It’s a sight recognizable to anyone whose held a controller: Scorpion, wobbling lifelessly after losing the final round, is greeted by that deep voice that beckons “Finish Him!” His opponent, a leather-clad blonde named Cassie, quickly draws a sword and slashes Scorpion’s face. The camera zooms in on the bottom half of Scorpion’s jaw dangling from a remaining strand of un-severed tendon and we hear his throat gurgle with unanswered breaths. It’s an exceptionally grisly death for a game known for grisly deaths. But the move isn’t over: As Scorpion begins to topple, Cassie grabs the back of his head, puts her arm around his shoulder, pulls out her phone, and snaps a selfie. We then see her social media feed, filling with comments about her victory including some by her proud parents, Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade.
And that’s why “Mortal Kombat X” is such a success: It takes the familiar and makes it more brutal, more surprising, more modern. The tenth edition of the game arrives four years after the last, with new combatants and an epic, universe-spanning story, as well as old favorite fighters and, of course, more gore than you can shake a dismembered spine at.
“MKX” marks the return of the outstanding fighting mechanics that made the series’ 16-bit origin so great. Combos and special moves are front and center in the head-to-head fighting, which is grounded in the fundamentals drilled into us when we first played. So when your muscle memory takes hold and you tap in the sequence for a Johnny Cage shadow kick or a Scorpion spear toss, you can bet your ass they’ll work. It's all familiar, just smoother and more fluid, every bloodletting roundhouse kick or uppercut comes across like move that could take place in an MMA match.
And while the mechanics remain excellent, the bloodthirsty folks at NetherRealm studio have packed more gameplay into “MKX” than ever before. The story mode, which reveals a twisting plot of a war between worlds and its effect on the living and dead, devotes a chapter to each fighter. Told through a combination of gorgeous CGI sequences, quick-time events and, of course, one-on-one fights, it features cinematics that are more captivating than we expected from such a basic format.
A play through of the story should give you more than your fill of experience with the variety of available fighters from fan-favorites like Scorpion and Raiden to new inductees like Kung Jin or the aforementioned Sonya Blade-Johnny Cage lovechild Cassie. The story mode primes you to dig into the excellent Living Ladder mode within the game. Like the familiar ladder of the early “Mortal Kombat” games, Living Ladder lets you choose and stick by your favorite fighter and take him or her deep into the increasingly-difficult matches as you fight your way through the entirety of the title’s 27-character roster. Hourly, daily, and longer premier challenges combine to form the Living Ladder, dictated by MK’s developers and present to keep gamers coming back to dish out or deal with more pain.
"MKX" focuses players on those challenges thanks to a major addition called Faction Wars. Upon initially booting up the game, everyone chooses one of five factions with which they align themselves. Everything you do in the game, every fight won, challenge completed and achievement earned boosts your faction’s performance during that cycle. At the end of the cycle, one of the five factions earns victory and everyone aligned within that faction gets bonuses that include everything from character skins to player. It’s an interesting, game-wide innovation that we haven’t seen before from the series and it’s a major undertaking to keep the game fresh whether you’re playing on Xbox, PlayStation or even the off-shoot free-to-play app on mobile devices.
The wide breadth of the game combined with the lightning-focused brawling puts Mortal Kombat on the top of the fighting game genre right now but it’s the over-the-top Fatalities that continue to be the signature of the series. We won’t spoil the unadulterated glee of finding out the most menacing ways your favorite character can finish their opponents but we will point you in the direction of the Fatality Practice Mode should you like to indulge your bloodlust without working to acquire any actual skills. Until then, we’ll thank you for not taking selfies of our jawless faces.