Mortal Kombat X – NetherRealm Makes Notable Changes to Longstanding Franchise

By on April 16, 2015 at 11:15 am
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When Midway Games folded back in 2009, many were worried that this would mean the end of the storied Mortal Kombat franchise. Many were expecting the worse, especially after the last game in the series, crossover title Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, failed to capitalize on the revival of the fighting game genre. Yet somehow, a small team of former Midway developers, led by series creator Ed Boon himself, were able to rise like a phoenix from the ashes as NetherRealm Studios and bring back life into the series.

Now, four years after the release of their first Mortal Kombat game after Midway’s closure, NetherRealm returns to the franchise with their most ambitious release yet.

Prepare yourself…for Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat X is, obviously, the tenth main installment of the Mortal Kombat series. It’s also, more importantly, NetherRealm Studios’ third fighting game, following 2011’s Mortal Kombat reboot and 2013’s Injustice: Gods Among Us. As with those games, this new title follows NetherRealm’s unique string-based 2D fighting game formula, meaning that in addition to their normal and special moves, each character in the game also has a set of “canned strings”, combo moves that come out based on specific button taps, similar to moves in a 3D fighting game like Tekken or Dead or Alive.

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Combo strings are at the heart of Mortal Kombat X

In practice, combined with the traditional block button, this means that you have a game that plays very much like the previous Mortal Kombat. Players looking to deal damage will need to learn how to commit to strings for hit-confirms and mixups. It also means that a premium is placed on strings that are safe on block as well as those that end either with low or overhead hits. This is made even more important in Mortal Kombat X due to the use of a block button, meaning that players cannot rely on crossups to open their opponent’s defenses.

Proper use of these strings can lead to some strong mixups, especially for characters that have a good collection of high-low attacks. Certain characters are even able to perform powerful setups on opponents that are rising from the ground. This, coupled with the fact that moves on wakeup seem to have little or no invulnerability, seems to hint at the game leaning strongly towards a setplay style, putting a premium on getting knockdowns and creating 50/50 situations afterwards. This is something Mortal Kombat X takes from Injustice: Gods Among Us, where certain top tier characters revolved around these types of setups. That said, more characters seem capable of putting this style of gameplay to use than in the older title.

Speaking of Injustice, one key feature taken from the DC Comics fighter is interactables. Compared to the previous game, however, the items that can be used in Mortal Kombat X are a bit more subdued; while some trigger short cutscenes, there are less of the explosive, nearly screen-filling attacks that some power characters had in the former. More importantly, not only do they consume a bit of the game’s new stamina meter (more on that later), but they can be blocked.

Most interactables, like this traffic light, can only be used once.
Most interactables, like this traffic light, can only be used once.

In addition to this, a good number of interactables are single-use only; once utilized, they’re gone for good. All these changes appear to be an effort on NetherRealm’s part to reduce the influence of this mechanic in character matchups. While some cast members will surely make better use of certain interactables than others, the fact that they can only use them once per game does lessen their impact. Of course, anyone who wants can also simply turn them off at the stage select screen, though it remains to be seen how tournaments will handle this situation.

Another returning feature from both previous games is the stance switch button. This allows character to change between footings that are either facing the camera or away from it. However, in the both those games, this also hinted at stance-specific combos. Since those games used 3D hitsphere detection instead of 2D hitboxes (the former taking into consideration depth in the z-axis while the latter ignores it), this meant that some combos would occasionally not work depending on the stance of the opposing character. While we haven’t found any of these during out time with Mortal Kombat X, the fact that it does exist doesn’t really inspire confidence.

All the new things

Now, while the game as a whole is quite like its predecessor, it’s the new additions that make Mortal Kombat X stand out. The game follows in the footsteps of other fighting games such as Capcom vs. SNK 2, later Samurai Shodowns, Melty Blood, and Arcana Heart by adding a secondary option during character select, allowing players to choose between three different variations that change up certain moves and strings, making each cast member play quite differently.

These fighting styles open up two things. First, they give character loyalists the chance to have a variation that can possibly cover certain bad matchups. Second, it allows players who prefer a certain playstyle (be it zoning, rushdown, frame traps, etc.) to be able to use characters that normally wouldn’t interest them.

That said, these are far from totally new characters. Each variation still retains many of the same normals, specials, and, strings. The latter is quite important, as strings define a good part of a character’s neutral game. A large number of the strings and some combos that players will be looking out for when facing a character will generally remain the same across variations.

Variations can help characters deal with bad match ups.
Variations can help characters deal with bad matchups

But the question still remains as to how these variations should be handled in competition. While each version doesn’t constitute a totally new character, they still represent a shift in the matchup, which could be used as an argument against letting the winner of a match switch. That said, in both Melty Blood and Arcana Heart, which have similar systems (moon phases and Arcanas, respectively), these secondary options are not locked, as the communities for these games have deemed this choice to provide for a more interesting game.

