Reviewed: October 6, 2005
Released: September 19, 2005
The Mortal Kombat franchise has been around since my high school arcade days. I was never any good at the game mainly because I didnít have the time, tokens, or patience required to learn all the moves, combos, and fatalities required to be remotely competitive with any of the other MK-gods in my local arcade.
The franchise has seen countless sequels, both in the arcade and on home gaming platforms but until now Midway has never dared to venture to far from the tried and true combat formula that has made Mortal Kombat one of the most recognizable names in video games.
Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks breaks out of the traditional MK mold by offering, for the first time, a action-oriented, story-driven adventure for one or two players cooperatively. Both the game and the story were designed from the ground up so while you might see a few familiar faces, donít expect any continuation of stories from past games.
Shaolin Monks takes place around the time of MK2, and the amazing opening movie of this game depicts the final battle of MK1. The story picks up right after the final Battle of MK1 and then travels through the MK2 realms. The player can choose to play as either Liu Kang or Kung Lao in the single player adventure or they can choose to play in two-player co-op mode and work together to get through the game.
Youíll see a ton of characters from the MK universe as you progress through the game. Some MK characters will help you out, like Raiden, and some will be huge boss battles, like Baraka. One nice thing in this game is that if you are an ally of someone in the MK universe they will probably help you in this game, and if they are an enemy, well, there is probably going to be some ass to kick.
Despite the shift toward story-based gameplay, at its core Shaolin Monks has what is perhaps the finest combat engine in the entire MK franchise. The attacks and combos have been tweaked and perfected, and the new Multi-Directional Kombat System is intuitive and quite engaging. This system allows you a full 360-degree range of attack merely my pointing toward your target and pressing the attack button. The computer will seamlessly link your attacks into smooth combos changing your orientation as necessary.
Control is amazing with standard inputs for punching, kicking, grabs, throws, weapon attacks, as well as lock-on and attack modifiers. And you canít have a Mortal Kombat game without plenty of grisly fatalities courtesy of the D-pad. Veterans of the series will feel right at home and be pleased with the finely tuned controls, while newcomers can ease right into the action and be playing like pros in no time.
Mastering the timing of combat is always the trick in any Mortal Kombat game and Shaolin Monks rewards your Zen-like patience with experience points for perfectly executed attacks, combos, and especially, fatalities. You can then use these points to purchase new moves for your character increasing their power as you progress deeper into the story.
The move list is presented with text and images and is organized in tiers so new moves build off of the basic ones, which makes learning and using them extremely easy. You just keep adding new steps, increasing the combo and power of the attack.
The game is totally playable either by yourself or cooperatively. Each of the main characters offers some subtle differences in the way you approach and play the game; probably not enough to warrant replaying the entire game with the other characters, but you might want to pick the character that matches your own fighting style.
The cooperative element is fantastic and once you play with a friend you will have trouble going back and playing by yourself. There is nothing in the single player game that you cannot do in the co-op game. All the features and abilities are open to you in co-op mode as well.
My only complaint with the co-op mode is that you cannot have a second player drop in or out on the fly. You actually have to start a cooperative game and if player two wants to quit you have to end the game. It would have been so much nicer to be able to simply push the Start button on controller two and jump into an existing story and drop out when you want, just like they do in other multiplayer games.
There are special combos the two players can perform together, special fatalities for the co-op players and secret areas that can only be access with co-op mode. You can choose how to play, working together as a team, or competitively, going for the pickups and trying to kill more enemies than your partner. If one of you is better at one aspect of the game then that player can take the lead in those areas.
Exploring the massive levels and engaging in countless fights is only a part of this game. There are numerous action-based puzzles that are integrated straight into the game play. The only exception is ďTest Your MightĒ, that is used in innovative ways throughout the game.
The worlds are very interactive and useful to the player. With these interactive environments, Fatalities, Multalities, and the huge upgradeable move sets of the characters, you are constantly being given more tools at your disposal. You can use parts of these environments and even mix them with the bodies of fallen foes to solve some clever navigation puzzles, although you arenít rewarded for killing enemies with the environment.
There is some wonderful diversity in the levels and even though you might find yourself backtracking a bit more than you would like, you will usually have new abilities that will grant you access to new areas of the previously visited areas.
Shaolin Monks has some excellent visuals that begin with character design and fluid animation and carry over into some breathtaking level design. Despite the apparent size of these levels you might find yourself guided or even forced onto certain paths or encounters. The game isnít big on exploration, but would rather you move from one melee to the next.
There are all sorts of explosive special effects including fire, smoke, dazzling particle effects, and of course, a few thousand gallons of blood to paint the walls.
The real show stopper has to be the wonderful combat animation. Each move ties seamlessly with the next and the new 360 combat system is fantastic. There are also team attacks that require two players to work together, one starting the move and the other finishing it. These are some of the most visually rewarding moves to pull off in the game.
The cutscenes are fantastic, especially the opening movie that will have your jaw dragging across the carpet. The other movies are equally as good and tell a surprisingly good story, but you can tell the story was designed for the cooperative game. There are many movie segments where you will see the character you are ďnotĒ playing in the solo game. Heís there for the movie and gone for the gameplay.
Iím not sure if Mortal Kombat has ever changed its sound effects library since the original coin-op. All of these sounds are oddly familiar and include all of the expected effects related to martial arts and weapons combat. Itís loud, brutal, and often quite disgusting.
The voice acting isnít the best but itís certainly good for a laugh. Whether the designers were going for that classic ďKung Fu TheaterĒ flavor or not, they certainly achieved a new level of B-grade acting goodness, complete with out-of-synch lips.
The soundtrack is actually quite good, although I always seem to expect some killer techno tracks after watching the MK movies for years now. Instead, we get some really authentic Asian music that blends instrumental with atmospheric melodies that do an excellent job of creating the perfect mood for almost any situation within the game.
The story mode is about a 12-hour adventure, possibly a bit shorter if you are playing cooperatively, although the game does scale the difficulty based on how you are playing. Diehard fans of the franchise will likely want to replay the story mode again choosing the other characters. The events donít change but your approach to the gameplay certainly does.
As to be expected with any Mortal Kombat title, there are plenty of unlockable bonuses like items, arena, artwork, movies, and two additional characters, one of which is Scorpion. There are some significant extras like a playable demo of The Suffering 2: Ties That Bind, and the complete Mortal Kombat II is locked away in the bonus section.
The past few Mortal Kombat games have been slowly elevating the challenge right out of my league to the point where I was almost not even looking forward to Shaolin Monks. But it only took a few minutes of playing to see that this is a whole new vision of the Mortal Kombat legacy.
The combat system has been refined and is now intuitive and enjoyable by novices and experts alike. The choice of fighters and upgrade system allows you to create your own fighting style and the cooperative story mode encourages you to share the adventure with a friend.
Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is definitely an experience that is best shared, but even if you do find yourself playing alone, you will be able to immerse yourself into a surprisingly deep story and wonderful fantasy world of Asian-influenced culture that is loaded with non-stop and brutal action.