Reviewed: February 3, 2005
Released: October 4, 2004
"An ancient evil has returned from beyond death and threatens the very existence of the realms. Will the Champion of the Elder Gods have the power to defeat this threat borne of Deception?"
Those of you who have already played Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance may recognize a direct tie-in between the above words (from the back of Mortal Kombat: Deception's game box) and Reptile's ending from that game. That's right, after much talk, the legendary Dragon King, Onaga, has finally made his appearance in the newest installment of the MK series, Mortal Kombat: Deception.
Boasting more to do than ever before, a brand new bad guy to defeat and more fan service than Raiden could shake his staff at, Mortal Kombat: Deception (or MKD for short) is a game at once completely unique and heavily tied to its predecessors. It features new games to play, a huge cast of characters both new and old, and what is probably the strongest, best-told storyline of any fighting game in recent memory. This is also the first time you can take the Kombat online in both traditional gameplay as well as Chess and Puzzle Kombat. This is the best of the old mixed with the best of the new, and the obvious result is one the best of the Mortal Kombat games in the history of the franchise.
There's a lot to cover in a game this huge, so let me jump right in to the meat of the review. MKD is the first Mortal Kombat game to truly fulfill the promise of the series' ever-expanding mythology, and it does this primarily through the amazingly cool Konquest mode. It is the crowning achievement of MKD. Gone is the ho-hum Konquest of MKDA, wherein players picked a character and trained with him or her while reading a text-only backstory. Gone are the repetitive backgrounds and the silly little monk who waves at you when you dawdle too long. In their place is a free-roaming RPG-style adventure, with no less than six fully realized realms to visit and an epic storyline to follow.
Before the letters "RPG" scare all you die-hard fighting game fans away, let me explain. First off, there is no leveling up in Konquest mode. There are no stats outside of the life bar to keep track of, there are no weapons or armor to bother buying, equipping or modifying, there are no magic spells or turn-based battles, and there are no skinny girls in hot pants singing j-pop songs. Are we clear? Good.
No, Konquest mode is an RPG (or "role-playing game") in that you, the player, will assume the role of a specific character and play through his life's story, the events of which culminate in the revival of Onaga, the legendary Dragon King and main bad guy of MKD. The person in question is Shujinko, a young Chinese boy with a rare aptitude for martial arts and a burning desire to gain fame as a hero, who is chosen to be the Champion of the Elder Gods - or is he?
The storyline is strong and, while not groundbreaking in terms of structure or characters, engaging enough that by its end, players will really care about Shujinko. This is the only instance I can think of in which a fighting game has managed to emotionally engage players with the main character by some means other than a tie-in or plain old cool factor. Shujinko is so interesting because we don't just read his story, we play it. We are Shujinko for the duration of Konquest mode. The end result is a deep and highly defensive fondness for him, the other characters he interacts with and the world of Mortal Kombat in general. In other words, if you thought you'd seen Mortal Kombat fanatics, think again. Konquest mode is going to push the MK fan community off the deep end and turn fence sitters into true believers.
Despite the driving storyline, Konquest is very non-linear overall. The adventure is free roaming, and Shujinko can run anywhere, talk to anyone and punch anything with reckless abandon using a simple, intuitive control scheme. The black button brings up a realm map for quick navigation, and in an interest twist you can meditate to advance time. This is great for time-specific puzzles like a clue that appears on the wall every day at 4pm. You'll talk with countless NPC's, raid huts for koins, and engage in traditional kombat, both for tutorials and to progress the story.
There are a huge number of side-quests to engage in, and most of MKD's secrets are hidden here in one realm or another. In classic Mortal Kombat fashion, many of the best are deviously hidden indeed. In another great bit of fan service, all the characters from every past Mortal Kombat game, from famous bad guys like Shinnok and Shao Khan to such obscure have some side mission to complete, meaning they will talk and interact with Shujinko a little. This way, even Stryker fans (if there are any) won't feel completely left out in the cold.
Like no fighting game I have seen before, MKD uses Konquest mode to create a parallel multiverse so complete and well imagined that it makes the game feel as though it could only ever happen here, in Earthrealm, Outworld and all the planes in-between that have finally come to life after so many years of written descriptions and bad movies.
