Release Date : September 19, 2023
Developer(s) : NetherRealm Studios
Publisher(s) : Warner Bros Games
Platforms : PS5, Xbox Series X/S, PC, Nintendo Switch
Mortal Kombat 1, which has been in development for over 4 years at NetherRealm by Ed Boon, the relentless father of the series, finally opens the doors to its sunny kingdom. Yes, it’s time to forget the dark and nasty halls of the Outworld. Here, poppies bloom and butterflies flutter peacefully. Does this mean that Mortal Kombat 1 has what it takes to make our enthusiasm explode like Baraka bursts heads with his blades? Perhaps…
Same Old, Same Old
Liu Kang has taken advantage of his position as guardian of time to shape a universe in his own image, with kingdoms that live in peace. Sub Zero and Scorpion? They’ve become brothers, working together to protect the Earthrealm. Shang Tsung? He’s a nobody who survives by selling miracle cures to the local villagers. After growing dragon wings, Liu Kang became the god of fire and guards his subjects. Among other things, he is in charge of recruiting Earth warriors to defend the honor of our pretty blue planet during a tournament organized between the kingdoms. It is rumored that the soldiers from Outworld seek war, but they may be discouraged if the Earth realm wins. At the same time, an evil grain of sand is infiltrating this new world’s well-oiled machinery, with unexpected consequences.
If you have no idea what Mortal Kombat is, we could sum up this franchise, which appeared in arcades in 1992, in these terms: a bloody fighting game featuring a gameplay based mainly on the use of special moves and the many ways to humiliate your opponent. As the episodes progressed, 2D sprites were replaced by 3D characters, combos multiplied, “X-ray” moves appeared, the story was rebooted several times and game modes became more varied. Of course, the cast has also been expanded.
Choose your fighter
MK1’s main characters include Ashrah, Baraka, Geras, Havik, Johnny Cage, Kenshi, Kitana, Kung Lao, Li Mei, Liu Kang, Mileena, Nitara, Raiden, Rain, Reiko, Reptile, Scorpion, General Shao, Sindel, Smoke Sub-Zero, Tanya and Shang Tsung (in DLC). As for the Kameos, the famous assists, we find Cyrax, Darrius, Frost, Goro, Jax Briggs, Kano, Kung Lao, Motaro, Sareena, Scorpion, Sektor, Shujinko, Sonya Blade, Stryker and Sub-Zero.
With a fresh universe, this episode is a kind of new beginning for the license. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best entry point for discovering the series. While it is indeed a new beginning, MK1 is still a true sequel to MK11. There are plenty of nods to the original fans, and the plot is fully comprehensible only to those who have completed the Aftermatch expansion to the 11th installment.
In 2008, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe revolutionized the campaign mode of the fighting game, by giving it a new look. Mortal Kombat 9 had improved the concept with even more elaborate cutscenes, flashy plot twists, and varied settings/protagonists, to the point of becoming a benchmark for the genre. In 2023, NetherRealm has left the formula virtually the same. Story mode is robust again, with a mix of drama and nonsense, it never forgets to add a touch of humor after two more dramatic sequences. Introducing a number of surprises that we won’t cover here, Warner’s single-player campaign (which takes less than 7 hours to complete) gives us a good time, even if it’s still rather classic in its construction and doesn’t offer many twists and turns.
Hold Back to Fight
Mortal Kombat 1 may leave a taste of raw blood in the throat during the first few rounds, mainly due to a few changes in presentation rather than the huge amounts of blood spilled with each click. In its general interface, the game featuring Scorpion and all his gang could have done with a little less clutter. The menus, blocked at 30fps, don’t really impress with their reactivity. Even simple actions, such as starting a training session with a character, take a little too long to load through screens that are often as black as a moonless night. Only local matches start off nicely, with a close shot of the heroes facing each other, and then the scenery appears smoothly without an awkward fade to black.
This may be considered an unimportant detail, but it contrasts with the neat presentation of MK11 and Street Fighter 6. On the same note, reappearing in the center of the arena in “Combo Trial” mode requires you to play the CPU demo, while the main screen animations cannot be interrupted, which will frustrate impatient players (or those who made a mistake and simply want to go back).
