You'd think that after 16 years and a bevy of installments, the Mortal Kombat series would have lost its ability to be shocking. The passage of time has seen the game evolve from now humble-looking digitized origins to the sleek, robust 3D models in 2007's Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. The fatalities, which were once a lightning rod of controversy, have grown along with the series and become a key part of the franchise's appeal. The series has become an institution that's managed to change with the times and keep its fans--and this is no mean feat. The downside to that kind of longetivity is that 16 years in the public eye makes it pretty hard to deliver a surprise. Of course, after spending some time with MK series creator Ed Boon, we've seen it's not impossible. The veteran developer dropped more than a few jaws with his announcement of the eighth entry in the series, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Yep. That's right Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and the MK posse versus Superman, Batman, and familiar faces from the DC universe. And yeah, it's not going to be M-rated. How's that for some curveballs?
Before anyone starts citing this as a sign of the apocalypse, we'll suggest, as fans of the series ourselves, that everyone take a breath and keep an open mind. We were a little leery too but, after spending some time talking to Boon and getting a peek at a few things, we can say that there's a lot going on in MK vs. DCU. Once you get past the shock of the cape and tight set guest-starring in the fighter, you'll find that the game is the most ambitious reboot of the series since Deadly Alliance.
The game's story is still being kept under wraps but, generally speaking, a cataclysmic event causes the DCU and MK universe to start merging. This provides the perfect setup for the game's story mode, which will offer two perspectives on the situation. You'll be able to play through two separate storylines, one from each side, which lay out what the heck is going on. The cataclysm in the story is driven by magic, which is a handy device that is tapped for the gameplay. The mystic elements that run through the story help keep the fighting balanced as it helps make a conflict between Superman, whose only vulnerability is magic, and characters like Sub-Zero and Scorpion, actually make some sense. Boon stressed that balance is going to be a key element for the team to focus on, this time on several other levels. Besides gameplay balance, which we'll touch on in a second, the team is having to be conscious of balancing two sets of fan expectations. MK fans, a passionate and exacting bunch, definitely have some specific expectations on who should be in the roster. At the same time DC fans, an equally passionate bunch who've never really had the benefit of having their beloved characters appear in a very good game, will also have some expectations on who should be in the roster as well. We'll come clean and admit to seeing a lot more of the game's roster than has been announced and can say that there's a good mix of white and dark hats on both sides, as well as some surprises.
The other key element to the game is balancing the game mechanics to ensure the whole experience plays well. As if sweating the roster and story weren't enough, Boon and his ambitious team have opted to revamp the whole fighting system for MK's next gen debut. This has led to a "clean slate" approach that has the team re-examining every aspect of the combat system. While you'll see some hints as to what's going on with the fighting system in the teaser trailer, Boon himself offered us a clearer picture of what's going on. The multiple fighting styles and weapon systems from previous games are out, and a more-visceral, brutal approach to fighting is in. MK vs. DCU will introduce several new elements that the team is hoping will make battles more dynamic. The three major ones that are ready to be discussed are Klose Kombat, Freefall Kombat, and stage interaction. Klose Kombat is a mode you'll initiate which pulls in the camera in close and has its own separate mechanics. Basically, when you initiate the mode you'll be the aggressor and your opponent will be on defense. In this closer view you'll be able to attack your foe's upper body with different types of blows for a set period of time, the exact duration of which is still being ironed out. To keep things fair, your opponent will be able to perform a number of different defensive moves to dodge your attacks, provided they're fast.
Freefall Kombat is another change of pace, tied in part to stage interaction. The mode is another player initiated sequence which is kicked off by you flinging your foe off a stage. Unlike previous games you won't just follow them down or watch yourself drop. Instead the camera willl come in and you'll be able to fight on the way down. You'll have a slightly tweaked set of possible attacks in this mode, much like Klose Kombat. From what we've seen, it appears your big motivation in these sequences is to gain the advantage on the way down and land on your opponent, for an added damage bonus. Part of this mode is tied to the stages, which appear to feature a different basic design than the previous games. The fighting areas will be a bit wider, to support throwing your opponent through walls and, in some cases, much taller, to allow enough time for fighting during freefall. Since these new elements should definitely change the flow of battle, the team is spending a lot of time figuring out the right amount of time for them to last. In addition, the fighting moves of the MK cast are getting an upgrade to let them go toe-to-toe with established and powerful characters like Superman. A more potentially controversial change to the system is the game's fatalities. According to Boon, there will definitely be fatality-like finishing moves, but they may not be called fatalities. After all, it's doubtful that Superman or Batman would be ripping out anyone's spines or hearts. That said, the team is hellbent on pushing the limits to what they can do with the DC characters, so you can expect to see blood and some level of damage accumulate during a fight.
The visuals in the game benefit from a tweaked out Unreal III engine, which has allowed the art team to go to town. Scorpion and Sub-Zero have never looked better thanks to a high level of detail that shows off little touches like the stitching on their costumes. At the same time, the DC characters are looking super sharp. The game's art direction mixes the traditionally dark MK elements with the DC heroes pretty well so far. As we noted, the MK crew is looking the best they ever have. As far as the heroes go, Midway and DC are collaborating on tweaked designs and color palettes for the characters to ensure they fit into the overall look of the game. Comic fans should be pleased to hear that the team is looking at some of the iconic design work from Alex Ross, and other acclaimed artists who've put a distinctive stamp on the DC heroes, as inspiration. From what we've seen, it's paying off, as some of the unrevealed characters look fantastic. As far as the stages go, you can expect to see a mix of Mortal Kombat's traditional "Outworld" environments and iconic DC locales mixed together to serve the game's story.
Based on this first look, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is going to mix things up in the MK franchise. The DC partnership aside, the changes to the combat system appear to be pretty sweeping and should present a new challenge for veteran players to master. The whole game is an ambitious undertaking and is definitely taking some risks with the series, but that may be exactly what's needed to keep it evolving. We'll be keeping a close eye on Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe in the months leading up to its release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 later this year.