Mortal Kombat 11 review: Biggest, bloodiest and best Mortal Kombat yet

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Mortal Kombat 11 review

Mortal Kombat 11 is the biggest evolution yet to the storied fighting game franchise, and a jam-packed celebration of the series' rich history.  A revamped combat system and deep character customization make the action feel genuinely fresh, while the game’s superb cinematic story mode pays tribute to Mortal Kombat past and present by way of a ridiculously fun time-travel adventure.

MK11 is dripping with content, from the ever-changing Towers of Time to the expansive Krypt, and the game's stunning, stylized presentation takes the series’ knack for over-the-top gore to viscerally entertaining new heights.

While it has some hopefully-fixable issues involving progression and competitive play, Mortal Kombat 11 is the best Mortal Kombat game yet, and an incredibly complete package for casual and competitive players alike.

Mortal Kombat 11’s cinematic story mode is the pinnacle of the winning single-player formula that NetherRealm Studios has been honing since 2011’s Mortal Kombat 9. Picking up right where Mortal Kombat X left off, Mortal Kombat 11 finds elder god Raiden corrupted by his victorious battle against Big Bad Shinnok. As it turns out, Raiden’s newfound dark power has tipped the scales too far in the good guys’ favor, which is why Kronika, new villain and keeper of all of time, decides to blend the past and present timelines in order to bring back “balance.”

Mortal Kombat 11 review: Past meets present

Mortal Kombat 11 review

What follows is an utterly ridiculous but deeply enthralling time-travel story, in which iconic characters meet their older selves, children meet younger versions of their parents and Liu Kang fights evil Liu Kang while Kronika and Raiden assemble their armies. Gorgeous, movie-quality cutscenes filled with snappy dialogue (Ronda Rousey’s dull Sonya Blade notwithstanding) and slick fight choreography seamlessly give way to playable fights, giving you a good taste of the game’s roster during roughly three hours of gameplay.

NetherRealm makes the absolute most of Mortal Kombat 11’s bonkers time travel story, calling back to plotlines from the previous two games, while delivering big on moments that are both heartfelt and hilarious (Seeing Johnny Cage bicker with his younger self is a delight). This campaign is a true epic,on par with Avengers: Infinity War in terms of sheer scope, juggling multiple story threads that culminate in a breathtaking finale that rivals many modern action movies. While I wish the game’s ending provided more closure for certain characters, Mortal Kombat 11 is the best story NetherRealm has told yet, celebrating the series’ past and present while opening the door for some exciting new possibilities.

While the basic tenets of Mortal Kombat are still here — combo strings, a block button and spine-ripping Fatalities — Mortal Kombat 11 overhauls the series’ core gameplay in some significant ways. This title generally has a more methodical feel than Mortal Kombat X, favoring strategic space control over in-your-face offense and crazy-long combos.

Mortal Kombat 11 review: A bloody new era

Mortal Kombat 11 review

Gone is the traditional super meter that fills up as you fight. Now, you have separate meters for offensive and defensive techniques that operate on a cooldown, giving you more tactical options. Instead of having to bank your meter for a powerful X-Ray attack, you’ll gain access to a similarly deadly “Fatal Blow” whenever your health gets low enough. These one-shot moves can help you mount a big comeback, but you’ll have to use them wisely.

But my favorite new mechanic by far is the Krushing Blow: a slow-motion, high-damage attack that gets triggered when you land certain moves under certain conditions (for example, countering your opponent’s high punch with an uppercut). The dramatic, bone-breaking effects that accompany a Krushing Blow are immensely satisfying, and learning how best to use each one during a match has been half the fun of the game for me so far.

Mortal Kombat 11 review

There’s quite a lot for even the most veteran Mortal Kombat players to wrap their heads around here, from invincible get-up attacks to Flawless Blocks that reward perfect timing with a big punish opportunity. But overall, Mortal Kombat 11 is a tight, fun evolution of a long-familiar formula that encourages smart fundamental play and delivers in a big way on exciting moments.

NetherRealm makes the absolute most of Mortal Kombat 11’s bonkers time travel story, calling back to plotlines from the previous two games, while delivering big on moments that are both heartfelt and hilarious.

Speaking of exciting moments, Mortal Kombat 11’s presentation takes things to gruesome new heights. The gore is more intense than ever. Fatal Blows and Fatalities see characters slice through their opponents' stomachs, remove their brains and eat them, as well as every possible permutation in-between. The game’s visceral, crunchy sound design amplifies every kill.

But there’s a certain stylized, over-the-top nature to all of the blood and guts that keeps it from being disturbingly realistic — at least for me. Whether Johnny Cage is performing multiple takes of a deadly uppercut on a movie set, or Sub-Zero is bashing a frozen skull open in slow-motion, Mortal Kombat 11’s Fatalities manage to keep things just tongue-in-cheek enough to remind you that you’re playing a video game. Still, I wouldn’t blame anyone whose stomach is too weak for the virtual gore.

Even if you ignore the detailed brutality of the fighting, Mortal Kombat 11 is still a visual masterpiece. Unlike the drab Mortal Kombat X, the new game pops with color. Its beautiful arenas run the gamut from sunny Japanese dojos flanked by autumn trees, to moody, purple-lit underground fight clubs. And the characters, from familiar faces like Scorpion, Kitana and Cassie Cage, to otherworldly newcomers like Kollector, Geras and Cetrion, are the best, most lifelike models that NetherRealm has ever produced.

