It's hard to believe that Midway's Mortal Kombat series is now on its seventh installment, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. The title, which was announced earlier this year, is being crafted to be the ultimate entry in the series, with a roster of more than 60 fighters that are drawn from every entry in the series. To complement the encyclopedic collection of characters, the game features a comparable assortment of stages that spans the series. This year's E3 will see Midway showing off a sampling of nearly everything the game has to offer. We recently had the opportunity to get an early look at the demo running on the Xbox to see how the ambitious game is shaping up. Although the game is still a ways off and in a work-in-progress state, we're excited by what we've seen.
Our demo of the game let us check out the three key elements of the demo, the fighting, character creation, and konquest mode, which are all headed in a positive direction. The fighting portion of the demo let us a check out the game's front end, which laid out the modes the game will contain. The modes listed were in line with what we've seen in the previous games, with some notable additions; kombat, konquest, and MK online have been included since 2004's MK: Deception. However, kreate a fighter is a very cool addition to the franchise; we'll be touching on that shortly. Kombat offers the usual three fighting options, arcade, versus, and practice. We tried out the versus mode to get a look at the roster and see what's new to this installment. The character-select screen is a massive two-sided panel the team had to create in order to accommodate the huge roster of fighters. The selection of fighters offered a good sampling of new and legacy characters that included Shinnok, Sheeva, Kintaro, Stryker, Sector, Rain, Scorpion, Goro, Jarek, Kai, Sareena, Fujin, and Sub-Zero. Sheeva and Stryker were looking quite contemporary thanks to their modernized makeover, which was more than just cosmetic. To ensure that the game is balanced, the team is retrofitting all the legacy characters. Every fighter will have two fighting styles you can switch to on the fly, as well as a weapon.
In addition to the retrofitted balancing, the fighting system is being refined over Deadly Alliance's in a number of smart ways. Jumping makes a welcome return to the fray after a noticeable absence, offering more combo options in the heat of battle. Speaking of combos, the trusty combo-breaker move is now joined by a parry that will yield precious moments that you can use to get in some choice blows that could lead to bigger combos. Better still is the expansion of air combos, which are now full-blown aerial butt kickings. However, the most significant, and radical, refinement to combat is the revamped fatality system. Whereas all the previous MKs tasked you with memorizing fighter placement and button combinations, MK: Armageddon's new system gives you the chance to create your own fatalities on the fly. Though purists may scoff at the new system at first, we have to say it's a pretty ingenious way to make the brutal finishing moves accessible to casual players while still letting veterans show their mad skills. The system is initiated in the same manner that fatalities have been in the last two games. After you've knocked the stuffing out of your foe in the second round of a match, you'll have to cycle to the fatality mode using the left trigger. Once you're in the mode, you can get to work. The system basically lets you chain together different button and D pad combos together to perform a fatality. The twist is that the moves are broken up into different levels that can be combined to perform lengthy chains or much simpler, but still brutal, traditional fatalities.
So for example, when you initiate a fatality you can perform linkable moves such as stabbing and dismemberment or ripping out spines, organs, or skulls, which you can then segue into finishers such as head popping. At the end of the chain, your handiwork will be rated. From the sound of things you can perform fatalities that run up to 10 parts. The catch to the lengthier combos is that every time you pull one off, a meter will appear onscreen and run down. If you manage to perform any of the fatality moves, another meter will appear and require you to pull off another move. The challenge is in pulling off the moves quickly, as each subsequent meter runs down faster than the one before it. When you top out at a 10-part combo or you run out of time, your fatality will be named based on how many moves you were able to combo. Though a departure from the fatality system fans have been weaned on, the new custom approach is smart. The system offers fair rewards to button mashers who aren't diehard MK fans, but also provides a pretty broad canvas for veterans who want to go to town and totally clown their foes. While the system was pretty much in place in the demo we played, the team is aiming to create a massive array of moves for players to draw on when performing fatalities that's a far cry from the 40 or so available moves in the demo. Superdiehard fans should also be able to re-create the various classic fatalities by chaining together the right moves.
