Don't laugh when I say this: Mortal Kombat X is one of the most sophisticated video games I've played in a while.
Sure, it's the most gruesome installment yet in a notoriously gory fighting-game series, and, no matter how strong your stomach is, its new fatalities will make you wince. But, more importantly, it's a gorgeous and deep competitive brawler filled with fun things to do.
Its engaging story mode, troves of unlockables and ever-updating game modes create a living, breathing package that I see myself playing for years to come. Save for some hopefully fixable online issues, it's the fighting game I've always wanted.
Choose Your Own Kombat
Mortal Kombat X is the most satisfying and mechanically sound fighting game in the series, refining on the solid foundation of 2011's reboot of the original Mortal Kombat game while borrowing some ideas from NetherRealm's DC Comics brawler Injustice: Gods Among Us.
The game is as easy as ever to pick up on a casual level; punching, kicking, blocking and bone-crunching special moves require little more than a few button taps. Injustice-inspired interactable objects add to the fun, allowing you to jump off walls, swing from tree vines and toss elderly folks at your opponent (no, seriously).
Don't be fooled by its inviting nature, though — Mortal Kombat X is a tournament-grade fighter at its core. Each blow you land feels tight and impactful, and stringing together high-damage combos requires balletic timing.
MORE: Best Xbox One Games
Mortal Kombat X's biggest new gameplay addition is the variation system, which offers three different versions of each of the game's characters. For example, Sub-Zero players get to choose between having ice weapons, ice clones or an extra layer of frosty armor, while Scorpion players can specialize in sword fighting, fire-based attacks or having a demonic minion to assist in the fight.
This system provides an unprecedented of options to Mortal Kombat players. Do you want to focus on long-range or up-close combat? Do you prefer flashy combos or quick bursts of big damage? It's your call. The different special moves and combos available in each variation are significant; even after spending hours with my new favorite character, Kung Jin, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what he can do.
Mortal Kombat X's 25-character starting roster mixes the franchise's most iconic warriors with a handful of new combatants. If you grew up with the franchise, series stalwarts such as Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Kano, Sonya, Raiden, Liu Kang and Kitana will still be waiting for you, although they're a bit older, angrier — and, in some cases — more bearded.
The new characters, many of whom are descendants of the game's classic fighters, round out the cast nicely. Takeda (son of Kenshi, student of Scorpion) and Cassie Cage (daughter of Johnny and Sonya) fight like unique combinations of their parents and mentors, and fighters such as the gun-slinging cowboy Erron Black and the insect-spewing D'Vorah bring some nice diversity to the cast, both aesthetically and gameplaywise.
The New Klass
Mortal Kombat X's cinematic story mode improves on the foundation of its predecessor, delivering what is essentially an excellent Mortal Kombat animated movie that you get to fight through.
The core of Mortal Kombat X's story is set 25 years after the events of the previous game, though it begins right where that title ended. With Shao Kahn defeated, pointy-headed series villain Shinnok takes his own stab at conquering Earthrealm via an army of mind-controlled minions.
However, when Shinnok's soul becomes contained in an elusive amulet, an all-out power struggle breaks out between those who want to use Shinnok's power for evil, and those dedicated to protecting the Earth from it.
The decades-spanning story that follows is filled with plenty of well-scripted moments. I grew to genuinely like the game's new generation of heroes — Takeda, Cassie, Jacqui and Kung Jin — and the awesomely animated fight sequences are as entertaining as those of any action flick.
Each chapter of the story mode is dedicated to a specific character, allowing you to test-drive a good chunk of the roster as you progress. The story is delightfully nonlinear, providing some much-welcomed backstory scenes for the new cast, while letting you play as Johnny Cage both before and after he became a graying ex-movie star.
MORE: Best PlayStation 4 Games
Even once you've trumped the roughly four-hour story mode, Mortal Kombat X offers a near-limitless wealth of things to do. Traditional arcade-style Towers let you fight your way through a standard gauntlet of opponents, while the all-new Living Towers provide unique, constantly shifting challenges.
There are three Living Towers that rotate out on an hourly, daily and weekly basis, respectively.
They're completely randomized and often insane; one might have you fight in the dark while lightning strikes the battlefield, while another may have you battle at double speed while trying to avoid sudden earthquakes. No two Living Towers will ever be alike, giving Mortal Kombat X a level of single-player replayability that many fighting games lack.
