Saying Mortal Kombat was a success when it first hit arcades in 1992 is an understatement of epic proportions. It landed on the gaming scene like a thunderbolt from the heavens, with its influence reaching throughout the medium and the reverberations still being felt today. It has spawned multiple sequels, a massively successful motion picture, and has left an indelible mark on pop culture as a whole. The series has gone through the highs and lows you would expect for such a long-running franchise, but recent games have begun a big upward trend. Now with Mortal Kombat 11, NetherRealm Studios has taken the franchise to another level altogether.
Mortal Kombat 11 takes 27 years of series history and distills it into its purest, most concentrated form, delivering the ultimate Mortal Kombat experience for fans new and old.
One of NetherRealm’s biggest strengths since its MK revival in 2011 has been the fantastic story modes they put in all of their games. Story modes in fighting games in the past have been afterthoughts at best and complete jokes at worst. This problem still exists today and can be seen in lackluster attempts in titles like Street Fighter V and Dead or Alive 6. NetherRealm puts them all to shame. The story in Mortal Kombat 11 takes place directly after the events of Mortal Kombat 9 and X. It sees the consequences of Raiden’s meddling with the fabric of time take form in Kronika, master of time and space and more powerful than even the Elder Gods themselves.
The conceit of time travel in the story lets characters meet up with their past selves and allows characters killed off in earlier entries to make triumphant returns. The six-hour story is effectively the end of the story arc that began in Mortal Kombat 9, and the stakes reflect as much. It is also a love letter to the series and its characters, letting each character shine in their own unique ways and pay homage to the past and present in satisfying ways.
Granted, six hours may not sound like enough story, but the length doesn’t detract from its narrative weight. After playing through story modes in fighting games lately that were too long for their own good, it is nice to see a story that actually succeeds in building to a powerful conclusion in a natural way.
As we said in our impressions of the beta before the game’s release, Mortal Kombat 11 feels like the best parts of Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat 2. It has weightier characters, adding a more grounded, footsies-oriented feel to combat without sacrificing the over-the-top nature of the series. In fact, the final release feels even better than it did in those early betas.
Mortal Kombat 11 controls better than any MK game before it, giving players complete control over the characters with fluid movement and tight, responsive buttons. The flow of gameplay doesn’t feel janky or stiff like it did in MK9 and X, and combos are easier to pull off than ever before with a much more fluid cancel system. Fear not though, as advanced combos still require precise timing and reflexes. The only difference is that it feels much more natural to get to that level of precision while getting better at the game with time and experience.
There are a plethora of defensive options available to players between flawless blocks (instant blocks), wakeup attacks, breakaways, and forward and backward rolls on wakeup. Each defensive option has pros and cons, and the combination of them all means a player never feels completely defenseless. The best fighting games give their players as many tools as they need to succeed and leave it up to players to decide when to use them, and Mortal Kombat 11 does a spectacular job in its overall design to accomplish this.
Thankfully, my biggest complaint from the beta was addressed: Breakaways, the replacement for the Breaker system in MK9 and X, now activate much slower. This lets the main function of the system, escaping from long juggle combos, to still work as intended, but it doesn’t allow players on the defensive to recover so fast that they can punish their aggressor mid-combo. This can still be possible depending on spacing and how slow the move is you activate the breakaway on, but it isn’t across the board like it was during the beta. Like with every other aspect of the game, it gives the choice to the player on when to breakaway during a combo. Plus, it can reward the player even further by breaking the right move at the right time if a player is fast enough and paying attention.
In fact, it may be a little overwhelming to newer players learning all these new offensive and defensive maneuvers. Fortunately, there is a fantastic tutorial mode. It lets players learn every system in the game one step at a time, spelling out clearly what beats what and how to best apply these tools. The more advanced tutorials even go into frame data and how to best construct combos for each character, but in a way that is easy to digest for even beginner-level players. The character-specific tutorials are also a great way to learn how to play any character in the game. Each tutorial goes over their best strings, how to apply their special moves, and provides actually useful combos that can help players construct their own, more advanced combos later on.