MKD's brilliantly realized world is also accented by the more traditional modes of play. Not only are arenas wicked-cool looking (the heavy East Asian/Arabic influence of the series really hits home in the arena design), they are also once again multi-leveled. Many of them have weapons that can be picked up and used, weapons which are often specifically suited to their arena (how do you knock an opponent off the top of the Sky Tower? With a warhammer, of course!). And yes, MK faithful, at long last Midway has graciously resurrected the environmental fatality.
This brings me to another point: many of the series' "old favorite" arenas are back, including the Living Forest and Dead Pool arenas from MK2 and The Pit (you know, the spiky bridge) from the very first game. As if that wasn't good enough, the revival of environmental fatalities means that players will once again be able to uppercut their hapless opponents into, for example, the Dead Pool's acid bath. The only thing missing is "Toasty!" Some would say the MK team are getting nostalgic in their old age... but those people obviously aren't fans of the series, or they'd realize what a huge treat this is for the rest of us. MKD seamlessly blends the best aspects of both the old games and the new, with entertaining and satisfying results.
Coming back to fatalities, each character has two now, plus an option to hara-kiri in case of defeat. The addition of a hara-kiri death fits this game perfectly (though I'm sure I'm not the only person who still misses Friendships). Many of the classics are here (the old "rip off the head and the spine comes with it," for example) and some are a bit on the boring side, but they're all satisfying. A few exhibit the wicked sense of humor the game has always been known for (try Darrius, for example). Again, this game manages to bring back a lot of nostalgic elements while keeping the gameplay fresh and engaging.
Speaking of characters, Ed Boon and company have again pulled out the stops in the retro department. Many favorite characters are back and cooler than ever, including Mileena, Baraka, Kabal and Sindel, among others. Though this translates to fewer new characters than in Deadly Alliance, many of the characters will be effectively new for more recent fans. Also, the chance to see what a character like Mileena looks and plays like in 3D is hard to pass up regardless.
What new characters there are, are well designed for the most part. In particular, the ascendant demon slayer Ashrah and Havik, priest of Chaos, are particularly enjoyable to play with and have interesting stories and personalities to boot. In a brilliant mix of old and new, Noob Saibot and Smoke have been combined into a single playable character. Noob-Smoke has twice as many special moves as the other characters, but only one fighting style each. The net result is arguably the coolest fighters in Mortal Kombat history. Overall the designs, costumes, play styles and personalities of the characters are a smashing success. But what were they thinking with Kobra? He's sort of like Akira Yuki from Virtua Fighter, only really annoying, evil, blonde and white. Sheesh.
At any rate, there are a total of 25 playable fighters overall, each with three martial arts styles to choose from. Midway has basically kept the three-style system from Deadly Alliance, but made it a bit more refined and balanced than it was in that game. Gone are the nearly useless taunts and power-ups, making for a more streamlined feel. Instead, the black button is used to execute a throw in all three styles.
As in the past, most of the martial arts utilized in MKD are at least based on real wushu. Many of the styles have been mixed up and all of the characters except Raiden have at least one new style. Bo' Rai Cho, for instance, now uses sumo wrestling as a style. What a perfect fit!
One more note about Arcade mode in particular: in the past, the sub-boss has always been a severely powerful demi-human, often a Shokan like Goro or Kintaro. The final boss(es) that followed was generally a complete pushover by comparison. With MKD, Midway has finally fixed this imbalance by putting a humanoid sub-boss ahead of a demi-human main boss. Onaga, the Dragon King, is tough and somewhat dull, but much less tough and dull than Moloch, the sub-boss from Deadly Alliance. I must commend this decision. It makes more sense to have the main challenge at the very end of the game, after all.
The basic gist of MKD's gameplay mechanics is that Midway knew they had a good thing with the three-style system and have worked on refining it and making it better, rather than trying to find a completely new system of play. The results are admirable. I am a big fan of the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of design and Deception manages to feel new, fresh and interesting while still retaining the basic feel and style of Deadly Alliance.
A common complaint about Deadly Alliance was its wildly varying combo difficulty level. Some characters had 8-button combo moves that could be executed with nary a thought, while others took several minutes of practice to nail down. The Mortal Kombat games have never been button mashers, always leaning toward the technical side instead while trying to strike a balance between difficulty and fun factor. More than ever, MKD fulfills that ideal. The combos (even style-branching combos, which are back again) are generally simpler than those of preceding titles, but still require a deft hand to execute.
