The numbering of this entry is no mistake. It’s a bold statement before you even boot up the game to let you know that NetherRealm are taking the series back to the beginning and starting things from scratch. What does that mean exactly? Well, if you’ve played Mortal Kombat 11 you’ll know that things ended in a particular way that grants the devs the ability to shake things up and shed the huge amounts of lore and baggage that the series has gained since its 1992 debut. Did it need it? That’s up for debate, and maybe one I’ll give my opinion on it later, but I’ll keep things more positive for now. If you’re a casual or newcomer then I’ll even save you the hassle of wading to the end of this page because this is a great entry in the series. Mortal Kombat 1 serves up reliable and precise controls and varied move sets which it manages to integrate into a fully fleshed out, mini-series length story who’s production values would put Amazon’s Rings of Power in the shade. Throw on top new modes, seasonal content, loads of character customisation, and Jean Claude Van Damme coming along as DLC, and this is a statement of intent from Warner Bros. It’s here to wow, delight and make you feel queasy all at the same time, as well as distracting from those other pesky fighting games that will try and hog the limelight (Street Fighter 6 and the upcoming Tekken 8 in particular). What if you’re one of the hardcore fans though?
If you are, then you’ll no doubt remember the end of the last game where Liu Kang defeated Kronika and set about creating the New Era. Of course, it’s a tad more complicated than that and involved merging characters, reversion of the entire universe to the primordial state, and effectively rebooting the whole franchise from scratch. Taking it further, the Aftermath expansion introduced Shang Tsung’s intent to control the Hourglass and saw him face off against Fire God Liu Kang as you, the player, decided which one would be victorious and kick start Mortal Kombat 1… not that it matters, Liu Kang’s win is taken as canon. Set as always across Earthrealm and Outworld, the tournament still exists, but is very much a more cordial affair than we’re used to. Relations between the two worlds are very civil, and with Liu Kang training four main heroes to decide which one will be our champion, things are pretty hunky dory given what we’ve seen come before. Clearly that’s not going to last and Liu’s rebuilding of the timeline gets interfered with, bringing Shang Tsung and Quan Chi out of their respective innocuous lives and driving both realms to the brink of war. It’s a good length tale (4 – 5 hours) with lots of character introductions and chances to familiarise yourself with their alternate allegiances, and the way the battles are woven into the story is really well done. Essentially you’re watching a high quality animated movie interspersed with controllable fights that blend together. You may see where the twists and turns are, you may not, yet there’s no denying that it looks fantastic and retains that Mortal Kombat feel throughout.
Dropping into the fights is what most of us are here for, and they also (surprise!) feel like they should. You’ll not see a lot different in the basics – directions combined with face buttons pull off the attacks, and more complex combinations bring more impressive results. Blocking, throws and kombos are standard in every moveset, though there is a new addition and a tweak to note. Kameos are the main feature you’ll spot straight off, and it adds a second fighter to the bout. They’re there for jumping in and landing a strike, or helping out with a special attack, and are limited by a recharging meter so don’t expect the ability to start tag teaming. Your chosen main player dictates the various moves that can be pulled off, though all of the Kameos have a signature look and feel, and add differing levels of extra health to your bar. Where they mainly come to the fore though is with the Fatal Blows that return from the last game. Mortal Kombat 1 combines these with the X-Ray views of MKX to produce particularly gruesome attacks that become available as a team up when you drop below 30% health. Gorgeous in their gruesome detail, pulling them off is highly satisfying, though frustrating that they’re so easily blocked. That in itself isn’t much of an issue in offline play, but online I can see them becoming largely redundant because it so simple stop them… though when you’re getting beaten to a bloody pulp it’s probably worth the Hail Mary. Interestingly, some of the Kameos like Sonya Blade (a core MK character since the first title) aren’t playable and it does make the main roster feel a little light – there are 23 core at launch with 6 more announced to come later, and 15 Kameo fighters (though 3 of those are already in the roster) with 5 more arriving as DLC. Of course, there are plenty to choose from and with each being distinct you never feel like you’re playing as a reskinned version of another character, and I guess creating fatalities for everyone can become a bit of a chore.
A nice touch in Mortal Kombat 1’s story mode is that fatalities, brutalities and the like are not available. This makes a lot of sense where you can’t really explode an opponent with lightning and then expect them to have lines in the very next cutscene. The fatal blows do the job of causing major bodily trauma, and by rights should kill people off, though it’s almost possible to see how they could still be talking… well, if you squint. Get out of story mode and they return with a vengeance and are horribly well detailed, as well as needing mastering to pull off correctly. As always it’s about positioning, timing and the correct button presses to inflict terrible mutilation on your beaten opponent. Or is it? Given the focus on accessibility the game has there’s an easy fatality option needing only 2 button presses, but like the last game there’s a catch. Tokens are required to pull Easy Fatalities off and you can only get these through buying them from the in-game shop using Dragon Krystals. This premium currency that can only be purchased – outside a meagre amount for completing the story, or as a bonus in the premium edition – is mainly there for cosmetic items which isn’t a bad thing, but putting the tokens there is clearly designed to siphon cash from your wallet. It costs 100 Dragon Krystals for 5 tokens, and it’s about £5 for 500 Krystals. Whilst 25 tokens for a fiver might not seem too bad, it does feel like those that would benefit from accessible button inputs on one of the key features of the game are penalised. Of course, you can drop into practice mode and exclusively try them all out with infinite time limits and onscreen prompts, but it’s not the same as that satisfying feeling of seeing your enemy ripped, burned or frozen that you get at the end of a hard fought bout; all of which requires the aforementioned precision, timing and muscle memory.
