Mortal Kombat 1

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Fighting
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Release Date: Sept. 19, 2023


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PC Review - 'Mortal Kombat 1'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 22, 2023 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Mortal Kombat 1 will introduce a reborn Mortal Kombat Universe that has been created by the Fire God Liu Kang, featuring reimagined versions of iconic characters as they’ve never been seen before.

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Despite the name, Mortal Kombat 1 is actually the 12th mainline game in the series, but there is debate about whether Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe can be called a mainline game, since it is more of a side story than canonical. This is also the second time that the series has gotten a soft reboot, rather than in a way that ignores everything in past titles. Over the summer, players had the chance to try out two different beta builds, and the reactions were very positive. With the full game in our hands, we can definitely say that the expectations have held up.

Unlike the last time the series received a soft reboot, the fighting system remains the same as it has since that 2011 entry. The game is still a 2D fighter that's crafted fully in 3D. There are four attack buttons, with two for punches and two for kicks alongside a block button. Special moves are governed by cardinal direction inputs, but you have the option to include diagonals if you're still used to that style. All characters can still spend some of their meter to craft more powerful versions of special moves. For example, Sub-Zero has a move where he crafts an ice clone of himself while jumping backward, but he can spend some meter to perform the same move and generate three ice clones.

Fatal Blows are still available as a desperation combo when you're running low on health, and they remain as gory as ever thanks to some X-rays shown during some of the more hard-hitting moves in the sequence, where bones and muscles are shattered and ripped apart. Brutalities and Fatalities are still the stars of the show, and they're just as varied and gory as ever; bodies, faces and limbs are torn asunder, shredded, and blown apart in ridiculous ways.

While players of previous games can jump into this title without much of a learning curve, the ability to use your environment in a fight is completely missing. You can't use the background element to move around the level, and you can't pick up weapons and people to use as one-time moves. This has been replaced with Kameos, partner fighters who behave in a similar way to the Guest Character system in the first Marvel vs. Capcom title. Tap on a button, and you can call upon your Kameo fighter to jump in and perform a move. That can't be called on forever, as their appearances are governed by an energy meter, but the meter refills over time. They're not completely invincible, so they can still get hit, which results in them not being available for a short while until they recover, but their meter replenishes during this time.

The change feels like a gimmick on paper, but in practice, the feature feels pretty well thought-out. Each fighter has their own special moves that are carried out depending on whether you're using a direction in conjunction with a button press. Jax can do his backbreaker or ground pound if he catches his opponent. Characters like Sonya can do her flying punch to cover opponents jumping in the air or use her power rings as a projectile attack. Some moves can be defensive in nature or set up combos by knocking opponents airborne. There's even the ability to use a Kameo's Brutality or Fatality to finish a match instead of your own. The variety in abilities gives the Kameo the distinction of being more of an extension to your fighter's own abilities, providing a game that has some deeper-than-expected fighting mechanics.

There is one knock against the system, and it is the fact that the Kameo selection is its own roster. There's no way to use the main fighters in a Kameo role, even though there are a few situations where the CPU does just that. Likewise, it is a shame to see some series mainstays like Jax and Kano get relegated to this role, despite being fleshed-out fighters in the more recent entries. It is a touch confusing to see that some of the main fighters like Kung Lao, Scorpion and Sub-Zero get Kameo counterparts, so here's hoping that a future update changes this so there's more freedom in the Kameo choice.

Speaking of the roster, one thing you'll notice is that, just like the 2011 version of Mortal Kombat, there are no characters who are new to the series. All of the new characters were actually introduced in the series' previous 3D entries, so this is more of their debut in the 2D realm. Reiko comes from Mortal Kombat 4, as does Tanya. Li Mei and Nitara were from Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance, while Shujinko comes from the Konquest mode of Mortal Kombat Deception, and Ashrah comes from that game's main roster. The closest person who might be considered new is the Kameo fighter Sareena, and she'll only be new if you aren't familiar with Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero.

There is one change to the fighting that may irk some, and that has to do with the costume pieces you acquire throughout just about every mode. Unlike Mortal Kombat 11, which gave stats to costume pieces , everything here is purely cosmetic. On the one hand, it evens the playing field by ensuring you don't come across someone who looks hideous but has tangible benefits that immediately put them at an advantage against your character. On the other hand, that stat advantage gives you a reason to pay attention to the costumes beyond aesthetics.

