Mortal Kombat 2011

Widge Here: Everyone give a big warm welcome to Brady, who wanted to throw in with some gaming review action. The more the merrier. Or considering the game in question: "Excellent!"

Just about any gamer who visited an arcade or owned a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo in the 90s is familiar with the basics of Mortal Kombat: cheesy character designs, buckets of blood, over-the-top finishing moves, and something about a martial arts tournament in a place called Outworld that decides the fate of Earthrealm. The storyline, while entertaining in its goofiness, was never really that important. It was all about beating the bloody snot out of your opponent and then getting a chance to tear his/her head off (spinal column still attached), Predator-style.

But as many devout MK followers know, the franchise lost its way through the years over the course of several sequels and spin-offs. One game focused on the Sub-Zero character was critically panned, and you got the feeling that the developers had run out of ideas when they introduced finishing moves called "Babalities," in which you turned your opponent into a diaper-clad infant. At several points, it seemed as if the series had become a parody of itself...and not in a good way. Other recent titles shifted the playing field from two dimensions to three with lackluster results, and even pitted the hardcore bloodletting kombatants of MK against heroes and villains from the DC Comics universe (an amusing distraction, but hardly what fans were clamoring for). However, devotees can finally breathe a sigh of relief: the new Mortal Kombat brings the fighting series back to its roots with stunning results. It is simply the meatiest, goriest and most feature-laden fighter available right now.

As soon as you fire up the game, a wealth of possible time stealers are readily available. You can tackle the Story Mode, featuring so-bad-it's-good voice work and a script strewn with lovably cheesy one-liners. Or you could head straight for the classic Tournament ladder, culminating with a face-off with Outworld head honcho Shao Kahn. Maybe you jump into the Challenge Tower, which offers hundreds of matches with special conditions and modifiers. For example: one takes both fighters' arms away, in another the entire screen is flipped upside down, and my favorite so far: Mileena tries to give Scorpion a teddy bear and a brawl ensues, because, well, Scorpion hates teddy bears. The story mode, though a bit silly and nonsensical, is essentially one big, flowing cutscene that allows you to take control intermittently to duke it out with an opponent. It works well because scenes are nicely rendered with the in-game engine (no pre-rendered movies) and the guilty-pleasure plotline. It tells a tale similar to the original games, but has some twists thrown in that offer something fresh. I won't spoil anything, but rest assured that it's unlike anything you've seen in a fighting game before.

The Challenge Tower is riddled with all kinds of gruesome and silly antics that you'd expect from the MK universe. The old "Test Your Might" button-mashing segments make a welcome return. There are a few balancing issues, however, as you'll breeze through a couple of fights and then suddenly run into a brick wall of a difficulty spike, which may impede your progress for several minutes depending on your skill level. If that's not enough for you, there are Tag Team Matches and a smooth online component, if you prefer to kick human-controlled asses. Completists will find a lot to love here; there is just a ton of stuff to unlock. MK's currency system rewards Koins (of kourse) for every fight, even if you're just mucking about in the training room. When you've got some dough, you can dive into the Krypt, a traversable landscape of torture machines, putrid bogs and graveyards. Buying a "landmark" may result in a poor soul being drawn and quartered, a dead body rising from murky waters and being pecked by birds until it bursts, or a headstone crumbling. Out of that pops a reward; it could be a new Fatality for any of the game's 25-plus characters, or a nice piece of concept art. This is a creative (and disgusting) way of presenting a gallery of unlockables, but the thoughtful execution is tempered by the fact that it's a bit of a chore to scour every square foot of the huge virtual landscape. However, I still prefer this method over scrolling through a list or clicking through an endless series of boxes marked "?."

MK's combat…er, kombat...system feels tight and, for the most part, well-balanced. Every character has some sort of ranged attack and a handful of 3-hit combos, but it's up to you to find out how to string them together for a continuous barrage of juggles and strikes. The return to a 2D playing field is part of what makes everything feel so focused. A few characters feel cheap (ahem, Sheeva) because of "god" moves that give opponents little to no time to react or evade them..."Unavoidable Ground Stomp," anyone? Landing strikes (and getting hit) builds up a power meter that can be used for powered-up versions of standard moves and the new "X-Ray" attacks. These are endlessly entertaining to watch. If you happen to land one (they are blockable), blows are slowed down to dramatic effect, and the automatic combo that follows is absolutely brutal. The camera zooms in on every hit, revealing an x-ray view of organs rupturing and bones snapping. These moves are quite avoidable if you have the reflexes, but be prepared to lose a good chunk of health if your opponent connects. I don't quite understand how a guy can keep fighting after having two daggers plunged into his eye sockets, or after having his spleen frozen and then crushed into bits (courtesy of Sub-Zero), but this is Mortal Kombat. Don't think too hard about it, and you'll have a blast.

Mortal Kombat's core gameplay doesn't revolutionize the fighting genre, but its presentation and bounty of modes and gameplay options do. Whether you're a hardcore fighting game fan or a 27-year old child who still has fond memories of Mortal Kombat's early days, just about everyone will find something to like here.

One final note: keep this game away from the kiddies. The M-rating on the front of the box should be a dead giveaway for well-informed parents, but this one of the more violent titles I've played in some time.