Full Review: Bloody fun!
In 1999, Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias shocked fans when he left Midway after 11 years to form Studio Gigante (which later released Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus). Ed Boon, Tobias' close friend and MK's other co-creator, was given the reins of revitalizing the once shining franchise that had been going steadily and distressingly downhill ever since the pinnacle Mortal Kombat II.
For MK fans ? with all due respect to Mr. Tobias ? change was good. In 2002, Ed Boon released MK: Deadly Alliance, and while it had many shortcomings (like no Arena Fatalities or Xbox Live support), it was clear that MK was back on track. The gory fun we all knew and loved had returned and successfully whetted our appetite for a sequel ? something that MK fans haven't been able to say in a long time.
Boon is obviously flourishing in his new creative control, because Mortal Kombat: Deception, the sixth sequel in the series, is a bloody good time. Most interestingly, it is also four games in one, with the core fighting component, a puzzle game, a chess game, and a pseudo-RPG adventure all bundled together, making it one of the most unique titles on the market.
Meanwhile, back in the Netherrealm?
The story picks up immediately after Deadly Alliance. Shang Tsung and Quan Chi are still stirring up trouble which, for some convoluted reason, causes the evil and uber-powerful Dragon King himself to return to conquer all Realms. Naturally, the only way to save the Realms is for you to kick butt in some good old fashioned chop socky martial arts action.
In MK:DA, Boon stunned fans by killing off the franchise's hero, Liu Kang, in the opening cinematic (for those unfamiliar with the series, this is like George Lucas killing off Luke Skywalker). In Deception, he continues his house cleaning by whacking yet another main character in the opening video. It is clear Boon wants to take the series in a new direction and by knocking off old characters, he can start fresh ? which he does by introducing a new hero to the MK universe, Shujinko (who Boon refers to as, ?the next generation Liu Kang?).
In fact, many of the old standards like Johnny Cage, Jax, Shang Tsung and others are not playable in Deception. Never fear, though; perennial favorites Scorpion and Sub-Zero are playable as always, along with many old friends from the past ? ranging from the little-used but immensely popular Baraka to the more obscure Ermac ? as well as brand new fighters we have never seen before. There are 24 playable characters in all, but only 12 are available at the start; the others must be unlocked by playing Konquest mode (more on this later) or by beating the computer in any mode to earn koins.
Koins are MK's kurrency and can be redeemed in the Krypt, which is the repository of all unlockable items like new characters, arenas, alternate costumes, character biographies, photos, artwork and videos (including a hilarious blooper reel from the live action shoot of MK: Mythologies). Unlike the clunky Krypt of MK:DA, Deception's version is a breeze to navigate and contains ?only? 400 items (down from the 676 in MK:DA). But other than the obvious desirables like new characters, most Krypt items are pretty banal and are really not worth the time to unlock unless you're a hardcore fan.
Naturally, MK fans want violence, gore and blood ? lots and lots of blood. Like its predecessors, Deception is awash in gallons of blood ? so much so that you almost feel the need to lay down plastic sheeting in front of the TV to avoid getting your carpet splattered. MK's trademark Fatalities are gorier than ever, and each character now has two Fatalities and one Hara-Kiri, which is a suicide Fatality you perform on yourself if you lose. It's a cool way to irk your opponent by denying him the satisfaction of a final Fatality humiliation. The only downside is Fatalities are a bit harder to perform since the automatic positioning system from MK:DA is now gone.
Deception also marks the return of the Arena Fatality, or Death Trap, which is activated by maneuvering your opponent into clearly marked Danger Zones. Hit your opponent into the Danger Zone and watch as they get squashed, shredded, chopped or impaled in chunky meaty glory. Death Traps only end the round, though, so unless you've won the required number of rounds, your opponent magically comes back to life to beat on you again.
Like all MK games, the blood and gore is so over the top it is more comical than offensive (unlike Manhunt which relished in disturbing, realistic violence that quickly lost its entertainment value). If, however, the sight of blood makes you cringe, you can turn it off ? but be aware that by doing so, you also disable Fatalities and Hara-Kiris.
The action is furious, but compared to the rapid-fire pace of the Dead or Alive series, Deception feels a bit slow and sluggish. The animation and graphics also don't compare to DOA; character movements are a little stiff, and even though this is the trademark MK ?look?, it seems old compared to other fighters. Overall, the game looks exactly like Deadly Alliance, which is both good and bad; MK:DA was certainly an impressive looking game, but it's two years old. In this age of graphical one-upmanship, it is disappointing to not see a significantly improved visual upgrade.
