Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mortal Kombat Kollector's Edition (Xbox 360) Review

"Finish Him." I was 11 or 12 years old when I first heard these words echoing in my local arcade, and I remember wandering up to the cabinet to watch what the other kids were playing. What I saw was Johnny Cage knocking someone's head clean off, and I was mesmerized. Street Fighter II was the dominant fighter at the time, but it failed to entertain me. Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, that was something special.

I loved the digital actors, the character design, the game's more realistic oriental setting, and of course, I was blown away by the Fatalities and gore. Street Fighter II might have been faster paced, but Mortal Kombat seemed more real, more intense, and more mature. I was hooked.

I followed the franchise faithfully, buying various ports for my Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Nintendo Game Boy all the way up to the release of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 in arcades. One thing that irked me with that release was that Midway had pulled a Capcom, releasing an updated version of a game instead of a new game, and that concept never sat well with me. I had also started getting into PC gaming and first person shooters and was well on my way to leaving fighting games behind. So the Mortal Kombat franchise faded into a fond memory of my early to mid teenage years, and I only paid it vague attention when the franchise continued onto last generation's consoles.

Flash forward to Spring 2011, and NetherRealm Studios, Midway reformed under Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, releases Mortal Kombat, a reboot of the franchise that takes it back to its roots. The game begins at the end of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon with all the fighters dead and Raiden attempting one last time to defeat Shao Khan. Khan proves too tough for the god of thunder, and as Raiden dies he sends visions back to his past self just before the Shaolin Tournament of the first game, and thus the franchise unfolds anew.

Mortal Kombat retells and updates the original trilogy, with every character, boss, and secret character featured and most being playable. There are 27 playable kombatants in all to choose from, though two need to be unlocked by progressing through the Story Mode, and there are several game modes available and a significant amount of content on the disc to keep you busy.

The Story Mode has received much praise and attention, and I must say that I quite enjoyed it. Broken up into Chapters based on what kombatant you're required to play as, it's not an overly complicated piece of storytelling as the Mortal Kombat story has always been cheesy, but so long as you don't take it too seriously it gets the job done. Story Mode transitions from in-game cinematic to fights seamlessly and is most impressive, though the dialogue preempting these fights tends to be laughable. Honestly, the high and mighty dialogue all the characters spout can really be broken down into the following:

Kombatant 1: "Hey you, let's fight."
Kombatant 2: "Them's fighting words."

Really, some conversations are just thinly veiled versions of exactly that (I'm looking at you, Smoke and Cage vs. Jade)! Still though, the Story Mode is fun and you'll often find yourself, always as one kombatant, pitted against two or more opponents who are either tagging in and out or must be defeated one at a time. This adds to the challenge of the Story Mode as it progresses through the first three games to a climax I certainly did not expect.

While I liked the retelling of Mortal Kombat (though throughout the story there are many key changes that simply couldn't have resulted from Raiden sending his memories back to himself, such as Shang Tsung hiring the Lin Quei to assassinate Earth Realm warriors in the events of the first game as opposed to Sub-Zero being sent to assassinate him) and I loved the retelling of Mortal Kombat II, I wasn't so keen on the Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 sections and the story rather fell apart for me there. I was never a big fan of that game's story or new characters to begin with, and my love for them hasn't increased much in this modern Mortal Kombat. When all is said and done, I personally found the game's Story Mode ending disappointing and anti-climatic, but at least the gameplay is fun and consistent throughout the whole experience.

Once you're done with Story Mode, there's several other options for you to explore. The first would be Arcade Ladder, which is Mortal Kombat in its most classic form. You pick your kombatant and begin your fight to the top of the ladder, facing off against characters and on stages found throughout the whole game. The Arcade Ladder has the traditional two round matches, but this can be adjusted in the game's options and of course there are classic hidden characters to find and challenge.

Tag Ladder is also available, which allows you to choose two fighters and progress up a Ladder taking on two opponents at once. Pressing Left Bumper will tag between your kombatants and you can also perform tag combos and special moves for added damage, but I personally found myself unimpressed with Tag Ladder outside of milking some Achievements. Why? I often found that I couldn't tag out when I needed to and I could see no reason why Left Bumper wasn't working. I know my Controller is fine as I've tried with two different Controllers, and the experience just became annoying to me. Arcade Ladder doesn't suffer from this complication, so that's the Ladder I'll personally be spending most of my time with.

