Mortal Kombat: Deception packs in some completely off-the-wall gameplay modes, but the core one-on-one fighting action--whether you play it offline or online--is easily its best part.

The latest in Midway's influential and long-running fighting game series, Mortal Kombat: Deception, picks up where 2002's Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance left off by featuring lots of new and returning fighters, a variety of surprising new modes of play, and, perhaps best of all, the ability to play online. The strangest part about Deception is how it includes several completely off-the-wall modes, the likes of which you'd never expect from a fighting game. These include the single-player konquest mode, which is a story-driven adventure; puzzle kombat, a competitive Tetris-style puzzle game that's an unabashed homage to Capcom's Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo; and chess kombat, which is inspired by the classic computer game Archon. The konquest mode is disappointingly bland, while these other two modes are at least amusing. However, the core one-on-one fighting action--whether you play it offline or online--is easily the best part of the game. Like its predecessor, the fighting in Mortal Kombat: Deception is gory, intense, and quite complex, meaning it captures much of what's made MK an institution among fighting games.

This wouldn't be an MK sequel without some inexplicable character roster updates. Kung Lao's gone, and Jade's back in. Huh?

The fighting system in Deception hasn't changed much from that of Deadly Alliance. Once again, the main twist that distinguishes this game from other 3D fighting games is that each character may freely switch between three different martial arts styles during battle--one of which is always a weapon-based style of some sort. Characters each possess a handful of unique special moves, as well as a bunch of different chain combos, some of which involve switching between different martial arts styles in midcombo. The sheer variety of different martial arts featured in MK: Deception is quite impressive, and the overall look and feel of the action is clearly inspired by kung fu movies--to good effect. Whereas many fighting games take their cues from anime and aim for action that looks more stylish than downright painful, MK: Deception goes for the hard-hitting staccato rhythms of Hong Kong action cinema and doesn't skimp on sheer graphic violence. The results don't always look perfectly fluid or natural--especially since many of the characters actually look rather stiff--but the fighting in MK: Deception nevertheless features a ton of painful-looking moves that cause the opponent on the receiving end to reel backwards, oftentimes gushing blood. The fighting action is ridiculously over-the-top, and, as a result, it's actually often quite funny.

There's a good, responsive feel to the action, and there's decent variety within the roster of selectable characters. In MK tradition, the fighters here aren't drastically different from one another. Though their special moves and combos are unique, it's not difficult to learn how to play as the different characters once you've grasped the basic game mechanics. A dozen fighters are initially available, and a dozen more are silhouetted on the character select screen, practically taunting you to unlock them. The typical match unfolds as your average best-two-out-of-three-rounds fighting game battle, but MK: Deception does have a few twists. For one thing, it's now possible to execute combo breakers (in a nod to the fighting game Killer Instinct) that let you instantly disrupt the opponent when you're on the receiving end of a string of attacks. Combo breakers are actually really easy to perform, but the catch is that you can use these only a few times during a match, and they cause no damage to the opponent. So they introduce a welcome bit of strategy to a match. Should you use your breakers right away or try to save them to turn the tables at the end of a match? MK: Deception makes a few other tweaks to Deadly Alliance's gameplay, such as eliminating the powerful impaling moves from that game and adding (back) a whole bunch of uppercut attacks--MK standbys that seemed noticeably absent from Deadly Alliance. Deception also adds a fairly useless graphical threat indicator, which (among other things) flashes red when you're susceptible to taking extra damage from a counterattack. In practice, it's just not possible to glance at this small row of flashing lights while concentrating on match action.

Mortal Kombat's particular brand of so-gory-it's-funny action is in full effect here.

A much more noticeable, and welcome, addition is in how most of the battle arenas in MK: Deception feature death traps that may instantly end a round, either for a satisfying finish or a surprise comeback. For example, Mortal Kombat's classic "pit" stage returns (and MKII's acid-filled "dead pool" level is in here too), but this time, you don't need to wait until the end of a match to knock your enemy onto the spikes below. Now, if you just get him or her near the edge of the elevated platform, you can uppercut the poor sap to certain death. Should you die in this fashion, you only lose the round and not the match, which is something that's inexplicable but makes obvious sense from a gameplay standpoint. It's a like a much messier version of Virtua Fighter's ring-outs.

Most of the death traps are tucked away into the recesses of a level and sometimes require you to smash your opponent (or get smashed yourself) through a lower level before the deadly portions of it are exposed. These dangerous areas are also conveniently indicated by a red border, so you'll know when you're in a troublesome spot. A few of the levels--including one in which the edge of the level keeps collapsing, making it more and more likely that someone ends up falling--are definitely a little too prone to deaths-by-death trap. But the fact that these elements of the stages make you have to be mindful of where you're fighting mostly just help to make the combat more interesting. Plus, the death trap-related fatalities are pretty entertaining. So death traps actually turn out to be a much more fun addition to the game than you might expect. However, if you really don't like them, for some reason, you can disable death traps in the game both in offline and online play.

