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Mortal Kombat 11 lives up to its reputation: Brash, fun and ridiculously violent

NetherRealm Studios packs many of the innovations of its previous games into "Mortal Kombat 11."

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By CHRISTOPHER BYRD | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 10, 2019

“Can you believe that we’re playing a Mortal Kombat game?” my friend Milton asked as we dove into the new “Mortal Kombat 11.”

It has been 20 years since he and I went to college together. Back then we played a serious amount of Mortal Kombat 3 and Mortal Kombat 4 on the Super Nintendo and the N64, respectively. Though I got into fighting games via Street Fighter 2, my fighting game skills plateaued with those two MK games. My friends and I used to play them with a guidebook on our laps which we used to memorize long combo-strings and fatalities. At the height of our mania, MK became for us an almost-purely cerebral experience where we’d try to guess each other other’s strategy, then switch up the tempo of a game on the fly. It was our chess.

I skipped Mortal Kombats 5 through 10, and the world has changed since I last caught up with my old go-to characters Kitana, Sub-Zero, and Kabal. (Some of the other characters have had children that are in the new game.) But I was able to quickly get back into the flow thanks, in part, to “Mortal Kombat 11’s” robust tutorial system, and my memory of all those quarter-circle, half-circle, and back-to-forward button patterns that are staples of fighting games in general.

I was off to a decent start the first night Milton and I played a few online matches until he showed me, or rather whooped me, with a fatal blow, a new addition to the series. Fatal blows, which are not necessarily fatal, are devastating moves that can only be pulled off once per three-round match. Pressing the left and right triggers when your character’s health is low unleashes a pulverizing move that can forcefully turn the tide of battle.

Sub-Zero’s fatal blow sees him wedge two ice axes into the sides of his opponent’s torso, then conjure a third ax that he plants into their skull, pulls down to their chest, and then spins their body overhead bringing it crashing into the ground. The first time I pulled off a fatal blow and Milton immediately followed suit, I lost the match because the cumulative violence left me too stunned to concentrate.

Down, back, forward, X. When I tap those commands into my controller, my warrior princess Kitana throws two fan-shaped blades horizontally into the ninja Scorpion. One slices apart his midsection and the other takes off his head. As far as the fatalities in Mortal Kombat 11 go, it’s one of the less sensational. Of course, the series has long trafficked in fantastically gruesome aesthetics. (Of those that have seen it, who can forget Liu Kang turning into a dragon and chomping people in half in Mortal Kombat 2?)

The violence is there to be gawped at and talked about. The mutilated bodies are so conspicuous that it seems unreasonable to imagine anyone playing MK, or watching it for 10 minutes, who isn’t OK with its outlandish gore. Personally, I have a fairly high tolerance for violence between recyclable video game characters who can be eviscerated only to reappear in pristine shape a second later. Even so, there were times that I was left slack jawed by the close-up piercings, stabbings, and guttings in Mortal Kombat 11 ... kudos to the developers.

Though I sometimes gasped, my friend and I mostly guffawed over the ridiculous violence. If you don’t think you’d laugh seeing a character kick a hole into another’s chest then position her face in front of that empty space and make a heart sign with her fingers, then obviously this isn’t for you. I suppose it’s because I read comic books as a kid that this type of stylized action reads as fiendishly clever, but ultimately benign, in my eyes. The whole thing is so escapist that I’m indifferent to its shock tactics.

In addition to the fatal blows, the biggest surprise to me about Mortal Kombat 11 has been the story mode. Traditionally, story modes have been one of the more disposable pillars in fighting games. Though the story mode in the new MK is very much a popcorn affair, it’s a fine one. After a villain decides to disrupt the flow of time, older versions of characters encounter their younger selves. Seeing an older Johnny Cage get so annoyed by his jerky younger self that he fights him should be amusing to anyone who remembers Cage or any of the other characters from the nineties.

The story cycles through the characters without it ever growing convoluted or bogged down. It is a minor miracle that reminded me of the superhero comics I read as a kid.

The other major components of “Mortal Kombat 11” are the Krypt and the Towers of Time. The Krypt is a 3-D space where players can wander about, solve puzzles, and look at sights from previous MK games. There, players can also spend the game’s different currencies to unlock chests that can contain cosmetic upgrades, new moves for characters, or other collectibles. It’s useful to visit the Krypt before tackling the Towers of Time to gain consumable items that can be used to one’s advantage. The Towers are a series of challenges that pit the player against different enemies that fight with special modifiers such as the ability to steal health after landing a successful blow.

I haven’t dabbled for too many hours with the Towers or the Krypt. I don’t care much about cosmetic upgrades but I wouldn’t mind picking up additional fatalities. At any rate, I’m uncertain as to how often I’ll revisit Mortal Kombat 11 in the coming days. I don’t have the time to pour into it that I did in college. Still, my older self is pleased with the new Mortal Kombat: it’s brash, the characters are fun, and parents shouldn’t get it for their kids.

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Online: mortalkombat.com

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