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Mortal Kombat 1 from developer NetherRealm Studios faces what feels like an insurmountable task—delivering on high expectations to the point of becoming the best game in a historic franchise.
The 12th entry in the series and the sequel to 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11, MK1 pushes everything into the middle of the table with an all-in gamble. The gameplay is faster, there are huge shakeups to the best-in-class single-player experience and the overarching world and timeline itself have been fully reset.
Outside forces put MK1 in a tough spot too, considering a stacked overall 2023 calendar year for gaming, headed up by the smash hit that was Street Fighter 6 in the fighting game space.
And yet MK1 looks more than up to task, capable of becoming best-in-genre of the year with undeniable staying power beyond 2023.
Graphics and Gameplay
It doesn’t take MK1 long to impress visually, with even gameplay footage from afar guaranteeing one universally agreed-upon upgrade from MK11.
Simply put, MK1 is a visual treat. The tried-and-true violent fighting is back in grisly displays of blood and bones and whatever else players might stumble upon. The physics make for realistic swaying of fabrics and stage features, the lighting and shadows are superb and the cinematics are best-in-class material. Even the sound design is fantastic, with well-delivered voice lines and some wince-worthy audio accompanying the violence.
This game represents a full timeline reset, so characters largely boast old-school designs fans will recognize. These are again wow-worthy character models that move with a shifty realism that makes the violence all the more compelling.
Bouts occur across a variety of stunningly detailed fighting stages, such as a small room with droves of details baked into it, all before a window that opens up into a view of the city beyond. It’s borderline distracting, yet the stages demand attention because players can use them to their advantage.
In a refreshing shift, MK1 pushes the pedal to the floor with faster gameplay compared to Mortal Kombat 11. That entry was polarizing in its emphasis on slower, defensive and counter-based combat.
Not here, to which there should be little polarization.
General movement, dashes, back-dashes, the lot of it is just a tick faster, which is especially appreciable once players begin to chain things together. The actual gameplay systems that govern the action have adapted to fit.
Leaning into this quicker emphasis, there’s only one meter to worry about this time. Fatal blows don’t grant immunity frames and are interruptible when started, and the game has targeted certain spam from past games, such as blocking while crouched.
Onlookers will also notice a new focus on aerial combos and juggling, which hasn’t been a staple of the gameplay loop for a long time. This Air Kombat combo system adds another fun layer of complexity and skill gaps to the equation and for many fighting games, might represent the only major shakeup to a tried-and-true formula in a release like this.
Yet it’s a secondary note—thanks to Kameo Fighters.
These Kameo Fighters (some full-time members of the roster, others not) can pop into a fight at any time and help the player. It’s not a full tag-team entry in the series by any means, but it disrupts the usual one vs. one feel and is a big expansion of the series meta, to put it lightly.
These Kameo Figthers are not limited to offensive moves. There are support-based moves, unique throws, combo extensions, anti-airs, wake ups and even Fatalities.
A button press plus a specific d-pad input with proper timing is all it takes. It feels like many of these only use half of the Kameo meter, but some of the bigger ones expend the whole thing.
And just like that, an almost mind-boggling amount of strategy suddenly presents itself. The Kameo character can fully cover a selected main fighter’s weaknesses, so long as the player manages the assist character’s meter well.
It’s intimidating on first pass, even for fighting game and/or series veterans. And it might just end up polarizing. Players flock to Mortal Kombat for a variety of reasons, and one of those strictly might be that one-on-one feel to the action. This disrupts that, though that doesn’t mean for those players that it isn’t worth trying—it’s going to be here to stay for a while, after all.
Zooming back out, it’s an incredibly fun system. The sum of MK1’s gameplay parts makes for an entertaining romp for players of all skill ranges, with some of the more staggering depth to possibilities we’ve seen for huge skill gaps.
Mortal Kombat didn’t need a gameplay shakeup like this, given how great the series has been over the last few entries. But the changeup is compelling, even if it isn’t going to be a series staple beyond this release. The innovation is a nice touch that adds a ton of new intrigue to competitive scenes or even just messing around for a quick pick-up-and-play session.
