E3 2008: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe Hands-On

We finally get our hands on Midway's fighter mash-up featuring Mortal Kombat and the DC Universe.

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With the initial shock of its announcement now gone, Midway's upcoming Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe stands as one of the most anticipated entries in the Mortal Kombat series in quite a while. The promise of a revamped fighting system, a graphics makeover, and the chance to play as DC Comics characters, such as Superman and Batman, definitely has undeniable appeal. The big question now is: How does it play? We finally had the chance to start formulating an answer to that question thanks to some time with the E3 demo of the Xbox 360 version of the game. The demo gave us a modest slice of what the final game is going to offer; enough to keep us hopeful of the game's direction.

The E3 demo of MK vs. DC is very much a work in progress and features a handful of fighters and environments to try. We go to choose from six fighters total, three from each side. The Mortal Kombat characters on tap in the demo were Sonya Blade and BFF's Scorpion and Sub-Zero, while on the DC side, we had Batman, Flash, and Superman. There were three environments to choose from: a graveyard, hell, and Superman's hometown, Metropolis.

It's legend-on-legend violence in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
It's legend-on-legend violence in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.

Before we start waxing poetic on how sexy the game looks--and it does--we'll give up the goods on how it plays: pretty well. Game director and MK creator Ed Boon told us that the development team is taking a back-to-basics approach to gameplay, which, to our eyes, has some heavy MKII influences. Characters have a set amount of special moves that you can mix together into combos of your choosing. You won't find MKIII-style chain combos that will clock up hit counts in the double digits; instead, you'll find combos in the three-to-five hit range. This is still being tweaked so it may change, but we have to say we kind of like how it's working.

Combat has a tighter feel to it, and it definitively feels like you have a lot of butt-kicking options. This time out, the team isn't thinking of the attack types in the same way it has previously. The low and high system that's been used before isn't quite as prominent. At the moment, the attacks are simply numbered one through four, with each one corresponding to a face button. The right bumper is used to grab and enter into the close combat fighting mode, while throws or attacks that knock you back a good amount appear to be what's needed to push you through the walls and kick off freefall combat.

Speaking of those new variations on combat, we had the chance to see how they worked, as well as try out a new "test your might" minigame (more on that in a bit). First, however, let's cover freefall and close combat. Freefall combat engages when you throw opponents through specific points in a level, sending them falling to a low part of the stage. As they fall, you'll automatically follow and get the chance to beat the stuffing out of them. Your attacks will fill a super meter. The interesting wrinkle to it is that hitting the right trigger will unleash a special super attack unique to the freefall mechanic. The damage it does is based on the fullness of the meter. While this sounds straightforward, the catch is that if your opponents get their timing right, they can swap positions with you and be the attacker, which lets them unleash their super move. Sneaky but cool.

Scorpion gets a face full of heat vision, courtesy of the Man of Steel.
Scorpion gets a face full of heat vision, courtesy of the Man of Steel.

Close combat has changed a bit from when we first heard about it. You engage close combat with the right bumper, which has you grab your opponent and causes the camera to come in close. You'll have a short span of time to either attack or dodge attacks; it seems like it's about three or four blows. Each of the face buttons does a unique attack, some of them awesomely brutal, which can be dodged if you time it right.

As far as the new "test your might" minigame goes, we have to say we're very pleased by how it fits in to the action. We stumbled on it in the Metropolis stage when we'd backed an opponent into a wall. After knocking him through the wall, our character, Superman, grabbed him and started running to the right, slamming through wall after wall. The sequence required us to mash face buttons, which upped the damage. Much like the sequences we just mentioned, it's a quick break in the fight. While the timing is being tweaked, we're liking how it works. You're not pulled out of the fight for too long and it all keeps you on your toes, adding a welcome unpredictability to battle.

As cool as these different fighting modes are, the battles in MK vs. DC are going to live or die by each character's various attacks. As we mentioned, characters will have basic and special moves. As always, the basic attacks all cover the same standard ground for the characters. The special moves, however, are where the characters differ radically. Mortal Kombat characters have now gained some abilities to make the playing field more level, and both sets of fighters have a neat new way to enhance their special attacks. But first, we'll give you a rundown of everyone's abilities. As with every MK, you'll perform a character's special moves by doing a mix of controller motions and button presses. In some cases, you'll even charge attacks by holding down the attack buttons. Scorpion has his trusty spear attack, flame summons, leg takedown, teleport, and a new fire attack that radiates around him while he stands in place. Sonya Blade has her energy ring projectile, leg grab, bicycle kick, a cartwheel attack, and her trademark poison kiss. Sub-Zero has his ice ball projectile, a slide, teleport, a falling ice block, and a parry that freezes opponents when they connect.