Another new mechanic in Mortal Kombat X is the stamina meter. As mentioned before, this two-stock resource is consumed by using interactables, as well as other movement options like running and back dashing.

Unlike the way it was utilized in Mortal Kombat 3, runs are no longer assigned to their own button and are instead performed by holding pressing the block button during a dash. This sprinting allows characters a chance to close in on their opponents faster than if they just dashed, which is important as dash blocking–the ability to block out of dash and then dash in again–from the previous game has been removed.

Meanwhile, back dashing consumes an entire stock of the stamina bar. This means that players can only back dash twice in succession before having to wait for it to restock. This might be part of the way NetherRealm is addressing the strong zoning present in earlier titles, especially now that dash blocking is gone. Instead being able to back dash continuously, players who are playing keep away will need to learn to use pokes and combos to push their opponents out of their faces. This seems to be a fair trade now that approaching is more dangerous.

Backdashes are one of the things that consume stamina.
Back dashes are one of the things that consume stamina in Mortal Kombat X

Add that to the fact that setplay may turn out to be a strong force in Mortal Kombat X, and it’s possible NetherRealm meant for zoning to be less dominant this time around. Whether this is a good thing for competition in the long run, well, only time and tournament play will tell.

Faction Wars and Online

The first thing every player will do when booting up Mortal Kombat X is choose a faction. The game’s persistent “Faction War” awards points to players for performing select actions in game, both in single-player and multiplayer modes. At the end of each week, the faction with the most number of points wins that week’s war and gains certain rewards.

Faction War rewards players for continuing to play the game

The rewards themselves are mostly cosmetic and none change the game competitively in any way. That said, they do provide bragging rights and are a great incentive for players to keep playing the game, both offline and online.

Speaking of online, NetherRealm has done their best to address the complaints regarding the netcode of their other fighters, and Mortal Kombat X’s is noticeably improved from previous efforts.

Unfortunately, despite these strides, Mortal Kombat X’s netplay is still at least a generation behind games such as Killer Instinct and Skullgirls due to its use of variable input delay. This means that, to compensate for the inevitable lag caused by sending data between peers on the cloud, the game will change the amount of input delay, forcing players to constantly adjust their timings online. In contrast, the rollback based netcode present in its aforementioned contemporaries uses a smaller, fixed amount of delay, and utilizes rollbacks to deal with desyncs caused by network fluctuations.

In practice, this means that players will need to restrict their matches to other users with the best relative connections. The situation is pretty similar to fighters, such as those in Capcom’s Street Fighter IV series or the BlazBlue and Persona games developed by Arc System Works. Compared to these, Mortal Kombat X’s netcode fares much better, being somewhat comparable to Street Fighter IV’s, though Arc’s games are still the gold standard for variable delay netcode.

Another issue with online play, at least for the PlayStation 4 version (which our review copy happens to be), is the fact that online play is region-locked on that console. Players with North American copies of the game won’t be able to play with those in Europe or Asia, and vice versa. While it can be argued that this keeps netplay monsters from competing on bad, transoceanic connections, it does limit the online playerbase, slowing the matchmaking process.

Cinematic Story Mode

For those who don’t want to play online, Mortal Kombat X continues NetherRealm’s trend of strong single-player modes.

The main attraction when it comes to this experience is the game’s story mode. For the most part, the narrative follows a single, linear path that simply changes main characters for each chapter. This is in contrast to BlazBlue and Persona’s branching visual novel style or Dead or Alive’s system of showing multiple, related events and character arcs happening around the same time. NetherRealm’s method is simpler and more straightforward, giving players a chance to play as most of the characters without muddling the proceedings.

Where Mortal Kombat X goes beyond its predecessors, however, is in just how much more cinematic everything feels. The team are trying their best to capture the atmosphere of a summer blockbuster and, in line with this, more action takes place outside of the actual fights. However, to retain a sense of interactivity, quicktime events will keep you on your toes.

The addition of these quick time events to the story mode is interesting. To keep them from interfering with the core game, none of them happen in actual matches, but for anyone who simply wants to sit back and enjoy the cutscenes, they can be a bit jarring.

Press triangle button to dodge Scorpion's spear.
Press the triangle button to dodge Scorpion’s spear

Trying Out Downloadable Characters in Living Towers

Apart from the story mode, Mortal Kombat X also offers up diversions like the Krypt, Test Your Luck, and Towers. The lattermost provides various challenges for players to complete, including a survival mode, variations of Mortal Kombat’s classic Test Your Might mini-games, and all sorts of other ways to put a twist on the traditional fighting game experience.

One interesting thing that NetherRealm is trying out with Mortal Kombat X is the ability for players to try out any downloadable character for a limited amount of time in the Living Towers subsection. This allows fans who are on the fence about dropping money to try out new cast members before deciding whether or not to purchase them.

