Mortal Kombat 11 review: Fighting games' goriest franchise continues to excel at what it's good at and makes progress where it traditionally hasn't

Posted by John 'Velociraptor' Guerrero • April 22, 2019 at 5 a.m. PDT

NetherRealm Studios have gotten big scale Mortal Kombat development down to a science, consistently upping antes, tightening loose ends, and moving in a somewhat predictable (a good thing) fashion. Mortal Kombat 11 kontinues this trend by building on the strengths of its widely successful predecessor while showing clear acknowledgement of previous shortcomings.

While not a perfect game, the latest MK installment absolutely delivers on expectations while taking appropriate risks. It achieves the fundamental goal of moving the MK train along nicely, but certainly adds a few new bells and whistles in the process.

The Spectacle

When seemingly endless copy cats rushed to the emerging fighting game market following the success of Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat emerged as a true parallel that brought something unique to the table: the spectacle.

Since day one the MK franchise has been designed to be watched as much as played, and from initial presentation to (bloody) execution, Mortal Kombat 11 continues to be the torch bearer in this particular avenue within the fighting game realm.

The graphics are amongst the best we've seen in gaming, highlighting seemingly every pore, muscle twitch, and bead of sweat on character faces.

Given the setting of the initial TV spot that revealed Kitana (it begins with real life actors and then transitions to the animated Kitana, her face half covered) it actually took me a minute to decide whether I was watching a live actress or in-game avatar.

This broadens out from just character detail, as the arenas the combatants fight in are almost worth stopping the action mid-fight to soak in. I legitimately stopped playing the first time I noticed a massive spider emerging from a tunnel in the background on one stage. I found myself watching to see if it wasn't going to actually approach the foreground to affect the fight as a handful of non-player characters and objects do become interactables.

Not only can you observe bits of stories playing out behind the foreground combat, but keener eyes will surely spot the many Easter Egg references hidden amidst the secondary action. This trend of enticing visuals continues through to The Krypt, (the game's creative marketplace/third person adventure hybrid) which takes place on Shang Tsung's beautifully treacherous island.

Mortal Kombat's trademark Fatalities fit into this category as well. They're bloodier than ever, to the point where NRS might consider dialing them back to maintain its full potential audience.

This title's Fatalities are surely a tour de force when it comes to showcasing the latest and greatest in visuals, and many of them are worth marveling at if you can get past the excessively gruesome gore part.

Having seen the success that the MK franchise has, fans have come to expect state of the art aesthetic experiences. From the smallest to the largest of details, Mortal Kombat 11 delivers with flying colors here.

Story

NetherRealm set the new standard for fighting game stories with 2011's Mortal Kombat, and have maintained that status with the three fighters they've produced since.

While still better than most competition outside the franchise, 2015's Mortal Kombat X faltered a bit in this category in terms of the actual story telling. Naturally we're looking to MK11 to see if the wrongs were righted, to which my answer is: a little bit.

As stated previously the visual presentation is spot on, but the longer the story progressed, the more holes and questions about why the characters were doing what they were doing started to emerge.

Without giving too much away that isn't already public knowledge, the premise of having an antagonist (Kronika) who is more powerful than the Elder Gods and can manipulate time itself naturally writes itself into corners very quickly.

There are a lot of events that happen because the writers need them to, not because they actually would. There's a whole fight sequence against Geras (Kronika's lackey) that ends up having virtually no effect on the story because Geras is able to simply freeze and rewind time. It quickly becomes apparent that Kronika's abilities shrink or expand in order to make for the most exciting story given the opposition she's facing at any given time.

That said, the start of Story Mode is actually quite intriguing thanks to character development and interaction. You'll know from the trailers that the narrative is based around the concept of MK characters meeting and developing relationships with past versions of themselves.

This becomes especially interesting on a few different levels as it allows for creative developments between traditional friends and foes. What's more, some characters are good guys in the past but evil in the present, and vice versa.

The strongest part of the story was surely the focus on the Cage family, mostly because of the massive arc Johnny has traversed since his younger days. Many of us have had moments wherein we wish we could go back and talk to our former selves, (probably during the high school years) and getting to see Johnny actually do that strikes a fairly universal chord.

A few exceptional action sequences also help to buttress the story a bit (there's a specific sequence involving Jade that I noted as particularly captivating) and so, all in all, the story experience has improved since MKX. Go in expecting to appreciate the moments as opposed to the whole, and you'll have a generally good time.

The Krypt

What started as a 26 X 26 grid of unlockable coffins has evolved into a surprisingly worthwhile third person adventure. Mortal Kombat 11's Krypt expands on the ideas from MKX, but feels slightly less linear and ultimately more rewarding.

While it's no Zelda, the Krypt makes for an enjoyable experience that you very well might find yourself turning the game on just to do. Disregarding the mode's core function of spending in-game currency to open boxes for random trinkets, the process of solving puzzles, unlocking new areas, and discovering and using items is quite satisfying considering you're playing a fighting game.

I actually spent a few hours in this mode without spending any currency (which might actually be indicative of a problem) as the urge to save up lest my progress be impeded a costly toll bridge grew.

With DLC being as big a staple in fighting games as its become, The Krypt understandably is no longer home to unlockable fighters. Instead you're looking at picking up alternate costumes, gear, concept art, various boosts to help with Arcade Mode, and then small trinkets that can be combined to make some of the aforementioned items.

Instead of having a specific item assigned to each box in The Krypt, MK11 has changed things up and seemingly randomized most boxes. There's actually an option to pay to refill any and all boxes that you've already opened so you can open them again in hopes of coming across different items.

This naturally leads players to want to complete the story aspect of this mode before spending their cash on obtaining random prizes. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it feel as though the two major components of The Krypt are at odds with each other, at least at first.

