The fighting game revival continues unabated. It is a prominent genre on the nascent PS Vita thanks to the slew of releases between release and now, as well as those to come over the year. It seems logical given the traditional ideal of short sharp bursts of gaming with a handheld when you get those five minutes on the daily commute, or ten minutes whilst sat down waiting for your significant other to model their chosen clothes in order to garner opinion. Another benefit of the handheld medium for beat ‘em ups is the good quality D-pads, something not all homegrown controllers provide, therefore ensuring the game itself is playable as intended. It must also be noted handheld beat ‘em ups are levelled given the fact that everyone is bringing a knife to a knife fight; there are no fightstick versus pad aberrations.
So in addition to Reality Fighters and Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 we now have space in our summertime gaming schedule for Mortal Kombat, which, like the aforementioned Capcom fighter, is a port of a successful home console game from 2011 - albeit with all the extra content shared as DLC already included. The sheer volume of content hits you hard from the moment you load the game up. There is an insane amount to do. It’s all quite overwhelming as it’s not entirely clear where to go first, dependent on your preference. If you’re new to Mortal Kombat you may want to go and do some training to get used to a character or two from the generous roster, or maybe jump into the standard ‘fight ten people and win the game’? The answer I would put forward is that most will want to start off the story mode straight away.
And my word, story mode is special. Fighting games typically have the most perfunctory of story modes. Any Street Fighter is a case in point. It’s there to dress up the rounds and bring some semblance of narrative to the game, separating out the characters as something other than differently animated bundles of quarter circles and punches. But here story mode is quite simply the greatest story mode in the history of beat ‘em ups ever. It’s that good. I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say it covers the breadth and depth of the Mortal Kombat cast and history and subverts a fair chunk of what’s been seen before along the way. There’s a good six to eight hours of play here and that’s before you get onto the rest of the content the game has to offer.
Mortal Kombat’s identity has always been about the gore, the fatalities (touch screen enabled if you like this time) and the sheer over the top outrageousness of what you can make your characters do, should you be skilled enough. This is still the case with this modernised version, given the multitude of special moves which allow you to set your opponent on fire, spear them through the head or chuck them up in the air and hit them so hard with a hammer their limbs and head are all detached from their torso. The last one, at least, is saved for a fatality. In addition to the above there’s a three part gauge which can now be filled throughout each bout, and similar in style to those seen in most other fighting games these days you can use one bar to enhance a move, two to break someone’s kombo or all three to unleash hell by way of an X-ray move. Think of an X-ray as a horror film’s Ultra move. You attack your opponent, things go all super slow-mo and black and white aside from the area of impact, visually more visceral than normal thanks to the X-ray view provided. As strong attacks they can save your round and are always fun to pull off, even if better fighters will ignore them in lieu of building up their kombos and juggling you all over the screen until you’re unable to fight back thanks to the elimination of all energies.
You can build those combos without recourse for extreme muscle memories thanks to the majority of moves being built around directional inputs and button presses, with the focus on the button presses. It’s more about remembering the inputs in your head as the execution is more straightforward than other fighters. Timing is important, of course, yet here the game’s engine feels a little slower than might be expected and often unresponsive. It may be that the timing windows are overly harsh, or indeed that my abilities are too limited to really build up multi-hit kombos, but there’s an inkling that the frames for each fighter aren’t so well built, not so obsessively put together that actually the game just doesn’t work every time. People’s mileage will vary, then.
In addition to this the visuals in the game don’t meet expectations. Considering the wonderful screen the Vita provides and the orgiastic delights a Mortal Kombat game should deliver for the eyes, the whole thing looks washed out and jagged. When you get close-ups on the character models themselves, either after they win and pose for the camera, or during some wonderfully entertaining finishing move, the lack of detail, the serrated edges and the seemingly grey filter it just puts you off your stride. Yes, the PS Vita isn’t as powerful as a home console but other games have managed to deliver outstanding visuals and in some cases these have been better than their big brother equivalent. We suspect the port here didn’t include any effort in modifying the visuals to take account of the new resolution, and textures and colours have therefore been affected given the reduction in brute force available. It’s a shame as this is a game which really would have benefitted here.
Once you’ve played through the story and gotten used to your avatar of choice there’s immense longevity here if you care to continue plying your trade in the Mortal Kombat universe. Challenge towers is the main timesink. Hundreds of challenges to attempt, ranging from pulling off multiple moves in a certain period of time to some more surreal moments involving giant heads, or more confusing times whereby you change persona every five seconds. The challenges here are fun, varied and all achievable if you are skillful enough. There are a number of Vita exclusive ones, with various touch control moments. There’s unlockables to collect by spending your kurrency obtained in kombat and of course you can go online to fight like-minded individuals one on one or tag team. The netcode over wi-fi seemed solid enough given decent latencies at either end, but if slowdown does occur - which it inevitably will - then expect the game to become largely unplayable given the need for precision and timing. This of course is not unique to this game, but an affliction all fighters have. You can play seriously in ranked matches, more for fun in unranked ones and all can be done from within gigantic rooms so finding a room with enough players to face is generally easily manageable.
Your time with Mortal Kombat then will depend largely on your investment in the world itself. The mechanics are straightforward to get and can be mastered with some skill and a serious amount of practice. The choice of what to do and who to do it with is fantastic (Kratos and Freddy Krueger being two particular charmers) and seeing all the gruesome moves will take a while and can only be described as immense fun; the feeling you get when detaching a head and spinal column from its body is different to most. If you can get with the gameplay the story mode is fabulous and more than enough content to fill out a typical game’s single player experience. If you then get drawn in there’s enough more of a game here to sustain hours and hours of play and fun. Here’s the rub, though. Many will prefer the theatre of a Street Fighter ultra, or the sheer craziness of three player tag team fighting. There won’t be the desire to invest in another fighting game, something required to get the most out of it. You like those things for a reason, and enveloped in that reason is a superior fighting game in each case.