This summer’s announcement of Mortal Kombat 1 brought with it a new era for the long-running fighting franchise. The latest game from NetherRealm Studios brings the outstanding fighting mechanics the series has been known for since the 2011 reboot, but adds layers of complexity. The most notable addition to the core mechanics in this entry is perhaps the Kameo feature, where you can bring in a secondary character to perform a quick move at a crucial time in a fight. But as I learned during my final time seeing the game before launch, during which I played the first chapter of the story and experienced the new robust single-player mode, that first look earlier this summer was only scratching the surface.
Mortal Kombat has long been known for its single-player story modes, with the 2011 reboot laying the foundation for the series’ modern approach. Obviously, the technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the years since that important title, but the narratives have also become more intricate with each passing entry. As anyone who played Mortal Kombat 11 and its post-launch story DLC, Aftermath, knows, Liu Kang inherited the powers of a god and rewrote the timeline how he wanted. This gave the team at NetherRealm a fantastic opportunity to perform yet another reboot for the series.
According to Mortal Kombat 1 story and voiceover director Dominic Cianciolo, NetherRealm knew it was going to reboot the franchise even before its previous Mortal Kombat title. “[The idea of doing another reboot] was from the earliest pitches of Mortal Kombat 11,” he says. “The story – not even Aftermath – with Kronika and time resetting, it kind of lent itself to this notion that we were going to be starting over.”
Mortal Kombat 1’s story mode starts in a fun way, as we see a familiar face speaking to a crowd of people in a small village. An elderly Shang Tsung, looking like he did in the original Mortal Kombat, gives his pitch on a tonic he is holding. He claims it’s a miracle in a bottle that can cure any illness; it sounds too good to be true, and it turns out it is, as a large man who purchased a bottle for his ailing daughter interrupts him to say it’s nothing but tea. The crowd surrounds him, and the camera cuts.
We then see Shang Tsung later that night, battered and bruised. He removes the old man costume to reveal his true, younger form; clearly, this version of Shang Tsung doesn’t have his shapeshifting powers. However, a woman approaches in the night, claiming she can help him get the power he pretends to have. She informs him of the sorcery he has wielded in other realities and offers to join forces so they can put the realms at his feet. An evil smile flashes across Shang Tsung’s face and the scene cuts yet again.
Chapter 1: The New Era focuses on Kung Lao. In this reality, Kung Lao is a farmer alongside Raiden, who is no longer the god of thunder. The two are harvesting crops in the fields. Kung Lao mentions how trapped he feels in his job – after all, his ancestors were great warriors with amazing legacies – so he proposes a friendly wager of who can do their work the fastest with the loser picking up the dinner tab that night. The two arrive at Madam Bo’s for dinner, but there’s a dispute about who really won, so naturally, they decide to settle it with a fight. This introductory fight isn’t difficult, but it let me get my Mortal Kombat muscle memory back after spending hours with Street Fighter 6 in recent months.
There’s no time to gloat, however, as Smoke appears before the elderly Madam Bo to demand she pay the Lin Kuei for their protection or risk the safety of the establishment. After Madam Bo refuses to bow to the obvious mob tactics, Kung Lao confronts him, and the two engage in a fight. My favorite small detail is how the Kameo mechanic works within the story. In this instance, Raiden was there during the scene, so naturally, he is inserted as Kung Lao’s Kameo fighter.
After defeating Smoke, Sub-Zero and Scorpion crash the party, and the cutscenes get a bit more intense. After Madam Bo gets tossed off a balcony, Kung Lao and Raiden take on the ninja duo. The trademark Mortal Kombat campy humor remains, even as the scenes become more action-packed. In one sequence, Sub-Zero attacks, leaving a block of ice on the bar, only for a man at the bar to break a piece off and put it in his drink. The visual fidelity of these cutscenes is impressive. The facial and motion capture is incredible, and the high-resolution textures and voice performances kept me completely immersed. My final battle before my time with story mode concluded was against Sub-Zero.
The story modes of Mortal Kombat are traditionally great, but Mortal Kombat 1 isn’t relying solely on that for its single-player greatness. Invasions is an RPG-inspired mode that lets you level up characters and unlock rewards like cosmetics, skins, and gear by taking part in various bite-sized challenges. The challenges often revolve around defeating enemies in fights, but with different modifiers, such as super armor, telegraphed moves to help you time your attacks around vulnerability windows, and obstacles like fire-breathing demons. Meanwhile, other nodes on the hub world include things like survival minigames where you dodge energy balls as well as Test Your Might challenges.
“It scratches a few itches,” director and series co-creator Ed Boon says. “There’s additional lore and story. There’s a little bit of training and getting accustomed to the game. There are clearly secrets that we’re burying in there, and it’s also a mechanism for getting rewards. That’s always been part of the function of Konquest mode or The Krypt or something like that: some mechanism that the player can, within the Mortal Kombat universe, get cool stuff.”
The rewards you earn in Invasions are also geared towards which character you play as, allowing you to earn items mostly related to characters you like. As you play, fighters level up to earn better stats, and you can also earn Talismans, which can be used to augment a character. For example, you can give Sub-Zero the ability to throw flaming skulls. Using the in-game Forge, you can modify and augment Talismans to perform different tasks ranging from adding new abilities to healing. However, you need to use them judiciously, as they have limited charges before you need to refill them in between matches. Those seem particularly important with another convention borrowed from RPGs: character types.
These types pull from how they work within the role-playing genre to give some characters advantages over others. “[The characters] lend themselves very easily,” lead designer Derek Kirtzic says. “Sub-Zero, Ice. Scorpion, Fire. Havok, Blood. Reptile, Acid. […] What we’re really excited for is as you play the game and you engage with the elemental system more and more where you start building different teams and different loadouts. Like, ‘Oh, here’s a Geras. He’s going to be heavy on defense. I should pick somebody that’s going to be heavy on offense.’ And so people start making these different builds of characters to counter or complement what their opponents are.”
The Invasions content operates on a six-week seasonal structure, with each containing unique challenges and rewards. Not only that, but your progression also resets with each season, meaning that all your Talismans, currency, and character progression is back to square one every six weeks. The team hopes this will provide additional content for those who get really into the mode, which NetherRealm tells me will carry with it approximately nine hours of content each season.
I always eagerly anticipate the single-player content of each new Mortal Kombat game, but even within the elite franchise, Mortal Kombat 1’s offerings feel special. Whether you’re looking forward to the exciting narrative, the ever-unfolding content of Invasions, or simply just throwing down with friends and strangers, Mortal Kombat 1 is poised to continue the very strong year we’ve been seeing for the fighting game genre.
Mortal Kombat 1 arrives on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, and PC on September 19. For more, listen to our interview with Ed Boon during a June episode of All Things Nintendo right here.
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