Online

It has never been easy for fighting games to make the transition from local to online bouts, but Mortal Kombat has made massive improvements in this avenue since the days of the widely unplayable MK 2011. The move to a GGPO-esque model back in 2016 was significant, and it seems NRS has continued to perfect online experiences since then.

Now I've only played in an environment where servers were only bearing the load of a handful of reviewers and those lucky enough to get their mitts on early copies of the game, so things could change once the general public charges in en masse. That in mind, my experiences were fairly stellar.

I've probably played a good thirty matches between joining lobbies, seeking out individual opponents, and playing in the King of Hill mode, and rarely has latency been noticeable at all. You get to see what your foe's connection is like before you choose to actually engage, and even 3/5 bar connections felt viable.

The fact that general MK game play is less reactionary and more preemptive than a lot of other franchises out there makes for a naturally smoother transition to the online realm.

Gameplay

Mortal Kombat has come a long way since the days of universal normal attacks and infinite combos, but never has the intent to make things more competitively balanced been as obvious as here in MK11.

The removal of MKX's run mechanic inherently slows the action down a bit, things still feel very fast and very offense-based. This is offset by new defensive mechanics that take a bit of getting used to, but show some promise in balancing out the general pace.

For those first jumping in, the sheer myriad of new mechanics can be very intimidating. Trying to memorize move commands, strings, combos, character load outs, frame data, and situational strategies is hard enough, but adding Flawless Blocks, wake up rolls, wake up attacks, hops, and the hows and whens of Crushing Blow activation is a whole other monster.

I suspect a lot of these mechanics will go somewhat unexplored in more casual instances, but professionals will need to master all of them to get a leg up on the competition. This many mechanics makes for potentially highly nuanced gameplay, but initial experiences lead me to worry that we might still be seeing more of an all out offense fest as opposed to a well thought out footsie battle.

In any case, I'll reserve final judgement for after a few events in the Mortal Kombat 11 Pro Kompetition have played out. Hesitations aside, it's very clear that MK11 has taken big strides towards being more competitively balanced than any previous franchise entry.

As good as the visuals are, they do hinge on actually impeding the flow of play. The action briefly stops a few times each round for Crushing and Fatal Blows, and some of those sequences can take an exceptionally long time especially considering how rapidly paced the game is otherwise.

Mid-action cut scenes are very common in fighting games these days, but there is so such a thing as too much. On the other side of this coin, many of the briefer character animations (such as Erron Black's dynamite throw wherein he has to quickly grab his hat before it flies away) give MK11 a special charisma and personality. In short, there are many "extra mile" moments to appreciate.


Click to see Black's throw animation

Single Player Content

You'll be able to play plenty of MK11 without having friends over or going online. Two different styles of arcade mode, training, tutorials, story, Krypt, and customization all come together to keep players occupied for hours on end.

Mortal Kombat 11's extensive tutorials break down just about everything you could ask for as they teach fighting game basics, how to implement the numerous mechanics, character specifics, and more.

You can spend a good few hours in a back and forth between MK11 tutorials and training as you take bits of new knowledge and further explore them before going back for more. There's a lot of information you'll want to know, but it's all fairly easily accessible right there in the modes and menus.

Frame data for every move and built in combo sequence is presented right on the moves list, and specific character tutorials immediately shine light how developers intend for each character variation to be played right down to special move implementation.

Klassic Towers are traditional arcade ladders that allow for the standard single player experience with a small, tall, or massive list of AI opponents. There's also a 25-opponent Survival Mode wherein you get a single life bar that carries over, and an Endless Tower for those days where you just want to blow off steam indefinitely.

Sudden challenges sometimes pop up during these ladders where you'll, for example, have 10 seconds to land five jumping attacks or score three knock downs for bonus rewards. All roads lead to currency and kollectables (which can aid you in your climb) here, but completionists will also want to access all character endings by finishing a tower with each roster member.

The Towers of Time are a similar format to Klassic Towers, but feature more nuanced and ever-changing challenges as developers upload new themes and experiences on regular intervals.

The in-game economy links all of these single player modes together fairly nicely as you build up money and/or experience in one to pour into another. Just about everything grants you currency (of which there are three or four different forms) that you can spend in multiple ways.

I will take a moment to note that it's very clear that MK11 wasn't designed with arcade stick users in mind. This probably won't be an issue for most as a standard gaming controller is by far the most commonly seen accessory used by NRS players, but it does still feel like a small oversight.

Using konsumables during Towers play requires the right analog stick, and thus I was not able to use them at all whilst playing on a fight stick. The Krypt is a third person experience that requires both analog sticks for character and camera movement, making it unplayable via fight stick as well.

Finally, NRS has figured out a pretty good stride when it comes to aesthetic customization. Similar to what we saw in Injustice 2, there are seemingly countless ways to dress and accessorize your fighter. If character customization is your thing, MK11 is easily a game for you based on that alone.

Pros:

+ Visuals that continue to push the envelope and set new standards

+ Tons of enticing single player content makes for a fully fleshed out experience even before DLC

+ Extremely detailed tutorials complete with frame data and clear direction

+ Lots of Easter Eggs and "extra mile" moments make players feel especially acknowledged

Cons:

- Plethora of mechanics and character move variants can be intimidating, and mean a LOT of studying and memorization if you're looking to compete

- The story isn't anything to write home about, save for a few exceptional moments

- Certain modes aren't very fight stick compatible (though standard game play is)

- Cut scenes during game play can become tiresome and repetitive after initial experiences

Final Thoughts

Mortal Kombat 11 doesn't do everything perfectly, but it does a lot really well. Equipped with something for just about every type of gamer that might be interested, I'd say if you find yourself considering it at all, then this title is worth buying.

My final score: 88/100.

Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC on April 23.

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