Another interesting addition to the franchise is the Challenge Tower. NetherRealm Studios has put together a whopping 300 individual Challenges for players to conquer, all of varying degrees of difficulty. Some conventional examples are: You end up fighting without any arms, removing those kinds of special moves and throws. You could end up only being able to defeat your opponent by hitting them with all of your special moves. You could end up having to fight three Goros back to back to back, etc.

Some unconventional scenarios see you stuck on the spot and tagging in and out of place between two kombatants using specific projectile special moves to defeat waves of Zombies, story based missions reoccur with Liu Kang and Kung Lao questing to defeat Shang Tsung's forces amongst others, and conventional Test Your Might challenges are introduced throughout as well as Test Your Sight (watch the spinning cups!), Test Your Strike (more of a precision Test Your Might), and Test Your Luck (spin for random variables to occur which modify gameplay).

The great pro and con of the Challenge Tower is that for the first 299 Challenges, you can not select your kombatant; he or she is pre-determined. This has the benefit of teaching you how to use every character to some degree, and demonstrates through simple use what most of their special moves do, but it also has the con of potentially leaving you stuck on a hard Challenge with a fighter you stink with. Challenge 251, you will forever have my middle finger pointed in your general direction.

Every time you fail a Challenge and restart it the Challenge slowly becomes easier, thus allowing everyone to complete the Challenge Tower over time, though for the whole tower you're likely looking at a commitment of several hours. The final challenge was by far my favourite. Allowing you to select your kombatant, it was a wonderful test of endurance that was no where near as hard as everyone kept telling me it was. It took me about seven attempts and I even got a few Flawless Victories on it, and I'll actually be going back to replay it a few times.

Of course, you can also take your kombat prowess online to compete over Xbox LIVE. Mortal Kombat does have an online pass included in the case of your new retail game which you'll need to activate, something I'm sure we'll see become more and more a standard for the industry as time goes on. Once done you can play in ranked and unranked matches, join chat rooms to set up non-match made fights, and participate in the online-only King of the Hill game type which features your Xbox 360 Avatars as spectators and a voting system for Respect Points.

Since the game launched, I've seen players complain about nothing but horrible online lag, and my brief experience with the game over Xbox LIVE confirms this. For a game where precision and timing are key, lag not only hurts but the amount of lag I experienced is completely unacceptable. I only played two games over Xbox LIVE before I decided to call it quits, and while I hear that NetherRealm Studios is working to address the lag I don't intent to return to online arenas until the issue is greatly improved.

Sadly, this means I have not experienced King of Hill, which I want to, and should the lag actually be addressed to satisfaction I'll do so and update this review accordingly. As far as I'm concerned, as of this typing Mortal Kombat's online play is in a "beta" state and not acceptable as a retail product. This really hurts what's an otherwise solid product and is very disappointing, though thankfully you can still do local matches with friends on your couch like with consoles of old.

Regardless of the game mode your playing in, as you progress, defeat opponents and pull of finishing moves your earn Koins, which you can then use for a variety of purposes. The primary use of Koins is to spend them on unlockables in the Krypt. Featuring well over 200 items ranging from Concept Art, Alternate Costumes, and Secondary Fatalities, there's lots of bonus items for you to feast your eyes and ears on. The Krypt also contains the Nekropolis where you can view all of the playable kombatants Bios, close up renders of them in their various costumes (with or without damage), your stats with them, and their Arcade Ladder endings should you have already completed the Ladder with them.

Koins can also be used in the Challenge Tower to bypass an extremely difficult Challenge, allowing you to continue to progress up the Tower and return to that problematic scenario later.

Mortal Kombat uses the Unreal Engine 3, and without any exaggeration it's a beautiful looking Xbox 360 game. My first impression when I popped in that disc for the first time was how amazing and detailed the characters and environments look. In honest truth, I haven't been this impressed with a game's character models since Mass Effect and a game's environments since Halo: Reach. Facial expressions and lip syncing are highly detailed, blood, gore, and Fatalities are gruesome, and physics are everywhere (and yes, that includes the female kombatants oversized novelty breasts. Down boy). If nothing else, kudos to NetherRealm Studios' artists and animators for an exceptional job well done.

The games voice acting is good with some previously mentioned cheesy dialogue, and the music, be it new tracks or remixes of old, are excellent and quite nostalgic. Effects sound precise and to the point, and yes, I loved hearing that classic "Get Over Here!."

