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May 4, 2015

Let’s discuss Mortal Kombat X (Part 1).

I’d just like to take a moment to mention that in my first match of Mortal Kombat X, I managed to pull off a Fatality just by mashing a couple of directions and hitting a button.  It was complete luck, but somehow I found Jax ripping open Reptile’s head and stuffing a cigar into it like an ashtray.  Almost immediately, my brother accused me of looking it up on the internet beforehand -- the greatest of sins to be committed when trying out a fighting game raw.  (Though it’s worth noting he spent a fair amount of time with vanilla Marvel 3 before our inaugural match.)

I think at that stage, he drastically overestimated how much I cared about winning.  As I’ve said, I’ve never cared about Mortal Kombat, and anyone who assumes that I hate it is justified in doing so.  I’m not saying that anyone who does like it is wrong; it’s just that it isn’t for me.  I’ve got an armada’s worth of biases, and unfortunately they’ve kept MK from even setting sail on the metaphorical ocean. 

But hope springs eternal.  Maybe this, NetherRealm’s latest attempt to bring in new fans and old loyalists, and offer up the TRUE next-gen fighting game, is the chosen one.  Does it have what it takes?  If nothing else, can it win me over at last?

Well, let me say this to start: I think I get Mortal Kombat now.

Here’s something I noticed right off the bat.  See, it’s no secret that fighting games aren’t exactly the easiest to get into; the mere mention of them brings out droves of people saying “I’m no good at fighting games” or something along those lines (and I’m assuming that talking about one here will ensure negative pageviews).  So there’s been an effort on all fronts -- i.e. from plenty of fighter devs and their PR sentinels -- to reassure everyone that their new game will be easy to play.  Easy to learn.  Easy to understand.  “Beginner-friendly”, more or less.

I seriously doubt they’re succeeding, though.  I mean, how many iterations have there been of Street Fighter IV, and how many of them have a built-in tutorial that explains the mere existence of links, let alone how to land them consistently?  And for that matter, why make it so that links, a key component of the combo system, is a lost cause for the layman?  Street Fighter X Tekken makes things even harder on players, because they have to learn TWO characters at a bare minimum, plus the concept of team synergy, plus a bunch of other systems tied into to the combo system.  And then there’s the gem system, so you can system while you system. 

It’s true that other fighters offer extensive tutorials (Skullgirls and Killer Instinct are good examples, as are the ArcSys games), but that demands players to swallow their pride and give them the time of day.  Plus, there’s a difference between knowing what buttons do what and which systems go where, and knowing how to apply that knowledge.  Chalk it up as an intangible, but the feel of a game is more important than the know-how behind it. 

Where am I going with this?  Well, here’s my point: if you ask me, MKX -- and maybe all of the MK games before it -- feels terrible unless you know what you’re doing.  It’s to the point where I wonder how the franchise ever took off in the first place.

I actually played a compilation of the older MK games a while back, and I managed to cheese my way through most of its single-player by A) mashing the punches in sequence to make 40% damage combos, and B) abusing the running/grabbing mechanics to make a faux-infinite combo.  It could’ve taken me to the end, but I got bored before long…though I still played it more than Deadly AllianceMK9 and Injustice fare better mechanically, but the fact that neither of those had the ability to rely on iterations like the Capcom/ArcSys fighters did doesn’t paint the best picture -- irrespective of the fact that I dropped it before long.  So by default, MKX is the best game yet…and it’ll earn that title by more than just the default as soon as I figure out how the hell it’s supposed to work.

When I played Injustice, I had an epiphany.  Just like that game, and MK9 before it, MKX gives each character dedicated strings to remember -- the “kombos” that have you pressing buttons in sequence to unleash multiple attacks instead of bare-bones single hits.  In that sense, it’s a lot like the Tekken games; pick a character, learn the strings, then use the strings in fights to score some big damage.  Sounds simple enough, though it exposes a major issue early: speaking personally, there are few things more frustrating than not knowing what to do with a character.  It’s not just about the moves (though that obviously factors in); it’s about the combos, the tools, and the strategies.  What do you do in any given situation, and how?  It’s a complex question, but at the very least, the comparisons to Tekken remain. 