It's nice to see that this version of MK is going to be bloody.
It's nice to see that this version of MK is going to be bloody.

The DC characters' super moves were what you'd expect and in line with what you'd expect. Batman tossed batarangs on the ground and in the air, used his cape to block, had a leg takedown, and a flying kick. The team is also working on giving him a smoke bomb-powered teleport that we got a look at and hope makes it into the game. The Flash had several speed-powered punch flurry attacks, teleports that dizzied his opponent, uppercuts, and various dash combos. Superman was, unsurprisingly, a bit overloaded with power moves, so we'll see how he gets tweaked. We used his super breath to pull in or freeze opponents. His heat vision could be used to burn opponents while on the ground or in the air. He also had powerful shoulder charge, ground pound, and toss-up moves. As if all that weren't enough, he could even hover and perform different attacks based on the attack button you push while he's in the air. So, yes, you could say he's a little on the overpowered side at the moment.

While the special moves are all straightforward, Boon and the team are adding timing-based variations on them, which are tentatively being called "pro moves." For example, if you perform Sonya's energy ring move and can get a controller and button motion in during a specific window of time, she'll fire off a second shot in rapid succession. The goal is to have every special move have a "pro" variant. While not every character's move had a variant in what we played, we were very much liking how it all worked. Besides adding some depth to the combo system, the moves definitely added a new facet to combat we liked and should present a meaty challenge for veteran players to master for incorporation into their combos.

With all the initial drama that surrounded the game's announcement back in April, it might be easy to lose sight of the fact that MK vs. DC is, in fact, the MK franchise's first appearance on the current generation of consoles. This is a very good thing judging by the quality in the work-in-progress demo. The dev team is clearly having some serious fun with the Unreal Engine and the power of the new platforms. The level of detail on the characters and their animation is impressive, as is the way they take damage during combat.

As we've mentioned before, the MK crew has never looked better with the trio of fighters featuring some very nice touches. Sonya is lean and taught, with plenty of cleavage. Sub-Zero has trails of cold air and rocks some sweet ice effects when he uses his powers. Scorpion has his trusty spear and flames to give him some flair. On the DC side, Batman, Flash, and Superman look great. The art style the team is going for has hints of fan favorite Alex Ross' gorgeous painted art style, with some new design touches to the heroes' classic look that gives them a slightly darker edge that's a good complement. Of the three heroes we saw, Flash had the most departures from his classic look, but it worked fine. The heroes also benefitted from a number of different special effects that complemented their unique abilities, with Flash and Superman benefitting the most. The Flash's speed lines and assorted motion blur effects played up his speed, while the impact waves and lighting effects highlighted the Man of Steel's raw power.

Do all heroes wind up in hell? In MK vs. DC, the answer is yes.
Do all heroes wind up in hell? In MK vs. DC, the answer is yes.

Audio is obviously still coming together, and, at the moment, it's pretty basic. We heard the usual amount of grunts and the like, which is what you'd expect from a fighter. However, the collision effects were solid and definitely sold the brutality of combat. The bits of music we heard had a nice epic feel to them, which is about what we expected.

Based on what we've played, MK vs. DC seems to be headed in the right direction. The fighting system tweaks have a good feel to them and definitely give the action a comfortable feel. At the same time, the new pro moves--or whatever they wind up being called--add a nice skill element to the action we like. Overall, we're pleased by what Midway is doing and anxious to see more, especially the Story mode, to see how it all comes together. Midway reps told us that new members of the roster would be announced in the months leading up to release and tossed us two to reveal in this preview: Captain Marvel and Liu Kang. In addition, it sounds as though more characters are set to be revealed at Comic-Con. Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is slated to ship this fall for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Check back for more on the game in the coming months and tune into our live E3 show next week where we'll have Ed Boon showing off the demo.

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