Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Mortal Kombat 11 Ultimate (PS5)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Mortal Kombat 11.

With NetherRealm Studios’ relatively recent pattern of fighting game releases, it’s no surprise that they would follow up Injustice 2 with Mortal Kombat 11 (MK11) in 2019. Like Injustice 2, I waited for a physical copy that included all of the DLC fighters before giving it a shot, but the wait ended up longer than anticipated, as the studio released a physical Aftermath Kollection, followed by additional DLC and then Ultimate Edition. Once NetherRealm announced the end of service for MK11, I finally obtained a copy of Ultimate Edition for the PS5 so I could finally experience a fighting game on ninth-generation hardware. Unfortunately, despite how well the game implemented some of its interesting ideas, it seems that Games as a Service (GaaS) mechanics, as well as some further missteps, have taken their toll on the franchise.

Following the events of Mortal Kombat X (MKX), a corrupted Raiden plans to protect Earthrealm and makes an example of Shinnok by decapitating him. Kronika, Shinnok’s mother and the keeper of time, witnesses this act and is motivated to rewrite history to erase Raiden’s interference with her plans. Two years later, Raiden assists a Special Forces strike team led by Sonya Blade, Cassie Cage and Jacquie Briggs in a pre-emptive attack against the Netherrealm, ruled by the revenants of Liu Kang and Kitana. After a successful strike, at the cost of Sonya’s life, Kronika recruits Liu Kang and Kitana to her cause. Meanwhile, Kotal Kahn, emperor of Outworld, attempts to execute Kollector, a Shao Kahn loyalist, but is interrupted by a time storm that erases the corrupted Raiden from existence and summons various characters from an alternate timeline. As the past and present collide, Raiden seeks a way to defeat Kronika without repeating the sins of alternate self.

The past and present collide in MK11.
(L-R: Kung Lao, Liu Kang, Revenant Liu Kang, Revenant Kung Lao)

Over the course of twelve chapters, MK11 tells a very engaging story, at least at first. There are some interesting interactions between the past and present versions of several characters and their offspring, which can lead to some entertaining exchanges while allowing others, like Liu Kang, to still retain their characterization from Mortal Kombat (2011) (MK9). Players also get to see Raiden struggle with not repeating past mistakes and characters questioning their prior allegiances, including some who were taken in by Kronika’s promises of their life in her “New Era”. For the most part, the time travel logic is also consistent, with an interesting touch that whatever happens to someone’s past self has an effect on their present, though the game does stretch the believability of these changes at times.

There are a few issues with the main story, however. For one, pinning all the blame for everything bad that ever happened on Kronika can feel cheap, as it includes the implication that Shinnok’s actions in MKX weren’t entirely of his own free will. One major moment between the past versions of Liu Kang and Raiden had me scratching my head, but since I started the series from MK9, I was forced to give it the benefit of the doubt. Even though I’m not a veteran of the series, however, certain character interactions still felt questionable, like the relationship between Kotal Kahn and Jade, the latter of whom first appeared in MKX without any prior implication of a romantic interest. MK11 also recycles a concept from Injustice 2 where players can choose between two fighters at certain points, though the execution here feels like the game is just going through the motions. Choosing one fighter or the other doesn’t change the perspective in any way, only changing who gets to fight the set sequence of enemies, and completing the other fights later doesn’t unlock any unique rewards or affect the ending. In other words, it feels like NetherRealm only included this feature because fans expected them to without giving it any real thought. The only thing that affects the final outcome is how well the fight against Kronika goes, with winning after losing one round leading to the canon ending and the beginning of the Aftermath story.

Aftermath itself adds five new chapters that continue where MK11 left off, revealing that Shang Tsung, Nightwolf and Fujin weren’t involved in the main story because Kronika cast them into the void. To better alter the timeline without breaking reality, Shang Tsung convinces Fire God Liu Kang to send the three of them back into the past to obtain Kronika’s crown, which gave her full control of her hourglass. In their quest to obtain the crown without disrupting the timeline, however, they inevitably alter the course of events leading up to the final battle with Kronika.

