As good as it is gory.
When it was first introduced a staggering 27 years ago, Mortal Kombat always had that reputation of being “That fighting game where you rip people’s heads off.” Known more for its gore and violence than its gameplay. Things have changed since then with MK9 and MKX bringing the quality of gameplay up to meet the quality of violence. That upward trend continues with Mortal Kombat 11, which is not only the best Mortal Kombat has ever been, it’s also arguably Netherrealm’s best game yet. This is one of the most fully featured fighting games you can buy, with both single- and multiplayer modes that will last both casual and hardcore audiences a long, long time.
Mortal Kombat’s defining quality among 2D fighters is that its combat centers around two punch buttons, two kick buttons, and a block button. This is actually more unique than it sounds. While other 2D fighters typically have some combination of light, medium, and/or heavy attacks, with weaker attacks linking into stronger attacks, Mortal Kombat has no such concept. Instead, MK employs a “dial-a-combo” system that requires knowledge of very specific button combinations in order to build a combo. It’s definitely not a super-accessible combat system for newcomers, but fortunately, Mortal Kombat 11 comes with one of the best fighting game tutorials I’ve ever played. It covers everything from basic fundamentals all the way to the most advanced techniques such as frame traps, jailing, and block strings, all while highlighting key concepts and clear instructions on how to implement these techniques.
Mortal Kombat 11 retains all of those unique mechanics that give this series its identity, and of course, the gloriously gratuitous over-the-top and often comedic violence of its notorious Fatality finishing moves. However, surrounding all of that are new fighting systems that feel unlike anything the series has ever seen, and Mortal Kombat 11 is much better for being willing to take these bold steps to keep things fresh.
In some ways, less is more, and faster is not always better.
In some ways, less is more, and faster is not always better. To that end, Netherrealm has slowed the action down substantially relative to the last few games, especially compared to the hyper-rushdown-focused Mortal Kombat X. The run button is gone, walk speeds have been reduced across the board, and super-far-reaching and forward-moving combo strings are much rarer. At first, I wasn’t a huge fan of how slow Mortal Kombat 11 felt, but the more time I put in, the more I started to appreciate how these seemingly small changes added up to change the flow of a match in a great way. With a greater emphasis placed on careful positioning and whiff punishing and less of a focus on all-out blitzing to impose your 50/50 mixup game, fights feel more tactical and rewarding of smart play.
In another dramatic and inspired departure from previous games, Mortal Kombat 11 completely changes up how meter management works by splitting it in two. The defensive meter is used primarily for special wake-up options, environmental interactables, and a combo-breaking move called a breakaway. The offensive meter is used for amplifying your special moves to make them safe on block, increase their damage, open up combo opportunities, and more.
The best thing about the split, though, is the fact that it allows Fatal Blows – a powerful move capable of doing 35% damage on its own – to exist independently of meter. Fatal Blows are often extremely fast and difficult to react to, but that’s balanced out by the fact that you only get one per match. If even one player has saved it, the closing moments of every close Mortal Kombat 11 fight feel extraordinarily tense – almost like an Old Western standoff.
The best new addition to the actual fighting of Mortal Kombat 11, though, are Krushing Blows. These special critical hits activate automatically, but only when certain criteria are met: For example, every character has a Krushing Blow tied to their uppercut that will activate if it hits as a counter, or if it punishes a whiffed high attack. While uppercuts typically cannot be used as combo starters, if it is a Krushing Blow uppercut it will launch the opponent high up into the air and open them up to a substantial follow-up juggle without costing any meter.
There’s so much to love about this mechanic, even on just the surface level of it being super satisfying to see an otherwise-normal punch cause a complete bone explosion inside your opponent’s body. On a higher level, though, the addition of Krushing Blows adds yet another level of depth to each character, and rewards a deep mastery of their moveset. It’s also a limited resource, because you can only use each move’s Krushing Blow once per match, so it’s a huge advantage to learn the requirements for each Krushing Blow to maximize their effectiveness.
The story’s six hours are big, bombastic, and ridiculous in all of the right ways.
Netherrealm fighting games have always been the best at delivering story modes that are essentially the video game equivalent of absurd popcorn movies, and Mortal Kombat 11 is no exception to that rule. It has no new gameplay innovations to offer, but its six hours are big, bombastic, well-acted (other than Ronda’s Rousey’s portrayal of Sonya Blade, which comes across as woefully inexperienced), and ridiculous in all of the right ways. But most importantly, it fleshes out the entire roster and gives each character some time in the spotlight.
The story picks up right where MKX left off (check out my handy Mortal Kombat story recap video to catch up before diving in) and quickly introduces a new game-changing character: Kronika, an all-powerful being with control over time who sets the plot down a path of another impending timeline reset, due to Raiden’s upsetting of the balance of good and evil with his decapitation of the Elder God Shinnok.