For Controls, the game handles alright but in truth the Xbox 360 D-Pad really isn't that precise. The Triggers and Face Buttons respond just fine (though the game is quite unforgiving in its use of dial-a-combos, making some of them hard to execute), but doing rolling motions with the D-Pad tends to mess up a lot. Trying to Teleport with Scorpion, for example, will often have him jumping back and kicking instead of pulling off his Special Move. Instead of rolling with your thumb, I've found that actually tapping the directions tends to have better results, though still with about a 75% success rate. So for Teleport, instead of rolling down to back I'd literally press down, then back. I suppose you could also try using the Left Stick as this does work as well, but I had even less luck pulling off Special Moves with that.

There's no doubt that there's a lot of nostalgia in Mortal Kombat for me, and I am enjoying the game immensely. Having said that though, I do wish the developers would finally ditch the coin-op AI. Like the classic arcade days of old, Mortal Kombat's AI is ridiculously cheap on harder difficulties or in several Challenges in the Challenge Tower. It will instantly counter, Block, and combo the snot out of you and it always seems to win in contests of landing that special move, Breaker, or throw. In the coin-op days this was designed so players would continue to pump quarters into the machine. The AI opponent would get easier each time until you finally defeated them and then the next opponent would be crazy cheap again, requiring you to spend more quarters. While that worked for that business model, is it really necessary for a modern day console game? I personally think not, and I'd love to see more time invested in developing a better AI as opposed to a Cheaper AI.

While the AI itself hasn't lost any of the cheapness of old, the combat system has seen many improvements. Much to my surprise High Punch, Low Punch etc. are gone, replaced with Front Punch, Back Punch, etc. and they're placed oddly on the Face Buttons of the Controller, but thankfully this console game's controls are re-mappable. Run has also been removed, and now you can Dash forward or back a few steps which has many tactical applications in reaching or avoiding an opponent in close combat, and Throw has also been given its own button (Right Bumper by default).

Super Metres have also been added, which contain three key points in the overall bar. As you successful damage your opponent or if you're taking a beating, your Super Metre charges. When it reaches the first third you can execute an Enhanced Special move. Using Scorpion as an example again, his Enhanced Spear will then launch three Spears, adding to the damage done to his opponent. This of course depletes part of the Super Metre.

If you wait until the Super Metre reaches two thirds full, you can unlock a Combo Breaker, which is activated by pressing Forward and Block at the very beginning of an opponent hitting you with a combo. You'll break the Combo taking only minor damage, depleting some of your Super Metre of course, and your opponent will briefly be vulnerable to counterattack. It should be noted that you don't need Breakers to counter throws, and you can do so anytime by pressing either Punch button right at the moment your opponent grabs you.

If you let your Super Metre fill up completely you'll be able to use your Character's X-Ray move. This is an extremely high damaging attack that is so brutal, the game will display an X-Ray of your opponent's bones and internal organs as they take massive damage. Visually spectacular to behold, these moves are as stunning and enjoyable as they are deadly, and if timed correctly they'll win you matches.

Of course, knowing when to pull off an X-Ray move, a Breaker, or an Enhanced Special Move is the trademark of a good player and provides a great deal of tactical options, and the fact that your Super Metre will fill when you take damage can allow you to come back from defeat in a match. Learn when to strike and when to be patient as you assault your foe, and you'll start racking up more consistent victories.

NetherRealm Studios packed a lot of content onto that game disc, with several great modes to enjoy and lots of fighters to play as and master. The biggest shame though is online play, who's lag is a massive let down and huge con, and the game's cheap AI can prove rather frustrating as well. Despite this, whether you are playing solo or with some buddies on your couch, there's a lot of Mortal Kombat in Mortal Kombat. The ridiculously high replay value, combined with stunning visuals and a wonderfully updated and improved 2D combat system that screams of a healthy merger between classic and refinement makes for a thoroughly enjoyable nostalgic trip. Even with its flaws I find that Mortal Kombat is an easy game to recommend, one that's simple to learn but hard to master, and wonderfully reminiscent of what captivated my young impressionable mind 18 years ago.

Update: Early this past Summer, the horrendous lag that plagued Mortal Kombat's online play since launch was resolved via a Title Update, and as promised, now that I've spent a lot of time with the game over Xbox LIVE I'm updating this review accordingly.

Lag is still present, especially if your opponent has a lesser internet connection, but what remains is negligible and it's just a shame that it took NetherRealm Studios about two and a half months to resolve the issue. When the Title Update was released I was enjoying Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe and grinding that game's online play as Scorpion. In August, I turned my attention to Mortal Kombat and looking for a new kombatant to spend a lot of time with I selected Mileena as my champion.