Compared to Mortal Kombat 11, NetherRealm’s new release is strangely less spectacular in its opening scenes. Here, the camera is slightly further away from the fighters, in order to frame the Kameo summons. The animations are more legible, with fewer parasitic frames, making the action easier to read. In comparison, Street Fighter 6’s rendering is still cleaner on all levels, but MK1 fares well. Some characters, such as Li Mei, still have sloppy movements, giving the impression of having been artificially accelerated without the animation really keeping up, but overall, NetherRealm remains within the good standards of a 2023 fighting game. No more interactive arena elements that gave players the opportunity to take out their opponents, and fatalities end in less impressive shots than usual. Cutscenes end with the winning duo, rather than the highlight of the slow-motion fatality. This can give the impression that MK1 is holding back, even if the finish moves are as wild as ever.
Kameo, The Elements of Power?
Mortal Kombat 1 introduces a new Kameo system in the form of a supporting character who can be summoned at any time during a fight. The Kameo performs a single blow before leaving the game zone, waiting to be summoned again when the Kameo gauge is full. Pressing RB/R1 while holding down a direction causes the Kameo to deliver a special move. Let’s illustrate: if I’m controlling Sub Zero and I’ve chosen Kano as my Kameo, I can have him enter the ring for a few seconds to burn the enemy with his eye laser (RB/R1), throw his knives (back + RB/R1) or simply charge the opponent with his ball (front + RB/R1). These assistant protagonists can also be summoned during projections (front + LB/L1) and fatalities. With practice, it’s easy to perform devastating combos in pairs. Too easy, perhaps. Online, it’s quite common to encounter opponents who manage to drain more than 50% of the life bar by spamming Sareena’s blades.
By combining around sixty moves (basic and special) with the Kameo’s few actions, it is indeed possible to do some serious damage. Is this system a major argument in favor of MK1? It all depends on how much time you want to spend in the company of NetherRealm’s imaginary fighters. More than any other game before it, Mortal Kombat 1 requires learning. This includes the main characters, the Kameos, and how the two interact with each other, both for us and for our opponents.
While Street Fighter 6 has embraced accessibility, featuring modern controls that make it easy to perform complex moves, Mortal Kombat 1 still requires some manipulation. Fortunately, these manipulations are simple and don’t require complicated quarter-circles. Of course, by default, various assists are available to make it easier to create sequences, with more assisted combos and a permitted margin of error when executing special moves. But this Mortal Kombat still requires some effort to master its rules.
Don’t hesitate to spend a little time in the options to set the handling that suits you best. Fortunately, the Training mode is as comprehensive as it is well thought-out: learning the basics and advanced techniques is easy. Of course, Street Fighter 6 fans will argue that the Training mode provides less information than that of Capcom’s game, but we’re still talking about something very well done.
Get over here!
Whether in its campaign or arcade mode, MK1 lets you choose the CPU difficulty level: very easy, easy, medium, hard or very hard. Thanks to this setting, everyone can enjoy the game’s single-player mode, regardless of their usual level in fighting games.
For the rest, in its general gameplay, we remain on familiar ground. Players fill up three Super bars, which are consumed by making special moves more powerful or by breaking (Combo Breakers). Fatal Blows, those destructive sequences that cause multiple fractures, are still offered to players in a bad position. Despite the efforts made by the studio, particularly in the aerial gameplay, combat is still rather rigid, which can be seen as a trademark of the saga. We note that a classic throw (LB/L1) ultimately triggers a back throw, while it’s impossible to know which type of grab (front or back) is being executed by the opponent: successfully parrying it is therefore a matter of pure chance.
Beautiful, Long, but a Bit Choppy
Graphically, Mortal Kombat 1 delivers a strong performance to everything currently available in the world of fighting games. On Xbox Series X, the rendering is magnificent, particularly thanks to the impeccable character models and beautiful arenas, much better than those of MK11 in our opinion. Plus, everything runs at 60fps during battles, without a hitch. X-ray attacks are more detailed than ever, and the stages feature welcome variations.