But it’s probably common knowledge at this point that MK was made to try and compete with Street Fighter -- and it shows.  So not only do you have to know what a character’s kombos are (so you can make bigger, more important combos), but you also have to know what their special moves are.  It’s vital if you want to give yourself a fighting chance, because even the humble fireball -- or the lack thereof -- can make the difference in a match.  So considering that said matches take place on a 2D plane, the comparisons to Tekken kind of break down…but not really.  MKX is neither Street Fighter nor Tekken.

It’s both.

So.  If you want to get the most out of your character -- if you want to enter the heat of battle, and experience the bliss the genre regularly allows -- then you have to know what you’re doing.  You have to know the single hits.  You have to know the kombos.  You have to know the specials.  And on top of all that, you have to know how to bring all of those together into your combos -- either your BnBs (bread and butter), or your optimized, big-damage tricks.  The question at hand is this: do you know how to make a good MK combo?  If you don’t, good luck -- because it’s not exactly the most obvious.

I mean, I know the basics of good combos from other fighting games, so I can do okay-ish.  Using Tekken’s Paul Phoenix as an example: you can launch an opponent into the air with one of his basic single hits.  From there, you add in some filler with a couple of jabs (or another string, if possible).  And then one of Paul’s two-hit strings puts the opponent in a bound state, i.e. they get knocked down and left vulnerable temporarily.  From there, you can go for a combo ender; Paul’s got a three-hit string that tacks on some big damage, so I tend to opt for that. 

Now, was I doing that straight out of the gate with Tekken?  No, of course not, because you have to pick and choose your repertoire out of more than a hundred moves.  But once you grasp the concepts, the rest falls into place.  Unfortunately, those concepts don’t necessarily translate into MKX, at least not in an obvious form.  So yes, there are ground bounces (a staple of games like Marvel 3), launchers (any number of fighters), and juggles (allllllllllllllllll of the fighters), but you have to be on-point.  A ground bounce in Marvel 3 gives you time to do practically anything, but a ground bounce in this game gives you a brief window of opportunity.  And that’s if you even use them at all.

Of course, none of that is to say that MKX is worse by nature.  It’s just…different.  As far as I can tell, timing is EXTREMELY important in this game; not only is it needed to take advantage of the states your kombos leave your opponent in, but it’s also needed just to make sure your kombos even finish (unless you LIKE looking like a doof that says “why won’t this work?” every three seconds).  The pace of move execution in this game is something very close to blistering, and to some extent that carries over to the rest of the game.  That’s why it’s so important to know the moves beforehand; if you don’t, you’re flailing helplessly.  You’re failing to get the most out of your character, your match, and the game at large.

So as a guy who’s been playing those button-bashers for years, I have a hard time imagining how people could just play MKX at a surface, beginner level and enjoy themselves.  I don’t mean that as an insult; it’s actually a testament to the potential that MKX has.  It did its job and convinced me to spend time (time I could use to finally play Bloodborne) to try and learn some combos -- to do more than just rely on universal sweeps and uppercuts, and not have to constantly go into the menu to look up this kombo or that kombo.  Chalk that up as a win.

I think the variations play a part in that -- and beyond that, are just a good idea in general.  For the uninitiated: the playable characters in this game each come with three styles you choose at the select screen.  The three styles alter your characters in ways that change their game plan and archetype.  For example, Jax can gain a greater emphasis on grappling with his Wrestler variation, become a zoner with Heavy Weapons, or go for rushdown and mixups with Pumped Up.  It’s a smart move, because it keeps a character fresh and lets a player adjust for the fights ahead.

