There's a lot to love about Mortal Kombat 11. The grind, though, can do one.
There's so much to love about Mortal Kombat 11, a kind of Mortal Kombat greatest hits package and certainly NetherRealm's best-playing fighting game ever. But then there's a gnawing issue that drags down all the good the game does, like skeletal hands clawing at your feet.
The combat is considered. The action is hard hitting and high damage, but Mortal Kombat 11 is not a blisteringly fast fighter. Zoning - the act of lobbing projectile after projectile from a safe distance - is prevalent, as it always is with NetherRealm's games, but I've found success and a good deal of satisfaction getting up close and personal. Spacing is key, as is your ability to whiff punish your opponents for their mistakes. You'll also want a few low-high mix-up strings to hand and quickfire hit-confirming to turn those hopeful prods into juggles. For maximum carnage, special cancel into an eye-popping Fatal Blow.
If all this sounds like gibberish, fear not. Mortal Kombat 11 has perhaps the best tutorial yet seen in a fighting game. It eases you into an understanding of the way Mortal Kombat 11 - and indeed most 2D fighting games - work. I like to think I know my way around a frametrap, but Mortal Kombat 11's tutorial taught me a thing or two and refreshed my memory of a few fundamentals I'd long-since forgotten.
It's ace for fighting game newcomers, too, and NetherRealm, clearly mindful of the casual audience its games attract compared to the likes of Capcom's Street Fighter series, starts with the basics and ramps up slowly but assuredly. If all you want out of Mortal Kombat 11 is to have a bit of a laugh with the Fatal Blows, Fatalities (which are excellent, by the way - more on that later) and the story mode (also excellent!), Mortal Kombat 11 is as accessible as you need it to be.
Don't get me wrong, Mortal Kombat 11 is still a fighting game and venturing online can be an intimidating experience, but the tutorial does just about all that can be asked of it to get players going. And, once you've gone through the initial tutorial lessons, it's a case of learning as much as you want to learn about what makes Mortal Kombat 11 tick. It's a game that tells you everything if you want it to, from frame data to block damage, or nothing, if that's how you want to roll.
Stick with the tutorial, though, and you'll learn about the likes of Crushing Blows - attacks that hit harder and change the game if they land under certain circumstances. I love the Crushing Blows, and find myself trying to set them up so I can launch into combos. You'll learn about new defensive abilities, which help you out of tight, high-stress situations such as being battered in the corner. The only combo breaker in the game, dubbed Breakaway, sees you drop from a juggle onto the floor, and it's great for saving yourself from suffering a lot of combo damage. Every character has a couple of wakeup attack options (great for mind games!), multiple overhead hops, escape rolls and can amplify special moves. There's a lot of really useful stuff in Mortal Kombat 11 designed to help you deal with being stomped on, and I appreciate it.
Speaking of the meter, Mortal Kombat 11 has two: a defensive meter and an offensive meter. Each is divided up into two bars, which replenish over time (and not from your actions). Most of the more interesting mechanics use some amount of meter. Amplify a special move to, say, do more damage or keep a combo going, and you'll burn one bar of offensive meter. The Breakaway combo breaker burns two bars of the defensive meter. Waking up with a getup attack burns a bar of both. Mortal Kombat 11's meter system is pretty unique, and while I do worry it adds complication where it's not needed, what cannot be denied is it adds an interesting layer of strategy.
As do the Fatal Blows. These super moves only open up to you once you're near death, and can win you a round such is the amount of damage they do. But there's a strategy to their deployment. As you'd expect, your opponent can usually see them coming, so recklessly throwing them out - armour and all - isn't smart. Instead you want to use them as combo enders for dramatic wins - or comebacks.
There's more: interestingly, Fatal Blows can only be used once per match (most fighting games let you use your supers more than once per match), so you may want to save it for the final round. If you've got one on deck, you'll notice your opponent act like they know it could come out at any moment. If you burn it early, your opponent will feel more relaxed. Mind games are a big part of Mortal Kombat 11, and it's all the better for it.
The series - and indeed NetherRealm's fighting games - have been criticised over the years for their janky movement and animations. Mortal Kombat 11 doesn't eradicate these issues, but it does a lot to improve matters. Some of the animation work here is superb, with characters moving about more naturally than in previous games. There is still a kind of staccato two-step that comes with NetherRealm's back forward/down up input legacy, but Mortal Kombat 11 is undeniably the best-feeling fighting game the studio has ever produced.