As if the one-on-one combat didn't offer enough ways to murder your opponent, the team is packing the backgrounds in the game will all manner of deadly elements. Besides having the opportunity to check out newly made-over classic stages such as Goro's Lair from the original MK, the subway from MK3, and the wastelands from MK II, we were able to see the various death traps and weapons that are being tossed into the mix. The old stages seem to be getting some of the cooler updates at the moment; a catapult in the wasteland stage is fatal fun when you're able to launch a foe at a wall. At the same time, some of the familiar hazards from the old stages are getting a nice refresh, such as the train in the subway stage.
After we had our run through the finer aspects of combat in MK: Armageddon, we moved on to a look at the character-creation system in the game, which will likely be a mighty time suck for fans of the series. The robust system lets you make play in several main categories--appearance, fighting style, weapon style, special moves, extras, and bio--that feature several subcategories to offer even more customization options. For example, the appearance option will let you tinker with every aspect of a character, such as their gender, size, and skin color, as well as tweak specific elements of their face. Once you've crafted your ultimate fighter's appearance, you'll be able to log in some time creating a fighting style for them. You'll be able to name your style and pick moves to assign to different button combinations. The moves we saw in the demo were culled from the vast array of attacks used by characters in the demo, but the final game should also include original ones. Once you sort that out, you'll be able to do the same for your character's weapon and the special moves they'll be able to perform. To ensure that no one goes crazy, the system will include some limits to keep you in line with the amount of moves and attacks the other fighters will have access to. You'll top off your creation with a run through the extras option, where you'll be able to sort your fighter's voice and victory stance. The final piece of the process in the bio section lets you type your fighter's name, place of origin, and even a short bio. Though the system is still being refined, the meaty taste of how it works in the E3 demo was impressive and should let players create just about anything they want, including very close approximations to a number of well-known characters.
The last element of the demo showed off the konquest mode, which is being tweaked in response to user feedback on Deadly Alliance. This time out, the story focuses on two brothers, Taven and Daegon, who wind up in a bit of Survivor-style sibling rivalry. It seems their father is trying to decide who to crown as his successor. The old man's method? A contest between the two brothers that sends them adventuring through Earth Realm in search of an ancient weapon that they'll need to use to defeat an elemental named Blaze, last seen in Mortal Kombat: Deception. Whoever manages to do that first will be crowned the new defender of Edenia and be given a powerful gift. Not the coolest thing for a parent to do, to be sure, but it does make for a good setup for Konquest mode, which now features a sense of urgency. You'll play through the mode as Taven and attempt to race through the challenges laid out before you so you can beat your brother.
The more intense premise is complemented by a revamped gameplay system that seriously beefs up the adventuring portions in konquest while retaining the one-on-one fighting segments. The E3 demo consists of part of the first chapter in conquest mode which will feature eight chapters total. The mode will follow Taven as he's awakened in Earth Realm and informed of the competition with his brother. The chapter plays out like an extended tutorial that slowly introduces you to the new mechanics in the mode while moving the story along.
If you played the konquest mode in MK: Deception, you should be familiar with the basic gist of the way the mode will play in Armageddon. However, a number of aspects have changed. The most significant element is the adventuring portion, which is now a mix of Shaolin Monks-style brawling, exploration, character interaction, and puzzle-solving. The first chapter plays out in a linear fashion, as Taven is sent to look for different monoliths that allow him to be contacted by his father, who brings him up to speed on the various battle mechanics in the game. You'll notice things are different from the outset of the chapter; the exploration sections of the game feature much more action. The world you'll be exploring will feature all manner of interactive objects you can smash, chests that you'll discover that contain money or unlockable content, secrets that will appear only when you're in close proximity to them, and several different hazards. The hazards we saw were a mix of environmental dangers, such as death traps ranging from blade-shooting statues to massive spiky presses that came stamping down from the ceiling, and aggro NPCs eager to pummel you. You'll need your wits about you to suss out the best way to deal with the environmental problems, while the NPCs will require some good, old-fashioned butt kicking.
This time out, you'll be able to engage in some old-school brawling when enemies pop up. Better still, you'll discover you can perform simple one-button fatalities on the fly against your foes when they're dizzy. To be clear, the konquest mode's fatality system isn't anything like the new customizable system in the main game. You'll simply have to run up to a dizzy foe and hit one of the face buttons on your controller to perform a quick fatality. As you progress through each chapter, you'll begin to unlock special moves that will come in handy during your adventures. The first chapter yielded a special ground-pound move that sets off a fiery radial blast wave when you strike the ground in front of you, as well as a traditional fireball you can send hurtling at your foes. Once you've earned these moves, you'll perform them with the press of a button by holding down the left trigger, which calls up icons of the face buttons that have a particular move mapped to them, much like in X-Men Legends. The only limit to using these powerful moves will be a super meter that will be drained every time you perform one.