For example, in the past a combo like X, X, Y could be executed by mashing X until the two primary attacks were executed and then mashing Y until the combo was finished. Now, the game reads every single tap players enter. Pushing X more than twice, no matter how quickly will cause the rest of the combo to fail. The result is an almost rhythmical feel to combat, where hitting buttons a precise number of times trumps visual timing. As is the case with most fighting games, the PS2 has the advantage over the Xbox in sheer comfort of control. The triggers and black and white buttons are simply no substitute for the four accessible shoulder buttons of the Dual Shock.
Indeed, MKD is less of a button-masher than any MK game to date, and since none of the series are exactly mashing games to begin with, that's quite an accomplishment. This same clarity and simplicity has been applied to the fatalities as well. Though they are not, as a rule, easy to execute, they continue the Deadly Alliance trend towards simpler button combinations. A few people might miss the extreme difficulty of fatalities from older games, but most will be satisfied to see that the trend toward crisp, precise command entry has been continued in Deception.
Aside from Konquest and Kombat modes, Deception adds two new play styles to the mix. Chess Kombat is a vague-feeling mix of chess principles and entertaining Mortal Kombat twists. The main trouble with it is that the developers have overpowered the gameplay so much that there is no strategy at all left. It shouldn't have been too difficult to drop a generic chess AI into the game and just had a regular game of chess with Mortal Kombat fighters as the pieces. Pieces could have fought over possession of the squares to mix things up a bit and add some good old kombat into the game, and everything else would have stayed the same.
However, the actual game is quite different. Pieces can fight over squares, which is good, but Chess Kombat has almost no relation to chess. There are two extra rows on the chess board than in real chess, most of the pieces do not move as actual chess pieces do (pawns can move diagonally and attack backwards, for example), and each side has a list of spells that can be cast once each as long as that side still possesses a sorcerer. In case that last comment didn't make it clear, none of the pieces have the same names, either (not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but it can get confusing).
Lest anyone think Chess Kombat sucks, it does not. It is actually a lot of fun to play and a good way to kill half an hour. However, as a chess player I was hoping for actual chess with MK pieces and kombat thrown in. In my opinion, the name Chess Kombat is misleading, which is my main complaint with it.
The other new mode of play is the insanely addictive Puzzle Kombat. Puzzle Kombat is a fast-paced falling block game closely based on pass-the-trash Tetris, and it's an absolute blast to play. Blocks come in four colors and fall two at a time. The objective, as usual, is to keep like-colored blocks together while dealing with the blocks that your opponent drops on you by clearing her own. The system works both ways, of course. "Breakers" are spheres of each of the four colors that will occasionally drop down instead of blocks. The only way to clear colored blocks is by touching them to a breaker, which will destroy all blocks of the same color as the breaker that are touching each other. The rarest type of drop is a bomb, which destroys all blocks of whichever color it touches - useful for clearing mass amounts of space in a dire situation. If a bomb is dropped straight down onto the "floor" of the puzzle area instead of onto a block, it grants a bomb bonus, which fill us your characters Special meter.
Special attacks are what really make Puzzle Kombat so much fun. Each of the bobble-headed Puzzle Kombat characters has a powerful special move that can be executed once his or her meter is full. The meter is filled by using breakers or getting bomb bonuses, as previously stated. The attacks range from Ermac's Levitate ability, which removes the top three layers of blocks from your puzzle, to Jade's Stack, which adds three levels on the bottom of your opponent's. Less obvious ones include Nightwolf's Breaker Buster, which destroys any breakers already on your opponent's puzzle but not yet used (combos involving multiple breakers can be set up with a bit of forethought) and Kabal's Double Bomb, which drops two bombs randomly down on your puzzle, often clearing more than half the board. Any of these moves can completely turn the tables in a heated match, giving you a severe advantage over your opponent, which keeps it exciting: do you try to set up a huge combo and overwhelm your opponent by dropping 60-plus blocks on him, or do you clear as many as you can in a bid to raise your Special meter more quickly?