At the end of the day, fun is still fun and this retains the Mortal Kombat feel, wrapped in the best presentation we’ve seen in a fighter to date.
Story, Invasions and More
The gore and violence, deep fighting mechanics that create huge skill gaps and memorable characters that make Mortal Kombat a success are all here.
But so is the unrivaled single-player experience for fighting games that other fighting games haven’t been able to match.
In the game’s story mode, Liu Kang creates his own universe and zips the players away, once again via cinematics that go above and beyond most fighting game efforts.
Longtime fans will notice fun twists to well-known characters and even some alternate rivalries that start to form. It’s just plain nice to see the complete reset of a timeline used to completely overhaul certain character relationships and really give shine to others who have largely been background, minor characters since the start of the series.
The biggest stunning change for the series is the removal of Krypt mode, a staple since 2002. In its place is Invasions, a progression-based single-player mode that places players on a sort of board game experience with themed battles (Towers of Time-styled) and rewards similar to the Krypt’s offerings.
Different boards are packed with droves of fan service and easter eggs. Players will move around and take on set fights at nearly each space on the “board” and even wind up ambushed sometimes. It’s a little too easy to breeze through these fights at first, but it’s clear the mode has some serious legs.
Maps with hundreds of challenges ranging from solo fights and towers to fun little minigames await the player. We’re talking challenging fights, dodging environmental hazards while fighting, tinkering with gravity, even non-fights that just ask the player to bob and weave around hazards for a set amount of time.
The mode won’t be for every player—it is indeed a grind. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have, especially for those types of players who like earning droves of loot and/or don’t have an interest in anything but a solo experience.
As such, MK1 boasts a six-week season cycle not unlike FPS or sports games. The goal there is to keep things fresh and steadily add new things to do and provide gameplay shakeups.
When it comes to overall progression, let’s just say players will unlock droves of stuff in a hurry. We’re talking gear, taunts, finishers and more and in a nice touch, players typically seem to actually unlock things for the character they currently use, which needs praised as a nice quality of life thing.
MK1, given the seasonal format and other modernisms, does dabble in a few different types of currencies.
Seasonal Kredits reset every season and allow the player to purchase things in the seasonal store. Koins do not reset and act as currency at the Shrine.
Then there are Dragon Krystals, which are earnable and purchasable with real money, yet the game promises these will strictly unlock cosmetics that do not impact gameplay.
On the accessibility front, even the solo campaign experience doesn’t dive into helpful gameplay tutorials early to stress the differences between characters. But the actual tutorial system from the main menu is again robust.
Like its predecessor, MK1 is bound to be an Esports hit.
There is already a 128-person early-access tournament with cash prizes and that’s very much just an early, smaller preview of what’s to come as the game kicks into gear.
The game seems to have a little bit of everything in this regard. First and foremost, the oft-requested rollback netcode is there and should guarantee fair experiences competitively online. Crossplay helps, too.
Much of this game is about requests, too. Where MK11 was more about the neutral game, zoning and parries and counters, the aforementioned pace bump and implementation of Kameo Fighters means quite a bit more rushdown offense intriguing setups.
Frankly, a normal Mortal Kombat release would be a smash hit on the Esports scene and slot near the very top. But this one feels different—the amped-up pace and sudden influx of near-endless combos with assist characters will make the feeling-out process of the pro scene must-watch material.
And once a meta and preferred playstyle for top players gets decided, only then will things get all the more enthralling as they attempt to counter each other and win tournaments.
MK1 didn’t need to mix up the formula in the form of assist characters, but the depth of counterplay is suddenly immense. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s fun and doesn’t harm the overall feel of the series.
A quicker Mortal Kombat experience with perhaps more depth than ever before mid-fight, MK1 also expertly navigates the tightrope that is casual-hardcore balance.
Which is to say the campaign mode is predictably great, there’s a treasure trove of grind for solo players should they desire it and the competitive scene should be the most interesting it has been in a long time—with all the necessary technological support.
Gamers have been flirting with a golden age for the fighting game genre for a while now and MK1 only reinforces the idea, managing to stand out amongst a stacked 2023 calendar year, slotting right near the top.