But there’s another benefit, and not just heading into training mode to figure the variations out.  Let’s say you’re like me and you want to try out a new character.  In my case, I decided to give Cassie Cage a shot…and almost dropped her after taking her into training mode.  It’s not that she’s a terrible character (who knows what the tier lists will look like a couple of months from now), but her style didn’t click for me.  It felt like there was a hole in her move set; her zoning tool in one variation felt situational and gimmicky, while her default one failed to give her a special move to reliably use as a combo ender.  BUT once I switched her to Brawler and she got a ground-and-pound tackle (not unlike Third Strike’s Sean), everything clicked. 

That’s the beauty of variations.  You can be a character loyalist, but you can also be a specialist; there’s a saving grace that makes the learning process that much more enticing.

Still, I’m not convinced that MKX is necessarily noob-friendly.  With a lot of fighting games, you can make a simple combo just by pressing buttons in order of weakest to strongest and ending in a special move.  To put it in BlazBlue’s terms?  It’s ABC Special (or if you want the proper notation, 5A>5B>5C>236C).  Depending on the character, you can add a D attack, or just use D to start a combo, or just get in a single hit, or just use it to alter the playing field somehow.  It makes more sense when you play it, especially since the original game shipped with a tutorial DVD.  That’s some dedication.

With MKX, the four face buttons are front punch, back punch, front kick, and back kick; good luck intuiting which buttons to press for kombos -- which is a complaint you could lob at Tekken, but the inputs needed are more lenient, and the pace less speedy.  On top of that, the whole thing feels esoteric, especially for those who have put in their time with non-NetherRealm fighters…and given how many there are?  That’s pretty freakin’ easy.

I’ve always hated the MK-style directional inputs, so I switched them to have diagonals (and by extension make things feel more like SF).  That still means that you have to know the kombos and be wary of the strict timing needed to do anything more than the basics.  And taken alone, a fair number of the special moves can’t really be used to extend combos; you have to spend meter and use their EX forms, some of which still don’t necessarily ensure longer combos. 

Put simply, there’s a level of complexity that makes even a training session only so helpful unless you’ve got a tutorial video playing nearby.  Comparatively, one training session with Under Night In-Birth is all it takes to not only learn the basics, but also put together some good (if not great) combos.

I can’t stress enough that the potential is there for MKX, and it does have what it takes to make anyone want to learn more…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I have to be honest here.  MKX seems to me like the sort of fighter you’d play on the side, not as a main game.  Or to put it a different way, why would you EVER choose MKX over Guilty Gear Xrd?  Or Under Night In-Birth?  Or (inevitably) Street Fighter V?

I ask this because (besides signaling that it’s time to go into Negative Criticism Downer Mode) I’m confused as to what, exactly, MKX’s purpose is.  Does it have the chops to become a major player in the fighting game scene?  Sure, potentially.  But this is a franchise built on drawing in spectators and attention with what happens in it as much as the actual fights.  It’s about the spectacle -- the shock factor, and the proposed awesomeness tied into it.  So with that in mind, why does so much of MKX feel so boring?

Part of it plays into the underlying mechanics, I think.  The speed of the game is a real sticking point (it almost feels like you have to mash just to do a 3-hit kombo with nothing but the Square button), but it’s not insurmountable; it just takes a crapload of getting used to, if anything.  But the issues crop up elsewhere; I cannot fathom why anyone thought this game needed a block button, especially with that pace in mind. 

And sure, other fighters have block buttons (Virtua Fighter, Dead or Alive, Soul Calibur), but those have their blocks on one of the face buttons; by default, you have to hold one of the triggers to block, and it feels so awkward and alien.  The games with block buttons, as you may have noted, also have a full range of 3D motion, meaning that you can weave in and out to avoid attacks and rely less on stationary blocking.  With MKX, you can only move forward and back, which puts greater emphasis on using a mechanic that doesn’t mesh as well as it could. I guess you could change it so that blocking is set to Square, but that would mean putting the basic punch on one of the triggers -- and that doesn’t seem ideal.

My big issue comes with the addition of the stamina meter -- and by extension, running.  So for a game like SF, pressing forward twice rapidly makes your character dash forward a short distance; same goes for Tekken.  But in Tekken, you can also hold down a direction on the second input to break into a run, and close the gap quickly.  In MKX, you can still do that dash, but in order to run, you have to tap a direction twice and then press the block button (and running takes up your stamina). 

