Mortal Kombat wants everyone to sign up for a bloody brawl, not just fight fans.
"Mortal Kombat has become a victim of its own sensationalism. Known to outsiders as the poster child for gratuitous violence rather than mechanically complex and rewarding fighting."
Social experiment time: select a friend, family member or casual acquaintance that has a passing interest in video games. Bring up the subject of Mortal Kombat. Time how long it takes for any of the following words to be uttered: fatality, finish him, gore, blood and – in the case of Daily Mail readers – ban this sick filth.
Chances are, that was a very short experiment and that's because, over the years, Mortal Kombat has become a victim of its own sensationalism. While the series has always boasted a significant fan base it's become known to outsiders as the poster child for gratuitous violence rather than mechanically complex and rewarding fighting systems.
However, 2011's Mortal Kombat boasted substance as well as style and was a welcome return to form for a series that had lost significant ground to its most famous street-fighting rival. Off the back of that revival – as well as the commercial and critical success of superhero brawler, Injustice: Gods Among Us – developer NetherRealm Studios is hoping to capitalise on some popular trends to make Mortal Kombat X (that's 'ex' not 'ten') a more social and inclusive title. That's not to say it's dumbing down as in some respects its adding greater nuance and subtlety to the series, but rather that NetherRealm is adding a host of new concepts and refining others to ensure that multiplayer aficionados and solo dabblers are well catered for.
"One of the ways that we're looking to innovate is in the online space," suggests NetherRealm game manager, Brian Goodman. "By adding Factions and the Towers, we really want to broaden the experience by making it a much more social experience and promote a greater sense of community."
Sure, it's the sort of community that breaks each other's bones and doles out sadistic cartoon violence against one another. But the organ-rupturing, skull-cracking, genital-popping tomfoolery is just Mortal Kombat's way of saying 'welcome to the neighbourhood'. By aligning yourself with one of five thematic Factions (as seen above), Faction War offers a platform-agnostic umbrella for all players to fight under. Daily challenges add points to your Faction, helping you rank up to unlock various cosmetic rewards but to also have a shot at earning Faction-specific finishers. Then, at the end of every week, a winning team is declared, the accumulative points reset and the whole bloody process starts again.
All of your actions contribute Faction Points, including participation in the overhauled single-player Challenge Towers, now known as Living Towers. Freed from the constraints of Mortal Kombat 9, you can choose any character to tackle the towers, which come in three flavours and with a variety of modifiers. For the most part, these modifiers are of the fun and frivolous kind rather than those designed to probe a deep understanding of move-sets or test lightning reflexes; bombs tossed into the arena, lightning strikes, blackouts, missile launches, an alarming screen see-sawing effect - in short, the kind of thing that might have purists turning their noses up but nonetheless offer a fun diversion.
Three Tower formats offer a varying degree of challenge and the Quick, Daily and Premier structures will be updated anywhere from every few hours to periodically in order to coincide with game milestones or seasonal holidays. Similar to the timed challenges seen in MMOs and recently popularised outside of that genre by Destiny, these will offer something different that sits outside of the main story mode.
However, there's a degree of polishing required here as the AI currently struggles to deal with some of the modifiers, blindly walking into bombs or appearing oblivious to the targeting reticule that's appeared beneath their feet. There's a similar complaint of the AI in relation to the incidental environmental elements and ability to use level furniture during a brawl, which was leveraged to good effect in Injustice: Gods Among Us. Here, it can help human combatants out of a bind, to escape from a corner or to disrupt the flow of an opponent's combo, but the AI seems at a loss to how best to use it to its advantage.
"What I'd like to see is people coming in from other genres. That they see this as more than just a fighting game, that this is a great game overall" - Brian Goodman, NetherRealm
Games modes aside, the most significant addition to Mortal Kombat X comes from the introduction of three variations for every fighter. Rather than representing three entirely separate move-sets, these variations swap out key moves that effectively provide different load-outs to facilitate a distinction between fighting styles. Based on a couple of hours of tinkering with the variations in the latest preview build, the differences appear subtle but focused enough to promote experimentation in how you approach bouts.
Take series new girl Cassie Cage as an example, her three variations range from a mid-range fighter adept at zone defence to turning her into a fighter primed for rush-down attacks (complete with her father's disturbing predilection for eye-watering attacks on rival's genitals). Elsewhere, several of the variations bolster key attributes of familiar characters, like bestowing upon Raiden the ability to set lighting traps or teleport, while others leverage prior story relationships to equip series favourite Kitana with a staff and glaive borrowed from childhood friend, Jade.
Learning the nuances of each of the character variations will take a great deal of time but it's apparent that they have the potential to alter the way you play your favourite fighters. Mercifully, they will also make facing-off against Scorpion or Sub-Zero in every other online bout a tad more interesting. Ultimately, this drive for variety in characters and game modes alike is part of NetherRealm's plan to attract new players while satisfying the old.
"What I'd like to see is people coming in from other genres," says an optimistic Goodman. "That they see this as more than just a fighting game, that this is a great game overall. We have a ton of content in here so that it's not just one vs one, who's the best fighter. There's definitely that aspect and that's the core of what this game is but at the same time we're trying to expand what this game represents."
For the most part, NetherRealm is succeeding in this. Mortal Kombat will always be linked to sensationalist, over-the-top violence, but in 2015 it looks to be as much about game choice and character variety as it is about melting faces and exploding heads. Surely, that's the very definition of progress.
Mortal Kombat X is due for release April 14 on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3 and PC.