Add to this a robust training mode, and even a fatality training mode, and Mortal Kombat 11 gives players of all skill levels what they need to succeed.
Explore the realms
Just like other NetherRealm games, Mortal Kombat 11 gives players an absurd amount of content to play through. Towers of Time acts as Mortal Kombat’s version of the Multiverse mode from Injustice 2; it lets players play through a constantly changing set of towers each with their own unique challenges and rules. Klassic Tower also returns, letting players play through a traditional arcade mode with individualized endings for each character. Players can use special Konsumable items during these tower modes with effects like recovering health, turning characters invincible, breaking through super armor, and even summoning other characters (or just their attacks) to assist in battle, acting like assists in Marvel vs. Capcom but as a usable item. It takes what SNK tried to do in SNK Heroines Tag Team Frenzy with their item system but makes it actually fun to use.
The gear system from Injustice 2 also makes its debut in Mortal Kombat by letting players customize their characters with different pieces of equipment. Each character has three pieces of customizable equipment, ranging from purely cosmetic (like Scorpion’s mask) to weapons or subweapons like Scorpion’s kunai or Baraka’s blades. Equipment can be leveled up and augmented with special abilities obtained during the course of gameplay, allowing players an unprecedented level of customization with a fighting game character. Between leveling up gear, using augments, and slotting specific special moves, players can make hundreds of different versions of the same character. But for serious matches, customizable aspects can be turned off with the press of a button before online matches begin, so players can fight on equal footing.
Also returning from previous Mortal Kombat titles is The Krypt in its own completely dedicated mode. Players take control of a nameless warrior arriving on Shang Tsung’s island and use Koins obtained through playing the game’s other modes to open chests throughout the island. I was shocked when I took control of my character after the opening cinema scene. I realized I was controlling the character from a behind-the-shoulder perspective, was free to walk around the entire island, and not just select from a menu of different chests available. Shang Tsung’s island is absurdly huge, and there are multiple different areas in each section littered with treasure chests, interactable items, and mini-puzzles for players to solve. The Krypt feels like an entirely new game just added onto Mortal Kombat 11, and the level of detail is unbelievable. The Krypt will take hours upon hours for players to fully explore and uncover the secrets within.
The online realm
Online, players can participate in casual matches, ranked battles, and a new Kombat League rolling out soon that will factor into the upcoming Mortal Kombat 11 Pro Tour. The netcode is surprisingly solid. Online play has never been NetherRealm’s strong suit, but they have been getting better with each new game they have put out. And Mortal Kombat 11 is proof positive of that.
The ability to display an opponent’s ping before a match starts is an absolute godsend and makes all the difference in Mortal Kombat 11’s online play. The game gives you ample time before a match starts to suss out how good or bad an opponent’s connection is and accept or decline the match. This means that, for the most part, you never have to willingly accept a match with a bad connection. While I did feel slight hiccups during some matches, even ones that recorded good ping, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t experienced far worse in other games. It didn’t negatively affect the overall online experience.
Mortal Kombat 11 is the pinnacle of the Mortal Kombat series. It takes everything the series has learned in its almost three decades of existence and brought absolutely everything to the table. The closest comparison I can make is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Ultimate brought virtually everything together in a complete package designed to last players for years to come, and Mortal Kombat 11 does the same thing for Mortal Kombat. Granted, unlike in Ultimate, your favorite character might be left by the wayside. But it feels almost impossible to look at the level of detail, the variety of characters and modes, and the finely tuned fighting mechanics on display in Mortal Kombat 11 and not feel anything but incredibly happy. Mortal Kombat 11 is everything you love about Mortal Kombat in one tight, beautiful package that honors its history and its fans alike.
Anything that could be nitpicked about the game feels so comically minor in the avalanche of positive aspects that it isn’t even worth mentioning. The only negative thing I can really say is that, because of everything NetherRealm Studios has poured into this game, I have no idea what they can do in a Mortal Kombat 12 to top themselves. The fact that this is the worst thing I can say speaks to how complete a package Mortal Kombat 11 truly is.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.
Platforms: PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: April 23, 2019
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: NetherRealm Studios