Mortal Kombat Preview: Challenge Tower, Jax, Sonya, and more

We test our might with the latest edition of Mortal Kombat as it kicks us in the face (in a good way).


Warner Bros. and NetherRealm Studios were on hand at this year's GDC showing off an updated version of Mortal Kombat in a hotel suite just a stone's throw from the convention center floor. The work-in-progress versions of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games offered a broader sampling of content than what we saw earlier in the week and included additional playable characters and a taste of the new Challenge Tower mode. We're happy to report that the game is shaping up to be a fun, unrepentantly M-rated experience.

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The first stop in our demo was the game's new Challenge Tower, which is a series of 300 challenges that scale up from tutorial-style fights that teach you a fighter's moves or other game fundamentals, to progressively more difficult tasks that will have you working up a sweat. Fans of the series will also be pleased to see a good dose of dark, zany humor tossed into the mix, because the fights will include little touches such as limbless fighters among other randomly goofy stuff.

The first 20 challenges were on display in the version we played and offered a sampling of what to expect. There were battles that ran us through Sonia Blade's and Jax's special moves, fatalities, and new x-ray attacks; pitted us against waves of Tarkatans (Baraka's toothy, blade-wielding nomadic mutants); had us managing a dispute between Johnny Cage and his director; and had us dealing with Reptile. The fast-paced matches were challenging but fun, which kept us coming back for more if we failed them. We were especially pleased to see the return of the familiar "test your might" and "test your sight" minigames that popped up in the sampling of challenges. One thing to note is that as you play through the game you'll earn coins that you'll be able to use to bypass challenges if you're getting stomped.

Once we got a feel for the Challenge Tower, we hopped into some matches to try out the new playable characters. The version we saw had 16 playable characters, with what looked to be about 10 empty slots at the lower half of the select screen, although we were told not to read too much into the character layout. Most of the gang handled as you'd expect them to, especially the ninjas, but some characters have seen some interesting tweaks. Sonya Blade, who used to be one of the more accessible characters in the roster, has had some changes to her moves that make her a little more challenging to use. The payoff, from what we can tell, is that she has become a much more versatile character when it comes to controlling a match and dealing out punishment. Kitana has also seen some tweaks that have brought her closer to the accessibility Sonya used to have. Jax has seen some streamlining and move tweaking that have broadened the options you will have with him, which seems to have upped his jerk factor considerably in the juggling department.

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All of the above tweaks wouldn't matter much if the game's control weren't set up to give you the opportunity to explore all the face-stomping possibilities, but Mortal Kombat's control is. The franchise has always had a specific feel to it that has seemed a little stiff in recent entries. This latest entry loosens things up considerably with a combination of responsive control and animation that helps improve the overall feel of combat. We'll want to spend more time digging into the systems in the game, but we're definitely liking the direction in which things are going. The ability to string together your own combos works very well and brings a retro feel to the game that we appreciate.

The visuals are looking fantastic, making Mortal Kombat the most stunning entry in the series to date. The character models and environments feature a rich level of detail packed with little touches that you'll notice if you spend some time scrutinizing everything. Admittedly you're better off getting your art appreciation on while watching someone else play a match, because the game's speedy pace, helped along by a smooth frame rate and smooth animation, doesn't let you do much artistic contemplation before being kicked in the face. That said, when you do get the chance, we expect you'll be impressed by what you see. Characters have moving bits of clothing and accessories, and environments have a wide range of animating elements (along with buckets of blood) that all contribute to the game's sexy looks. Of course, the showstoppers in the game are the x-ray attacks and fatalities, which feature some of the most brutal and cringe-inducing beatdowns we've seen in the series.

There is most definitely a creative, gleeful vibe that runs through the moves we saw, which will make fans smile and possibly wonder if the NetherRealm gang doesn't have some stabbing issues to work through. We also have to give a special call-out to the stage fatalities we saw, which took a "kitchen sink" approach we can get behind. For example, why just mash your opponent's head in the side of a moving subway train when you can throw him in front of a moving northbound train after? Mortal Kombat's compelling reason for it is clearly, "because you can." While the over-the-top violence isn't for everyone, it's nice to see the game embracing the franchise's calling card with style and dark humor. The visuals get an extra kick on the PlayStation 3 thanks to stereoscopic 3D support, which will make everything pop a bit more for those with the setup for it. The feature is implemented well and doesn't distract from gameplay, although it will make the action look that much more painful.

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Mortal Kombat continues to impress us every time we see it. The roster decisions, mode additions, controls, and the little touches peppered throughout the game are all setting it up to deliver on the promise we saw when it was debuted at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. We're especially pleased to see the balance of content for newcomers and veteran players that should make it the most accessible Mortal Kombat yet. At this point we're very excited to see the rest of the roster, dig into the story mode, see what NetherRealm has cooked up for us online, and just play. Look for more on the game in the weeks leading up to its April release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

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