Of course, this wouldn't be Mortal Kombat without a whole bunch of fatalities, and, fortunately, Deception's got plenty of them.

Deadly Alliance had just one fatality per fighter, but Deception has two. And most of these are barbaric and really gross, meaning they're excellent. In fact, it's fair to say that MK: Deception packs in some of the best, most brutal fatalities in the series to date. Another new addition to the series is the hara-kiri, or self-fatality. Basically, players who've lost a match have the ability to punch in a command to perform a self-fatality. These are pretty amusing, much like most all the other fatalities in the game. As a result, the losing player is given a sort of fatality advantage. Whereas the winning player must be in the proper position to execute a fatality, you can pull off a hara-kiri as quickly as you can punch in the command. So, in practice, you won't have much opportunity to pull off a fatality against someone who's memorized the hara-kiri maneuvers. Regardless, it doesn't really matter either way, because--as in past MK games--fatalities are just for show. And they put on a great show indeed.

Beware of traps. Many of the fighting arenas in Deception are every bit as dangerous as the opponents you'll face in them.

The standard fighting mode is playable versus the computer or against another player. When you play against the computer, you'll fight your way past a number of combatants until you finally square off against a typically overpowered Mortal Kombat boss. Each character has a fairly elaborate ending, should you win the bout, so fans of the MK mythos should enjoy the arcade mode if not for this reason, then because the enemy artificial intelligence is actually pretty fun to play against. It's susceptible to some tricks and patterns, and at higher levels of difficulty it fights pretty cheaply, but mostly it's a good way to practice your skills, master some combos, and maybe see a fatality or hara-kiri you've never seen before.

Online play is a major attraction in MK: Deception. You can play puzzle kombat or chess kombat online, but the regular one-on-one fighting is where the real action is. It's easy to get into a match, and we experienced surprisingly smooth, lag-free gameplay in each of the different online modes, which is impressive considering this is the first-ever online-enabled 3D fighting game to hit consoles. Furthermore, the game's very timing-intensive, which would make lag not just noticeable but quite detrimental. Interestingly, you have access to all of your unlocked characters while playing online. Some of the game's hidden characters seem noticeably stronger than average, so the play balance--especially with the death trap-filled environments--is a little suspect. On the other hand, it's not like you're dropping quarters into a machine each time you play. At any rate, like pretty much any fighting game, MK: Deception is at its best when you're playing a similarly skilled opponent. And the presence of online play means you should be able to find ready and willing competition 'round the clock. It's a huge deal and a major milestone for 3D fighting games.

Soon enough, you'll be tempted to gain access to the game's variety of hidden characters, alternate outfits, and additional battle arenas. So, unfortunately, you'll have to stop playing the arcade mode and switch over to the aforementioned konquest mode.

Konquest mode is definitely the weak point of MK: Deception. It's a surprisingly long and drawn-out third-person-perspective adventure game in which you, as an aspiring martial artist named Shujinko, will get to visit many of Mortal Kombat's multidimensional locales to meet many of its characters. Konquest mode also serves as a tutorial, since it'll initially walk you through the basics of combat and teach you most of the different characters' various moves and combos. This all might sound great in theory, but in practice, konquest mode is ugly and dull. Shujinko's journey is just a series of very repetitive point-A-to-point-B fetch quests and combat training exercises that are punctuated only rarely by an actual good, old-fashioned fight. Shujinko ages during the course of konquest mode, and there are a few other nice touches, like how you can just go ahead and punch anybody for any reason at any time while running around. However, these don't save konquest mode from being disappointing. The whole thing just looks and feels awkward, and the lousy voice acting and poor graphics will probably keep you from getting into the long-winded and utterly predictable storyline. Diehard MK fans will find some pleasant cameo appearances in konquest mode, but it's still a chore.

Konquest mode is lame, but you'll need to play it to unlock most of the game's best-kept secrets.

Yet you need to play konquest mode to access most of the good, unlockable features in the game. You'll run across vast fields while collecting "koins" and opening treasure chests that contain still more koins. Occasionally, you'll discover a key of some sort. Koins and keys are used in Deception's krypt, which, much like the krypt in Deadly Alliance, is basically where you unlock all the game's hidden content by cashing in your earnings. You earn koins while playing the other modes (though, unfortunately, you don't earn koins while playing online), but keys may only be found in konquest mode, and only with keys can you unlock the game's best extras--including the hidden characters--and so on. To make matters worse, many of the keys are well hidden. Once you finish the story in konquest mode, there's still a bunch of extra stuff waiting to be discovered, so you'll need to go back in and comb through all the areas you've already visited for more secrets. It's an unnecessarily painstaking process, and it threatens to drag down the entire experience of MK: Deception. On the plus side, it'll make you relish Deception's unlockable content that much more--and many of the unlockables are worth the hassle.

