Mortal Kombat review: Flawless victory

It's been nearly 20 years since the original Mortal Kombat debuted in arcades. It was a decent game that relied on two gimmicks -- gore and digitized fighters -- to gain notoriety. Now the ninth game in the franchise it spawned is here, and while the gore is still there, it's completely overshadowed by just how exceptional a game this is overall.

Series co-creator (ko-kreator?) Ed Boon and his team at NetherRealm Studios have created something that you can't help but see their blood, sweat and tears in. Sure, it's campy as all get-out, but it's also one of the most polished, deep and enjoyable fighting games I've ever played.%Gallery-120488% Practically everything about the core fighting mechanics has been tuned to the nth degree. By moving from the 3D arenas and movement of the past few titles to a "2.5D" presentation running at 60 frames per second, the game delivers combat that is fast, responsive and perfectly-timed. Every punch, kick and special attack comes off and connects without a hitch at what feels like just the right speed -- faster than the previous games and more akin to the likes of Virtua Fighter 5.

NetherRealm has talked about wanting this MK to be a fighter worthy of serious tournament play and, in my opinion, it succeeded. While they worked, the mechanics and gimmicks (especially weapons) found in the installments leading up to this just never felt like the right direction for the series to me. In this new Mortal Kombat, its developer has introduced new mechanics that fit the series perfectly, along with making it play so much better than previous MK titles.

Not just a show of love for fans of the series, but a game likely to make many more.

The new tiered power meter is the key to it all, filling as special attacks are performed and unlocking three different elements as it does. Enhanced special moves are what they sound like -- more powerful versions of each character's signature attacks that are performed by holding down a modifier button. With the meter charged to the second tier, a combo breaker can be performed, allowing you to interrupt opponents before they unleash an unblockable flurry of hits, then landing a few of your own. When the meter's maxed out, you can perform an extremely power X-ray attack, which is one of the coolest things I've seen in the genre in ages.

Similar to an effect used in the Jet Li flick Romeo Must Die, these attacks are incredibly hard hitting and satisfying. They're unique for each character, but no matter who successfully executes one, you'll see an X-ray view of one fighter getting bones broken and internal organs wrecked. Like everything else in the game, NetherRealm clearly spent a lot of time planning these to not only be really cool, but also fit with the rhythm of the combat in general.

Another thing that fits right in is tag team gameplay. The game's designers managed to work in a pretty huge new mechanic without a hitch. Switching partners is a snap, as is calling them in for support moves or swapping out mid-combo for some spectacular results. The fighting never misses a beat.

This new MK's fighting system impressively deep, and so is the amount of stuff to do in addition to the classic arcade mode. There's a full story mode, which is just great -- campy to the extreme, but it works so well. The Krypt returns from previous games, letting you spend fight winnings (koins) on unlockable content: costumes, fatalities, concept art, music and more. The real gem of the single-player side of the game, though, is the Challenge tower. It's floor upon floor of unique (sometimes weird) challenges that are fun but also really good at showing new players the ropes. It's something you could easily lose yourself for 8-10 hours in alone. If you should need more training, there's a great mode for that, including a dedicated Fatality trainer.

Online play has its hiccups, but has been generally pretty smooth in my experience. In a huge nod to the series' arcade roots, Boon and crew decided to include a King of the Hill mode -- and it's absolutely killer. Supporting Avatars on Xbox 360, it lets a group of players spectate on each others' matches while "waiting in line" to challenge the room's current champion. While this is going on, spectators can cheer, boo and groan at the on-screen action, plus deliver a score on the winner's performance after the match. For those of us who stood in line to play the original coin-op back in '92, it's especially, sentimentally excellent.

The ever-creative and gory Fatalities are just part of what is a top-notch visual presentation. Every aspect of how MK looks seems like it's been lavished over for months by the game's artists -- not only do the characters look and animate great, but the stages themselves (some new, many classic) are wonderfully detailed and full of life. The series' arenas are known for having neat little scenes playing out in the background, but in this game that's taken to a whole other level. Dragons terrorize the land -- even fighting with helicopters on the Earth Realm. The Outworld is twisted and grotesque, with towers of conjoined bodies screaming while monsters roam freely.

With the phoenix-like return of the Street Fighter franchise in recent years, and now this reborn Mortal Kombat, it's truly a great time to be a fighting game buff. What Capcom's creation was to fans of that series, the new Mortal Kombat is to its -- and it's also easily the best game the franchise has produced. Engaging for pros and newcomers alike, packing tons of content and wrapped in a gorgeous presentation, it's not just a show of love for fans of the series, but a game likely to make many more.

This review is based on the retail version of Mortal Kombat for Xbox 360 purchased by the reviewer.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.