Learn the fatality timing and button presses for your favourite characters (if you’re able) along with the best combos and power attacks they have, and you’ll be ready for the Tower and Invasion modes. Tower returns and is more of an arcade structure that we’re used to. Fight ever increasing difficulties of opponents in different numbers of consecutive rounds depending on how many spare hours you have to plough in to it. If you’re time rich on a given day you could try the survival mode where you keep rising up the tower until you lose a match, or if you’re a masochist you can attempt the one where your remaining health carries over. Towers also add in the bonus of giving you the new backstories on the characters you pick for completing the challenge, which in turn unlock items in the Kollection (art, movies, info, etc.). These are mere diversions though to what could turn out to be the most engrossing mode in Mortal Kombat 1 – Invasion. It’s here that MK becomes a bit like a tabletop RPG where you pick a fighter and head into a boardgame like setup, moving from marker to marker and battling opponents. Invasions will be done in seasons with different settings and scenarios (at least that’s what’s strongly implied) and the first is a jaunt around Johnny Cage’s mansion. You must move through each space and complete the activity to continue on, and it sees you taking on random fights, earning items and powerups, and finding objects to craft and upgrade. It’s RPG-lite in its approach, and does offer a quite different challenge and perspective than I think we’ve seen in the series before. Not exactly shy to try out new ways of using the property, NetherRealm have form for putting in little extra modes that sometimes outshine the core story, and every time I boot a new game up I hope I’ll be greeted with the return of Puzzle Kombat. It’s not there this time, maybe next, but Invasions is clearly what’s here to bring longevity to the single player experience. The incentives for the season completion are a bit vague right now, but at least there’s a level of engagement ongoing for those without friends, or the skills to head online.
If you think you can hack it amongst the elite then there are the mandatory online fight modes – ranked in the Kombat League and unranked in Kasual. In theory these are places to either be serious (ranked) or have fun (unranked), though at the time of writing everyone seemed to be taking it seriously as I wasn’t actually able to matchmake with another human when trying Kasual. Nevermind though, there are plenty of people out there looking to improve their rating by stomping you a new one. As with all online brawlers it’s largely the luck of the draw who you end up battling with, and fortunately for Mortal Kombat 1 that experience is smooth and relatively painless. Using Rollback Netcode which includes an element of prediction on the local players side to reduce the effect of latency, bouts are fast and frantic without perceptible lag. I’ll admit that I may have had a good run of opponents with great connections and a lack of global traffic when I’ve been fighting, but really the only hard part has been waiting to be paired up from the matchmaking screens. Whilst it’s not a major amount of time, the pace in single player and that feeling that something is always happening has the effect of distorting the wait, just be assured that it’s worth it if you are buying into this for the competition. Local two player fights are supported, as are setting up matches with online friends, tournaments, and there’s a tease of a new mode called Warrior League that’s not available yet, and no doubt it’ll get a onceover when it goes live. It goes without saying, practice, practice, practice before you venture out into the world because there are some immensely skilled players out there who’ll hand you your ass in seconds.
I mentioned the production values at the beginning, and we know that NetherRealm are not ones to slack off when it comes to the visuals, though it feels like it’s stepped up a gear with Mortal Kombat 1. Particularly in the story mode the scenes pop with colour and vibrancy, and the stages have a wonderful level of detail. You spot minor interactions happening in the background from cafe customers dodging out of the way to inhuman lab experiments keeping a wary eye on the action; they’re really well thought out and to blend almost seamlessly with the cutscenes is impressive. We’re not out of the uncanny valley just yet with the characters, though pay close attention to Reptile because with his mask I could have sworn it was a real actor rather than CG rendered. Regardless of that, they all look amazing, as do the outfits and how those change with the various customisations. Combining well with the looks is the voice talent and the vast majority go all out with their roles. There are a lot of video game and animation favourites to listen out for, and at release Megan Fox is the first Hollywood A-lister to kick the blood out of. Playing the vampiric Nitara, she lends her voice and looks and turns in a reasonable performance so that’s it doesn’t come across as just a gimmick. Coming further down the line are John Cena and J. K. Simmons, as well as JCVD finally becoming Johnny Cage as Ed Boon originally wanted over 30 years ago. Audio is good too, though it did have a tendency to crap out when using rest mode a couple of times, as well as introducing a slight judder to the framerate in the cutscenes. Reloading fixed the issues, but it surprised me that minor issues like this weren’t picked up in testing given how polished it all looks the rest of the time.
You already know I think this is a great entry in the series, and there’s a good amount of content that will keep players coming back over time. I’m not a fan of the “pay for easy play” mechanic, it feels like it’s taxing a section of the gaming community – whether that’s limits on physical ability, or just generally not great at fighting games – but ultimately it is optional. Nothing in Mortal Kombat 1 has to be bought to enjoy any of the main modes, and the ongoing seasonal updates should bring variety and reasons to revisit the modes. Where do I stand on the reset of the timeline and the way the characters have changed? I’m good with it. Having played most of the entries since experiencing the original on the Game Gear I’ve watched, absorbed and forgotten a lot of franchise information, and what it boils down to is this is a fighting game not a soap opera. Ditching the history has no impact on whether I can punch someone’s head clean off or skewer them with icicles, and that’s what I’m here for. The core rock/paper/scissors DNA of the very first game is very much alive and kicking, and that’s what needs to be preserved and taken forward with each new iteration. Don’t worry about character names or the way they look, what they’ve done in the past, who’s betrayed who… just grab a kontroller and get stuck in.
A PS5 review copy of Mortal Kombat 1 was provided by Warner Bros. PR team, and the game is out now on PC, PlayStation, Xbox and Switch for around £70.
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