In a little over a month I played a grand total of 252 Ranked Matches, winning 143 of those with a Best Streak of 12 games. I made it into the top 5000 players and greatly enjoyed myself, so much so that Mortal Kombat has now become my most played game over Xbox LIVE (in terms of number of games). Considering my limited time for gaming these days, that certainly says something!

Like any other fighting game many players simply spam or try to cheap their wins, but for the most part so long as you think while you fight and learn the patterns everyone copies from one another you should be able to do fine. NetherRealm Studios also releases regular balance updates which happen seamlessly when you connect online, and this further refines and balances the overall gameplay experience.

What is a shame is that like Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, several of the online-based Achievements are glitched. If an opponent disconnects or even quits a match early legitimately, the match may not count towards some rather time consuming Achievements. As a result, "Wavenet" and "The Competitor" can take a lot longer to earn amongst others, but at least you'll have a blast while doing it.

I also dabbled in King of the Hill and it seems like a really great game mode. It's fun to watch others pound on one another and to tinker with expressions for your Avatar, and when you're fighting in a match yourself you can easily switch to full screen mode by pressing "Back," which I recommend as it'll help you focus better.

My only gripe with King of the Hill is that in a full room you're going to spend a lot of time spectating, possibly more so than playing, which doesn't work so well for me given I usually only have an hour a day to game. With that amount of time at my disposal when I'm online to play I want to play, simple as that.

Regardless, I'm quite glad that Mortal Kombat's online play was fixed, at least from a lag perspective. There's a robust online experience here with great Ranked and Player matches to be had, and King of the Hill adds in a new aspect of fun if you've got the time to kill. I do wish they would have added Test Your Luck as a Multiplayer mode as the random variables would have made for some great and unique matches, but I suppose one can't have everything.

Really though, Mortal Kombat is an excellent experience and an extremely complete package. There's so much to offer on the core game disc that if you have any interest in fighting games or the franchise at all you need to pick this game up.

Update #2: Several months after release I caved and bought the Mortal Kombat Kollector's Edition. For those unaware, it comes with:

- A copy of Mortal Kombat
- Scorpion vs. Sub-Zero Bookends
- The Art of Mortal Kombat book
- A downloadable token for the Ermac Retro Costume
- A downloadable token for the Xbox 360 Avatar Scorpion Costume
- A downloadable token for the Xbox 360 Avatar NetherRealm Studios T-Shirt

It was the bookends that I really wanted, though I must confess I loved the Art Book and my Avatar is looking pretty slick dressed up as Scorpion.

Now the box for the Mortal Kombat Kollector's Edition itself is, of course, quite large to properly hold the bookends, and they're packaged in there securely to prevent them from being moved around and damaged. There was actually an extra bit of padding where Sub-Zero's right hand touches the inside of the box, which is a really great packaging thought, as this hand could easily have been hit and broken. The box itself also sports a very cool Goro's Lair theme, enhancing the overall look of the package itself.

The bookends are simply fantastic, and I absolutely love them. Made out of plastic, they are gorgeously painted and extremely detailed and worth it for any collector and fan of the franchise. Scorpion's Spear is tied to a rope like in past titles as opposed to a chain like in the current game, but this is a minor knit pick. My original intention was to place these bookends on my mantle once my place is built, but since they're plastic I'm worried they might get damaged when the gas fireplace is on for too long so I'll place them elsewhere when the time comes.

Having bought several collector's editions for other games in the past, I can say that I'm quite used to included art books and what many say is true, you look at them and read them once and then never again. This won't be the case for me with The Art of Mortal Kombat. The book is filled with excellent information and nostalgia and comments from the designers on how they tried to model everything new while retaining the spirit of the original trilogy. I know I'll be leafing through this book a few more times just to take it all in. Regrettably some of the ink appears to have run during printing, and one page in particular is hard to read but there's not much on that page that I know I'm missing. Manufacturing defects are unfortunate, but I'll take this over a broken bookend easy.

The Ermac Retro Costume is a Mortal Kombat (1992) red ninja outfit, which I find amusing since Ermac was not in that game 0utside of rumour, and the Avatar items are, like any other Avatar item, a nice bonus but nothing I'd buy on their own.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the Mortal Kombat Kollector's Edition. Several collector's editions that I've picked up recently have been disappointing or filled with items that I considered useless, but I don't regret picking this one up one bit, even though I already purchased the core game back at launch. Of course like any other collector's edition the worth of the bonus content is all in the purchaser and how much a fan he/she is of the franchise, and me, I've really, really gotten back into Mortal Kombat.

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