As is par for the course for a NetherRealm game, Mortal Kombat 11 is absolutely bursting with content for casual and competitive players alike. An evolution of Injustice 2’s Multiverse mode, Towers of Time offers a constantly rotating set of challenges that have you fight through groups of enemies with different modifiers, all while earning rewards.

Mortal Kombat 11 review: Kompelling Kontent

Mortal Kombat 11 review

These modifiers will force you to deal with everything from incoming rockets to tidal waves as you battle, although you can turn the tide with your own extra abilities in the form of “Konsumables” that you unlock as you play. If you want a traditional experience, Klassic Towers mode lets you play through an arcade-style gauntlet of opponents while unlocking character-specific endings.

Mortal Kombat 11 is absolutely bursting with content for casual and competitive players alike.

I’m especially impressed with Mortal Kombat 11’s robust tutorial mode, which succinctly breaks down everything from basic mechanics to high-level concepts like frame data and punishing. You’ll once again unlock items in the Krypt, except now the mode is reimagined as a neat third-person adventure game. In it, you'll explore Shang Tsung’s island and discover iconic Mortal Kombat locations as you solve puzzles and spend coins on treasure chests.

Mortal Kombat 11 also packs a robust suite of online options, including ranked matches, a winner-stays-on king of the hill mode, an online practice room and custom lobbies, as well as an upcoming Kombat League that will presumably let players battle for rankings over the course of a season. My online matches have been incredibly smooth so far, though I’ll be sure to update this review if that changes significantly post-launch.

Mortal Kombat 11 review: Kustom Kombat

Mortal Kombat 11 review

There are a few issues around Mortal Kombat 11’s progression systems. For starters, Towers of Time feels far more difficult out of the gate than Injustice 2’s Multiverse or Mortal Kombat X’s Living Towers, meaning you’ll likely be burning Konsumables quick and will have to grind other modes or wander the randomized Krypt to get more. And while there are character-specific Towers for getting gear for your favorite fighter, you’ll have to go through quite a few gauntlets just for a single skin, and some of them are gated off until you’ve hit certain requirements, such as performing a throw 50 times.

Fortunately, NetherRealm has already said in a recent Kombat Kast livestream that it’s working on improving the game’s progression system, which would fix the one glaring flaw in an otherwise robust single-player package.

Mortal Kombat 11’s array of unlockables feed into the game’s deep Kustom Variation system, which lets you personalize your character’s appearance and special moves. You can swap out everything from ninja masks, guns and costumes to intro cinematics and Fatalities, and you can outfit your character with two or three distinct moves that can completely change their playstyle.

Mortal Kombat 11 review

The system goes even deeper, as you can level up your character’s individual gear pieces and unlock slots for augments, which give you in-fight bonuses such as increased damage or extra experience points. I’m not a huge fan of this added layer, since it discourages players from mixing up their gear pieces often. And while characters leveled up at a steady clip in Injustice 2, I’m finding that my Mortal Kombat gear pieces are leveling at a pretty slow pace.

With Mortal Kombat 11, NetherRealm has once again raised the bar for the sheer amount of polish and content that a fighting game can deliver.

Small gripes aside, the addition of Kustom Variations feels like the biggest evolution to the Mortal Kombat formula in years, as you can build a Scorpion or Sub-Zero that looks and plays unlike anyone else’s. That’s why I’m so bummed that this system is essentially locked out to competitive players.

Mortal Kombat 11 review

When you play online Ranked matches or local Tournament matches, you’ll be limited to two pre-set variations per character rather than the ones you’ve crafted. Making things even more confusing is the fact that the “competitive” variations are different from the default ones you’ll find in the game’s casual modes, so you’ll have to recreate those movesets yourself if you want to practice them offline.

While this limitation likely exists to preserve competitive balance, it seems too early to declare that custom variations may disrupt high-level play -- especially when all players have access to the same custom moves.

You can still use your custom variations in the game’s casual online modes, but I’d love to be able to put my variations to the test in a more competitive setting. Fortunately, NetherRealm has said that it may make changes to competitive variations as the game evolves, so I’m hopeful that the game’s deep sense of customization could eventually find its way into pro-level play.

Mortal Kombat 11 review: Verdict

With Mortal Kombat 11, NetherRealm has once again raised the bar for the sheer amount of polish and content that a fighting game can deliver. The game’s epic time-traveling story mode is one of the best fighting game narratives yet, and modes such as Towers of Time and The Krypt deliver on both replay value and fanservice. Mortal Kombat 11’s fighting engine feels like a much-needed refresh of a familiar formula, and the Kustom Variation system gives you tons of options for making each fighter truly your own. And the game is simply gorgeous and bursting with style, so long as you can stomach some hilariously over-the-top Fatalities.

I’d like to see NetherRealm open up MK11’s rich customization options to competitive players, and the game’s myriad of in-game currencies and progression systems could be more streamlined. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Mortal Kombat 11 is the series' finest installment yet, and one that will likely keep both casual and hardcore fans occupied for years to come.

Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.