The new big bad in Mortal Kombat is named Kronika, and she’s causing a ruckus by messing with time and rewriting history. Characters are getting erased or colliding with their past selves, while alliances are reverting and new ones are being made–it’s the kind of chaos that’s ripe for conflict. Nothing that happened with Mortal Kombat before really matters anymore; the series is giving itself a clean slate, and not just with the lore in the story. Netherrealm’s multifaceted fighting system has been streamlined, and comprehensive tutorials and practice functions are focussed on making sure no matter where you’re coming from, you’re well-equipped to dive deep into Mortal Kombat 11.
It’s hard not to get excited about the story mode in a Netherrealm game given the studio’s history of crafting involved narratives, and Mortal Kombat 11 unsurprisingly delivers an entertaining and polished blockbuster-style cinematic experience with its tale of Kronika’s time-bending antics. Combat is woven in with a number of cutscenes, though you’ll probably spend more time watching well-choreographed action rather than participating. But the story is a great primer for some of the series’ more popular characters nonetheless, and the joys of Kronika’s time manipulation means that even if you’re a passing fan and aren’t up-to-date with all of the wacky stuff that’s happened in the universe lately, you can still get a kick out of seeing classic versions of familiar faces, who are just as baffled as you about what’s happened to their future selves since.
Watching the character interactions between young and old selves are a highlight, and with the exception of a somewhat flat Sonya Blade, the solid performances are endearingly sincere with some unexpected moments of introspection. By the time it ended I was eager for more–more of Johnny Cage being embarrassed by his younger self, more of the bromance between Liu Kang and Kung Lao, the sappy dynamic between parents and children. But the story mode hits that perfect balance of being just enough and not overstaying its welcome. The plot conceits are regularly ridiculous, especially when family members and lovers get into fatal tiffs, but it’s a delightfully bombastic and outlandish visual spectacle if nothing else.
Mortal Kombat 11’s eclectic roster includes a solid selection of the series’ iconic fighters, along with some of the great additions from Mortal Kombat X, like gunslinger Erron Black and the grotesque insectoid D’Vorah. Three brand new characters do their best to help the lineup branch out–Geras is a tanky character with the ability to rewind and manipulate time, Cetrion is an elder god with flashy elemental powers, the Kollector has a wonderfully unsettling, six-armed demonic design–and they all add an inspired diversity to the familiar roster of magical ninjas and military hard-asses. Character variations also help to keep things diverse. A returning concept from Mortal Kombat X, each character can select between different sets of special moves that alter their playstyle. You can now customize these loadouts in MK11, but only two predetermined movesets are acceptable for serious competitive play. Even so, it means there are a few things to consider when picking which fighter to use.
Some key changes streamline the mechanics of MK11, resulting in a fighting system that somehow feels more active and aggressive than its predecessors. The special meter system has been simplified to allow for amplified offensive and defensive maneuvers to be used at almost any time–gone is the idea of needing to hold back and save up two or three bars of a meter to perform a particular kind of technique. Dedicated meters for defensive and offensive techniques, along with rapid recharge rates mean amplified techniques can be used a little more liberally. “Fatal Blows” replace MKX’s X-Ray techniques, serving as a last-ditch comeback mechanic that can be activated once per match when your health is nearly depleted, adding a heightened tension when things get down to the wire. Significant block damage discourages you from being overly defensive, while learning the perfect-timing demands of the “flawless block” system is encouraged to mitigate some damage and open up turnabout opportunities. Running and stamina meters have been removed and dash distances feel shorter, honing MK11’s focus on always being within striking distance of your opponent. All of these tweaks mean there is rarely a low moment in a Mortal Kombat 11 fight.
If you’re new to the series, learning all those intricacies of the fighting system, special moves, and combo strings for characters can be intimidating. Fortunately, Mortal Kombat 11 does a lot to help onboard you to almost all of its concepts. Following the good work seen in Injustice 2, Mortal Kombat 11 features a comprehensive series of fantastic practical tutorials, with everything from teaching you basic attacks to more advanced lessons on managing the ebb and flow of a match, strategies on how to change or maintain the dynamic of a fight (like dealing with corners or projectile spam), and how to approach building your own combos. What’s more, there are also a series of tutorials that succinctly break down expert-level concepts, such as one that shows you what frame data is and how it works in clear, visual terms. Not only that, there are lessons on how to interpret that information and use it in a practical scenario–it’ll teach you what makes a move “safe” or “unsafe,” how to create pressure in a fight, and even how to perform frame traps. It’s an impressive resource that doesn’t just give you a better understanding of Mortal Kombat 11’s systems, but a deeper understanding of fighting game mechanics in general–knowledge that you can take to any other title.
Character-specific tutorials exist, too, and are more than just a simple rundown of all available techniques. These helpful lessons focus on the most useful and practical abilities and combos for a particular character and give you suggestions on when to use them, the pros and cons of doing so, and what you could follow up with. Furthermore, the in-game move lists are incredibly comprehensive, providing all sorts of helpful data for each move’s properties, so you can easily discern something like which of your character’s moves has the quickest startup. It’s valuable information and knowledge which Netherrealm has been building upon in its last few games and is presented at its best in MK11. Of course, if you’re the kind of player that couldn’t care less about the advanced stuff and just wants to jump in and see blood spilled, Mortal Kombat 11 can certainly be just as entertaining. Predetermined combo strings, flashy special moves, and humorously over-the-top barbarity means that the game is a joy to watch and participate in, whether the players are just messing around or taking it seriously.
