Monday, 13 July 2015

Mortal Kombat X - Review

“Press X to purchase Jason”. That’s the line that’s forever stuck in your head when you boot up Mortal Kombat X, a game that jumps wholeheartedly into micro-transaction, DLC-obsessed mire that continues to plague modern big budget video games.

What’s more frustrating though, rather than the lazy, nickel-and-diming tactics used by NetherRealm/Warner Bros., is the way they constantly decide to shove it in your face. Characters like Rain pop up in the game’s various modes, that you fight, but aren’t selectable as characters. It’s practically an advertisement for future DLC that’s been plastered straight into the actual game.

It’s appropriate that I start this review with this complaint too, because it overshadows any enjoyment you can eek out of the game. Every design decision from that point on, you’re constantly double-guessing yourself wondering whether or not they made it that way in order to squeeze some more money out of the player base.

Take the big marquee feature; three fighting styles. Each of the game’s characters comes with three different “modes” essentially, that change the way they fight. Take Scorpion, in his Ninjutsu form he wields twin swords that change the properties of some of his attacks. In his Inferno form meanwhile, he gains access to longer range moves, such as his fireball, to help against zoning characters.

What you can’t help but wonder though is whether the fighting style system was used to enhance the game, or to hide the smaller roster (meaning more characters could be bundled away for DLC). Some characters gel better with the different fighting style mechanics than others. Newcomers such as the insect woman D’Vorah has one mode that gives all her ovipositor attacks a poison effect, slowly chipping away at the opponent’s health, whilst her other modes give her different attacks to make use of in order to compensate for the lack of poison damage.

Likewise, Ferra/Torr, the grappler-like hybrid character, meshes perfectly with the new system, with each variation having quite significant implications on how the character plays and feels. With the older characters however, it ends up feeling like they’ve just chopped up their classic moves and spread them over three different minor alterations. In short, the characters that were built from the ground-up work much better with this system than those that came before it, and it shows.

For game modes, you’re left with a very basic story mode. Mortal Kombat X seems to make moves to update its character roster, with the game taking place across two time periods, with many of its classic characters now having younger protégé that they’re training up. Cassie Cage, daughter of Luke Cage and Sonya Blade, takes up the mantle of “main character” for the series, if you can consider it has one. The new characters, for the most part, do hold their own, even if they do sometimes come across as slightly bland.

The story plays out like the most violent Saturday morning cartoon ever made, but it’s basically there to work as a tutorial to have you play around with most of the roster. After that, there’s the bevy of arcade towers to work up along with online play, and a decent Krypt mode to explore. For those looking for a hefty single player experience, Mortal Kombat X doesn’t always provide much. It’s a slimmed down, stream-lined game that focuses much of its attention on the slightly more hardcore fan base that’s hopefully willing to get stuck into the multiplayer.

The multiplayer works well, for what it’s worth. I’ve seen several criticisms of it, with complaints about it being laggy and whatnot. Online play is never going to be a replacement for good, old-fashioned local multiplayer but it does a decent enough job if you want to scratch that competitive itch. What the multiplayer did do though, is once again highlight some of the flaws with the variation system; rather than switch fighting styles depending on their opponent (which the mechanic would seem to encourage) most people I fought simply stuck to their favourite fighter and favourite variation.

To be honest, I did the same. Between Kenshi, D’Vorah, Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the characters I spent the most time with, I quickly settled on a preferred strategy for each and rarely did I venture into another variation. Some of the fighting styles pull characters into a different game plan, and whilst it’s an interesting concept it sometimes seems like a rather moot point.

Take Sub-Zero’s Cryomaster variation, which gives him some more offensive tools to work with. That’d perhaps be interesting, if he weren’t a character so focused on low-key, simple, fundamental gameplay that favours defence. Some of the characters seem to fight against some of their variations and it’s clear at the moment that there’s almost always an “optimum” variation for each character for those that want to be super competitive, defeating the mechanic's entire purpose.

Of course, this whole review circles back to that horrid “Press X to purchase Jason”, or, as it will soon be read, “Press X to purchase Predator”. The Predator’s shadow already stalks the character select screen with “Coming Soon” daubed along the bottom; a cruel reminder of the real motivator behind a lot of Mortal Kombat X’s design decisions.

The long-time fans that are in it for the competition will probably be the ones that’ll overlook this micro-transaction obsession, but it’s those that get hurt the most. DLC can enhance games, and allow developers to experiment with smaller ideas. When it’s used like this however, it feels like a complete betrayal both to the game and to the people that play it.

There’s a decent fighter here, but if you must get your Mortal Kombat fix, go back to the previous game for now, and then wait for the “Game of the Year” edition with the DLC bundle when it’s inevitably released. At the very least, don’t buy any of the additional characters; don’t encourage Warner Bros. shoddy practices with your money. 


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