Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Mortal Kombat 11 is so close to being a perfect fighting game. It has incredibly tight mechanics that engage the player in versus battle, one of the best tutorials and training modes in fighting games to date, and an incredible dedication to single-player content including a story mode that I felt like I should be watching in a theater. Yet if there was ever a cautionary tale about the dangers of microtransactions, Mortal Kombat 11 would be it. Despite being one of the best if not the best Mortal Kombat games I have ever played, I kept putting it down quicker than any other Netherrealm game due to decisions made to frustrate and drive the sales of microtransactions.
But before we take a trip to that grim dark world, let’s talk about the good, and there is a lot of good to talk about.
Story – Revisiting your past
After the events of Mortal Kombat X, Raiden gets a little… murdery, and it’s hard to get more murdery in a Mortal Kombat game. He decapitates the elder god Shinnok and begins invading other realms under the pretense of protecting Earthrealm.
Meanwhile, the primordial titan of space and time, Kronika, sees Raiden’s acts as upsetting the balance between light and dark and so, she decides to begin resetting the timeline, turning everything to dust, and eventually creating a new reality where Raiden does not exist. However, she does not have the energy to reset the timeline herself, only to make past and future collide.
This conveniently brings back several old villains and heroes from Liu Kang from before he was killed and turn into a revenant, to the big boss daddy Shao Kahn himself. Kronika enlists the help of villains past and present to defend her as she siphons temporal energy from the most magical sites in all the realms. Meanwhile the heroes of Mortal Kombat join forces to defeat her, in a series of 1-on-1 fights separated by beautiful cutscenes.
At its core, Mortal Kombat 11’s story mode is really just the same old format we have become used to. There are no quick-time events, mini-games, tutorials, or complex RPG style systems here. It’s just a series of fights with story in between, and nothing is more traditionally “fighting game” than that.
The thing is, this is the best story mode I have seen in a fighting game yet. The graphics are amazing. The story is compelling. The actors (except for guest actor Ronda Rousey) do a fantastic job delivering their lines. It’s just amazing. This is the only fighting game story mode that I’ve ever wanted to invite friends over to watch. Netherrealm has proven that they are masters of fighting game narrative and MK11 is no exception.
Tutorial – Mastering the art of Kombat
You can limp your way through the easy modes of the story without a whole lot of skill, but if you really want to start learning the game you’ll want to go into the game’s “learn” mode. It’s here that you’ll find extensive tutorials, some of the best we have ever seen. Not only will it teach you basic controls and mechanics, it will also go into deeper concepts like frame data, creating combos, pressure and advantage, and more. There are even individual character tutorials that teach you the core moves and strings for every character in the game.
Both the tutorial and training modes have a ton of options that you just don’t see in fighting games. Every time the tutorial asks you to do something, you can see a replay that lights up a controller and plays tons with the exact timing you need to replicate to do it yourself. The game will show you hourglasses which represent the amount of time you have left to input the next stage of a combo.
If you repeatedly fail a lesson the game will give you a tip based on how and why you are failing, pointing out everything from timing to button input errors. The game will highlight a move’s start-up, active, and cooldown frames and will even show when moves are safe or unsafe on block and hit.
It’s just a fantastic suite of options that has gone above and beyond the call of duty for fighting game tutorials. MK11 teaches you everything you need to know to be decent. If you find yourself losing matches, you only have yourself to blame.
Mechanics – Testing your might
So let’s talk about matches for a second. Fighting games live or die on their gamplay mechanics, so at its core MK11 has to be fun to play.
Luckily, it is. It’s made a lot of changes to the formula of modern Mortal Kombat games, for the better. It’s nowhere near as simple as some other modern fighting games. You won’t find any auto-combos here. However, you will find a system that is much easier to get into than Mortal Kombat’s of the past.
The controls are basically the same. Each character has forward and back punch, forward and back kick, a block button, a throw button, an “amplify” button, and a “change stance” button. I’ve long said that I feel like this is too many buttons for a fighting game, especially since some functions like “change stance” don’t do anything except trigger an aesthetic change in your character unless they are triggering your character’s super. That just seemed really clunky to me.
Netherrealm appears to have taken this into account and has included button shortcuts for all the important functions in the game. This is something we have seen in earlier Netherrealm games but it has never been this complete. Now the game feels just fine to play on a stick or hit-box, though it’s still obviously designed for a controller. It’s also worth noting that MK11 has a ton of options for control and input sensitivity which will let you customize exactly how your controls feel. This is something no other fighting game does.
The basic meter is gone and is replaced by two other meters: an offense and defense meter. Your offensive meter can be spent to amplify your special moves, which basically act the same as meter burn moves of the past. The defensive meter allows you to do things like reversals, get-up moves, rolls, combo breakers, and the like. There are a couple catches. Any defensive move that also attacks (aside from stage interactable) also takes offensive meter. Also, you can only reversal out of a block if you block the opponent’s move at the last second, making it a very high risk high reward maneuver.
Supers have been totally detached from your meter. You get one, count it, one successful super per match and it turns on any time you are below 30 percent health. Use it wisely because if you land it and lose, you aren’t getting it again.
Character’s move-lists have changed quite substantially. There are fewer strings and moves to remember but each feels a bit more useful. Some techniques that used to be special moves are now just parts of strings. Overall, it’s a lot easier to pick up a new character without feeling overwhelmed.