In addition to Taven's natural and unlockable abilities, you'll be able to use weapons while brawling with NPCs. The latter part of the chapter found Taven stuck in a room facing waves of foes. Fortunately, conveniently placed in the room was a hammer that could be picked up and used to smack foes around. Once the room was cleared, the hammer disappeared. Though fighting with mobs of NPCs will play a large part of the adventuring portion of konquest, the mode will still feature the traditional one-on-one battle sequences from the proper game.
Now, amid all of the above, the narrative will be playing out via in-game cinematics. The story unfolds a lot like a mystery, with pieces of info being revealed in cinematics that show Taven's parents having cryptic discussions about what's going on. At the same time, you'll be discovering bits of information through interacting with NPCs or, as in the first chapter, discovering murals in an old temple that hint at what's going on. As far as cameos go, MK: Armageddon's konquest mode seems to be aiming to cram in at least as many cameos as the MK: Deception's did. Besides Blaze figuring prominently into the story, the demo featured appearances by Kabal, Sektor, and Sonya Blade. The cameos tie in to one of the aspects of the mode that stood out to us, which was its scale. This time out, the mode has a bigger feel to it thanks to the various locations Taven went through. The young warrior wound up journeying from the starting area to an old temple, then to a forest, and finally wound up in Sektor's warship after being captured by the surly robo ninja. The final bit of the demo saw Taven escaping from his prison and trying to get off the warship while it was under attack from Sonya Blade's forces. In a nice geeky touch for fans, you'll hear Sonya and Sektor verbally facing off against each other over the ship's intercom while you go through its interior.
As you can see even from this demo, MK: Armageddon is going to come packing a good chunk of content. The demo also featured a number of cool little touches we'd like to note. The main menu of the game will feature several different themes that will randomly appear every time you load the game, in much the same way that the DVDs for the first three episodes of the Star Wars films have different front ends. The currency system in the game will now be consistent across all modes. So far example, any koins you earn in konquest will be lumped in with the ones you earn in arcade, giving you some flexibility on how you earn your cash. Finally, some of the secret items you find will be tied to characters in the game, such as Kung Lao's hat or a picture of Johnny Cage we saw in the demo, and the game will yield rewards when you've found enough of them.
The visuals in the game pick up where MK: Deception left off, thanks to an enhanced graphics engine that serves up improved detail across the fighting and konquest modes. In the one-on-one battles, the fighters we saw looked sharp and moved well. The updated designs for the old-school fighters are in line with the new art style that's been introduced in the last few entries in the series. Old-timers such as Stryker, Sheeva, and Kintaro all fit in without missing a beat. The environments are on par with those seen in Deception. We're pleased to note that the old-school environments have been retrofitted to accommodate the same multilevel and interactive elements that have been introduced in the series.
The visuals in konquest mode have seen comparable improvements. The environments we saw showcased more-varied design and a larger scale. In keeping with expanded gameplay, the locales featured a number of interactive elements, such as breakable elements and death traps. Though the game was still a work in progress, the fighting and konquest modes already moved at a near-solid 60 frames a second in both modes, which complemented the smooth animation.
The audio in the game was still far from finished, but what we heard was well on its way toward matching the level of quality we've heard in the previous games. The fighter's speech is coming together well, and the music provides solid accompaniment to the standard fighting and the expanded adventuring in konquest mode. What stands out right now is the catchy way the music builds as you're inputting fatalities.
Based on what we played, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon is shaping up to be an impressive milestone in the series. The large collection of fighters, the create-a-character system, refined combat system, improved konquest mode, and promise of more to come is a meaty offering for this installment in the series. We'd be lying if we said we didn't miss the puzzle and chess minigames, but the yet-to-be-announced new mode and new content may balance that loss. All told, we're pleased by what we've seen of MK: Armageddon. Midway appears to be continuing its upward trajectory with the MK franchise by putting the work into what's needed to keep the series evolving. Mortal Kombat: Armageddon is currently slated to ship this fall for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Look for more on the game next week from E3 and in the months leading up to its launch.