When it comes to transformations, the direction of this episode is a big step away from what we’ve been used to since Mortal Kombat 9. Backgrounds are vibrant, warm colors and it’s quite common to fight in heavenly arenas (lush forest, city during a party, hanging garden, luxurious villa, etc.). Mortal Kombat fans will be delighted to discover that the Kameos feature a design and moves taken from the very first Mortal Kombat episodes. As for the new warrior designs, NetherRealm has brought the entire cast up to date, for a result that we find successful overall. But then, tastes and colors…
Kameos aren’t the only new feature in WB Games’ latest title, as we discover a brand-new game mode with Invasions. Represented as a kind of board game/dungeon crawler in top view, it requires players to move a character from square to square until they reach the exit… which leads to another world. To progress, the player must of course fight and take part in various events (test your might, face off against opponents with modifiers, tutorial phases, etc.), but also spend money on bonuses from merchants. With stats to modify, elemental damage (yes, yes), and talismans that grant special powers to be improved, Invasions gives MK1 an RPG feel that’s certainly worth playing.
Progressing through the Invasion mode advances the story of this seasonal mode, which changes every 60 days, while granting XP (and therefore extra Kameos), credits, and equipment. We won’t say it’s the mode of the decade, far from it, but it works well enough to keep you engaged for a few hours. However, boredom inevitably sets in, due to a lack of originality in the challenges – the series has already done much better in the past – but also to opponents with dazzling buffs. It’s a pity that NetherRealm didn’t include a world map, which would have made it easier to find your way around. Another regret is that this part of the game is in 30fps. In case you’re wondering, “Test your luck” and “Babalities” have simply been removed from this dimension. There’s also no CPU vs CPU option.
On the other hand, the World Tour mode is still available, inviting the fighter to compete in matches in order to reach the top. A true Arcade mode, it provides access to specific endings for selected heroes. And, of course, MK1 is a competitive game, with a comprehensive local and online multiplayer mode. At the time of writing, no network problems have been reported. The netcode (rollback) is solid and relies on the experience of the developers, who have been so careful not to take risks with online games that it would have been scandalous if the opposite had been true. No need to point out that these virtual encounters are already being haunted by thick-headed bullies who could quickly scare off newcomers.
New World, Old Rules
Despite its popularity among fans, the Krypt has disappeared. If you want to spend the money you’ve earned by multiplying your victories, you’ll have to go through much more conventional menus. MK1 is based on classic foundations for a game service of 2023, with a few mechanics from another era. The game features four different currencies: Koins, Krowns, Seasonal Kredits, and Dragon Krystals. The last of these can be purchased for real money in the in-game store to unlock “Premium” content dedicated to this shop.
Seasonal Kredits, acquired by playing the game, give access to seasonal items that are updated on a regular basis. These include skins in the color of the season (autumn at the moment), as well as pieces of equipment. Finally, the classic Koins, which are also earned in-game, can be deposited in increments of 1,000 at a shrine, where a random reward of varying quality is available. As for the DLC policy, it’s more aggressive than a Goro who’s been kicked in the crotch. Shang Tsung is available only to those who pre-order the game, while Khaméléon, Quan Chi, and Ermac will arrive later as downloads. Enough to make many fans scream.
As usual, a large part of Mortal Kombat’s appeal lies in the many things that can be unlocked in single-player and multiplayer (in Kombat league), ranging from costumes to pieces of equipment, provocations, fatalities, announcer voices, artwork, or even Kameos. With seasonal Kredits that reset with each new season, NetherRealm knows how to keep the maximum number of players in its tournaments.
With both main characters and Kameos having their own level of mastery, and with more content to be earned by playing with them, Mortal Kombat 1 is a game where grind is ever-present, with its good and bad sides. What’s more, access to the “Kustomization” and “Invasion” modes requires an Internet connection. This has the unfortunate tendency to render the Xbox Series Quick Resume useless, since the game logs the user off the server after a period of inactivity.
How do you keep a legendary video game series alive after its 30th anniversary? NetherRealm has the answer. The sorcerer’s apprentices led by Ed Boon have revived the beast, opting for an attractive reboot that takes care of its accessibility strategy, adding a strong RPG touch (Invasions) and enhancing its gameplay with a new feature that had never been seen before in the series (Kameos). Despite its aggressive live service feel, fairly classic single/multiplayer modes, and the disappearance of fan-favorite elements, Mortal Kombat 1 delivers a solid performance.