The entire package is put together with obvious care and attention to detail. A simple menu allows for easy navigation between kombat (practice, versus and arcade modes), Chess Kombat, Puzzle Kombat and so on. The krypt is back, but it is smaller this time around, which should relieve some people. The other thing that makes the krypt easier to deal with is the fact that koins are much more easily acquired than they were in Deadly Alliance, particularly in Konquest mode, where they are often just scattered about the realms. Also, some of the best koffins cannot be unearthed without a "koffin key". These koffins generally hold characters, arenas and alternate costumes. The keys can be found by completing side-quests and/or simply exploring in konquest mode, and keep players from unlocking everything too quickly. Other nice touches to the game in general include a soundtrack option, where players can just listen to the awesome music of MKD in a jukebox-style submenu (check out the Sound section for more on MKD's soundtrack) and perhaps the most anticipated feature of the game, online capability.
Although every element of MKD has been spun together artistically to make it truly a classic game, like any game, it is not quite perfect. In online mode, for example, Chess and Puzzle Kombat are not available, which is too bad. The combo system, while largely perfected to a good mix between simplicity and accuracy, still throws one or two curveballs in the form of combos that DO require button mashing, which is odd considering that the vast majority do not. Also, the dearth of easily acquired koins mean that most of the colors will become useless after a few hours of solid playtime, leaving players the boring task of collecting only the rarer types of koin. A few other things are tiny and mostly involve personal preferences (I want Test your Might back, dammit), and should not affect the overall score of this awesome synthesis of old-school goodness and spankin' new style. There is no doubt in my mind that MKD is the MK team's crowning achievement to date.
MKD's graphics are, in a word, beautiful. The opening cinematic is much longer than Deadly Alliance's, with even more detail and more carefully orchestrated cinematography than its predecessor. The result is a cinematic that really lives up to the term "cinematic," complete with dynamic camera angles, expert timing between shots and masterful use of facial expressions and body language to tell just as much story as the narrative overlay does.
Once upon a time, Mortal Kombat's main graphical selling point was its relative photo-realism. Now that technology has caught up to the minds behind the series' character and arena design, to use photo-realism would be a travesty, forcing dull costumes and characters upon a vibrant fantasy world. Mortal Kombat has found its new niche somewhere between the extreme detail of games like DOA and Virtua Fighter and the stylized, "all about the design" graphics of 2D fighters such as Guilty Gear. By using extremely high-resolution, high-polygon models and motion capture technology; the legacy of this game's realism can be seen in the movements and proportions of its characters. By running wild with the character design possibilities of setting the game in an alternate reality, the strong characterizations and highly visual style of the Mortal Kombat universe are fully realized at long last.
On a technical front, this game does not really look that much different than Deadly Alliance in terms of quality. The character models are more polished and, in my opinion, seem to stray toward the side of whimsy a bit more. The number of animations for each character has also been improved - between matches defeated fighters even get up from the arena floor using their trademark powers, which is awesome. But the real difference is in the arenas.
Many of the arenas in MKD are resurrections of old arenas, as I mentioned above. These have all been done justice and look every bit as cool as their new counterparts, though at times a bit simpler in comparison. The new arenas are the crown jewel of this game's design, though. All have a great level of detail and most have two levels, an opening area and a second area, which is reached by knocking an opponent through a barrier or off of an edge. The animations involved are similarly detailed and quite entertaining. The MKD team has really gone all out with these arenas.
For example, placing a fight inside the belly of a wooden ship wasn't enough: not only can you break the windows on the aft of the vessel, the secondary level (the hold) has corpses swinging back and forth from ropes in the middle of it, which can be batted into your opponent for minor damage. There's even a central Asia-inspired level with sand-scoured cliffs against a dramatic setting sun. Knock your opponent off of a cliff to her doom, or smack her into the side of an unstable ancient structure, loosening a huge stone statue to drop down and crush her. At every turn, the level of detail and more importantly, the strongly developed and unique visual style of the game continue to shine through the level design.
Particle effects are nice, and still a bit on the cartoony side. Blood is still represented by globules of red that don't really look like blood, but that's fine because it wouldn't fit the game's style to be too ultra-realistic. The cheesy spurting effects are entertaining and just gruesome enough to remind players that it's still Mortal Kombat. Besides, damage mapping doesn't keep track of specific cuts. Instead the same "level" system from Deadly Alliance has been utilized, with somewhat refined details. It still looks good and works well.
My main complaint with MKD's graphics is not that they are not all that different from the last game's - they're more polished and vibrant thanks to progressive scan support, and still look top-of-the-line. Rather, I am sick of still not seeing any ending cinematics for beating arcade mode. MKD still uses two illustrated storyboards with narration to tell each character's ending story, which feels cheap no matter which way you hack it. Especially given the astounding quality of the opening movie, the least they could have done was added a second sequence for the end of Konquest mode. Though seeing high-quality stills of characters is fine, it's a bit disappointing after all the visual grandeur of the rest of the game.