And it looks the part, too. It's not gorgeous, because the word gorgeous makes me think of summertime gardens and the sun setting slowly over a hill. Mortal Kombat 11 looks striking. Light breaks into Goro's underground lair and splashes out over piles of bones. Shao Kahn's leather straps seem to creak as he brings his hammer down on his hapless enemy's skull. The moon shines bright in the night sky as those two famous Mortal Kombat warriors fight forever on the stone bridge in the distance. The violence - is this still a thing worth discussing? - is hilariously over-the-top. It is also utterly unrealistic. Blood looks like jelly, bone defies the laws of physics and characters make other characters do things you can't help but laugh at. Shao Khan has one Fatality where he strikes down with his hammer on the top of his opponent's head and it squishes into their chest. I chuckle every time.
Oh, the character faces are superb! NetherRealm did glorious work with the superhero and villain faces of Injustice 2, and Mortal Kombat 11's faces are just as good, if not better. Sub-Zero and Scorpion's are highlights - as are those belonging to central characters Cassie Cage, Jax Briggs and Kano. NetherRealm is a level above other fighting game developers when it comes to this stuff, which is good news for the story, a mode in which you spend a lot of time looking at character faces doing emotions.
NetherRealm has a reputation for superb story modes and it reinforces it with Mortal Kombat 11. It's schlocky, nostalgia-fuelled fun that revolves around clashing Mortal Kombat characters of different eras. This is a wonderful plot device for some comedy gold, and Mortal Kombat remains one of the few genuinely funny games around. As you'd expect, young Johnny Cage and old Johnny Cage have some good bants. And it doesn't make much sense at all. Early on, Cassie must complete one final task before she's accepted as the bad ass soldier she was born to be: she has to beat up her mum, Sonya Blade. You control Cassie in this fight, and I ended up drilling a hole through my mum's eye socket, into her brain and out the back of her skull. "Commander Cage, reporting for duty!" Cassie says, helping her mum to her feet. It's stupid and I love it.
There are what are meant to be heartfelt moments. There's a hint of a complex character in Jax, a father who goes off the deep end while grieving the loss of his wife. But the brilliance of Mortal Kombat 11 is it knows exactly what it is and doesn't try to be anything else. It knows it's preposterous and it doesn't take itself seriously. So when Jacqui partners up with young Jax - her father-to-be - to knock some sense into her dad, you don't scoff - you root for the good guys.
Structurally, the story mode follows the same pattern as Injustice 2's. You sit back and watch the cutscenes - many of which are smothered in generous dollops of juxtaposition and kung-fu action - then transition into a three-round fight between whichever character the chapter revolves around (sometimes you can pick between one of two characters to control) and the villain of the scene. Rinse, repeat until the story ends, a handful of hours later. This kind of fighting game story structure starts to grate after a while, but thankfully the plot hurtles along at a pace you're perfectly happy to keep up with.
The dialogue is well-written and the voice acting is superb, although former UFC fighter and current WWE star Ronda Rousey is awful as Sonya Blade. Her robotic tone sticks out like a sore thumb against Erica Lindbeck's brilliantly sassy Cassie Cage and Andrew Bowen's neurotic young Johnny Cage/family man old Johnny Cage. It doesn't help that every time Rousey speaks in the game I can't help but question NetherRealm's decision to cast someone who has seriously troubling views on various topics. This was a PR stunt that should never have left the marketing room, let alone made it into the game.
So, you've done the tutorial, whizzed through the story mode and now you're ready to get stuck into Mortal Kombat 11 proper. This is where the game can feel a bit overwhelming, as there's a lot of modes to consider - and, what's that? Icons at the bottom of the screen and numbers next to them. Ah, they must be virtual currencies. Sorry! Kurrencies.
If Mortal Kombat 11 has an endgame - and I think it does, remarkably - it is a grind. And what a grind it is. What was once a fighting game series is now an odd mishmash of genres. There's RPG in here, with character builds, crafting and farming for materials. There's a loot game in here, via the surprisingly expansive Krypt. And there's PvE and PvP modes to play, some timed, some constant, each offering a different set of rewards. Whatever takes your fancy, you're always working away at Mortal Kombat 11's ever-present, overly complicated grind. It is the foundation upon which the game is built.
Here's how it works. There are three in-game currencies in Mortal Kombat 11. Koins, soul fragments and hearts. Each is earnt through gameplay. You cannot buy these with real-world money. Koins are spent on opening chests that contain a random assortment of loot in the Krypt, a huge area made up of familiar locations from the Mortal Kombat series linked by secret tunnels, elevators and trap-riddled corridors. You explore the Krypt via a generic fighter character and a third-person camera perspective, which is quite the thing to see in a mainline Mortal Kombat game.
There's a Metroidvania feel to the place - some areas must be returned to once you've found the right key item needed to proceed - and there are loads of nice surprises and puzzles I won't spoil here. As a longtime Mortal Kombat fan, there's a lot to love about the Krypt. It's littered with fan service, is packed with secrets and is fun to explore. Brilliantly, the Krypt is narrated by Shang Tsung, Mortal Kombat's famous soul-obsessed sorcerer who's wonderfully-voiced by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Tagawa played Shang Tusng in the so bad it's actually good Mortal Kombat movie from the 90s, and he reprises his role here with an infectious glee.
