I'm not very good at fighting games, as was evident when I lost four consecutive rounds to my opponent during a Mortal Kombat X preview earlier this week. My opponent ruthlessly uppercutted me into the air, shattered my spine in elaborate animations, and Finished Me by pulling my heart out of my chest à la Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then squeezing the heart and drinking what I imagine was my terribly salty blood.
Still, I like fighting games, and Mortal Kombat in particular, which came into my life at a time when its adolescent obsession with gratuitous, over the top violence matched my own. But I'm only human, and as such prefer winning to losing. That's why I liked Mortal Kombat 9's well-realized story mode, which gave me a way to play for many hours without humiliating myself.
Mortal Kombat X, I'm happy to report, is tailor-made for those who find a lot to enjoy about fighting games, but who may not have what it takes to compete with… well, anyone.
A new way Mortal Kombat X does this is with its online Living Towers. Like the challenge tower in Mortal Kombat 9, each of the Living Towers is a series of fights arranged as challenges with special conditions. Mortal Kombat X's towers, however, are more varied and mercifully shorter.
There are Quick Towers, which you can finish in 15-30 minutes. They're also updated every couple of hours throughout the day, so you'll always see new challenges. The Daily Towers are a little harder and will refresh every 24 hours. Finally, the Premiere Towers, built around special events, holidays, and milestones, are even more challenging, and will last anywhere from a few days to a week.
Each level in the tower has some kind of environmental twist—I saw one where bombs were falling from the sky, another where I had to dodge roving laser traps—and an extra condition that will earn you more points. The conditions I saw were focused on winning rounds while using certain moves. These aren't merely fun, almost puzzle-like elements to introduce to a fighting game—they’re also a great way to force and teach a lone player to discover each fighter's movelist. NetherRealm is still a little vague about what exactly you'll be able to spend these points on, but cosmetic changes to characters is one example.
It also sounds like the best rewards will come from Mortal Kombat X's greater, cross-platform multiplayer Faction War mode. Assuming you're online, when you first start Mortal Kombat X you'll be asked to choose one out of five factions associated with groups in the game's fiction: White Lotus, Brotherhood of Shadow, Black Dragon, Special Forces, or Lin Kuei. Your faction will modify the menus' visual themes, and everything you do in the game will earn points for your faction. You can even enter team fights, where five members of your faction fight five simultaneous fights against another faction, and the team with the most wins gets the points.
At the end of every week, the faction with the most points overall will get a reward, which can even include a special, faction-specific Fatality.
All of these rewards and points give Mortal Kombat X the kind of incremental-but-steady progression system that hooked me to Call of Duty for several years. You wouldn't be wrong if you called it a treadmill, but it seems like the kind of system that a fighting game needs to make you feel like you're getting somewhere, even if you're not taking on human rivals.
The fighting itself felt really good, which is to say, it felt almost exactly like Mortal Kombat 9, only prettier. The environments were more detailed. The textures and character models were of a much higher quality. When someone cut off Sub Zero's face, his brain slipped out of his skull, his exposed tongue glistening as it wiggled cluelessly.
In terms of innovation in the fighting itself, there are two big updates here. The first is that each character has three variations to its fighting style, which you have to pick before a fight starts. I'd have to spend more time to understand how they differ. Maybe it's the kind of detail that only high-level players will be able to appreciate, but I didn't see the appeal. It seems hard enough to master a character in a fighting game as is, and when I chose Sub Zero's ability to use an ice weapon, I found myself wondering how the variations I didn't pick could have helped me out in any given situation, rather than how the ability I did choose was awesome. In other words, I felt like I was always losing two abilities rather than gaining one.
The other big change is the addition of environmental interactions, pulled over from NetherRealm’s comic-themed Injustice. They’re some of the best I've seen in any fighting game. In a jungle level, I could jump up, press R1 to grab a vine, and swing forward to kick my opponent in the face. In another level, a kind of desert bazaar, I could pick up an innocent bystander and use him like a club to pummel my opponent. The interactive elements can move around, so they're not completely predictable, and they fit into the flow of combat, adding another random element, rather than just an elaborate animation that transitions you from one background to another, which Mortal Kombat has been doing for years.
Mortal Kombat X does find another place to commit the sin of elaborate, non-interactive animations. The special "x-ray" moves—which you charge up a meter for and execute by pushing both triggers at the same time—are some of the most violent and interesting I saw. They're also the longest, which is painfully obvious when the same exact animation repeats. What is cool the first few times is just another thing to wait through a few times later, and this can only become a bigger problem the more you play the game.
Still, Mortal Kombat X looks a single-player dream, and this is before we've even seen the game's story mode. Mortal Kombat 9's, which recreated the events of all the classic Mortal Kombat games, was excellent, and NetherRealm is well aware it was big hit with fans. Add it to all the single player challenges I saw this week, and you get a Mortal Kombat package that appeals to competitive players and those, like myself, who can't compete, but enjoy a good Fatality.