While the idea behind Aftermath is interesting, the execution has issues. For one, the plot requires everyone to trust Shang Tsung, a known liar, even if they had a plan for when he inevitably turned on them. There’s also the matter of Shang Tsung’s relation to Kronika’s crown or how none of Shang Tsung’s suggestions raised any red flags. Some may also find a major twist involving Sindel contentious. While there are multiple endings as in the main game, it only comes down to the final decision the player makes, once again making any team fights with choices pointless, especially since the Aftermath choices also don’t lead to any unique rewards. While seasoned fans of the games may find other issues with Aftermath, these were what came to mind from my own experience.

Why does anyone trust Shang Tsung?
(L-R: Nightwolf, Fujin, Shang Tsung)

As for the gameplay of MK11, it plays similarly to MK9 and MKX, while continuing MKX’s approach of slower, more methodical gameplay. Naturally, there are some mechanics introduced for MK11 and, for the most part, they help mix things up a bit. Under the right conditions, players can no trigger a Krushing Blow that deals more damage alongside a satisfying X-Ray close-up. Also new are Flawless Blocks that reward precise block timing with opportunities for quick counterplay. While X-Ray Moves were sadly retired, their replacement, Fatal Blows, add some element of strategy, as players can only use them once per match and only when their health is below 30%. Aftermath also adds Stage Fatalities back into the main game and reintroduces Friendships and Mercy finishers.

Fatal Blows can still feel like a visual spectacle.

In another big change, the gauge in the corner that allowed players to enhance certain moves or perform X-Rays was also scrapped in favor of a new system with segmented Offensive and Defensive Gauges, each with two regenerating bars. The Offensive Gauge primarily enhances attacks while the Defensive Gauge activates environmental interactions, but can also prevent Block Damage while at low health and is essential for performing advanced moves like Getup Rolls. When performing Flawless Block Attack or enhancing environmental interactions with Armor properties, both Gauges are drained.

The HUD as of MK11.

Fortunately, the in-depth tutorial helps players get a grasp of the new mechanics and even discusses the ins and outs of frame data for competitive play. As much as I liked the approach for MK11’s tutorial, even if it’s not as good as the one in Guilty Gear Xrd that gives advice on beating each character, I’ll admit that the timing required for learning certain moves can feel too tight and unforgiving.

MK11 also introduces a variation of the Gear system from Injustice 2 in the form of Kustom Variations. As the name implies, players can alter existing variations or create their own by equipping Kosmetics (Intros, Victories and Finishers), Gear & Augments, AI Attributes (which influence AI Fighter behavior) and Abilities. Once the Kustom Variation is complete, players can select it like any other character variation and go to town.

As is tradition for Mortal Kombat, MK11 also brings back the Krypt, but puts a new spin on it. Here, players explore Shang Tsung’s Palace, which rewards exploration and finding unique key items that unlock new areas, which gives it a mild RPG vibe. Shang Tsung’s Palace feels large enough that it can at times feel like its own game, with some additional rewards activated through other feats the player performs in other modes. Chests open with one of three different currencies (Koins, Soul Fragments and Hearts) and there are even some chests and passages inaccessible without Kenshi’s Blindfold, which can also reveal ghostly apparitions. On top of that, every player’s Krypt has the same rewards, but with randomized locations so that everyone has a different experience. Players can even restock chests with Koins if they want new rewards.

Of course, the most important aspect of any fighting game is the roster. Each of the 25 base characters feels different from one another and some have move sets that explore more aspects of their unique fighting style, like a variation of Eron Black wielding a rifle with multiple follow ups. Everyone also feels generally pretty balanced, with quick decisions typically winning out over sheer power, though one variation of The Joker does have easy access to projectile moves. Adding the 12 DLC characters can make the selection feel overwhelming at first and some of the guest fighter choices feel questionable, mainly Rambo and RoboCop. The Joker and Spawn, however, present more interesting gameplay styles, with the former surprisingly funny and the latter more fantastical than the others.