Unfortunately, it turns out the Krypt is the beating heart of Mortal Kombat 11's grind, which becomes apparent when you consider this not as a fighting game, but as a loot game. There's this serious fighting game side to things, which NetherRealm neatly compartmentalises in the fight section, and the loot game, which fuses the Towers of Time and the Krypt in this awkward embryonic state, each relying on the other to feed the player with currency.
I've settled on a loop where I play the Towers of Time, a set of time-limited player versus computer challenges - some of which are so difficult they feel unfair - in order to farm koins, soul fragments and hearts. I then spend these in the Krypt, hoping to get loot I want. Most of the time I get trash - aka loot that I don't care about because it's a piece of gear or some concept art for a character I don't play. I focus on a few characters (Shao Khan, Cassie Cage and Jacqui Briggs, currently), and I want the best skins and gear for them. Everything else just gets in the way, although, I must confess, there are some lovely bags available for The Kollector - bags he stuffs his enemies inside.
You earn currency too slowly. Even though NetherRealm recently patched the game to make it dish out currency more generously, Mortal Kombat 11 is a stingy game. The rate you earn hearts, which unlock the Krypt chests with the juicy loot, is particularly miserly. You get a handful of hearts for performing Fatalities and Brutalities during a match, so you find yourself doing these in all the time just to make sure you keep hearts trickling in.
Mortal Kombat 11 has been accused of being a microtransaction-fest, but this fear is misplaced, I think. The only thing you can spend real world money on is a premium currency called Time Krystals. Time Krystals can, currently at least, only be spent on character skins, Brutalities, gear and, bizarrely, easy Fatality tokens (easy Fatality tokens must be one of the most pointless video game microtransactions of all time). The thing about all this is, the virtual items you can buy with Time Krystals are on a timer. When the countdown hits zero, they're replaced by a fresh set of items. This means when you see something you're interested in, you're more likely to buy it because you may never get the chance to buy it again. Why? Because chests in the Krypt contain random loot, not set loot, and, oh yes, now I see why the live service revenue lever pullers at Warner Bros. did that. Clever.
The furore over microtransactions has distracted from the real problem with Mortal Kombat 11's grind: time. It just takes too much time to earn the currency you need to get a chance at nabbing the cool loot you want for your favourite characters. It's that simple. I don't think Mortal Kombat 11 is about pushing people to spend loads of money on microtransactions. Rather, I think it's more about pushing people to log on as often as possible, checking out stuff like daily challenges, the skins on sale that day and the rewards available from the Towers of Time. If the grind is about anything, it's about engagement.
My other niggles with the game revolve around the variation system. Here, you take one of the characters and select their abilities and gear augments, creating a unique twist of your own to, theoretically at least, ensure a huge amount of variety in competitive play. The problem is ranked mode limits you to picking from two pre-set tournament builds per character. I don't have as big an issue with this as others seem to. As someone who spends time in the lab fussing over execution, combos and working out some of the finer details all in the name of meaningful competition, I appreciate NetherRealm's attempt to level the playing field, and I'm sure reconciling the variation system with the need to craft a balanced fighting experience would have been a nightmare.
But I know for a huge number of players, limiting ranked play to two pre-set variations per character - some of which do not include the best special moves - makes spending a lot of time with character builds pointless. Why come up with imaginative ability combinations when you can't bring them over into ranked? It's a shame, because experimentation with variations and working out what's possible with the combo system is a joy - and something Mortal Kombat 11 lets you do that most other fighting games do not.
I find myself in the somewhat uncomfortable but, sadly, increasingly common situation of recommending a game reportedly produced under damaging crunch at NetherRealm. I feel it's important to shine a light on worrying working conditions in reviews, but it does not feel right to warn people against buying what is for the most part a wonderful video game because of it - I'm sure the last thing the developers of Mortal Kombat 11 want is some kind of sales boycott. But crunch is a very real issue for many developers across the world. To ignore it is to condone it, especially when it seems every triple-A video game's production is now as hellish as that of Apocalypse Now's.
Overall, though, I can't let this - or the grind - overshadow what is for the most part a fantastic fighting game. Mortal Kombat 11 is the complete package with modes for days, a wonderful story, brilliant characters and hard-hitting combat. I'm thoroughly enjoying playing ranked mode, shaving the rough edges off my rushdown Shao Khan and unearthing all the secrets of the Krypt along the way. The grind is an ever-present frustration, but it is also something I am willing to power through - like Shao Khan's hammer to my opponent's head.