Fortunately, the puzzle kombat and chess kombat modes are much more successful than konquest mode, though they're a little gimmicky in their own rights. Each lets you play against the computer, another player on the same system, or another player online. The computer ramps up in difficulty quite a bit as you defeat successive opponents in puzzle kombat, but it rarely strikes a good balance, since early opponents are nearly incompetent, while later opponents are extremely tough. The gameplay itself is reminiscent of any number of competitive puzzle games. Consequently, you'll see pairs of colored blocks dropping from the top of the screen, both in your playing field and in your opponent's. The pairs of blocks must be arranged so that similar-colored blocks end up being adjacent to one another. Occasionally, special-colored icons fall instead of blocks, and if you match these up with blocks of like colors, all adjacent, colored blocks will shatter, clearing part of your playing field and causing an equivalent number of blocks to fall into your opponent's playing field. This, of course, serves as a perfect abstract model for deadly combat.

Puzzle Kombat is a spitting image of Capcom's classic puzzle battle game, right on down to the superdeformed characters you'll see duking it out onscreen.

It's possible to pull off combos as blocks shatter and others fall into place, but, really, the main strategy in puzzle kombat is to try to shatter large numbers of blocks at once. This way you can often fill the opponent's field in one move, thus winning the round. Each selectable character in puzzle kombat has his or her own special move that may occasionally be used either to assist you or hinder your opponent. This is nice for variety, but puzzle kombat is still a fairly slow-paced mode that isn't quite as well executed as the games that inspired it. The action speeds up when you've graduated to later stages against the computer, but, unfortunately, when playing against a human opponent, puzzle kombat feels a bit sluggish. It will invariably take a good several minutes before a round gets interesting.

Chess kombat is also rather deliberate, but you might expect this, since it's essentially a turn-based strategy game like chess--except when two pieces meet on the map, you and your opponent must fight it out. You start by choosing characters to represent each of your pieces, and once the game's started, the object is to defeat the opponent's leader. The best way to do this is to occupy a couple of glowing points on the map that cause all of your units to gain a health boost. Typically, both players will occupy one of these points in the first couple of turns, and then you'll both spend the rest of the match fighting over them. You can cast a few single-use spells to aid you or hamper your opponent, but chess kombat will basically boil down to a lot of fights between you and your opponent's "grunts," which are like pawns in chess. So if you're playing chess kombat against someone of substantially greater or lesser skill, then it'll be easy for the more-skilled player to gain the upper hand and then quickly win. However, against a similarly skilled opponent, chess kombat often becomes a drawn-out stalemate.

So while puzzle kombat and chess kombat are refreshingly different types of modes to include in a fighting game, don't expect them to take too much of your attention away from the actual fighting here.

The Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of MK: Deception are roughly identical in that they offer the same features and content, in addition to presenting similarly good visuals. The PlayStation 2's stock gamepad is generally better suited for fighting games than either the large or small Xbox controllers, but Deception's controls map well to both versions of the game. The Xbox version predictably looks a little cleaner, but both run at the same smooth frame rate, and both look approximately identical. Between-match loading times are noticeable in both versions of the game, so in the end, the Xbox version just barely edges out the PS2 version.

More specifically, MK: Deception retains its predecessor's great looks--occasional warts and all. As mentioned, the konquest mode really looks quite bad, but during battle, you'll be treated to some smoothly animated, colorful, good-looking fighters. Most moves in the game cause their recipients to gush blood, which spurts and splatters in superexaggerated fashion and gives Deception that signature MK touch. In addition, the various fighting arenas in the game mostly look great, and their sadistic death traps are sure to make series' fans smile. The game's perfectly smooth frame rate also does a lot to both help the visuals look good and make the flow of the action feel as fluid as possible. Meanwhile, Deception's audio is punctuated by the sorts of battle cries, screams, thuds, cracks, slams, and bass-heavy ambient music that has always been the hallmark of Mortal Kombat--which has always been one of the best-sounding fighting game series. A sinister-sounding announcer rounds out the excellent audio presentation.

MK fans, rejoice. This game's for you.

All told, MK: Deception is an outstanding, fully featured game. And it's one that's naturally best suited to series' fans--especially those who liked 2002's similar Deadly Alliance. It's these players who'll be most likely to appreciate the game's peculiar emphasis on story and unlockable extras. But make no mistake: The best, most fully developed part of Deception is its fighting system. Like any great fighting game, this one carefully strikes the balance of delivering fast-paced, visceral thrills and rewarding lots of practice and complex tactics. As such, any fighting game fan should be rightfully attracted by the prospect of Deception's online play, which works as advertised and truly does make a big difference, because it provides access to live competition all the time. Not all of Deception's modes and features are flat-out great, but the game's absolutely got it where it counts.

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    Mortal Kombat: Deception packs in some completely off-the-wall gameplay modes, but the core one-on-one fighting action--whether you play it offline or online--is easily its best part.
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