Mortal Kombat X / XL
Released 2015 / 2016
NetherRealm Studios
Platform: XBoxOne; PS4; PC Genre: Fighting 1 or 2 Players Rated: M
Playable Characters: Kung Lao, Jax, Sonya, Kenshi, Kitana, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Mileena, Takeda, Cassie Cage, Jacqui Briggs, Kung Jin, Shinnok, Kano, Johnny Cage, Erron Black, Lui Kang, Ermac, Kotal Kahn, Reptile, Ferra/Torr, D'Vorah, Raiden, Quan Chi
Some characters have a fourth variation counterintuitively called "no variation" accessed by pressing Up Up 2.
Once again, pressing both left and right triggers (L2&R2) with three bars of meter will initiate an unskippable cutscene in the middle of a fight for some stupid reason.
Mortal Kombat X has some of the most striking backgrounds the series has seen in a very long time.

Review by Jay Wilson

Given my reaction to the latest Street Fighter and Soul Calibur games coupled with MK’s history of godawful characters since MK3, I was ready to just skip Mortal Kombat X and hang my fighting game controller up once and for all, especially since the next generation of combatants were scheduled to debut because twenty years ago when I was a wee lad in the arcades ripping someone’s arms off with Jax, I never said to myself, “you know? This guy is older than me ... if only I could play as a spunky teenager!” But lo and behold, despite my skepticism and shaken faith in any developer being able to produce a decent fighting game with likeable characters in this era, NetherRealm Studios delivers with Mortal Kombat X.

First, yes it’s true, Mortal Kombat X commits the gaming sin of using the “twenty years later” gimmick that grew stale with Tekken, Street Fighter, and Soul Calibur, but at the same time MKX doesn’t abandon the characters that made the series fun. Sure, you can play as Cassie Cage, Jacqui Briggs, Takeda, and Kung Jin, but you know what? You can also play as Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, Jax, Kenshi, and Kung Lao and kill the annoying little stereotypical brats. Literally. Plus, Kombat kids aside, the remaining new characters are hands down the best ensemble since 1995’s Mortal Kombat 3, although that may not even qualify as praise given the regurgitated, unbaked trash that passed for characters in this franchise for fifteen bloody years. Remember Daegon, Taven, Kai, Jarek, Reiko, Mavado, Kira, Kobra, Dairou, Darrius, or Hsu Hao? No? Lucky you. Mortal Kombat X forgets them too and introduces the half-insect/half-human/all-evil-bitch D’Vorah; the ageless gunslinger Erron Black with a fast draw and faster lip; the new emperor of Outworld Kotal Kahn who once posed as a God for the ancient Aztecs; and a pair of characters who work and function together as one, little Ferra and behemoth Torr. And for the first time in twenty years, Mortal Kombat feels like it has added characters—real characters—to its cast again. Hell, even returning characters that I found bland and uninspiring the first time around, such as Shinnok and Bo Rai Cho, are ten times more interesting in Mortal Kombat X (or XL, in the case of Bo Rai Cho) than they were when they debuted.

But what I really like about MKX is the new variation system. Each character has three or four different styles to choose from, in theory, countering counter-picking. That is, Character X tends to do better against Character Y so Player 1 will see who Player 2 picks before deciding who to go with. Now, while Character X Version A tends to do better against Character Y Version A, he tends to lose against Version B. It doesn’t really work out that way. But it does give me options, and I’ve found that while I don’t like the Imposter variation of Shinnok, I have a blast with Necromancer and Bone Shaper variations.

Quan Chi: Are you angry with me?
Kitana: I don't need anger to kill.
Quan Chi: I admire your professionalism.
While interactive backgrounds (RB/R1) aren't new to NRS fighters, Mortal Kombat X's are the best and most refined to date.
Mortal Kombat X introduces a new stamina meter (the two bars under each lifegage) which pretty much just curbs excessive running, dashing, and performing background interactions.
First Raiden blasts Sonya's legs off at the knees, then he impales her medieval style with a staff, and then he electrocutes her twitching corpse—it's just a dash of sadism with a truckload of overkill.

One could argue, “why didn’t NetherRealm combine all the variations for a super version of everyone? Wouldn’t that make more characters appealing to use?” And the answer is no because of theming. Warlock Quan Chi, the variation I play, is about opening portals and attacking through them. I have an easy 13 hit 31% damaging combo where Quan Chi beats them to the twenty-third and a half century—er—dimension and back again. Sorcerer variation allows him to put spell circles on the ground with various boosts or curses for him or his opponent, and Summoner variation lets him call his pet bat which he can command to attack. Portals. Circles. And Bats. Theming makes the character feel more focused, defined, memorable, and distinct from other characters in the game as opposed to everyone being an amorphous jack of all trades with an excessive move set because half the moves are essentially better versions of the other half. In these games, a character only needs enough tricks to put up a fight.

Second, a primary component of good design is limitations. Of course, in video games, there’s an asterisk attached because while a good character is limited they have to also be competent. Good limitations present interesting choices. Quan Chi’s portal-savvy Warlock variation is more interesting because you have to sacrifice the vortex potential of Summoner and the chip-damage trap of Sorcerer to get it, and I really don’t like having preparation special moves (ie, performing the input then waiting on the animation just to summon the bat or spell area), so I really don’t miss them.