In addition to the game’s story mode, MK11 sees the return of Klassic Towers, a more straightforward single-player mode where you fight a series of opponents before eventually facing big boss Kronika. But the real meat of the single-player offering is the Towers Of Time, MK11’s version of the limited-time ladders seen in other Netherrealm games, which feature unique modifiers that can affect the playing field, combatants, and mechanics. The idea is that the Towers Of Time provide you with an ever-rotating palette of different single-player challenges to take on for various rewards, but the downside is that here, the odds are nearly always stacked against you.
Some modifiers in the Towers Of Time can affect both you and your opponent equally, like a tilting stage that drains the health of whoever is lower. But more often, the challenges I took on featured negative modifiers that solely affected me, which means they felt horribly cruel and unbalanced. No matter how good you think you are at Mortal Kombat (or how bad you think I am), trying to fight an opponent where you’re constantly being targeted and shot and frozen in place by devastating lasers from the sky, or being chased by missiles that turn your screen pitch black if one hits you, is a rotten experience. Being the loner in a 2vs1 match, or fighting a much hardier opponent whose attacks can’t be interrupted, is more of an exercise in frustration than it is a hearty challenge.
To overcome the more challenging Towers Of Time, MK11 encourages that you make liberal use of “Konsumables,” a large variety of limited-use items that you can equip and activate during a fight. These have their own individual properties, whether it be countering a particular modifier effect, or giving you access to an additional ability. The catch is, the way that you obtain these Konsumables is through luck, perhaps earning one through completing other towers, or spending “Koins” you’ve accumulated from the game’s activities to open one of hundreds of randomized chests in the Krypt, MK11’s third-person quasi-puzzle-adventure mode designed for unlocking collectables like cosmetics, concept art, and countless other bits and pieces.
So, there’s no guarantee you’ll have the right item to help you out on a particular tower, and if you don’t, it’s going to be a steep uphill battle. But in my experience, even if I did have a suitable item, using it really didn’t feel like evening the odds. In the example of the aforementioned blinding missiles, using the item to counter the effects of darkness modifiers meant I could only mitigate one or two missiles before the effect wore off, at which point I would have to wait for the item to come off a long cooldown timer and then manually reactivate it in the middle of the fight, which opens me up to severe punishment from my opponent.
I’ve only seen four days worth of Towers during the pre-release review period, so their behavior and difficulty may well change in the future. I’ll continue to monitor the challenge varieties in the Towers Of Time during the week of launch to see whether the feeling of overwhelmingly unbalanced odds continues. While MK11’s “Premium” microtransaction store wasn’t live during the review period, the reliance on Konsumables to help even the odds in Towers Of Time, as well as the random nature of their acquisition, certainly makes me curious as to how you’ll be able to spend the game’s virtual currency, “Time Krystals,” when the store goes live.
(Editor’s note: On the day this review-in-progress was published, Netherrealm representatives acknowledged the balancing issues with the Towers Of Time on their Kombat Kast livestream. They announced a fix would be made available ASAP, and we’ll be considering any changes over the next week in our final review.)
There’s another issue in the way that the game handles its customizable gear for each character. Taking cues from Netherrealm’s previous release, Injustice 2, each fighter in Mortal Kombat 11 has three interchangeable pieces of equipment that you’re able to receive as a reward, level up, and equip with “augments” once you’ve done so. The problem is, there’s not a lot of motivation to care about that stuff at all. With a few exceptions, gear parts are usually small and aren’t a focal point of your character model. You’re changing out weapons and pieces of flair rather than entire costume pieces–alternate costumes are predetermined and are unlocked through performing activities like Towers Of Time–so there’s little motivation to change them up early on, especially when you’ll likely have been earning experience on the default set you’ve already got equipped. Accruing experience to level up gear for specific characters is a slow process, especially if you like to use multiple fighters; the augments you can equip drop rarely, and the buffs they add for single-player activities are mostly meager. In Injustice 2, even if you didn’t really care about the abilities a piece of gear had, they were at least interesting cosmetic parts that you could mix and match to customize a character in your own way for competitive play. Gear in MK11 by comparison just doesn’t feel as interesting or meaningful to toy around with.
MK11 also features a range of online multiplayer modes, including ranked and casual matchmaking, as well as private options like lobbies and the ability to practice with a friend. I’ll be testing the performance of these modes over the next week once the game is widely available to the public. Additionally, GameSpot was not provided copies of Mortal Kombat 11 on PC or Nintendo Switch during the review period, and I’ll be aiming to spend some time with those versions of the game–the PC release of Mortal Kombat X was certainly not without issues, and I’m curious to see how the game performs in the Switch’s handheld mode. This review will remain in-progress until I’ve had adequate time to get a feel of these aspects, on top of keeping an eye on the Towers Of Time.
MK11 isn’t just a sequel for series fans and Netherrealm devotees, it’s a gateway into the realm of fighting games for anyone who has a passing interest in watching ruthless warriors beat each other silly. Streamlined mechanics keep the act of fighting furiously exciting no matter what your skill level, and comprehensive tutorials encourage you to dig into the nitty-gritty. There’s a diverse roster of interesting characters and playstyles, and the story mode is an entertaining romp. The unfulfilling approaches to the game’s dynamic single-player content and progression may feel like they’ve totally whiffed (at least at this early stage), but Mortal Kombat 11 hits where it matters.