Try out DLC characters such as Smoke in the Living Towers mode.
Other classic combatants make appearances in Mortal Kombat X’s Towers

Better Start Training

For those that prefer to spend their alone time honing their skills in training mode, Mortal Kombat X offers a comprehensive amount of options. As with Injustice, the adjustments for the dummy opponent alone have their own separate page, allowing players to set up all sorts of situations to practice against. Additionally, multiple slots for recorded dummy actions are present where most other fighting games only have one.

Practice mode has a wealth of options, including an entire page for dummy settings

The training mode also gives better indication of where interactables can be activated by placing boxes on the floor that turn green when a nearby item is available. This is especially useful in learning the spacing for certain interactables that require the opponent to be close.

The game also allows players to change variations for both the character they control and the one they are practicing against without having to exit back to character select. While not a huge deal, it’s a nice touch that makes training a more seamless affair.

One feature that training mode lacks, however, is hitbox display. While this omission is by no means a deal breaker, it’s still disappointing to see a game without the feature in this day and age.

Legacy Controllers

We were provided a copy of the PlayStation 4 version for this review, which uses Lab Zero Games’ driver for generic USB controllers that allows most PlayStation 3 peripherals to work with the game.

But there’s one particular quibble when using legacy controllers. Each older item requires that a matching DualShock 4 is active in the system. This could definitely be an issue when trying to set up games between two players using PlayStation 3 arcade sticks or pads.

Aesthetics

So far, we’ve covered Mortal Kombat X’s gameplay and features. However, as a game that’s going to be played primarily on the latest console generation, we’re sure many folks are likely to also be concerned about its aesthetics. The good news is that this is an absolutely stunning game. It clearly looks more than a few steps ahead of its predecessors thanks to better lighting and more detailed character models.

In terms of design, Mortal Kombat X features a refinement of the style seen in NetherRealm’s previous games. While the lighting is still on the dark side, the color palette is more vibrant. Besides making for a richer experience, this also helps the characters stand out more from the background, even though the models still suffer from the fact that they aren’t lit to further separate them.

Aurally, this title features the same, somewhat subdued soundtrack as previous Mortal Kombat installments. The classic “Shao Kahn” announcer also returns, which is a welcome change from the rather uninspired, computer voice used in Injustice. Combine this with the series trademark semi-campy voice work and visceral sound effects, and you have a game that very much sounds like Mortal Kombat.

Special mention must be made for the heads-up display. This time out, NetherRealm have gone for a rather minimalist take on the traditional fighting game layout, making for a very crisp, uncluttered presentation, one that is in stark comparison to the many Japanese franchises that have elaborated on their displays as time has gone on. This simplified focus helps keep the spotlight on the action while still providing the player with the data that they need, and is something that we hope other fighting game developers adapt to their games.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Mortal Kombat X is still pretty much a Mortal Kombat game. People expecting something totally new should look somewhere else. However, as with any fighting game sequel, it’s the many changes that have been made to the base formula that help define the game in the face of its predecessors. NetherRealm Studios is taking some interesting risks with the way the game plays, adding in features to address what they may have seen as problems in previous titles.

The different character variations put a new spin on existing cast members while at the same time giving them more tools to better deal with certain matchups, though the changes to the game’s movement may possibly be just as game-changing in the long run. Combined with other system and balance changes, NetherRealm appears to be shooting for a more offensive and setplay-heavy game this time around. Whether or not this will turn out to be a positive adjustment remains to be seen.

If you’re not fond of competitive play, Mortal Kombat X provides a strong story mode, one that now features additional interactivity via quick time events, as well as a multitude of other single-player diversions. And with continued rewards via the Faction War system, there’s even more incentive to keep playing the game, either offline or online, with or without another person to face off against.

The one major fly in the ointment here is Mortal Kombat X’s online play. While not horrendous–in fact, it’s quite improved from previous NetherRealm titles and is just about on par with games that use the same type of netcode–it’s still saddled with variable delay. With many other fighters now sporting rollback-style netcode, it’s quite the letdown to see newer titles forgo its usefulness.

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Pros

  • Variation system adds more options for players.
  • System changes address issues with previous games.
  • Interactables aren’t as powerful as they were in Injustice.
  • There’s a sense that NetherRealm knows where it wants to move the game’s meta.
  • Faction War encourages players to keep playing the game.
  • Strong single-player component with multiple modes.
  • Varied training mode options.
  • Good graphics with vibrant colors that don’t blend into each other.
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Cons

  • Netcode, while greatly improved, still uses variable input delay.
  • Not everyone may enjoy the quick time events in story mode.
  • No hitbox/hitsphere display in training mode.
  • Systems seem to be biased towards a setplay, which may not be for everyone.
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Shoryuken's long time news hound. When not writing for SRK's front page, D3v spends part of his time helping run tournaments in the Philippines, including the country's biggest fighting game event, Manila Cup.