In the early 90s, before first-person shooters became the competitive genre of choice for video games and the rise of the Internet removed most of our reasons to actually leave the house, you used to have to go outside to find good video game competition. And when you got out to those arcades, the genre of choice was the fighting game. The halcyon days of arcades are way behind us now, and the 2D fighting game has all but gone with them. The burgeoning retrogaming movement, combined with the power of the Internet, offers a lot of potential for the fighting genre, but there haven't been very many fighting games with online play at all, and those that do have it usually haven't worked very well. Now, Midway and the emulation wizards at Digital Eclipse are taking another crack at 2D fighting on the Xbox 360 with the release of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, the last 2D Mortal Kombat game to hit arcades. It's a terrific version of the arcade original, and on top of that, the online actually works really well.
OK, it works really well most of the time, anyway. Occasionally you're going to get matched up with some guy in some back corner of the world where their idea of high-speed Internet access is a fancy telegraph or something. Those matches lag quite a bit and aren't much fun. But having played hundreds of matches online, we found those fights to be the exception rather than the rule. The timing and gameplay of the original game have been duplicated faithfully here, and all of that same timing and gameplay seems to work just about perfectly online when you're on a decent, consumer-grade broadband connection and playing against a similarly outfitted opponent. That right there--a fully functional online version of UMK3 with minimal hassles--should probably be enough to justify the game's $10 price tag.
Let's back up for a moment, though. In case you aren't familiar with the series, Mortal Kombat is the "other" fighting series that rose to prominence in the wake of Street Fighter II and went on to become a ridiculously huge phenomenon, spawning the sort of merchandising and moviemaking insanity that's usually reserved for kid-friendly stuff like Pokémon these days. The game originally went for a more realistic look, including gruesome fatalities that could be used to rub in a victory at the end of a fight. Ripping heads off and pulling out still-beating hearts in MK1 gave way to more ridiculous finishers over time, such as friendships, babalities, and animalities. But the game had a lot to offer the genre beyond mere shock value. MK had a block button, which instantly made it feel completely different than every other fighting game out there at the time. The game also had a unique look thanks to the use of digitized actors.
The Xbox 360 version of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 is an accurate rendition of the original arcade machine, which, surprisingly, hasn't been done before. Other Midway classic compilations have often botched the MK games, but you won't be bogged down with between-fight load times, and things like Shang Tsung's morphing abilities also work just fine, with no hitches. About the only thing you'll notice is that occasionally the music pauses for a moment if you end a fight without doing a finishing move. But, overall, the sound is actually better than it was in the arcade version. The developers must have gone back to the original source files for all of the music and sound effects, because there's a clarity to them that simply isn't in the original game. There's some great music in UMK3, and it's nice to be able to hear it at full fidelity.
As this is an accurate version of an arcade game, that means you get most of the arcade game's flaws as part of the deal. The Mortal Kombat games have never been much fun to play alone. The artificial intelligence that governs how the opposing players fight is extremely robotic, and it consistently outmaneuvers you in a fair fight. But since it's so focused on reacting to how you play, that means you can exploit the way the AI plays to quickly beat the game without any hassle. The bulk of the game's achievement points are earned by playing single-player mode, but once you've earned those and unlocked the hidden characters, there's little reason to continue playing by yourself. So if the online was seriously laggy, this package would be a real disappointment, though it does allow for two players to play on the same console.
Online, you're given two different modes. The one-on-one fight can be played as a ranked or unranked game. There's also an unranked-only mode called versus challenger, which is similar to the quarter mode in Street Fighter II. Up to four players can connect to the same game and wait their turn in a "winner stays"-style set of matches. The two players not participating in the fight can watch the action. Network performance in a four-player match, whether participating or spectating, seems to be about on par with the two-player matches.
It's great that the online usually works just fine, but UMK3 is not without its problems. For starters, the create a game/join a game options seem meaningless when you're playing a two-player game. Depending on what other players are doing, you might create a match only to have no one join it for a few minutes, or you might not be able to join a game because all the other players looking for a game are also joining, rather than hosting. A single "I want to play, find me an opponent" option would have been a better choice, but the same could be said for most of the other fighting games on Xbox Live, too. Other issues that are begging to be patched include a background bug that gives you the same background stage every time you play an online game. Also, the game has a tendency to forget the hidden characters you've unlocked. Considering that unlocking Ermac, Classic Sub-Zero, and Mileena is already a hassle that requires two controllers and a FAQ to accomplish, the thought of going through that process multiple times is supremely annoying. Also, the controls can't be configured. That's not a big deal for most, as the default controls are fine for the Xbox 360 controller, but if you're hoping to play this game with a third-party joystick, you're probably out of luck. Also, if you don't already know what you're doing, you're probably out of luck, as well. There's no move list or any other information about how to play built into the game itself, so unless you've got a good memory and remember how to accomplish Jade's babality or Stryker's crossing-guard friendship, and which buttons to hold down to turn Smoke into Human Smoke, you're going to want to sit down with a good FAQ and brush up.
The promise of online fighting games is simple--online competition, anytime you need it, even after all of your friends have given up on playing the game because they're tired of losing to you repeatedly. It hasn't always worked out in the past, but UMK3 is probably the best example so far of how cool this concept can be. If you've ever been interested in online fighting games or Mortal Kombat in general, this game's worth adding to your Xbox Live Arcade collection.