MK11 Ultimate has a pretty sizeable roster.

While MK11’s core mechanics can make for a very fun and engaging game on the surface, the experience unfortunately holds itself back with the GaaS mechanics running under the hood. No matter what you unlock or where you unlock it from, even from single player modes, the game requires an online connection to validate those rewards. Requiring an online connection or the rotating Towers of Time or Online Multiplayer makes sense, but not the Krypt, which didn’t require phoning home to NetherRealm in prior games. With how much grinding is required to unlock all 600 chests in the Krypt, it seems NetherRealm based the entire game around it, since you have to constantly grind for multiple currencies, potentially for several hours, just to unlock another out-of-the-way chest. It doesn’t help that Kenshi’s blindfold also drains Soul Fragments with each use, so players can potentially waste valuable time and resources unless they know exactly where to go. Unfortunately, certain aspects of the game like character-specific Brutalities are locked behind the Krypt, meaning that once the servers eventually die, players are permanently locked out of that content.

MK11's Krypt is interesting, but too grindy.

Speaking of servers eventually dying, I found out the hard way that the PS5 version of MK11 Ultimate had everything on the disc, but players still need to redeem a code to validate the content. However, the PS4 version doesn’t have this requirement, so it comes off as a way to curb used game sales of the next-gen version for no good reason. Should someone buy a used copy with the code already redeemed, they’d be forced to buy the content they should already have access to. At that point, it would be a glorified vanilla release, so those who care about preservation should go for the PS4 copy.

Much like Injustice 2, MK11 also has one additional currency called Time Krystals. These are mostly used to purchase Kosmetic packs, but obtaining Time Krystals still takes quite a while. I wasn’t looking for any particular Kosmetics, since I preferred playing with the characters as they appeared, but the execution feels even more predatory than Injustice 2. Not only do Time Krystals guarantee getting exactly what you’d want from the otherwise grindy Krypt, the Premium Shop rotates its stock, as though preying on FOMO for continuously making microtransactions ranging from $4.99 for 500 Time Krystals all the way up to $39.99 for 5600. There’s also the matter of Frost, who players can unlock for free for playing through Chapter 4 of the Story Mode, but she’s also available as a $6 purchase, as though tricking unsuspecting or impatient people in spending money they don’t need to.

How is this not predatory?

On the upside, MK11 has great graphics, improving on MKX and displaying how well-polished NetherRealm can make their games look. I also personally liked that the character variations didn’t dramatically affect their appearance as much, with clothing changing rather than skin. However, I noticed some blinking while in certain areas of the Krypt and I wasn’t sure how to feel about the Fatalites this time around. They’re as gory as you can expect and feature plenty of creativity to match the characters, and I liked how the animations took the robotic aspects of The Terminator and RoboCop into account, but the execution of some of them felt a little too similar to each other. For example, some devolve into to just treating the loser like a meat balloon waiting to pop. That said, the Friendships were mostly pretty funny and I enjoyed pulling them off.

The voice acting also generally sounds pretty good, though the audio quality noticeably dips at points. Understandably, COVID required recording some lines at home, with Sylvester Stallone even recording his lines over Zoom, but it can sound jarring for someone like Shao Kahn to suddenly sound different between lines. Additionally, as good as the orchestral score by Wilbert Roget, II sounds, most of the music doesn’t sound particularly memorable compared to MK9.

While Mortal Kombat 11’s story leaves something to be desired, the gameplay and content within the Ultimate release feels fun and should satisfy Mortal Kombat fans. As with Injustice 2, however, the GaaS mechanics hold it back from true greatness and could cause too many issues further down the line. If you’re interested in MK11 Ultimate, get the PS4 version.

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