So like, why?  First off, it doesn’t even feel like running is an essential part of this game, because it means you risk running into a fireball at the very least, and the normal dash works fine.  Second, why the obtuse control scheme?  Why map that feature to the block button so that if you try to block an incoming attack during a dash, you end up running straight into it instead?

To be fair, the stamina meter kicks in so that players won’t spam stuff like backdashes (which come with invincibility frames for a safe retreat) or the items in stages you can interact with for cheap/easy advantages.  But overall, it doesn’t really feel necessary.  I mean sure, using the stage to jump out of corners is useful, but does anyone need all of that extra stuff when the core gameplay mechanics are strong enough?  And why add in other stuff that feels like a borderline gimmick?  Why complicate a game that’s complicated enough by design?

The point of a fighting game -- or any game, really -- is to create illusions.  You can’t punch your opponent in real life, but you can do it in a game.  And while being in a fight in real life has to be absolutely terrifying for the uninitiated, a fight in a game might as well be a giant bug zapper; it pulls you in, as if you’re stuck in a trance.  The underlying mechanics are a part of that, in the sense that once you can do moves without going “oh wait, what’s a combo?” you can get lost in the beat.  You feel it right down to your soul.

Unless you’re playing MKX.   Even after all these years, it’s still WAY behind in terms of spectacle…which is kind of a problem when your franchise is built on spectacle.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way.  Yes, this is easily the best-looking game NetherRealm has put out yet.  The models are better (they’ve vastly improved in terms of making female faces), the stages are better, and the level of intricacy in both is pretty impressive.  So yes, everything looks good…but it doesn’t look good.  We live in a world where Guilty Gear Xrd happened -- at a bare minimum -- and it just goes to show how important style is over raw graphical power.  MKX has a style, I guess, but it doesn’t reach out from the screen and grab me.  It’s a dirty and dingy game in a dirty and dingy world, with death and decay, skulls and sorcery, blood and brutality everywhere you look.  And for me?  It’s just not enough.

What absolutely cripples this game is the sound design, just as it always has.  Once more, there isn’t a single song in the soundtrack worth remembering, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s no music that plays during fights.  You can pick up on some guitar notes here and there, but it’s the most generic thing you could imagine -- and that just won’t fly in light of the unreasonably good (and ever improving) Killer Instinct soundtrack. 

Whereas most attacks in Under Night In-Birth boom like the thunder of the gods, I don’t feel the force or the feedback from even the meatiest of punches in MKX; it’s more like I’m slapping a slice of bologna.  I picked Wrestler Jax in the hopes of seeing some sick grapples, but his command grab is one of the most unfulfilling moves I’ve ever encountered.  Hell, even in his intro when he’s pounding his METAL FISTS together, it feels so tinny and distant it’s as if he’s tapping a porcelain bowl with a spoon.  That’s game-breaking in a game so heavily dependent on violence.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the violence.

There was a post on Destructoid not too long ago that talked about whether or not it was okay for kids to be exposed to the franchise’s distinct brand of video game violence -- especially since this new installment features bodies ripping in half and guts spewing all over the place for gargoyles to devour.  We can spin our wheels all day about whether or not it’s harmful, but in light of MKX?  I’m not too concerned about it…mostly because the hyper-violence on display is boring.

There’s some gruesome stuff in there, no question; the game’s take on Super Combos from SF is the X-Ray, which has combatants attacking with the bloodiest moves available outside of Fatalities.  The problem is that it doesn’t amount to much.  These are attacks that regularly feature eyes getting shot, bodies getting slashed or stabbed, and bones getting broken, but outside of heavy damage it has no effect on what happens in a match.  The one on the receiving end just gets up and fights normally, unimpeded by what happened just seconds prior.  You can’t just add that into a game and expect players to shrug that off.  It breaks the game’s illusion in half.

