Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mortal Kombat X - Story and Gameplay

Although I had a lot to say the last time I posted about Mortal Kombat X, I actually left a couple of topics on the chopping block. Specifically: the quality of the story and general gameplay of MKX, how both represent significant strides forward in maturity (relatively speaking) and thoughtfulness on the part of NetherRealm Studios (NRS), and how that bodes well for the franchise as a whole.

As I can't quite get these ideas out of my head, another torrent of words and thoughts awaits after the break. Hopefully it won't be quite so long as last time, but I can't promise anything. Best get a snack to be on the safe side.

Before getting into anything else, it is worth heaping another lump of praise onto MKX (and MK9 before it) for having coherent, enjoyable stories that are actually recognized and referenced in other areas of the game (and now, across two games). Many fighting games have background stories for their characters, but in most cases those stories are silo-ed and fragmented across multiple games (typically only being conveyed via arcade mode endings).

Likewise, few fighting games weave a consistent narrative across concurrent entries. The ones that do either cultivate relatively threadbare plots - the Tekken series feels like a good example of this phenomenon - or obfuscate the main story line enough that you have to be a dedicated fan to get all of it - the King of Fighters series did this over several story arcs that were very easy to miss if you just played the games.

MK9 and MKX do not have the monopoly on having particularly robust or continuous storylines; ArcSys has done both of those things in the past with their Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series. What the modern MK games have done that is remarkable is present a story that is extremely clear, uniform, and easy to follow. If you've played through the story modes in MK9 and MKX, there is little question as to what happened at each plot point, and how the story has unfolded so far. The only other modern game I can say has that same feeling is Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign, but that also reduces the story mode to watching a (fair by anime standards) non-interactive movie, which is a bit of a cheat (and less fun to experience overall).

Additionally, the modern MK story modes stand out due to how well connected the stories are across the two games. The story mode of MK9 is fun and interesting on it's own, and the events of that story are picked right up with the start of the story in MKX. MKX then builds on the story events from MK9, creating a story that drives the characters and overall universe forward, while also giving the series its best sense of history and back story it has ever had (and the MK series has always tried to push it's story, so that's not faint praise).

The result is that the modern MK games tell a story that isn't especially amazing - it's pretty good by fighting game standards, but it isn't going to oust The Last of Us, or anything like that - but it does a lot for the franchise. It establishes a clear vision of the in-game universe and it's characters, and it evolves both of those over time to keep things interesting. It provides players with clear, easy access to emotional buy-in with various characters - shallow as it may be - which in turn heightens appreciation and affection for the game and the franchise in general.

I'm not a particularly passionate Mortal Kombat fan - I've followed the series over the years out of morbid curiosity as much as any sense of reverence - but the combined storytelling efforts of MK9 and MKX have me more invested and interested in the story and characters than all the games that came before them combined. Which makes playing MKX that much more fun (fighting game characters are just that much more fun to use when you like their backstory) and of course makes me that much more likely to buy the next game in the series. A win-win for myself and NRS.

A few points about the characters in MKX that don't tie into anything else, but are significant enough to warrant highlighting:

 - The character designs in MKX are, if not the best in the series, then at least the best in the "modern era" of MK. While some characters have more effective designs than others, there is a distinct lack of cheesy/tacky/lame designs to be found, which is a dramatic improvement after some of the hilarious failures from the PS2/Xbox era of games. I'm not sure what to attribute this sudden rise in quality to, but I hope it continues in future games.

Related to that point are the designs for the female characters in MKX. While some costumes are still slightly provocative - as evidenced by the eyeful of cleavage Kitana's default outfit presents the viewer during her loading screen render - they are tasteful and reasonable. This is remarkable by the standards of "female fighting game costumes", which usually range from "moderately sexy" to "hilariously provocative", and it is a whiplash inducing improvement over the female character designs in MK9. I'm all for cheesecake (figuratively and literally), but I'm also a big fan of when a game's female cast is allowed to wear actual clothing, instead of provocative stripper gear. MKX makes tremendous strides in that regard, though we'll see how they hold up with DLC costumes.

Sonya Blade's character designs in MK9 (left) and MKX (right)
Fun fact: Sonya is the only female character in MK9 with pants (by default; her alt has short-shorts)
 - One of the best things about MKX is that it introduces legitimately new characters into the story, and pretty much all of them work well. The most interesting new characters are the Outworlders, primarily because they're allowed to be whatever the devs could come up with. The prominent new blood from Earth-side are all children or otherwise related to prominent previous MK heroes, which ends up stealing their thunder a little. Even though I really like Cassie Cage, as an example, it's hard to argue that having Sonya and Johnny right over there steps on some of the impact she would have had if she'd have been allowed to stand on her own. That said, the four new human heroes introduced do a lot to overcome any baggage they may have based on their lineage, both in terms of carving out their own places in the story, and being interesting mechanically.

This infusion of new blood does a lot to keep the story moving forward - the new characters give the writers ample opportunity to roll plot advancement into character development - while also setting allowing this game to have a stronger sense of identity. For all it did right, one of the things holding MK9 back from being really impressive was the fact that it was a (very well done) remix of the best characters and elements from the older MK games. MKX makes a much stronger impression by introducing completely new characters (though they do cheat by tying the four most important ones to legacy characters) and making them as the focus of the story.

