Hands-On Preview: The 90s are back! Now where'd I put those parachute pants?
Heading to PAX Prime this year accompanying Senior Editor Nicole Kline, I laid out two ground rules for her:
1) I would not take any pictures of her with cosplayers
2) We were going to play Mortal Kombat.
Luckily, one of those rules remained unbroken. Growing up, my mom was one of those parents who was appalled by the level of gratuitous gore and wouldn't buy me any of the games. When Mortal Kombat 3 was released on Sega Channel, I ecstatically stayed up late after she would go to bed, besting fellow Kombatants until defeating Shao Kahn and expelling his forces from Earthrealm. I stopped hiding my Kloseness with the series from my mom with the release of Deadly Alliance (a.k.a. MK5, the V still remains on the cover). This game set the tone for the last three chronological games in the series - bringing Mortal Kombat into full 3D gameplay with complex combat systems in order to compete with the likes of Virtua Fighter and Tekken.
With memories of countless sessions with my brother and friends mastering each character's moveset and memorizing fatalities, I had mixed feelings about the series returning to 2D. The last few games were well received and helped to shed the series reputation of style over substance. I desperately needed assurance that this was more than a gimmick to capitalize on the recent success of Street Fighter IV. Fortunately for us, our fears quickly had their skulls ripped out with their spines still attached.
First of all, the visual presentation of this game is amazing. The animations are incredibly fluid, minimizing any awkwardness you usually get in fighting games in between moves. Although the button sequences for fatalities were simplified for the sake of the show, I wouldn't be surprised if the characters no longer do an awkward dance when you try to perform the notorious finishing moves in the final game. The backgrounds are incredibly rendered, and the fact that it's all memorable scenery from the first three games (well, if you count the desert from UMK3 as a part of the third game) makes it a true joy to witness for old fans. One of the coolest parts of PAX was seeing all of the kiosks for Mortal Kombat set up like the vintage arcade cabinets with the title nostalgically placed over that classic red color the series has been known for. Although Xbox 360 controllers, and not fight sticks, were available to play with, the presentation alone was one of the highlights of the show.
Nicole and I got a chance to talk with a member of the team at Neverrealm Studios about the game while the two of us tried to disembowel each other. As has been circulating the blogosphere, Mortal Kombat takes place at the end of the last canonical entry, Armageddon - which, as you can gather from the title, ends bleakly. In a final chance to set things right, Raiden, thunder god and protector of earth realm, attempts to alter the past history of the tournament, and the game thus becomes a re-imagining of the first three entries. When we asked him if the story will play a bigger part in the single player tournament mode, he promised that Mortal Kombat will probably be the most story-intensive fighting game ever released.
Another ingredient the developers are boasting is that they've simplified accessibility for a broader audience while simultaneously offering incredible depth for hardcore fighter fans. Nicole and I decided to put this seemingly paradoxical claim to the test.
In our first match, we restricted ourselves to the ?pick up and play? prospect by button mashing and experimenting with the different moves. Nicole played as Kitana and I donned the cyborg threads of one of my personal favorites, Sektor. I was surprised at how much fun we were having just fooling around with the game's controls, and how intense the match actually got towards the end of round 3 as we both realized just how badly we wanted to win. The game is incredibly fast-paced, balanced with just the right amount of health to provide for a satisfying length of visually impressive battles. We also got to witness the fully charged super meter which, after gathering enough hits on your opponent, initiates a brutal sequence of bone-shattering moves, viewed via x-ray. These parts seem to supplement the response-gathering nature of fatalities, but also add in resource management to the mechanics; you can use the full super meter to begin these attacks or use smaller segments of it to power up your specials.
For our next fight, we wanted to dip a little further into the combat system, so this time, we looked at the move list before we began exchanging blows. Nicole chose Night Hawk and I could not let PAX go by without checking out Sub-Zero. We used basic combos and specials, like Sub-Zero's new ice blade combo and his classic slide, but I quickly noticed how we were unintentionally linking in additional hits and specials to supplement them. It was here that I really noticed the developers' notion of the move animations being so smooth, that players will begin to create their own combos instead of ?dialing in? pre-determined ones from the list. As the online community of this game develops, we're really going to start seeing some unbelievable and unique chains being pulled off by top players. Out of all the demos we saw at PAX, Mortal Kombat may have the most promising metagame, or at least the most interesting.
Ed Boon, co-creator of the franchise, was standing just a few feet away from us, talking with his fellow team members and watching the countless fans enjoying his game. After performing one of the fatalities, I couldn't help but shout ?Thank you, Ed!!!? He looked up trying to see who said it and I clarified ?Thank you,? motioning all around me, ?for all this!? which elicited a smile. I got a picture with him afterwards and told him he was one of my childhood heroes. PAX is always about the great feelings of being a gamer, surrounded by fans getting to preview titles they otherwise never would before launch, and Mortal Kombat definitely added to the great ambiance the expo had this year.