A great fighting game that’s let down a little by some questionable design choices.
Netherrealm Studios continues its regular schedule, alternating between Injustice and Mortal Kombat releases. This year is MK’s turn, the eleventh according to the Netherrealm numbering, and in many regards it’s the best one. It’s a pity, however, that some design choices prevent Mortal Kombat 11 from reaching its true potential, and the level of excellence we saw in Injustice 2.
The Netherrealm games tend to be built using the previous title as a foundation, which in this case means that Mortal Kombat 11 was built on the back of Injustice 2. The DC Comics fighting game brought with it two very interesting systems – character customisation and Multi-verse, a mode that allowed players to tackle timed sets of opponents with special scenarios and conditions. Multi-verse was a fun and fairly challenging way of unlocking gear and Mother Boxes with loot, and it never felt overly monetised.
Mortal Kombat 11 has something similar in the shape of the Towers of Time. The concept is almost identical, as it features enemy towers similar to the classic Mortal Kombat towers, but with special themes and challenges, like the Multi-verse. The problem, unfortunately, is that the Towers of Time is a highly frustrating game mode due to absurd spikes of difficulty.
If some fights are easy, each tower has at least one opponent that is incredibly difficult. These opponents have special advantages, like acid rain that falls on the player, and other characters coming in and offering assistance. Combat with special conditions is nothing new in Mortal Kombat, but never like this, which is designed only to hurt the player, and in such annoying ways too.
For example, in one match the opponent had the benefit of poison balls being shot at the player every three seconds, disrupting any kind of combo (even throws) and causing high damage. At least the poison ball is blockable, unlike the missiles that transfer the player’s life to their opponent, or the waves that sweep the player away if they don’t jump over them at the right moment (opening themselves up to an AI combo).
These and other similar conditions make the Towers of Time a highly unfair and frustrating challenge, which leads to another problem – player progression. The Towers of Time is where you can get the best rewards and currency for the game, but with such tough challenges, you will waste a lot of time on just one enemy, which essentially turns the Towers of Time and the Krypt collectibles into a slow grind.
Netherrealm knows this, and as a result, they have introduced some aid for the player. There are consumables that you can equip to gain some advantage – such as health-enhancing items or missiles – but the most interesting is the “Skip the Fight” option, which we suspect will be available with real money (we haven’t found a single token for it and microtransactions were not available, so we don’t know what’s being sold just yet). Time will tell.
As we said, all this connects to the Krypt and the unlockables. The Krypt is a third-person exploration mode where you can find innumerable chests with various extras inside. Skins, items, coins, fatalities, art – all of this and more is available to unlock (and there are even some dangerous puzzles). To open the chests, however, you will need several types of items, such as coins, souls, and hearts. All modes give you currency but slowly compared to the Towers of Time (even if not by a lot). The whole process could be fun and interesting – even more so than it was in Injustice 2 – but the way it is structured means that it’s more of a grind. This is our greatest disappointment with Mortal Kombat 11, as it prevents the game from reaching its full potential.
For a better idea of how unnecessarily complicated the progression system is, know that there are now gems that you can fit into the gear, but this design is also very annoying. The gems have to be specific to each character, which in itself is already a limitation, but worse than that, each gem has a shape (round, triangular, etc). This means that you need a piece of gear with the same slot shape as the shape of the gem, and once gems get attached to the piece of gear, each piece of gear levels up individually. Imagine that you have unlocked a new mask for Sub-Zero and you want to use it; this means leaving behind the mask with gems, forcing you to level up the new mask to unlock its slots (and pray those slots are the shape of the gems you have). There are some XP-boosts you can equip for the gear, but once again, we suspect you will need to buy them with real money.
Despite these regrettable decisions by Netherrealm, Mortal Kombat 11 has enough quality and content left to still come out as a great fighting game. The gameplay, again in a 2D plane with 3D graphics, is superb. It is a relatively accessible fighting system that also allows for some impressive depth. If you want to raise your playstyle to the next level, we highly recommend the tutorial, one of the best and most complete we have seen in the genre. In addition to introducing the basics, this tutorial teaches a number of factors that are typically only considered by veteran players, such as frames for each animation, response time if blocked, how to counter attacks and avoid combos, and so on. It’s impressive.
At a gameplay level, Mortal Kombat 11 is similar to Mortal Kombat X, but there are some important changes. X-Ray attacks have been removed in favour of Fatal Blows, which are powerful attacks that become available when the character is close to defeat. It’s a way to balance unbalanced combat or secure a win in an even match. There are, however, some factors to consider, and the most important is the fact that the Fatal Blows can only be used successfully once per match. In other words, if you spend it in the first round, you can no longer use it in the following rounds. If you fail to connect, however, you can try again, but only a few seconds later.
Another important change is related to energy bars. So far, these bars were shared for attack and defense, but in Mortal Kombat 11 they are split. There are two bars for attack, and two bars for defence, and these can regenerate over time. Attack bars allow you to improve a special move, such as speeding up Sub-Zero’s frost bolt. As for defence bars, they allow you to break away from opponent’s combos and juggles, or gain the upper hand while rising after being knocked over. We think it’s a great format.
The characters themselves feature very different game styles, with some better at ranged combat, while others excel at close range, with others somewhere in the middle. Through the customisation system, you can change character appearance and what kind of extra abilities are equipped. As in the previous games, each character has two variants which determine the abilities it has equipped, although now you can also create your own variant in the personalisation menu. You can create a version of Liu Kang specialised in nunchucks, for example, or with enhanced natural abilities, such as the fireball. These customisations, however, are not allowed in ranked online play, only casual matches and single-player modes. It’s a way of keeping the game balanced where it really matters – the competitive online side.
In terms of the single-player content, we must highlight the story mode, which continues the saga of MK and MKX. It’s a highly cinematic narrative, with spectacular action sequences and amazing cutscenes. The dialogue isn’t the best, and the events are forced to justify combat, but it remains among the best story modes in the fighting genre and we thought it was very entertaining. If you have enjoyed this game mode in previous entries, you won’t be disappointed with what MK11 has to offer.
We have already talked about the Towers of Time, but there is also a more traditional Towers mode, which is essentially the “arcade” mode. Basically, here you will face a number of opponents in regular combat until you defeat the boss, unlocking an “end” for the character you are controlling. As for the online experience, we didn’t encounter any issues during our matches. There are several variants, from King of the Hill to one-on-one bouts, and mid-May Netherrealm will kick off the Mortal Kombat League. We especially liked the ranked “best of three” mode, with the best-of-three format not applying to rounds, but actual fights. If you like fighting online, MK11 has you covered.
Mortal Kombat 11 could have been superb, maybe the ultimate fighting game this generation, but the design decisions Netherrealm made regarding the Towers of Time, the Krypt, and the character progress are regrettable. Part of us wants to believe that this is a balancing mistake that will be corrected with an update, yet it’s more likely that this design is intended to encourage microtransactions. Still, the game has enough going on outside of the Towers and the Krypt, and it’s still an easy recommendation to every MK fan.
Keyword: Mortal Kombat 11