This all sets up the fun scenario of a merging of past and present, and it allows for some truly great moments where characters from the present are confronted by their past selves. Also, there are some where characters from the past are confronted with the harsh reality of what’s in store in their future. The Johnny Cages steal the show with their witty banter and the overall juxtapositioning of their two wildly different selves, but there’s also a handful of fantastic character-building moments featuring fighters that have traditionally not had a ton of dedicated screen time, Jade especially.
Mortal Kombat 11’s character customization feels like the natural and generally stellar evolution and cross-breeding of Mortal Kombat X’s variation system and Injustice 2’s gear system. The amount of customizable options for each character is utterly staggering, with each character having at least 60 skins, 90 pieces of customizable gear, and a selection of 10 techniques to add on to their core set of abilities. To be fair, most of the skins are simply recolors of the default outfits, but regardless, there are a ton of ways to make your fighter distinct when playing online. The problem is how you get access to them, which is generally not a great time.
The amount of customizable options for each character is utterly staggering.
Some of these items can be unlocked by playing through the story mode, but most are obtained through the Towers of Time and the Krypt, two modes that go hand in hand. Mortal Kombat 11’s Krypt, like those in previous Mortal Kombat games, is a sprawling dungeon filled to the brim with treasure chests that require some sort of currency to open. This time around the loot is randomized, which is a big problem because of the fact that there’s just so much undesirable loot. You may open up an expensive chest hoping to find a new Fatality, skin, character intro, or Brutality, and wind up with just a bunch of gear augments for a character you don’t use, junk tower consumables, concept art, or some extra currency. There are some cool puzzle-solving elements and neat Easter eggs to find in the Krypt, but it’s basically an explorable dungeon of lootboxes and occasional jump scares, and that’s a disappointment.
Then there’s the Towers of Time, which is a collection of challenge towers unified by some sort of theme, and it’s in this mode that Mortal Kombat 11’s biggest problems lie. Some of the towers employ modifiers that make fights actively un-fun to play. Imagine trying to win a fight against an opponent who starts with twice your health, while also having to deal with a constant torrent of projectiles and assist characters. Or an opponent who will shock you for standing close to them for more than a second or two. It’s a challenge, yes, but one that’s more frustrating than fun.
You’re able to use various consumables to give yourself a fighting chance, and they do make otherwise-impossible fights surmountable. But having to resort to miserable tactics, like projectile or consumable spamming, is frustrating, to say the least.
Another issue lies in the character-specific towers, which are the best places to go for unlocking gear specifically for the character you like to play as. For whatever reason, certain challenge towers are blocked off until you perform some arbitrary and repetitive task, like hitting 50 uppercuts, performing 50 Fatalities, or 75 Brutalities(!), which add nothing but a pointless obstacle. Completing the towers themselves already feels like grind, so to have to grind something else on top of that feels ridiculous. To make matters worse, the rewards are randomized, so you might not even get anything that would make the time or effort spent worth it.
Fortunately, not all towers are awful.
Fortunately, not all towers are awful. A few of the gimmicks are fun, like having to fight with the screen turning to black every few seconds, and these do a good job of breaking up the monotony of standard AI matches. And, since they refresh with new challenges regularly, you can always jump to a different tower if the one you’re stuck on sucks.
Taking it Online
With progression as deeply unsatisfying as it is, it’s the superb online mode that’s truly going to keep me coming back months from now. To start with the fundamentals, Mortal Kombat 11 has some of the best netcode I’ve ever experienced in a fighting game. Even matches against two-bar connections on wifi have very little, if any, noticeable lag, which is remarkable given how much other games have struggled under these conditions.
All of the expected options are here: you can play ranked matches, casual matches, or King of the Hill, but you can also play weird AI matches where you pit a team of your own customized characters against someone else’s and watch them fight it out for rewards. You can enhance your fighters in this mode with special augments and even set their AI behavior, but there’s not much else to it outside of a way to keep Mortal Kombat 11 running and still earn some rewards.
The way character customization is handled in ranked play is interesting. You’re able to set your cosmetics however you wish, but every character has two preset competitive variations that you must choose from. What’s weird is that these variations do not exist as premade variations anywhere but in competitive play, so it’s strange that you must actually go and create them yourself if you wish to practice with them. It’s also a bit of a bummer that you can’t customize your movesets in ranked play, especially since some of the best and most effective moves, like Scorpion’s Misery Blade, for instance, aren’t usable at all in ranked. Fortunately, the casual playlist allows you to use whatever you want, and unlike Injustice 2, there are no stat upgrades tied to gear, so everyone’s on an even playing field.