Then there is the new “krushing blow” system, which makes certain moves produce special effects in used in certain contexts. For example, everyone gets an uppercut krushing blow that causes it to do extra damage and hit-stun when countering a high move. You can only trigger one krushing blow a match, but understanding how to is a huge part of mastering a character. Successful krushing blow combos can easily take off half of your opponent’s life or more.
Of course, this is all just the nitty gritty details. Overall, the game has changed to be slower and more precise, and I like that. It’s largely about spacing and footsies rather than aggression, and that works really well with Mortal Kombat’s ultra-violent nature.
It makes every move your land feel important, hitting with the weight that impaling spikes or a giant war hammer should have. Netherrealm tends to make games that are decent in multiplayer but really shine in single-player, but this time around the multiplayer is the place to be.
The grind – Destroying your wallet
I’ve had a lot of good things to say about Mortal Kombat 11 and if all of that is enough to please you, then go out and get the game now. If you are looking for more, however, you are going to be frustrated and disappointed.
It’s not that Mortal Kombat 11 doesn’t have more to give. There’s a ton more content to dive into. It’s just that it’s hidden behind a nearly impassable wall of microtransactions.
Each character has a ton of different cosmetic options to unlock as well as new pieces of gear and augments that change their abilities in single-player modes. This is the majority of Mortal Kombat 11’s content. Each character had upwards of 60 different pieces of gear for each gear slot. Yes, this means you can choose between 60 different ninja masks for Scorpion, and it’s awesome.
The problem, it’s nearly impossible to get any of them because the game has made obtaining them purposefully difficult.
Aside from the story mode, you can go to either specific character towers and a classic arcade tower to try and unlock some new content. Arcade towers are neat enough, rewarding you with a cool character specific ending, but they also don’t give you much else.
The Towers of Time force you into matches with special rules. Maybe you’ll take extra damage. Maybe your opponent will fire homing missiles at you. Maybe you’ll have to fight two characters at once. This should be a fun little diversion, but all these rules stacked on top of each other make some matches basically impossible. You can neutralize some of these special rules with special augments and consumable items, but you only get to choose your loadout at the beginning of the tower.
So let me paint this picture for you. You want a new cosmetic item for your character of choice. You pay in in-game currency to make a tower based on that character appear. You create a loadout having absolutely no idea what challenges await you. You get to an impossible battle full of damage over time and homing missiles, and realize you have something that will negate them, except this happens near the top of the tower, so you have to forfeit your run just to redo your loadout.
The towers aren’t the only way to get new content. There’s also the Krypt, a 3D exploration through Shang Tsung’s island. There are elements of the Krypt that are awesome. The whole thing feels like a Universal Studios-esque ride through Mortal Kombat’s history. You’ll get to see the corpses of all your favorite MK characters, and will be able to wander iconic MK areas in 3D, from the bottoms of the pit, to the dinner table where Goro was eating a turkey leg in the 1995 film.
But the main reason you are here is to unlock content, and that’s where the Krypt fails. In previous Krypts, each treasure chest would have a single specific item. You would look up a walkthrough, head through the Krypt to get the item you want, and that would be it. It’s just a box opening system with a little bit of graphical flair.
In this Krypt, however, every single treasure point is random. Completely, and utterly, random. You have no idea if it’s going to be worth spending your gold or souls or whatever because there’s no way to guarantee that you’ll get what you want. It’s just one gigantic loot box.
I’d be able to look this over if it weren’t the majority of the content in MK11. Ever since the game was revealed Netherrealm has been talking about how powerful MK11’s customization system is, and it is! The ability to craft the exact costume you want, to build the move-list that you are most comfortable with, this is an incredibly fun part of the game… if you have access to it.
While moves are accessible from the get go (thank god) everything else is a slog to unlock. After 40 hours I still only had about one extra skin for the characters I cared about playing. One extra skin, out of a possible 60.
Netherrealm said that they would be addressing this, making towers easier and the krypt cheaper, but this has just put me in a stalemate. Now I don’t want to spend any of my in-game currency because I’ll just be spending more than I need to when the discounts hit.
The alternative? Spend real money, and MK11 indulges in every crappy mobile game trick in the book. You have to buy an extra currency instead of buying things directly with money. You have access to limited time sales that make you panic and spend money without any knowledge that the sale will ever come about again.
Everything is designed to get you spending your hard earned cash rather than actually playing the game and you never want a game to make you pay to not play it. Except that’s exactly what Netherrealm seems to be doing. In fact, they even let you set your character to A.I. to let the A.I. grind out towers for you…. Which seems like a sloppy fix.
It’s so rare for a game to be so incredible and so disappointing at the same time. I’ll say this right now, if Mortal Kombat 11 had no microtransactions and a workable Krypt and Towers mode, I would be giving it something close to a 10 out of 10. I love playing this game. I love fighting against other people online. I love choosing different paths in the story mode. I love spending hours on end in training.
What I don’t love is hammering my head against frustrating and exploitative challenges for the sake of opening loot boxes. Unfortunately, there comes a point where that’s all you can do. That’s when Mortal Kombat 11 collapses in on itself.
It’s still a great game and a game I definitely recommend you play if you are a Mortal Kombat fan, but it’s going to be a game that is better off a few months down the line once all the patches and revisions have taken out the frustrating parts.