 - The four most important characters in Mortal Kombat X, the ones that drive the plot and ultimately save the day, are four twenty-somethings. This is remarkably refreshing after years of Japanese games where the protags are always super young, but it isn't terribly uncommon in Western media.

What is remarkable is that this group includes two Asian men and an African-American woman. The most important character ends up being the white one, but it's a white woman saving the day by beating the ass out of the main villain. Two of the characters - Jackie and Takaeda - are openly interested in each other (making this one of the few interracial relationships I've seen in a videogame). Kung Jin is the series' first gay character, and although he seems to be in the closet at the time the story takes place, the game also doesn't exploit his sexuality for cheap pathos, jokes at his expense, or anything that would marginalize the character due to his sexuality. It's part of him without being his defining trait, something that is frustratingly rare; Venom from the Guilty Gear series is the only other similar character I can think of.

Here's a line I'd never thought possible: Mortal Kombat X has the most inclusive, diverse, and progressive cast of main characters of any Western produced game in recent memory. Not what I expected from something the Giant Bomb staff correctly identified as (paraphrasing) "an incredibly violent cartoon", but it's a very pleasant surprise.

Although I've played a majority of the games in the MK series, I've only ever played a few of them "seriously" (i.e. with any intent of cultivating skill in the game). Part of that is timing: I had friends to play fighting games with when I was younger (during the heyday of MK2 and U/MK3) but fewer were interested in playing them during the PS2/Xbox era. However, part of that is also game quality: even if I had friends who would have been interested in playing fighting games, I almost certainly wouldn't have wasted my time with the fun-but-incredibly shallow MK games of that era.

One of the biggest issues MK has had for awhile is that shallowness: although each game would often throw buckets of systems and game mechanics at you, for the most part those games didn't really reward serious commitment or dedication. They were clumsy, superficial games that you could get a handle on really quickly; great for casual play and marketability but much less so for longevity (and the perception of the franchise).

Mortal Kombat 4
NRS righted the ship considerably with MK9, a game that took the series all the way back to UMK3 mechanically and then polished it up to a modern standard. What resulted was a game that was actually rewarding to practice and learn, while also being fun to play right out of the box. The worst thing I can say about that game mechanically is that MK9 has an odd staccato feel to it that makes playing it feel slightly awkward. It was doubtless a conscious design choice on behalf of the developers to allow MK9 to have a similar gameplay "feel" to the older games, but it was still a little off putting after so many years of playing games that strove to perfect smooth, flowing gameplay.

MKX continues to build on the mechanical success of MK9 (and, to an extent, Injustice: Gods Among Us, the DC comics character brawler also produced by NRS, which clearly influenced some design decisions in MKX) while also calling back to the past. MKX marks the return of the "run" system to the MK series - every character has the ability to initiate a mad forward sprint which can be used to close the distance between fighters, cancel out of some moves, or extend combos - which is the first time the mechanic has been used since UMK3.

Coming along with the run system is the inclusion of a stamina meter. In UMK3, the stamina meter existed solely to govern how much and how often you could run, but in MKX this mechanic has been expanded to cover a number of other abilities. For example: back dashing (a quick retreat with precious invincible frames of animation) now costs you one bar of stamina, as does using any interactable item (a mechanic cribbed from Injustice). The stamina meter adds an interesting resource management element to the game that also helps to curb how often players can do certain actions, thus also acting as a general balancing factor.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3
Of the new mechanics, the run system is the most welcome inclusion. It gives everyone a tool to close the gap (even if you have a bad forward dash, you still have a run you can use to mitigate distance on any knockdown) and it allows for dramatically more dynamic and interesting combo opportunities. The stamina meter is related and also a close second in terms of welcome additions. Without it, interactables would probably be much more irritating, and it adds an interesting dynamic between offense and defense: by using stamina for run combos, you're reducing your ability to use defensive interactables, back dashes, and combo breakers.

The addition of interactables - one of the most controversial elements of Injustice - is something I'm neutral towards. I don't love the extra shenanigans they add to a game that is already drowning in crazy special moves and normals, but unlike the ill-conceived Injustice interactables, the MKX offensive interactables can all be blocked so they're much, much less obnoxious. NRS also did right by ditching the "different types of fighters use interactables differently" design from Injustice; it is always better to throw a dumpster at someone than to do a sick backflip off of it (try it yourself sometime), so the characters that can throw items for big (unblockable) damage were always better off than their nimbly-bimbly counterparts. MKX does away with those distinctions - all characters use all interactables in the same way - and ends up with the much better play experience because of it.

There is another factor to MKX that I can't really pin down or clearly identify, but it's definitely there and it's one of the reasons I like it so much: I get the sense that this game was designed from the ground up with competitive, tournament level play as a key consideration. MK9 was obviously designed with that in mind, but it also feels like a game that was more made to revive the franchise, cash in on nostalgia, and be mechanically sound. MKX was able to use the base established by MK9 and refine it to where, in the first time in all of the franchise, I can honestly say it plays just as well as other "big name" fighting game franchises.

