While E3 attendees file out of a darkened room after a demonstration of the new Mortal Kombat, series co-creator Ed Boon is approached by a pair of enthusiastic fans. He gladly gives them a few autographs, and his face lights up in surprise when he learns that they've grown enamored with the fighting franchise in their 18 years of existence -- despite being born well after its inception. Has Mortal Kombat really been around for almost 20 years?
Working from NetherRealm Studios -- owned by Mortal Kombat's new custodian, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment -- Ed Boon doesn't limit his interaction with fans to chance encounters. The upcoming reboot is being driven by three major requests from series fans, which Boon calls his "marching orders." They've suggested a return to the M-rated presentation following 2008's Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (check), a deeper fighting system (check) and, of course, a new set of outrageous fatalities (check out that perforated spleen).
Boon claims that every combatant's interior, from the soon-to-be-shattered bones to the sickeningly squishy internal organs, has been modeled. It's not often that you get to literally see an artist's blood, sweat and tears in a game, but Boon assures me that when attacks find their mark, all "that shit pours out of them."
Mortal Kombat doesn't strike me as a tournament-worthy technical fighter, but the pervasive basis of nostalgia and its absurd, violent embellishment render it more accessible than most games in the genre. In some ways, not much has changed. I was able to fall into lockstep with Scorpion almost immediately, resorting to quick uppercuts, throws and frenzied juggles whenever my opponent wasted an opportunity to start a combo. There's a staccato pacing to every fight, with visually creative special attacks filling in the gaps between quick successions of leaps and kicks. Sure, it lacks a certain amount of finesse -- to be expected given the brutality on display -- but it's responsive, fast and funny.
I was impressed by the game's unflinching framerate, as well as the detail granted to characters like Sub-Zero, Kung Lao and Sektor (who compose a total of 26 characters, with more slated for DLC). As in Street Fighter IV, their exaggerated movements remain locked to a 2D plane, with classic stages like The Living Forest, The Pit and The Dead Pool providing some depth (and some death, courtesy of stage-specific fatalities) in the background.
There are a couple of new strategic twists to the fighting system in the form of a "breaker" counter-attack (mainly used to interrupt combos) and a three-segment special attack bar situated at the bottom of the screen. If you want to dish out some damage sooner rather than later, you can choose to expend a segment in order to enhance any of your special attacks (think: "Ex" moves in Street Fighter IV). For example, the enhanced version of Reptile's slime-ball projectile increases its size, thus making it harder to avoid. If, on the other hand, you let attacks fill up the bar completely, you can unleash one of Mortal Kombat's new "X-Ray" moves by double-tapping RB and RT (one of the awkward Xbox 360 control choices that I hope is reconsidered later in the game's development). As the name implies, the dreadful X-Ray combo shows some real, up-close damage as you see an inside view of your opponent's ribs cracking and jaws fracturing. It's nasty.
That "Ouuuuuch!" impulse will make Mortal Kombat a fun crowd pleaser and party game, especially with the addition of two-on-two tag team fights (complete with Marvel vs. Capcom-style jump-in attacks). The game will support two-on-two fights online as well, though Ed Boon couldn't confirm whether it would support four players in four different locations -- right now, it works with up to two players per connected console.
And right now, Mortal Kombat works as an immediately gratifying, lightweight arcade experience. If your friends don't know or don't care about the difference between a cool combo and a Focus Attack Dash Cancel, I suspect this will be an entertaining choice for a few rounds of ultra-violent mayhem. It's nice to think that after almost 20 years, there's still a bit of excitement in the air as you wait to see whether the other guy can enter the fatality code quickly enough.