The continued upward trajectory of the Mortal Kombat series is still shocking. At one point, it was nothing more than a fallen franchise that was nearly left for dead, done in by mediocre to terrible entries that lacked creativity and consistency. And yet, Ed Boon and NetherRealm were able to not only revive the series but also elevate it to new heights. Coming off the critically and commercially successful MKX, Mortal Kombat 11 is facing some mighty high expectations.
Taking place shortly after the events of the previous game, Mortal Kombat 11 picks up with the now corrupted Raiden bringing the war to the enemies of Earthrealm. Specifically, the new rulers of the Netherrealm: Liu Kang and Kitana. However, the Lightning God’s messing of time has drawn the ire of another Elder God, Kronika. The Keeper of Time wants to bring balance back to the realms, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve this goal. This means, in what is now a series tradition I guess, the balance of time will be toyed with once more.
As a fan of the story mode in MKX, I was excited to see what Ed Boon and company had planned for Mortal Kombat 11. I’m happy to say that the time travel hi-jinx heavy plot is highly enjoyable. The best thing it does is switch the focus onto characters who kind of got short shifted the last time around, such as Kitana and Liu Kang. The Cage/Blade clan is still doing their thing, but there is a greater focus on the more magical elements of the series this time. If there’s one issue I have, though, it’s that the new big bads are kind of a mixed bag. Kronika is an interesting foe, but henchmen Geras and The Kollector lack development, and fellow god Cetrion is a total dork. They’re not completely terrible, but they do remind me of the bad old days of MK character creation.
I spoke about this in my preview of Mortal Kombat 11 from last month, but the gameplay here is arguably the strongest in franchise history. Fighting feels smoother and snappier than it has in the past, and has excised some of the less-exciting elements from MKX. Modifications to the Fatal Blow and Krushing Blow attacks let them change the course of a fight, but not in a way that feels entirely unfair. While not dumbed down too much, it certainly feels easier to work in every element of a character’s arsenal into your repertoire.
The distinct fighting styles each combatant has also received a facelift. In the previous game, each one had set loadouts that were tied with different aspects of their skill sets. For Mortal Kombat 11, players are given free rein to change their style as they see fit and blend together different elements and abilities into one killer class that fits a specific style. While I was a fan of the pre-set variations, I do have to admit that being given control over my moves is a significant improvement.
Customization options also extend to the look of your characters as well. Borrowing from fellow NetherRealm fighter Injustice 2, Mortal Kombat 11 brings with it a new gear system, albeit one focused on cosmetic benefits. As you play through the game’s various modes, you’ll unlock new outfits and accessories for every fighter. To use an example, you’ll come across different masks, staves, and razor-rangs for Jade to equip. As a fan of the series, I love this feature, but I also understand that a lot of its appeal is for fans only.
While this is a largely cosmetic feature, each of a fighter’s three accessories can be leveled up, after which they can be augmented with certain elements. However, there is a frustrating amount of randomness to not only getting these elements but also in which ones can be used on which pieces. It’s an annoying system that seems designed to make you grind and grind and grind for little reward.
The relentless grind was one of my major criticisms of Mortal Kombat X, and that problem rears its head once again. The first area where you’ll really notice this is in the Towers of Time mode. A spin on the Multiverse mode in Injustice 2, the Towers of Time are a series of battles that can be cleared in order to earn rewards. Depending on if you are doing character-specific towers or not, these rewards can run the gamut from new outfits to in-game currency. There are also timed ones that filter in and out throughout the day, so there’s pretty much always something new for you to do.
It’s a great idea in theory, but one that doesn’t work as well as it should in practice. The big issue is the borderline sadistic difficulty spikes that pop up at least usually once per tower. These spikes are caused either by the augments your opponent has equipped or by level specific modifiers that only affect you. A level may be covered in damage dealing torrents of blood, but for some ungodly reason, it only hurts you. What should be a difficult but ultimately winnable fight instead becomes a controller-smashing nightmare. And at the end of all that frustration, you never really know if the reward was going to be worth the effort.
You can turn the tide of battle with consumables of your own, but you’re going to have to grind to get these as well. By completing towers or opening chests in the Krypt, you can get limited use items for the Towers of Time. However, most of these abilities are one-time use only, so you can’t carry them through an entire tower. If you get stuck on a particularly challenging group, this means you’re probably gonna burn through a lot of them in one go, which then means you’ll have to grind for more, resetting this whole twisted cycle. Depending on how you wanna look at it, it’s either a way to extend the game’s longevity or a way to get players to fork over more cash.
There may not be any traditional loot boxes in Mortal Kombat 11, but the Krypt is a decent enough stand-in. Returning once again, but this time with a new third-person camera angle, players can unlock various chests filled with goods. As far as I can tell, the chests are all randomized, so you can’t seek out specific rewards anymore. I can understand that move, as it’s pointless to have this whole island to explore if people are only gonna go into it for certain items. However, what this translates to is a cycle where you’ll spend currency on chests that contain nothing of value to you. Sometimes it’s something half-way decent like an unused character’s brutality, but other times, it can be extremely useless, like concept art. Again, it can feel like the time and effort you put into the game isn’t fairly rewarded when all you get is a bunch of nonsense in return.
If you want to ignore all that and just have fun, you can always just hop into online play. Unlike MKX, which was really rough, I’ve had a pretty good time hopping online in Mortal Kombat 11. The net code has held up surprisingly well, and I’ve experienced little to no lag so far. If versus is not your speed, you can also team up with others to conquer specific Towers of Time. I can’t say for certain whether the smooth online experience will hold up after launch, but for now, it’s at least trending in a good direction.
The last entry in the franchise had the downside of being cross-gen, which means that it couldn’t take full advantage of the then-new consoles. That’s certainly not the case here, as Mortal Kombat 11 is not only one of the best looking fighters on the market, but also one of the best looking games period. The levels are filled with incredible background detail, with each one feeling alive and distinct. The characters look even better, and they’re a substantial improvement over the stiff models NetherRealm Studios has had in the past. The extra technical horsepower means that everything looks more gruesome than ever. Brains being munched on, innards being exposed, and skulls being caved in have never looked so good.
In most ways, Mortal Kombat 11 is the best entry in the franchise to date. The combat engine is a substantial step-up from past entries, the graphics are top-notch, and there’s an almost overwhelming amount of content for fans to experience. However, questionable design decisions hold the fighter back from achieving true greatness. The tedious grinding to unlock anything of value puts a significant hamper on the action, occasionally lending Mortal Kombat 11 the look and feel of an obnoxious free-to-play game. There’s enjoyment to be found in NetherRealm’s latest, but I wish it didn’t feel so much like work.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
Mortal Kombat 11 is arguably the most enjoyable entry in the long-running franchise. It's visually incredible and a blast to play. However, questionable design decisions -- namely, a grind-heavy approach to progression -- hold it back from true fighting game greatness.