The game features a number of modes, but the highlight beyond the versus modes has always been story mode. The story takes place after the events of Mortal Kombat 11's Aftermath DLC, where Liu Kang has become the keeper of time and created a new timeline where the major characters live slightly different lives and the world strives for peace. Relinquishing that role in favor of becoming the protector of Earthrealm, he still keeps the Mortal Kombat tournament alive against Outworld and remains in charge of choosing champions to keep the peace between the realms. However, he soon learns that Shang Tsung has been given the power to rise from an insignificant life into one where he realizes his evil potential, and it is up to Liu Kang's champions and their allies to put a stop to the sorcerer before all-out war threatens the current peace.

The Mortal Kombat game from 2011 provided a great story for newcomers, who could get a crash course on the events of the first three titles, and established fans, as they could see the events again from a different perspective and with a few Easter eggs. Mortal Kombat 1 does the same thing, as the story is reset so familiar characters are seen in a fresher light for both kinds of fans. Compared to the previous two titles, knowing what had happened before is nice but not essential in understanding what's going on. It helps that the story flows well with some well-acted performances and believable characters, and the altered character origins and plot twists keep the tale exciting. The game may act as a new beginning for the story, but it takes a number of story elements from series entries 5-7 (Deadly Alliance, Deception, and Armageddon). Expect an ending that makes sense but remains wild to see in action, especially since it can vary slightly depending on a choice you made at the story's critical juncture.

Like the story modes from the 2011 entry onward, expect a mode that plays out like a TV series stitched together like a very long movie — with chapter titles to split it up. The smooth transitions from cut scene to fight remain, and you'll engage in straightforward one-round fights without Fatalities or Brutalities. You don't fight as every single character, except for the final chapter. The 13 chapters are set to one specific fighter, so you can't use it as an extended practice mode to get familiar with various fighters.

As for other single-player modes, Towers are back but have been simplified. Three classic towers vary in difficulty and number of opponents, and each one has a specific character ending, just like the old arcades. There's one survival tower that aims for the longest win streak and another survival tower that lets you see how far you can get on one life bar. They're basic, so don't expect any gimmicks. The tutorial mode also makes a return, alongside a general practice mode and one specifically for Fatalities.

The new single-player mode is Invasions, which seems like a combination of a few modes from past games. Set after the events of the story, variations of kombatants are invading the world, and it is up to you to battle them to stop their plan. The storyline and corresponding fights are changed out every six weeks, and the only thing that all players will experience is the lengthy prologue session through Johnny Cage's mansion. Launch week revolves around a version of Scorpion who wants to burn down this version of the world, since his wife isn't dead but married to his brother. Those who start up the mode a few months from now will experience a completely different tale. It's very similar to the themed towers in Mortal Kombat 11 in this respect — with cut scenes — so it'll be interesting to see what the Netherrealm team dreams up for future seasons.

Invasions mode takes you through several environments that can be explored in a manner similar to the Krypt in Mortal Kombat X, but from a top-down perspective. You travel between nodes on the map, engage in fights, and stop by The Collector to buy and sell key items and consumables to temporarily augment fights. Augments can provide resistance to elements, and key items can be equipped to make the augments permanent. You'll also stop by a forge to refill the power of some items or strengthen them like a proper RPG.

Those all become necessary, as the fights take on the properties of some of the special Towers from Mortal Kombat 11. You'll still get some normal fights, but a number of fights feature an augment, like the opponent getting invincible super armor — until they are open to attack when it flashes blue. Other fights have outside interference, such as a portal with randomly homing fireballs or a flying creature that bombs the area. There are mini-towers to fight through, survival modes, and Test Your Might bouts scattered throughout the world. There are also a few secret paths to uncover. Just like an RPG, a random fight can break out in the middle of a path between nodes.

Invasion mode is quite lengthy when you consider the number of areas visited and the number of nodes per area. The six-week timespan for each season becomes a motivator for wanting to get through it quickly, but it can feel like quite the grind since there's no character interaction after the Johnny Cage tutorial. That said, the constant rewards and refreshing of quests accomplish what fighting games are starting to attempt: keep single-player fans playing.

