just come back to life. These moments are the best that Mortal Kombat 11’s story have to offer and they nearly happen in the margins. In these glimpses, you see a story that could be Game of Thrones but would much rather be The Avengers, only written by someone that seems to hate each Avenger individually and as a group.

None of this will matter to most players, though hardcore MK fans will continue to recognize the pattern as they continue through a story that seems to almost have a resentment for its own cast. This has been a long running theme of NRS for a while now – the apathy or lack of awareness for how much these characters have meant to players, many of which are now older than the audience playing them. Mortal Kombat 9 felt like a story written by someone that wanted to reinvent their characters. Mortal Kombat X felt like story written by someone that wanted to replace them. Mortal Kombat 11 feels like it’s been written by someone that’s just wants all of it to go away so that they can do something else. For that reason, maybe it’s okay if this is the last Mortal Kombat game we get for a while.

It’s easy to see the road map for MK11 – more fighters, an improved economy, constant balance patches, and that’s really all it will need for a long, healthy lifespan, both as a single player game and in the competitive scene. Playing the game has never been better, and everything surrounding it has never been worse, an odd inversion from where the series began; the project of four people making a subpar fighter and depending on clever marketing, whispers of secrets and an aura of punk rock rebelliousness to sustain its following. In the course of that long journey, that team grew exponentially bigger, and so did their budget. With that came the ability to craft a damn fine fighting game that’s never looked or played better, but somewhere along the way, they lost some of that magic that made Mortal Kombat special in the first place.

 

@DamienWilkens

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