With the reboot in 2011, Mortal Kombat matured from a curious fighting game series to one that's worthy of tournament-level competition, and with Mortal Kombat X, we get the next step in the evolution of its fighting system. New features such as fighting-style variations and a stamina meter enhance the chaos, giving you more to consider before and during a fight. As much headway as Mortal Kombat X has made in regards to the fighting system, the series' other mainstay trait has grown in step. Fatalities and other gruesome attacks are the series' goriest yet, and while not all of them fall into the slapstick category, there are plenty that make you laugh due to the absurdity on display.
Mortal Kombat X upholds the series' legacy, which is evident in the story mode and the return of a dozen classic characters. Once again, the focus is on the battle between realms, elder gods, and humanity. The introduction of a few new faces on the side of Earthrealm, the good guys, freshens things up, although not as much as you would hope. The inclusion of the offspring of legacy characters, like Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade's daughter, Cassie, may prove to be intriguing for die-hard fans of Mortal Kombat's lore, but with the exception of Takashi Takeda (Kenshi's son) and Kung Jin (the younger cousin of Kung Lao), most of them are too similar to their relatives and ultimately fail to stand out in a meaningful way.
There are also a handful of new bad guys, though "fresh" may not be the best word to describe their grotesque visages. Characters such as the insect like D'vorah and the gunslinger Erron Black inject new personalities into the series' aging roster and introduce new fighting styles. D'vorah strikes with spider-like arms that spring from her back, Erron Black uses firearms, and the fighting duo called Ferra Torr is comprised of a little girl who commands a hulking brute from atop his back. The new characters on each side of the battle fit into their respective factions, but it's the bad guys that are most notable, largely because they are original creations, rather than derivations from pre-existing characters.
If you care about Mortal Kombat lore, you will get a lot out of the story mode, which has excellent voice acting and a handful of unpredictable developments that affect long-standing relationships. It's not a story that everyone will relate to, sadly, with only a couple of scenes that deliver emotional moments. Cassie Cage may be a boring character, but she provides the necessary motivations for Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade to explore their feelings, and ultimately, grow as people by the time the credits roll.
Even if you don't care about the made-for-fans story, it's hard not to appreciate the new fighting engine, which is the smoothest the series has ever seen. It's not a sea change from the last game, but you quickly appreciate that combos are more fluid and that animations are more nuanced. The meter you charge by taking hits and doling out special moves returns from the last game, allowing you to power-up special attacks, break enemy combos, and perform an x-ray attack, which reveals the insides of one opponent while the attacker breaks them into pieces in slow motion, accompanied by excruciating moans of pain. The introduction of a stamina bar limits your ability to spam dashing maneuvers, which makes it more difficult for you to rely on spacing alone to win a fight. Likewise, the interactive elements in each stage, which allow you to pummel your opponent with a background item, or escape a corner by leaping off of a large object, can only be used if you have enough stamina. This particular meter recharges on its own, but it takes long enough--relative to the pace of a heated battle--to make it an important consideration during high-level matches.
Local battles are great fun, but online matches are where modern fighting games thrive in the long run. Chances are, the best players in the world don't live on the same street, leaving online matches as the true test of one's skill outside of tournaments. The netcode that drives Mortal Kombat X's online matches is fine, meaning that it will sometimes offer an experience that feels proper, but that you should expect laggy matches from time to time. When you get into a fight with a poor connection, you may as well exit and search for a new opponent, because it will be difficult to pull off simple combos and special moves. At that point, its a competition between man and machine. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence.
One of the great aspects of Mortal Kombat X is the amount of non-traditional fighting game content. Towers are back, providing an arcade mode-like challenge, as well as a series of other themed battles that offer a wide variety of combat conditions. The Test Your Luck tower puts you in a series of fights with randomly selected modifiers, which mix up everything from terrain to physics to keep you on your toes and alter the way you approach a fight. The modifier-driven fights are also the crux of the new living towers, which offer fixed modifier sets and challenges, but are remixed every hour, every day, and every week, depending on the specific tower.
Mortal Kombat X also marks the introduction of factions, or teams, that compete on a worldwide scale. Joining a faction is the first thing you do after booting up the game, and as you fight in the game's various modes, you earn points for your faction and level up. Eventually you hit milestones that open up faction kills, which are essentially simpler versions of fatalities. Every week, a faction is chosen as the winner and its members earn a reward in the form of a faction kill or a cosmetic item. Once in a while, an invasion occurs and factions compete to fight a character with extreme rules, and the more you play, the more you contribute to the team's efforts. The faction system isn't the sort of feature that will grip your attention, but invasions are nice because they make you feel like you're contributing to a concentrated effort, rather than the long-winded score chase of the weekly faction war.
As you play Mortal Kombat X, you earn currency in the form of "koins." Koins are used to unlock movelist details for secondary fatalities (by default, secondary fatalities don't have inputs listed in the movelist menu), brutalities (another form of finishing move), fan art, and character skins, to name a few. You find these items in the Krypt mode, which is a first-person dungeon crawling game. The Krypt is composed of a handful of areas that are populated with tombstones, sarcophaguses, and other treasure chest-like containers. You need to spend koins to get at the treasures within, but there's a catch: you never know what you're buying until you've purchased it. This adds an air of suspense and tension to each purchase, because you're either going to get something cool, or something lame. This would be easily dismissed if koins were more plentiful than they are, but they're currently doled out in small doses. One trip through the story mode nets you enough koins for but a small fraction of the items on display, and other modes are less generous, making the chase for unlocking the entire Krypt a long and arduous one. Like factions, it's not something worth focusing all of your effort on. Save that for learning characters and fighting styles, and go to the Krypt only as needed.
There is another option: you can pay real world money to unlock every item in the Krypt. All you need is $20 to bypass the slog of earning koins, but that isn't exactly cheap. Then again, neither is time, so it's a bit gross that the koin distribution is balanced in such a way that you are tempted to spend real world cash if you want to unlock brutalities and the like. Mortal Kombat X is a great fighting game with a wonderfully demented world and cast of characters, but when you're pressured into spending money, it's easy to lose focus on the positives. You can always ignore the options to buy items with real world money, such as awards that allow you to perform two button fatalities and the aforementioned Krypt unlocks, but the biggest item on the main menu of the game is a link to the game's store, with items you can purchase or look forward to purchasing in the weeks and months to come. You're teased with DLC for characters that you fight within the story mode, as though you aren't going to put two and two together and realize what a despicable bait and switch that is. There's so much to love about the new Mortal Kombat that it's a shame to see such blatant monetization practices overlap with your experience, whether you're looking for it or not. You can always choose not to pay out of pocket for anything, but you know in the back of your head that you're likely missing out on something.
Mortal Kombat X's lesser elements exist outside the most important part of the game: the fighting. A great roster with a wide range of diverse fighting styles and variations gives you plenty to play around with, and the new fighting mechanics add the right amount of depth to nudge Mortal Kombat X ever higher on the list of respectable fighting games. There's also the gruesome creativity, which is entertaining for its absurdity but shocking for its emphasis on acute torture. Although you can't escape it, Mortal Kombat X's violence doesn't come at the cost of great gameplay design; it's either your punishment for failure, or your reward for mastering the art of kombat.