Invasions feels like a more involved version of the Krypt from previous games. In lieu of an actual Krypt is a gacha-style mechanic that lets you pay 1,000 koins to unlock anything that can include costume pieces, illustrations and musical tracks.

Mortal Kombat 1 has different currencies in place, and all of them can be earned through gameplay. Seasonal Kredits are different from koins in that they are only good for the current season, so they expire every six weeks. You have XP for your main profile, but you also have XP for your fighters and Kameos. Leveling them up results in some unlocks, including items for your online profile and a few Kameos. Dragon Krystals are the only currency that has the option of being purchased with real money, but doing so is completely optional, as everything you unlock in the base game is cosmetic, such as color palettes, masks, full outfits, and weapon skins.

Thanks to the two beta tests held earlier this year, the online multiplayer is rock solid. In the few matches we played against the public, lag was never an issue, and only one match was dropped due to a bad connection. That's a good thing, since the ranked matches are another avenue to earn Seasonal Kredits and season-specific rewards that aren't available anywhere else. It isn't cross-play for now, but the number of people on PC feels bigger than before, as it wasn't too difficult to find a match.

Local multiplayer lets players create tournaments, but the one drawback is that they can't choose any costume presets that they've created in the character selection screen. You have to get out to the character customization area and choose what you want, but that also means that it'll be the default costume every time you choose that fighter. You can mitigate this by making all of the gear and costumes random, so the game chooses it for you, but it seems like a needless problem when this feature was perfectly implemented in the previous game.

Another issue is that you don't earn anything from participating in local versus matches. No regular or season koins are earned at the conclusion of a fight, and you also don't earn any XP for your profile, fighter, and kameo. It encourages one to explore the game to get a full roster of fighters and kameos, but it would've been nice to throw in something for those who value local play in a fighting game.

The overall presentation is quite awesome. As for audio, the soundtrack is just as good as before, with a nice mix of Eastern and Western influences to create a horror-tinged martial arts vibe. The voice acting is just as good as before, with the new actors for old characters fitting in well with the existing cast. During fights, the voiced lines are played at a lower volume compared to elsewhere in the game.

Graphically, Mortal Kombat 1 is excellent. You'll notice this more in story mode, as the character renders have been greatly improved (but don't reach the dreaded uncanny valley). They're more emotive, but the transition from cut scene to gameplay is where you'll notice how good they are; the quality doesn't drop, so it's much tougher to tell if the scenes are pre-rendered or done in-game. The backdrops are also more detailed and more colorful, and that level of detail also comes through in the gorier bits, like the Fatal Blows and Fatalities. There's an emphasis on blood on clothes and limbs, so particularly brutal fights can have the winner coated in red and green liquid. The game fluctuates between a locked 60fps and 30fps, with the fights taking on the former and everything else falling on the latter. The PC iteration of Mortal Kombat 11 got patched to make these scenes run at 60fps, but that was after a few years, so there's a possibility that this game will also get patched.

Mortal Kombat 1 is already labeled as Playable on the Steam Deck, and we can confirm that. The game goes for a Medium preset on first boot, and it already looks quite good, as it takes up the full 1280x800 resolution. The title runs at roughly 30fps according to the in-game benchmark and random matches, so it matches up with the performance of Mortal Kombat 11 on the Switch. Like many recent AAA titles, the game runs for a little less than two hours on a full charge, so you'll need to plug this into the wall or a battery pack if you intend to play through the story mode in long sessions. It doesn't seem that players can do much to significantly change the frame rate. Going for a low preset or using any version of AMD's FSR technology or Intel's XeSS changes the picture clarity — sometimes for the worse — but the performance only goes as high as the 40s in areas that aren't crowded with foliage. Battery life also remains at roughly two hours with these changes, so you can't squeeze more life out of the game on the Deck. Those who were used to running Mortal Kombat 11 on a High preset with 60fps on the Deck will be a little disappointed.

Mortal Kombat 1 lives up to the hype. The gameplay tweaks to the core fighting keep things fast and explosive, and the addition of Kameos significantly adds to your arsenal in a fight. The story mode is top-notch in the genre, even if it can quickly get weird. Add in Invasions mode, and Mortal Kombat 1 matches Street Fighter 6 in giving solo players plenty to do. It looks and plays great, and the netcode is solid, so it stands alongside Capcom's latest as a strong fighting game that'll be in your rotation for years to come.

Score: 9.0/10

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