For perhaps the first time in the series' history, MKD's soundtrack takes center stage during gameplay. The tunes are driving, haunting, arabesque and electronic. They utilize instruments ranging from huge taiko drums to flutes to purely synthesized sounds. Each piece is perfectly suited to the area in which it is used, from arenas to character selection to the myriad realms of Konquest mode. I can honestly say that this is the first and only Mortal Kombat game whose soundtrack I would not mind paying good money for.
As if that weren't good enough, Midway included a Soundtrack option in the Kontent menu, where you can listen to the songs gratis - no separate purchase needed! What a boon (no pun intended, Ed). Many of the songs have to be unlocked by using krypt keys found during konquest mode, which just makes the feature all the more fun. If you've been putting off routing your PS2's sound through your stereo system, I can think of very few reasons better than MKD for you to do so.
Sound effects are all over the place and show the developers' fondness for comic books as well. They are all vibrant, lush and over the top. There must be at least half a dozen different squelching noises alone, plus dozens of energy effects, thumps, slaps, booms and more. As usual, they play a vital part in creating a game that is uniquely Mortal Kombat and are damn entertaining, too. The Dolby Digital mix is delivered with excellent spatial quality that puts you smack in the middle of these amazing environments.
My only problem with the sound in MKD is the voice acting. Many of the main voices are good, particularly Raiden's and older Shujinko's. As is the tradition with MK games, the development team has been allowed to do most of the voice work themselves. I don't begrudge them the chance to do this and I'm sure it's a blast hearing one's own voice in a video game. However, the truth of the matter is that this translates into spotty voice work for the game as a whole.
Herman Sanchez again does the disembodied "MK Voice," which is always a treat (you know, the "FIGHT!" guy), but outside of him and half a dozen or so other voices, the vocals of this game are average at best. I don't want to say they should have gone outside for voice talent when they've mostly always done in-house work, but at the same time it's probably the tradition I'm least fond of, and the main reason MKD will not score a perfect ten in this department.
Mortal Kombat was a small game filled with little secrets called Fatalities. MK2 added hidden characters, friendships and more to the mix. The last installment of the series continued the ever-expanding repertoire of goodies with the Krypt and koin system. As usual, this latest game blows them all out of the water.
Starting with the basics, 25 playable characters (I am counting Noob-Smoke as two) is nothing to sneeze at. Some of the best fighting games ever have only had ten or twelve, and more is always merrier. Add to that the fact that most of them aren't readily available at the outset of the game and MKD's value continues to rise. The Konquest mode is easily good for 30-40 hours of solid gameplay and the Krypt certainly doesn't hurt with more than 700 unlockables. Neither does the capability to go online and play against an endless number of ready and able opponents at any time. And I haven't even brought up Chess Kombat and the infinitely replayable Puzzle Kombat!
To make a long, long story short, very few games of any type approach the sheer amount of stuff to do that there is in MKD. It contains a full-featured, varied and enjoyable fighting game held together by unique gameplay and spectacular graphics and sound, a puzzle game, a free-roaming adventure with hundreds of NPCs and sidequests just waiting to be found, and even a weird sort of chess rip-off that's good entertainment in its own odd way.
MKD pays its $49.99 price back tenfold when compared to most other similarly priced games. For anyone old enough to handle the graphic violence and appreciate the wicked sense of humor that comes along with it, MKD should prove to be a smart purchase indeed.
Since their inception, the Mortal Kombat games have always reached toward their own place in the fighting game pantheon. With Deception, the series has finally attained that goal. A strongly unique and cool visual style, with influences from all of southern Asia, serves as the perfect backdrop for MKD's fine-tuned half-technical, half-casual gameplay style. An astoundingly well-written soundtrack tops it all off. And the sheer number of different things to do in the game make it a title that will keep being played long after the rest of the presents are gathering dust.
Mortal Kombat: Deception has taken all of the great things about modern technology and brought in huge truckloads of fan service, while still managing to feel as fresh and new as any of the other titles did when they were released. It's bigger, it's badder and there's a whole lot of cutting... and hey, that's a good thing, for once. MKD is a can't miss game for fans old and new alike.