When Mortal Kombat first hit the arcades back in 1992, there was nothing else like it. While kids all over continued to crowd around the Street Fighter II machines, murmers and whispers would build among them about the new fighting game where you get to kill people. Real people! With blood and guts and fire-breathing ninjas. The easy-to-master action and eye-popping gore of Mortal Kombat had no equal back then; it was a game that played by nobody else’s rules… well, except maybe Nintendo’s.
As time went on, the series grew complacent. What started as an inventive 2D fighter became an unfocused arena fighter, a third-person adventure game, a weapon brawler and even a co-op action adventure. Mortal Kombat slowly stopped pursuing the new and the radical, and instead sought to fit into the mold that the games industry was most accustomed to. Mortal Kombat 9 eventually brought the franchise back to its roots, and it was followed up by the robust release of Mortal Kombat X.
Even these two games had their toes dipped into the pool of established gaming trends, with things like DLC characters and microtransactions. NetherRealm Studios and Warner Bros. have obviously taken a liking to the temperature, because now they’re knee-deep in it. Mortal Kombat 11 has some incredible original ideas, but it also has a slew of half-baked components that make it feel like the franchise has once again fallen into following the pack instead of leading it.
Mortal Kombat 11 gets a lot right, absolutely nailing it in a few key departments. I’ve played Mortal Kombat 9, Mortal Kombat X, and both Injustice games, each of which has expanded and refined on ideas from the previous one. Mortal Kombat 11 is no exception. Combat is tight and fluid in this game, building on the new ideas from Mortal Kombat X while also refining or retiring the things that didn’t quite work.
For starters, the stamina-based running mechanic of Mortal Kombat X is gone, while X-Ray attacks have also been phased out and replaced by a new move called Fatal Blow that you get when your health goes below 30%. It’s an extremely punishing attack that you can only use once per match, and it’s a vital tool that really shakes up the flow of combat.
Perhaps the biggest change is the removal of the combo-stopping Breaker ability. This is gone because Mortal Kombat 11 is far less about lengthy combos than its predecessors were, instead having a renewed focus on footsies and short attack chains. It’s a huge change that echoes the slow but solid combat of the original arcade games. More importantly, it’s a successful change, and one that makes Mortal Kombat 11’s combat the most fun I’ve experienced in any NetherRealm Studios game yet.
One thing that doesn’t quite stick is the new variation system. In Mortal Kombat X, each character had three locked-in styles of play that gave them different types of abilities and moves. Mortal Kombat 11 gives players a pool of nearly a dozen moves and has them create their own styles. Ultimately, it feels like a system that won’t satisfy anybody. Pro players will ignore user-made styles and just stick to the competition approved default variations, while casual players are sure to feel like they’re missing out by not having all of their favourite character’s unique moves available to them at once.
For first-time brawlers or hopeful Mortal Kombat pros, the extensive tutorial suite guides you through every function and system in the game, and there’s a lot of advanced mechanics that even veteran fighters will want to familiarise themselves with. These are some of the best tutorials I’ve seen in a fighting game, from hourglass timers that show you how quickly you have to string together attacks in a combo to instant demonstration videos and useful tips on what you might be doing wrong.
Mortal Kombat 11 can be just as fun if you barely have any idea what you’re doing, though, and that’s in part due to how incredible and impactful each animation in the game looks. Previous Mortal Kombat games have been notorious for having sometimes limp or floaty attack animations that lacked the kind of heft and impact you’d expect from these combatants. In this game, practically every attack, interaction and fatality has obviously had a massive amount of thought and care put into it. Combined with the camera-zooming action of moves like Krushing Blows and Fatal Blows, every fight you have in Mortal Kombat 11 is guaranteed to have at least one bad-ass moment in it.
There are just as many bad-ass moments in the story. NetherRealms has made a name for themselves with their cinematic story modes and the seamless way that cutscenes and battles blend together. Mortal Kombat 11 ramps things up even further, with an engaging and lengthy campaign that brings together characters from across the Mortal Kombat timeline for a massive dimension-hopping adventure. The fallout of Mortal Kombat X was grim, and the way this story follows it up is a treat for fans of the franchise.
It helps that this game is also absolutely gorgeous, too. Mortal Kombat 11 runs on a modified version of the dated Unreal Engine 3 toolset, yet it looks on-par with any other massive release of 2019. The impressive graphical fidelity is matched by the wonderful character designs. Long-time roster members and returning Mortal Kombat X fighters have sharp and well-realised designs, although the new characters introduced in Mortal Kombat 11 are a bit bland compared to the new recruits from the previous entry. Thankfully, whether you love or hate the look of a character, you can customise it to your heart’s content thanks to a slew of costume and accessory unlockables.
Unfortunately, this customisation system is where Mortal Kombat 11 really starts to show its cracks. Injustice 2, NetherRealm’s last release, had an RPG-esque gear system of stat buffing skins and accessories, and a similar system now exists in Mortal Kombat 11. Each character has three different kinds of gear to change, and each of these has a set of empty slots for augments to buff them. You can get new gear from story missions and Tower battles, while augments can be found most often in the Krypt.
While I absolutely love that I have a dozen different masks and 60 different costumes to choose from for all my cyber ninja pals, the augment system ends up feeling more like a hindrance than an enjoyable upgrade mechanic. Firstly, it might take you ages before you’ll ever get useful augments for the character you enjoy playing as. Not only are they character specific, but gear specific as well, and they also have one of five different elemental types. On top of that, you won’t even be able to use augments until you level up your gear by fighting tens, if not hundreds of times, and that experience is not shared between items.
I began playing as Kabal simply because he was the character I had the most augments for, taking him into a bunch of battles until I eventually unlocked the first augment slots in my selected gear for him. Upon unlocking the slots, I could finally see that one of them was for an element type I had no matching augments for. As for the other two slots? Well, I had a soul slot in my swords, but my only Kabal soul augment was for his face mask. And so it goes.
Eventually, you’ll find enough augments to be able to utilize your empty gear slots. Eventually, you’ll find augments that are actually for the characters you’re interested in playing as. Eventually, those augments might even provide useful benefits. Eventually. The biggest problem with Mortal Kombat 11 is that all of the rewards and unlockables it wants you to come back every day to pursue are gated behind brutal Tower battles and stingy coin rates – of course, there’s no gaming the system as even the story mode and tutorial progress require you to be online to track your unlocks server side.
In the Towers of Time, there will be a variety of battle collections with specific themes and rewards that refresh hourly, daily, or weekly. Every fight in this Tower mode involves some kind of assist, like your enemy having a summonable partner or poison fists. Sometimes these battles are manageable, but the deck is often stacked so heavily against you that it just doesn’t feel worth playing at all. A majority of my Tower encounters involved “medium” difficulty opponents that had frame perfect reactions to my button presses, on top of unblockable and frustrating environmental hazards like iceballs that freeze you in place or tidal waves that chew away your health.
The only way to make a dent in these fights is with your own consumable assists, from health potions to environment nullifiers or even special support attacks. You randomly get consumables from Tower battles or the Krypt. In fact, you get a lot of stuff from the Krypt, and it often doesn’t really feel like stuff you’d want. A majority of the chests I opened in the Krypt contained Tower consumables, random character augments, or even Krypt items that are simply used to open shortcut doors or craft even more Krypt items. The amount of fluff in the Krypt is absurd when compared to the slow rate at which you get coins. It all leads to an endless loop where you need items to beat Towers, but you need to beat Towers to get the coins to get these items, but you can’t beat those Towers until you get more items! It’s a frustrating and oppressive loop of gameplay that would feel more at home in a freemium mobile game than a full console release.