On the plus side, there is a nice variety of unique characters, each with three different fighting styles, including one weapons style. Switching between styles is as easy as pulling the left trigger, and switching while in the middle of an attack can release some devastating combos. If you are caught in a combo, don't worry; the days of sitting back helpless as you are pummeled to a pulp are gone. You can now execute a Combo Breaker that will stop combos dead and let you launch a counterattack. Fortunately, you are only limited to three Combo Breakers per round, so you won't have to deal with a constant flow of reversals like in DOA3.
The much loved uppercut returns, and the much hated impaling move is gone. In MK:DA, your opponent could impale you with his weapon and then run away holding the block button while you slowly bled to death. It was a cheap way to win, and thankfully it is history.
Like DOA, Deception has a nice variety of multi-tiered arenas where you can knock opponents onto another level below. Hardcore MK fans will be delighted to find 3-D versions of some classic arenas, while other arenas will contain special weapons complete with their own unique fighting style. Cool.
The controversial indicator light system that tells you the ?state? of your fighter is actually pretty useless. The lights show when you are vulnerable to an attack ? but you know when you're vulnerable anyway and regardless, the action can be so frantic that you simply won't have the time to look at the lights to plan your next move.
The single-player Arcade mode has you fighting a variety of characters until you get to the nasty Dragon King himself. Like all fighting games, the computer AI starts off pretty stupid but becomes so frustratingly fast and aggressive as you advance that you'll want to throw your controller against the wall. Luckily, there are five difficulty levels, but unless you're a MK pro, all but the lowest level will provide a teeth-gnashing challenge.
The worst part about Arcade mode is that you don't get a satisfying reward at the end. For some bizarre reason, MK still does not have full-motion video character endings, and instead stubbornly sticks to old school static images and text ? yeah, you do get voice narration, but big deal; gamers want eye candy. We want a cool reward for our hard work, and looking at a static picture is pretty lame. True, even FMV endings can be quite bad, and it may be a trivial thing to criticize, but it is still very disappointing nonetheless. Instead of giving us old artwork and photos in the Krypt, how about some decent character endings for a change?
Most puzzling, this is
Puzzle Kombat is MK's version of the classic Super Puzzle Fighter II. You pile up colored blocks Tetris style, but the only way to clear them is with special Breakers. Touch the Breaker on a like-colored block, and all adjacent blocks of the same color disappear, with the equivalent number of blocks immediately dumped onto your opponent's side. The loser is the one whose pile overflows at the top first.
You select one of 12 big-headed MK caricatures based on their Special move. As you clear blocks, you fill up a Super Meter; when it is full, you can launch your Special move, which can be defensive (like clearing blocks off your board) or offensive (like freezing your opponent's blocks so he can't clear anything). The characters fight as you clear blocks, and at the end of a match, the winning character automatically launches a Fatality on the loser (yes, even Puzzle fighters have Fatalities).
If you like puzzle games, you'll enjoy this fun diversion from the main fighting component, although like in Arcade mode, playing against the computer can become very frustrating. Since the computer can move and pile up blocks much faster and more precisely than you, it can access the all-important Breakers much more quickly and launch devastating combos; I've had over 50 blocks dumped on my side many times, which pretty much ends the round automatically. Grr.
Fatality for Bobby Fischer
Chess Kombat is MK's version of another classic, Archon. You select characters in five classes to form your team, consisting of eight Grunts (equivalent to pawns), three Shifters (knights or rooks), two Sorcerers (bishops), two Champions (queens), and one Leader (king). You play on a 10 by 10 board, which has two special Green Cells in the middle. If one of your pieces occupies a Green Cell, that piece gains +100 health, and your entire team gains +25. Occupy both and your team gains an additional +25 health, so needless to say, it is imperative to capture and hold the Green Cells.
If you don't know how to play chess, don't worry; it only looks like chess, but doesn't play anything like it. The pieces can move in any direction, so you're not restricted to diagonal movements only, for example. You will want to move carefully, though, as each side can set a trap that will instantly kill an opposing piece.
To take an occupied square, both sides enter into a standard single-round Kombat. Attackers get a small health bonus, and lower class pieces are handicapped with reduced health. This doesn't mean that taking the square will be a breeze, since whoever wins the round wins the square, which means the attacker could end up losing his piece. However, any damage sustained by the winning piece is carried over, making that weakened piece a prime target for another attack.
But not to worry; as long as you have a Sorcerer, you can cast spells to heal or resurrect a dead piece, or even kill or imprison an opposing piece. You have eight spells to choose from but can only cast each of them once, so use them wisely.
