Best fighting games of the generation, Part 5: Mortal Kombat 11

Continuing his rundown of the generation’s best fighters, a reader covers all three NetherRealm games: Mortal Kombat X and 11, and Injustice 2.

NetherRealm Studios released three fighting games this generation, each one a major event. And they are worth grouping together for a good reason. I’ve noticed a distressing trend with NetherRealm’s output since the generation began, for the Lord Ed Boon giveth and he also taketh away. Or rather, he gives us far too much of what we don’t want: grind.

Grinding has been kind of the theme for all single-player efforts of this generation. All of them are guilty of it to some degree or another. But NetherRealm is the guiltiest of them all. It started in Mortal Kombat X with the Living Towers. Here there would be challenges that refreshed every hour, day and week. There would be modifiers to the matches – some good like tilting stages, faster battles or losing your limbs (I know that sounds bad, but it’s really funny) to the awful: random hazards or character assists like meteors or lightning bolts that just serve to disrupt the rhythm of the match and get on your nerves. In Injustice 2 and Mortal Kombat 11 the irritations would outnumber the fun stuff.

Single-player

NetherRealm are now the masters of the story mode. Mortal Kombat 9 was a little rough, but now they have refined their craft to a diamond point. Mortal Kombat X retained the Test Your Luck features from the previous game and the Living Towers were okay. The Krypt has been revamped to be a first person adventure where specific items can open up new areas. You soon run out of things to do however and the chests get very expensive and earning more funds becomes boring.

Injustice 2 dispensed with any kind of Star Labs mode, leaving us only with the Multiverse – which worked much like the Living Towers. It was nice to lose the ‘Simon Says’ missions where you have to perform moves and combos but now I don’t get to be Selina Kyle’s cat jumping over lasers! I don’t for the life of me understand why the Multiverse gets any praise. Maybe after years of so much abuse when it comes to single-player, this seemed wonderful. It’s not. Like Mortal Kombat 11, the modifiers just irritate: hazards to either block or jump over. Which forces you to be too cautious and defensive. It’s not a fun way to play.

NetherRealm almost admit as much because in their last two games now, you can simply let the computer do all the grinding for you with little penalty. I can’t even imagine Project Soul giving you this option for all those dungeons in SoulCalibur II, which were merely a scuff on an almost perfect single-player campaign. That’s because there was more genuine variety, more creative ways that Namco employed.

‘Hmm, who could I be fighting next I wonder? Oh, Berserker! Well, colour me every shade of surprised! I’ve only fought you in the five bazillion rooms leading up to this! I could never have guessed it would be you again!’

But even in spite of this, Project Soul were able to sustain your interest far better than NetherRealm could. Some fights would see one of you go flying 20 feet up into the air whenever somebody scored a heavy knock-down hit, the edges of the stage could be explosive, you could be fighting on quicksand or, my personal favourite, ice. You would be right in thinking that any sort of fighter, 2D or 3D, would be the worst possible genre to feature a slippy slidey ice stage. And you would be right. But in the most hilariously entertaining way possible.

But in NetherRealm’s last efforts, this sort of creativity has been very thin on the ground – leaving the story to do all the heavy lifting. Or, to put it a better way, the story mode in a NetherRealm game was always meant to be the appetiser to the main course. Now, they’re the only thing that’s worth eating. For what awaits you afterwards is a whole planet’s worth of Brussels sprouts.

Okay, I hear you, you may actually like Brussels sprouts. In which case, I don’t know who hurt you but just know that you’re safe now. Safe and loved. But this is a planet’s worth, I’m talking about. And not Mercury, either. Oh no, it’s Jupiter alright. Just occasionally you might bite into a hint of soy sauce, a soupçon, if you will – but then it’s back to nature’s fart eggs.

But hey, it is fun seeing all the character endings: Kronika even makes for an entertaining and not hideously cheap final boss. Shock horror.

Presentation

Initially, the character designs in a NetherRealm game could leave much to be desired. Things were getting better in Mortal Kombat X and some characters were starting to look quite good. Mileena in particular looked awesome. Very scary girl, I love her. Injustice 2 was something else entirely. The characters looked breathtaking, Keanu Reeves breathtaking. Much of the costuming was somewhat bland, but there were some gems there too.

Then comes Mortal Kombat 11 and not only do you have the same level of stunning detail, the character models are bigger, making Injustice 2 duels seem as if they are too far away by comparison. The sound effects for the fatalities are what can truly elevate them to a more disturbing level. Especially one of Kabal’s. Future trips to the dentist will be even more traumatic than they were before.

And while it is fashionable to pile on Ronda Rousey, she is rubbish and she is in wrestling now, so she’s used to it. Seriously, could they not have given Lucy Lawless a call? Xena as Sonya Blade anyone? Yes please!

Handling

This gets better with each instalment in my view. Though, if you really must be an insufferable snob about there being a block button in a 2D fighter, you’ve always got Injustice 2. But really, it doesn’t matter. Stop pretending it does. It’s that kind of disingenuous whinging that’s actually stifling creativity in this genre. So shut up, nobody cares. Really. Nobody. Certainly not the professional tournament players who would be the first to complain.

Where there is a real problem, is the pace of battles. Injustice 2 is smoother and faster than either Mortal Kombat but Mortal Kombat 11 does have its fast moments and is not as heavy as its predecessor. The ‘poke poke’ style of lengthening a combo is strange to behold and do – and I really couldn’t tell you whether it’s horribly cheap or elegantly accessible. Only the Elder Gods can decide.