Mortal Kombat X doesn't just want to deliver limb-shredding fun — it wants to make you a better fighter, too. Pull up any character's move list, and you'll be treated to full-frame data: the type of nerdy numbers that determine how fast or slow each attack is, and how vulnerable you'll be if your opponent blocks it. Training mode lets you practice just about any imaginable situation, and you can even pin special move and combo inputs under your character's life bar for easy reference.
Playing any part of Mortal Kombat X earns you in-game coins for unlocking items in the Krypt, a sprawling, virtual treasure trove of hidden costumes, finishing moves and concept art. Navigating the eerie corridors of the Krypt feels like a game of its own, and it'll be quite some time before you unlock everything.
Mortal Kombat X is as robust online as it is off, offering ranked matches, casual fights and a ton of fun group modes.
The winner-stays-on King of the Hill mode lets up to eight players gather in a single room, taking turns trying to dethrone the current champ. Team Battle mode allows for fights as big as 5-on-5, while Test Your Luck lets you experience the game's wacky fight modifiers in an online setting. There's even an online Tower mode that has you and your friends racing through a series of CPU opponents as quickly as possible.
My experience on Xbox Live at the time of this writing has been mixed. I sometimes found that my moves weren't registering as quickly as they would have offline, but I've yet to run into a match that was completely unplayable. A few PS4 friends I talked to reported having a pretty bad time, however. For a game designed to be competitive, it's imperative that NetherRealm keeps the netcode running smoothly — we'll keep you posted if anything major changes.
Even with an exhaustive list of modes, Mortal Kombat X's most significant online feature — Faction War — has little to do with playing other people in real time. As soon as you start up the game, you join one of five factions: Lin Kuei, White Lotus, Brotherhood of Shadow, Special Forces or Black Dragon. From there, everything you do in-game — from fighting online to playing through the story — contributes War Points to your faction. Whichever faction has the most points at the end of each week is crowned the winner, and then a new war begins.
Faction War is a noteworthy step forward for fighting games, as even the most novice players can feel like they're competing against the world without even battling against real people. Contributing to your faction doles out extra rewards, including faction-specific fatalities, and NetherRealm is planning special "Invasion" events in which all factions must work together.
MORE: Best PC Games Right Now
For a game that literally lets you rip people in half, Mortal Kombat X's presentation is remarkably sophisticated. Every aspect of the user interface feels painstakingly fine tuned, from the way characters stare each other down at the player select screen to the white, minimalist in-game health bars that keep the focus on the brutal action.
The actual fighting is just as beautiful, with lifelike, highly animated character models that are a far cry from the stiff, G.I. Joe-like warriors found in last generation's Mortal Kombat. The game's expert sound design is the icing on the bloody cake; each blow lands with a satisfying thud, and the occasional sound of bodies being ripped apart is appropriately nasty. You'll be treated to unique prematch dialogue based on which two characters are fighting, though sometimes the corny quips that fighters exchange fall flat.
As the most aesthetically impressive game in the series, it's no surprise that Mortal Kombat X is also the most grotesque. Fatalities have reached a new level; you'll see faces sliced off in slow motion, watch drones blow fighters' heads off and see a character's heart dangle out of the fighter's upper body, to name a few.
I found many fatalities to be refreshingly tongue-in-cheek, such as Johnny Cage yelling "Here's Johnny!" as he sticks his head through a severed torso. Other finishers, such as Cage's daughter Cassie knocking off her adversary's jaw and then taking a selfie with it, left me feeling amused and disturbed all at once. The fact that certain characters can perform these brutal kills on their parents or children often makes things harder to watch.
Overall, whether you can stand the game's over-the-top fatalities comes down to the strength of your own stomach. They can prove highly entertaining when you're playing with friends, but you certainly won't be missing out on the best parts of the game if you're too squeamish to perform them.
Every time I play Mortal Kombat X, I find something new I love about it. Sometimes it's a really cool story cutscene, other times it's the gorgeous arenas — and, occasionally, it's the sheer ridiculousness of an over-the-top fatality. Two things in particular keep me hooked: mastering the game’s refined gameplay mechanics and pursuing its seemingly endless trove of unlockable goodies.
Whether you're a regular tournament competitor or just want to mash buttons as Scorpion and Sub-Zero, Mortal Kombat X has tons to offer you. Its slick presentation and ability to entertain players of all skill levels make it the best Mortal Kombat ever, and, if its online experience smooths out over time, it could become the defining fighting game of this generation.