Name: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
As a longtime fan of both fictional universes, I nearly exploded in excitement over the announcement of Mortal Kombat crossing over with DC Comics. Sure, it’s an odd pairing: DC’s bright, primary-colored do-gooders and ne’er-do-wells and MK’s grim, blood-soaked warriors, but the prospect of seeing Superman, Batman, the Joker and Wonder Woman in a fighting game alone made me giddy. Throw in a fighting engine that looked to hearken back to the early days of the Mortal Kombat franchise, and an all-star lineup of MK’s finest, and this was the best news this side of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. Over the months since its announcement, however, my confidence about the game had eroded with each disappointing piece of news that emerged. The toning down of MK’s trademark Fatalities, the Teen rating, and the editing of the Joker’s mind-blowingly cool finisher for the American version all made me wonder if the game would be worthy of the Mortal Kombat name. I am pleased to say that not only is it worthy, it’s the best MK game since 1995.
The story that brings together these disparate universes is paper thin, but it’s well told. A pair of simultaneous teleportation mishaps in each universe causes the realities to begin merging. As characters (kharacters?) begin popping up in the wrong worlds, contaminated by a mysterious Kombat Rage, unlikely combatants are pitted against each other. As the mystery of the joined universes unfolds, former enemies must put aside their differences (and their all-encompassing Kombat Rage) to join forces against Dark Khan; a new threat formed by the union of Mortal Kombat’s chief baddie, Shao Khan, and DC’s nihilistic demigod, Darkseid. There are two different story modes; one from the point of view of each universe. Both stories feature scripts from DC Comic writers, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, and it shows. Characters from both realities act exactly how you’d expect them to, and the two narratives have very different tones to them that fit their subject material perfectly. There are even a few nods to hardcore (hardkore?) fans of each universe that illustrate the writers’ affection for the source material. Characters’ voices aren’t at risk of winning any Oscars, but they’re serviceable, and generally fit the various heroes and villains.
Fans of old-school Mortal Kombat action will be delighted with the fighting engine in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Gone are the weapons and multiple fighting styles from the last few iterations, as are the super-long chain combos, replaced with shorter chains that can be linked together with other attacks to form long juggle combos. The quick, twitchy combat action found in MK3 is back, and for the first time in years, Mortal Kombat feels like Mortal Kombat again. In addition to the standard four attack buttons, there’s also a block button, a throw button and a grapple button. The throw simply hurls an opponent across the ring, but the grapple button initiates a new mini-game called Klose Kombat. In this mode, the camera (kamera?) zooms in close for a cinematic view while the defender attempts to match the button presses of the aggressor before he can execute four attacks. There is also a similar Freefall Kombat mode, which takes place while both combatants fall from one platform to another, trying to gain the upper hand before slamming to the ground, and a reenvisioned “Test Your Might” mode that amounts to a button mashing contest.
As you fight, you’ll fill up two yellow bars under your health. These Rage Meters not only represent the Kombat Rage that has everyone at each other’s throats, but they also give fighters two new options. Defensively, you can use one full bar to auto-counter any single attack with a Kombo Breaker. Alternately, you can use both full bars to enter Rage Mode, where your attacks are unblockable and you become unstoppable for a brief period. These new wrinkles break up the pace of fights nicely, and add a new layer while not impinging on the core gameplay. Classic moves like the leg sweep and uppercut are back, along with just about every special move from the history of MK. Scorpion’s spear, Rayden’s lightning bolts and Liu Kang’s fireballs are all here, along with a new set of abilities wielded by DC’s warriors. Anyone worried about how the powers and abilities of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and company would translate to an MK game should put their concerns aside. Every character acts the way they should, and there’s a great sense of balance to the characters; no one fighter seems to have a noticeable advantage over anyone else. On the Xbox 360 controller, there is an issue with responsiveness, but this could be more of a reflection of the poor quality of Microsoft’s much-maligned D-pad than on the game itself.
Since the series went 3D, Mortal Kombat hasn’t been known as a graphical powerhouse. While this iteration may not have the same level of visual polish or technical artistry as a SoulCalibur IV, it’s still a great looking game. Character models are definitely the best we’ve seen in the series, and feature some striking textures and facial modeling. This is a Mortal Kombat game we’re talking about, so animations tend to lean toward quick and jerky, but characters still feature plenty of smooth animations that play out great on-screen. As fights progress, you’ll see fighters’ models become increasingly scraped, bloodied and busted as they take more damage. In most cases, this means black eyes, bruised faces and torn clothes (in female fighters’ cases, strategically torn, if you know what I mean), but there are certain characters that take greater advantage of the damage modeling. Hammer away at Scorpion long enough, for example, and you’ll see his facemask shatter, revealing his skeletal face below. Many familiar MK fighting arenas make a return here, complete with destructible elements, and the addition of the DC license opens up the game to plenty of cool new locales, such as Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the Batcave, and Oa, home planet of the Guardians of the Universe.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is the use of finishers. Normally, the over-the-top violent Fatalities are one of the main reasons to be excited about an MK game. This time, however, they have been largely toned down, and in some cases, replaced with Heroic Brutalityies. There are some interesting ones on both sides of the fence, like Superman pounding opponents into the ground and Sub-Zero's frozen bodyslam of death, but for the most part, the bloody, visceral thrill of Fatalities has been severely softened.
It’s obvious that Midway spent the bulk of its time with this game working on the fighting engine and visuals, because there are very few features to add to the game’s replayablility. In addition to the two story modes, there is an arcade mode (which can be played with only DC characters, only MK characters, or a mix of the two), a practice mode, and a Kombo Challenge. The Kombo Challenge mode tasks you with completing increasingly difficult juggle combos, which sounds like a good idea, except that the challenges are so incredibly difficult and frustrating that very few gamers will have the skill or patience to bother with it. Other than the game’s three boss characters, there are no unlockable characters. There are also no unlockable arenas, costumes, or even concept art (koncept art?). This lack of goodies will make many long for the days of the Krypt, and its many unlockable bonuses, and a few incentives would have made for a more robust package overall. Luckily, online play adds significant value, as the action is smooth, lag-free and a ton of fun. Aside from passing the controller around in a group of friends, online is the best way to experience the game.
Despite less of a focus on dark, demonic themes and brutal violence than we’re used to from the franchise, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe feels more like an MK game than any since MK3. The addition of these seemingly ill-fitting characters has breathed new life into what was a dying franchise, and given a new, valid platform for some of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters. Fans of modern fighting games may find the action (aktion?) a bit shallow, but for MK aficionados, this is the game we’ve been waiting for since the mid 1990’s.