Mortal Kombat X
That's not to say that it plays like everything else; this game is still very decidedly MK. There is still a perceptible level of jankiness with how everything moves and animates, the combo structure is different from a lot of other series, and the continued use of a block button (along with chip damage on absolutely every hit) changes the offensive focus of the game. But! The whole experience is inexplicably smoother. Once you get the hang of the run system, it's easy to start brewing up your own (sub-optimal, but still fun and decently effective) combos for most of the cast. Fatalities are just easy enough to do that they're easy to memorize for your favorite characters, with the bonus of being easy enough to do in the heat of the moment (the window for doing them in this game is also very generous).

MKX  is the first game I've played in the series since probably UMK3 where I actually had fun going into practice mode (back then it was "vs mode with no one playing 2P") and just messing around with the characters. MK9 was close, but it never quite got there for me. MKX bridges the gap between the good elements of MK and the smoothness, intuitiveness, and accessibility other franchises have cultivated over the years.

And that's without even touching on the Variations system. Such a simple concept - each fighter has three variations, each of which alters the character in small ways (usually by adding new special move options to their base move set), one of which you select for each match - but with such far reaching potential. The Variations system does a number of things at the same time: 1) it adds relative depth to MKX's roster, which is relatively small by modern fighting game standards (though in most cases that's usually due to years of character bloat), 2) it gives you multiple ways to play the same character - some of which vary wildly from each other - which further rewards practice and dedication to the game, and 3) it dramatically alters the match up meta game by giving each character three different sets of tools to handle any potential set of problems.

Promotional art showing Kitana's three Variations
The Variations system rewards something I already do most of the time: picking one or two characters and really digging into them mechanically. While some characters feel sort of let down by the Variations system, most of the characters end up with three distinct sets of tools, which gives the player a lot to experiment with and digest. A dramatic improvement over how simple and straightforward the series' characters have been in the past.

All of this is buoyed by the patching system that NRS has had in place since MK9. NRS has proven that they are willing to adjust the game post-launch to try and address characters that are thought to be underpowered or overpowered (sometimes in a bad way, as the consistent patching during Injustice's heyday drove some players absolutely crazy), which means that if your favorite character is stuck with a lemon of a Variation (or if they're the whole damn lemon tree themselves), there is hope that things will improve in the future. Furthermore, NRS has the ability to soft-patch the game by adjusting in-game variables that are pushed out whenever the game connects to the web; that allows them to quickly address major issues such as infinites, glitchy moves, massively overpowered interactions, etc. Time will tell how well this pans out - MK9 and Injustice were both patched frequently enough that competitive fans started to chafe, so I'm curious as to how frequently NRS will tinker with MKX's balance.


And with that, I think I've finally gotten all I wanted to say about MKX out of my system. For now. It's a game I've really enjoyed playing, and perhaps more importantly, one that I've been sort of captivated by based on it's remarkable leap in quality over it's predecessors. I never would have thought that a "serious", considered take on Mortal Kombat could turn out this well, but here we are.

The tricky thing for me is how much I'll continue to play the game. I'm enjoying playing it casually here and there, and I'm sure the DLC characters will keep me coming back every few weeks, but I don't know how much I want to delve into trying to play the game online. Some of that is due to how quirky MK games are; they operate based on their own internal logic of what you should be expecting, so my years of playing Japan-developed fighting games (which are all within a few steps of each other) doesn't translate to much in this game. And damn if some of the moves in this game aren't the loopiest, hardest to react to things ever. Learning to play MKX well is like learning to play fighting games all over again.

The other, much less pleasant, part of my ambivalence towards playing MKX online is that the online experience is...alright. I've only played a few games online, all of which were after the most recent patch that purportedly improved the online experience, and the game ran decently well. Truth be told, it ran better than I expected: even the worst match (0 bars!) was generally playable after 20 seconds or so. The complicating factor is that MKX is a game where frame specific reactions matter, so any hiccups or latency really hurt. It's a game that is easy enough to play casually online consistently (or at least it seems to be so) but I'm concerned that trying to learn more complicated tactics and combos will feel fruitless when it all dies in the lag-mire. Contrast that with Killer Instinct's online experience, and I know where I want to spend my time.

Still, the online experience with MKX wasn't so bad that I wouldn't go back to it, and it can (theoretically) only get better with time. And even if I never play another match online, I'm sure that I'll get my money's worth between the remaining single player content I want to work through and the upcoming DLC characters. Any time I get out of the online modes are a bonus.

Overall, I consider MKX to be a stunning success. It's by no means perfect, and I'm sure a fair amount of that comes down to taste and expectations, but I'm very confident in saying (repeating) that this is the best Mortal Kombat game by a comfortable margin. I'm very much looking forward to playing it more, and I'm already excited for the next entry in the series just to see where the story goes (though I'm sure that's a long way off yet).

If you've made it through all this MK konversation (that's my one), you have my thanks for sticking through it. Now get back out there and uppercut off some heads.

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