So you’ve got these lavishly-rendered attacks, but it’s all just a bunch of smoke and mirrors -- but by getting so much focus, it ends up becoming even weaker.  Setting aside the fact that the impact factor still isn’t really there (it feels more like someone’s crushing a bag of chips than ribcages being shattered), I can think of any number of attacks in any number of fighters that have more punch with a fraction of the violence.  Practically all of Akira’s attacks in Virtua Fighter 5 feel like they’re strong enough to shatter reality, but they’re done in such a way so as to keep the pace of a fight going.  No frills, no tricks.  Just fighting.

Meanwhile, you look at the X-Ray attacks, and it slows the game down to a crawl.  Not just because the frame rate goes from 60fps to 30; suddenly, every attack has to go in slooooooooooooooow moooooooooooooooooootion so we can see every hit -- hits which, need I remind you, don’t amount to much -- and so we can see all the bones and guts and blood getting #rekt.  It’s quaint, but it’s not all that interesting, especially because the novelty wears off really quickly.  You might pick a character to see their X-Ray or Fatality (or do the smart thing and watch a YouTube compilation), but once you do, it’s hard to feel like you have to see that again.  Comparatively…

For me it’s like, “All right, each character has a Fatality, and another Fatality they can unlock.  So what?”  Do some people find those things cool?  Sure, probably.  But for me, the hyper-violence doesn’t have much of an impact; it’ll make me sick for a second or two, but when it’s over I’m just left saying “Oh, that’s it?  How…uh…violent.”  Sonya Blade calling in a drone to cut Scorpion’s arms off with a laser before blowing off his head should prompt a stronger reaction, but it’s just so far-removed from anything that it’s hard to feel…well, anything.  Or rather, the fact that it ISN’T far-removed is the problem.  When hyper-violence is the expected norm, it takes something on a level well beyond that to justify even a single move.  MKX doesn’t really do that -- so what should feel special ultimately isn’t.

To the game’s credit, its X-Ray attacks are a lot more diverse than Injustice’s constant “knock you up into the air, then smash you back down” Supers.  But thus far, there are only two I’ve seen that I actually like -- and one of those is just Jax doing a power bomb, so that’s debatable by virtue of it being a cool wrestling move.  Personally, I think Liu Kang has the best of the bunch; he’s still got those flow-breaking effects, but his is less about showing off extreme, life-ending violence, and more about doing what you’d expect: attacking an opponent with a flurry of kung fu strikes.  And because of that, it feels more honest.  I don’t need to see bones breaking or blood flying to signal that an attack hurts; just do the attack and be done with it.

But it’s fine.  My biggest takeaway from this game is that I should play more Under Night In-Birth.

I’m not just saying that because “LOL, JAPANESE GAMES ARE SOOOOO MUCH BETTER!”  I’m saying that because between the two games, the one from the land of the rising sun makes a better argument as to what I should learn first (if at all).  I can think of at least six Under Night characters I want to mess around with; I’m struggling to see the appeal of any more than three members of the MKX cast.  Shocker: I haven’t exactly been won over by creepy bug woman, asshole gunslinger, the ninja, the other ninja, or the other other ninja.

So, bottom line.  Is MKX good?  Yeah, mostly.  Would I play it as much as I’ve played other fighters?  Hell no.  Would I recommend it?  For fans of the franchise or hardened fighting fans, yes -- but that’s about it.  And is this the game that justifies eighth-gen consoles not named the Wii U?  Noooooooooooooooooooo.  It’s a step forward for sure, but I still don’t think it’s there yet.  I’m concerned about the game’s longevity (and the reportedly-abysmal netcode doesn’t help matters), and while it doesn’t do anything to make it bad, it still doesn’t necessarily do enough to make it stand out.  It’s just…there.  It does its thing, and putts on out of sight.

Who knows?  Maybe MKXI will be the one to win me over.  It’s possible.  But for now?  Even if I get MKX, I’m not sure I want to get with it.

And so ends this needlessly-elaborate look at the gameplay systems.  Next time, let’s talk about something no one really cares about: the story.

Because relevance.  Waning relevance, but hey, I’ll take it. 

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