And lastly, genre history informs us that fighting game characters are pretty focused due to the aforementioned theming, so if NeatherRealm Studios were to release Mortal Kombat X with only one version of each character, chances are we’d end up with either Warlock, Sorcerer, or Summoner Quan Chi anyway (which MK9 bears out), and the other two would appear as a concept the player unlocks in the god-forsaken grind-fest known as the Krypt which now stupidly includes quick time events and a gambling mini-game, but I digress. The point is if Quan Chi didn’t have his Warlock variation, I wouldn’t play as him. Three versions of each character (who each have more than one costume) means I’m more likely to find a gameplay style with an aesthetic I like.

To give some perspective, in Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Mortal Kombat II, and Soul Calibur I played the whole cast because I liked them all—both gameplay and design. Sure, I had my favorites with whom I was exponentially better than my least favorites, but I spent quality time with everyone. Fast forward a decade or two, I just don’t find very many fighting game characters attractive. Soul Calibur V? I played Tira and Aeon because if the terrible designs didn’t outright offend me, the “meh” simplification of the move sets did. Mortal Kombat (2011)? All classic MK characters from the golden years, so fine by design, but for gameplay only Kitana and Kung Lao kept my interest. Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition? Just Juri. Let us not speak of the hideous art style that is the rest of the cast. In Mortal Kombat X, however, I actively play six character—Kitana, Mileena, Raiden, Jax, Shinnok, and Quan Chi—and I’m eyeing two or three others.

The white aura and monochrome means Mileena is burning one bar of meter to enhance her axe kick which will make Kotal Kahn bounce off the ground and allow Mileena to continue her combo.
My opinion on the meter cost for Breakers has evolved since MK9. One bar to enhance specials and two bars to break them favors aggression. Players can't just turtle all day.
If you end the match with a Gotcha Grab and hold forward, Jax will continue pummeling his opponent until their face is pulp.
As charismatic and badass as regular Shinnok is, his final boss-form is still pretty underwhelming compared to Shao Kahn. But at least he's not outright lame like Blaze from Armageddon.

In my MK9 review, I complained about the cinematics—one tiresome introduction per character, mini-cut scenes in the form of X-Rays interrupting the flow of the match, and elongated Fatalities that cater to a free-roaming virtual camera, and I’m pleasantly surprised NeatherRealm Studios addressed these issues. While the prefight animation is essentially the same, now each character has at least two unique sets of dialog per opponent depending on whether they represent the first player or second player side so it no longer becomes unbearable to watch after the third bloody fight. X-Rays typically do ~33% guaranteed damage, and while in MK9 you could approach or surpass this by strategically burning one bar of meter for a combo-extending EX special, now it’s even easier. Granted, a 30% meter burn combo is breakable, but it costs two bars of meter to break and your opponent has to wait awhile before they can perform another. Meanwhile, you still have two more bars of meter both loaded for 30+% damage each (60+% total) so while the game uses the flashy X-Rays to draw in easily impressed players who want to create spectacle without any dedication, it rewards players who learn how to play. And lastly, the monotonous mini-movie Fatalities. First, NeatherRealm Studios released two free DLC packages of classic Fatalities that play out like the old 2D sprite ones. Quick and to the point with minimal cinematics. Second, Mortal Kombat X introduces Brutalities—Fatality-like finish moves that happen on the final hit if certain conditions are met. Johnny Cage, for example, if he finishes the match with his trademark ball-punch, the opponents’ head will fly off, although some of the criteria seems convoluted, arbitrary, and needlessly difficult; Sonya, for example, has to land a 10-hit combo sometime during the match, and then the death blow has to come from a meter-burning move that does nothing but counter an incoming melee attack. But each character has at least five Brutalities (not counting stage-Brutalities), so you still have options and choices ... although some of Sonya’s other choices requires her to have more than 50% health, another requires her to have less than 50% health ... yet another requires her opponent to block the final hit ... Anyway, I like the Brutalities, especially the ones that allow me to end an impressive combo with my opponent’s head in my hands then lets me move on to my next victim.

But as much as I like Mortal Kombat X, NetherRealm Studio’s business model disgusts me. For one, a few costume unlocks, such as Mileena & Kitana’s MK2 outfits, are tied to a separate iOS/Android app which, in fairness, is free, but if you buy a $60 game for a $300-$400 console (or a $2000+ PC), all of the unlocks should be self-contained and not require another $500+ mobile device. Second, NeatherRealm Studios releases a parade of DLC post-launch, which grows longer and longer each game, and now the price tag of extra content is approaching the price of the base game. But, again, in fairness, like Mortal Kombat 9 and Injustice before it, Mortal Kombat X has received a second release in the form of Mortal Kombat XL with all DLC included and Krypt and costumes unlocked from the get-go, which makes me wonder what the fuck is the point of buying any NRS game upon its initial release?

However, I will give NeatherRealm Studio credit for at least making the core of Mortal Kombat X very solid and restricting the DLC to gimmicks and novelties: guest characters in the form of Jason Voorhees, Predator, Leatherface, and the Xenomorph, plus forth-rate Mortal Kombat characters that are inexplicably popular (Goro, Bo Rai Cho, Triborg) or wouldn’t make it into another Mortal Kombat game any other way (Tanya and Tremor.) You know what? I really don’t want to play as the latter, and I really don’t want the former in my fighting games. It shatters my suspension of disbelief and cheapens the experience facing off against an opponent who comes from a completely different fictional world. So, I’m not disappointed I waited a year before making a purchase, and I’m not disappointed I went with the PC port even though, as of this writing, XL is not available on it1. In fact, NRS actually did me a favor: it saved me a lot of money since I got vanilla MKX on sale

1 Despite official statements to the contrary, Mortal Kombat XL and Kombat Pack 2 were released for PC on October 4, 2016.