Structure

Always at least one character to unlock, then a whole truck’s worth of cosmetics – some obviously better than others. The Mortal Kombat games will give you fatality and brutality inputs too, if you don’t find them out for yourself. The Krypt has been fun to go through, giving you a meta-adventure to play that I personally find quite enjoyable. The loot is mostly random, but I don’t really see that as a problem. There has been criticism of these modes, but I can’t pretend to understand precisely what the problem is.

They definitely run out of steam long before you’ve unlocked all the areas you can access. And Mortal Kombat 11 has three types of currency, which rightly prompted fears of microtransaction-fuelled shenanigans that thankfully came to nothing. Bu it still makes for an immensely long and arduous grind fest that gets dull very quickly. That’s where the computer can come to your rescue. Turn it on for say, Noob Saibot, max out his combo and rushdown stats and let him loose on survival mode whenever you’re low on coins.

That you almost need to do this is very troubling and it’s clear that either NetherRealm are not getting the proper feedback or just not listening to it.

Cast

Injustice 2 has a pretty great cast, really. There would have been riots at this point if they had not have included Harley. I’ve never been entirely sold on the Joker’s fighting style – he’s not quite manic enough for my liking – but everybody else plays much like you would hope. I hardly ever play as Cheetah or Poison Ivy and that’s not because they’re bad, but they’re probably not as instantly gratifying as others such as Wonder Woman or Flash.

Mortal Kombat on the other hand, has probably been living in Mortal Kombat 9’s shadow all this time. That game features everybody from the 16-bit era, and Quan Chi for some strange reason, so nobody could bemoan the loss of a firmly established favourite. As such, when it comes to sequels, inevitably someone has to go for there to be room for newcomers. And some of those newcomers are great. The insectile D’Vorah, old time gunslinger Erron Black, and the Master Blaster-inspired Ferra Torr. The ‘Kombat Kids’ as they have come to be known ether affectionately or mockingly, depending on your own view, were a little bland at first – playing like knock-off versions of the true classics. That said, Cassie Cage was made the hero of the story mode and was very funny and charming, which helped to win over a legion of fans.

But we lost Jade, Kabal, Nightwolf, Stryker, (I like Stryker, okay!) Sheeva, and Sindel. Mortal Kombat 11 looks set to restore a few of these names as DLC, except now Mileena is nowhere to be found. A character who has almost become the de facto female lead. And NetherRealm were lucky that hasn’t backfired. Perhaps, like myself, we’re hoping she’ll be added back to the roster as DLC (a bit of a tacky move, but what can you do?) but that might be a forlorn hope.

Mortal Kombat 11 has only three genuinely new characters, but also two ancient names that have been revitalised in Frost and Skarlet. As I care nothing for tournaments, I think everybody plays pretty well. Of the new characters, I like Cetrion the best, her design if not her terrible name. Johnny Cage mocking it does not mean that it’s not still a terrible name. What, is she an Elder God or a small, French car?

One of her intros has her walk in, flowers and greenery bursting into life under her crystalline boots like something out of Ōkami! Cetrion is amazing and I will brook no argument to the contrary! So there!

Post-launch support

Strong, yet patchy. NetherRealm can drag their heels so badly on this, that if you’re not a super-fan like myself, it is best to wait for any special editions that may come about. Mortal Kombat X famously got horror icons such as the alien, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface – all well worth having, but obviously the alien was the star attraction. I don’t have a special edition of Injustice 2, so I just bought what I fancied, like Starfire. She’s pretty good. I’ll get around to buying the Ninja Turtles at some point but they were a little too expensive, so I have to be feeling more flush.

And finally, Mortal Kombat 11 kind of needed to have good post-launch support to lessen the horrific grind. I didn’t suffer the worst of it, but it is still quite tedious. Shang Tsung was our first DLC character, modelled after and voiced by none other than Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa himself, who played the villain in the 1996 movie. He doesn’t rock that long, dark mane these days but still boasts that oily and treacherous voice that is so perfect for the character. Hey, look! A bit of stunt casting that actually works! Well done, WB!

Nightwolf is out now, who is good. A solid all-rounder. With his spirit animal companions of bear, hawk, and wolf he reminds me more than ever of an old kids’ cartoon Bravestarr, remember that one? ‘Nightwolf! Strength of the bear! Speed of the puma!’ Aaah. I’m so old.

Next we’ll be getting the Arnie version of the Terminator, which has to be the greatest piece of guest casting in the genre’s history. It almost makes up for Ronda Rousey being so rubbish. Then we will get my favourite: Her Majesty, Queen Sindel. Then an extremely youthful version the Joker who looks like he still attends high school and finally and Spawn, complete with cape! Nobody has ever managed to get his cape right in a game before and I believe that NetherRealm will be the first.

After that? Who knows. Optimus Prime? Ash from Evil Dead? Rainbow Dash? I wouldn’t bet against any of those. But I better be getting Mileena back, Ed! Or else I’ll come for you! Oh yes, I’ll come for you, Boon…

Multiplayer

This, sadly, is where NetherRealm have really taken options away over time. Mortal Kombat no longer has Test Your Luck in the latest game and no stage fatalities. So far. As such, both Injustice 2 and Mortal Kombat 11 feel very bare bones and limited in this area. Which is disappointing to say the least. The only thing you can do is swap out certain moves for the characters which won’t hold your interest for very long.

Online

Oh wow! Kombat League? How very exciting, NetherRealm! Oh I just can’t wait to – no! It’s as boring as watching cement dry!

Up next? Well, this series was seriously wounded… but the soul still burns!

By reader DMR

Best fighting games of the generation, Part 1: Street Fighter V

Best fighting games of the generation, Part 2: ARMS

Best fighting games of the generation, Part 3: Tekken 7

Best fighting games of the generation, Part 4: Dragon Ball FighterZ

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