Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks Preshow Hands-On
We descend into Goro's lair to check out the E3 demo of Midway's upcoming MK-themed brawler.
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It's hard to argue with the notion that the Mortal Kombat series perhaps ought to just stick to its fighting roots, especially when the previous examples of the franchise's branching out, like Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat Special Forces, are all you have to reference. However, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks might just turn you around on the whole subject. Currently in development at Midway's most recently acquired studio, Paradox Development, Shaolin Monks looks to take the age-old concept of the arcade beat-'em-up and mix in a whole lot of Mortal Kombat nostalgia. You see, this game is based in the MK universe, and it takes place in the time period that MK fans remember most fondly, which is right around the same time period of Mortal Kombat II. At E3 2005, Midway will have Shaolin Monks on display for everyone to try, and we got an early look at the demo it will be showing off.
In Shaolin Monks, you'll have the option of playing as MK's legendary Shaolin warriors, Liu Kang and Kung Lao. You can opt to play as one, the other, or both, if a friend happens to be sitting right next to you. The basic gameplay doesn't fall too far from the typical designs of modern, side-scrolling beat-'em-ups. You'll have a few different attack buttons at your disposal, all of which can be modified and upgraded into more-powerful attacks, and both Liu Kang and Kung Lao will have all their classic maneuvers. However, you won't be executing the moves in the same way as you did in the fighting games of old. The moves are pulled off using regular attack buttons in conjunction with modifier buttons, rather than just the forward-forward-low-kick brand of play. The actual fighting felt fairly simplistic, though not unsatisfying, especially since you can actually fight multiple opponents coming from multiple directions.
When fighting solo, we didn't have much trouble dispatching the hordes of nasty bad guys that kept popping up. However, the game was definitely a lot more enjoyable when played cooperatively. During our two-player session, we found ourselves able to execute a lot of nifty back-and-forth juggle combos that seemed like they could go on for quite a while, if we were so inclined. These combos worked both aerially and on the ground, adding a fair amount of variety overall. You'll also be able to pick up weapons scattered about each level and execute fatalities by building up a meter near your health bar. Although, you won't just be able to automatically pull off a spectacular kill; you'll have to execute a combination of directional button and attack button presses first. The one fatality we were able to execute involved Liu Kang using an uppercut to chop an ogre's head off. Liu Kang then spin kicked the head back into its body, causing the whole thing to explode into a bloody mess. This is just one example of several fatalities each character will have in addition to their classic killers.
Shaolin Monks goes out of its way to create a vibe very much like that of MK II. The opening level has you battling ugly, ogre-looking creatures inside Goro's lair. As you progress, you'll eventually end up at the bottom of the classic pit stage, complete with plenty of corpses impaled on the spikes around you. In fact, once you climb out of the pit after a brief platforming sequence, you can uppercut enemies into the pit. À la MK II, the game even goes the extra mile of switching to a top-down camera view of the enemy shrieking as it falls to its doom. The graphics shown in the demo weren't exactly awe inspiring from a technical perspective, but aesthetically, they caught the feel of old-school Mortal Kombat very well.
Of course, Liu Kang and Kung Lao aren't the only classic characters to make an appearance in Shaolin Monks. During the course of our play time, we counted no fewer than three brief cameos from characters like Raiden (who acts as your tutor during this first level,) Johnny Cage (who shows up just long enough to uppercut an ogre into the pit, as well as put on his trademark sunglasses,) and Reptile, (who disappears via his invisibility power before you get the chance to take him on). The demo was also bookended by a boss fight against everyone's favorite Outworldian ginsu knife, Baraka. The fight began simply enough, with us executing combos on the bladed one, while he did the same to us. After Baraka's health was depleted to a certain level, however, he jumped back across the stage to grab a couple of caged monks and then set them on fire. This made things a tad more difficult, as we now had to fight Baraka while a pair of flaming monks ran wild, constantly knocking into us and damaging us. It took a couple of well-placed fireballs to finally do away with the monks and resume the fight. The fight continued to build up to the big climax, and then right before we could actually vanquish Baraka, the game thanked us for trying the demo and ended. A painful, harsh tease, but effective, as we now can't wait to see what happens next.
All told, we came away from our time with Shaolin Monks pleasantly surprised. Given the previous pedigree of MK spin-off games, as well as the fact that Paradox's earlier games hadn't exactly wowed us up to this point, we weren't really expecting much when we got our hands on this one. However, the game's earnest desire to cater to classic Kombat fans, combined with its seemingly well-put-together brawling mechanics, might just make this the first good non-traditional fighting MK game. The same demo we played will be available at E3 on the show floor, presumably with the same abrupt ending and a versus mode, which regrettably we didn't get a chance to check out. Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks will hit the PlayStation 2 and Xbox this October. We'll bring you more coverage of the game as it becomes available.