The mid-fight “fatal blow” is a good example. You can only use this powerful attack once per match, and only when your health is low, which makes it a very strategic element of the game. But activating it triggers a long, non-interactive scene of violence where your opponent might be shot in the face, stabbed multiple times through the heart or be completely crushed, only to get up and continue fighting straight after.
But while the violence may not be the draw it once was, the cast of characters here is arguably stronger than ever. The collection of robots, ninjas, monsters, monks and gods each have laughably extensive backstories at this point, but they also have new cool designs and bespoke personalities you can appreciate just by looking at them and hearing them interact with each other pre-fight. It was disappointing to see that, upon starting the game, two of the characters are locked behind a paywall. One of them is unlocked for free as you play, not that the game is in a rush to tell you that.
Those looking to dive into the lore can go for the story mode, a glossy Hollywood-style affair that lets you play as several characters and introduces classic versions of key fighters thanks to some time-travelling hijinx. The whole thing evokes the fantasy kung-fu camp of the 1995 movie, complete with a Lambert-like over-dramatic voice performance for Raiden (“You stole your own soul!”), and it’s brilliant. Of course, in line with previous MK games, the cheap and frustrating final boss which breaks all the rules the game has set up to that point may leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.
When you’re not getting competitive with friends or stranger — and if you’re done with the story mode — there’s a lot to do besides, but this is where the creep of Warner Bros’ monetisation strategies start to become visible. Each character can be customised with a huge amount of unlockable cosmetics, from skins to gear to animations, but unlocking them is a chore. You can fight in the brutal, randomised “Towers of Time” mode (which can be made easier by purchasing consumable items), or spend earned currency on totally random loot boxes in “The Krypt”. Some currency can, of course, be purchased with real money.
Throw in the restriction that you must have an online connection to get rewards, play Towers of Time or use your custom fighters, and it all adds up to an unfriendly system that feels like it’s actively trying to stop you from creating your ideal form of Sonya Blade or Baraka. Even if you know what you want and work really hard to get it, there’s no guarantee you will. It’s not fun.
But dodgy progression system aside, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here. Beyond the main story, every character has an old-school tower to fight through that unlocks fun endings. With 25 characters (three totally new) and more to come as additional purchases, that’s a lot to learn.
Mortal Kombat 11 is out now for Xbox One (reviewed), PC, PlayStation 4 and Switch.