Chess Kombat is another interesting and fun diversion. It mixes together Kombat with some strategic chess elements (although it doesn't play like chess, you still have to plan your moves carefully), but will move too slowly for those who prefer going at it toe to toe.
The Konquest konundrum
Perhaps the most anticipated new game mode is Konquest, a single-player RPG-like adventure that follows Shujinko from na?ve boyhood all the way up to his wizened senior years. You are tasked by the Elder Gods to find six Kamidogu, sacred items that are needed to defeat an impending threat in the future. Each of the Kamidogu is located in a different Realm, each one more dangerous than the previous. During your quest, you will train with various MK masters, meet and fight with many familiar characters, collect koins, go on small side quests, and find precious keys to unlock items in the Krypt.
Graphically, Konquest is a huge disappointment; it almost looks like a PSone game. The dynamic lighting effects as the weather or time of day changes is neat to watch but doesn't make up for the simplistic look. Movement is also very old school, with ?invisible walls? restricting where you can go, along with the inability to step over low obstacles.
The voice acting is simply horrid ? in fact, it is the weakest part of the entire game. I realize it's supposed to be bad ? the idea was to emulate the wretched English dubbing from those classically corny martial arts movies ? but it's just so bad, it quickly becomes annoying and distracting.
Game play, like the graphics, is very simplistic; explore the pleasantly large maps to collect koins and find treasure chests containing more koins or Krypt keys. In some cases, these chests will only be available at a certain place and time. Talk to people and they will often ask you to perform side quests for them, usually the find-and-retrieve variety; complete the tasks and they will give you koins. Don't complete them and, well, don't worry about it. There are no consequences for failing a side quest; in fact, there are no consequences at all. You can run around beating people up (which is actually quite funny) and no one cares. One time I beat and robbed an old woman right in front of several armed guards, and their only reaction was a small double-take. Fable this ain't.
And unless you have a photographic memory, have a pen and paper handy to take notes because there is no other way to keep track of your main objectives and side quests.
Even though it is rather simplistic, the exploration and side quests of Konquest are actually quite fun. Unfortunately, you are also forced to endure the training sessions. The whole point of Konquest ? other than to further the story ? is to train Shujinko as a great warrior. To do this, you must learn the moves and combos of various MK characters; if you fail the training, you can't advance through Konquest. The problem is that many combos are so complex that you will find yourself repeatedly button mashing into a futile, wrist-cramping frustration. You will also have to defeat several fighters to advance, and like in Arcade mode, the AI gets ridiculously tougher the further you go. And since you have to complete Konquest in order to unlock Shujinko and other characters, you pretty much have no choice but to grit your teeth and slog your way through it.
Taken on its own, Konquest would be a poor adventure game. However, any criticism must be tempered with the fact that it is actually a side component to a fighting game; and in that respect, Konquest is enjoyable ? at least the exploration portion, that is. What is really interesting about Konquest is that it raises the possibility of a full-blown Mortal Kombat RPG. If any gaming franchise could succeed as an RPG, MK can; after all, it already has a deep (if often convoluted and contradictory) storyline, interesting characters and worlds, and a huge fan base. If Midway were to give MK to RPG specialists like Bioware or Obsidian, they could have a major hit on their hands. Ed Boon, are you listening?
Fighting games are always the best when you're beating up your friends, and this is where Deception really shines. It is the first 3-D fighting game you can play over Xbox Live, and the results are impressive; games are lag free, which is vitally important for a genre that requires instant reactions and precision timing. You can even attach short voice messages to your Friend invites, allowing you to trash talk your buddy before he even joins your game. When you tire of beating each other up in Versus mode, you can switch over to Puzzle Kombat or Chess Kombat, though you'll have to drop and remake the room whenever you change game modes.
However, there is one huge glaring fault: the inability to choose your arena. Instead, arenas are chosen at random by the computer. Um, hello, why can't we choose an arena like in every other fighting game? This, quite frankly, is inexcusable, incomprehensible, and must be changed in the next version.
Deception is aptly named because it is much more than a fighting game. The addition of the new game modes not only make it a great value, but will keep players interested for a long time. The lag-free Xbox Live play is pure joy as well (except when I'm getting my butt kicked, that is). Konquest is the weakest of the new game modes, but it is worth completing if you can stomach the often frustrating training components (not to mention the dreadful voice acting) to unlock new characters and arenas. The core Kombat fighting is as fun and gory as ever, though the unsatisfying character endings and inability to choose your multiplayer arena must be addressed in any future releases.