Midway’s Mortal Kombat series has gone through a series of ups and downs. While Mortal Kombat 2 managed to improve upon the fast-paced, gore-galore formula of the original, the third incarnation didn’t fare nearly as well. MK3 suffered from monkeywrenched gameplay, needlessly stupid finishing moves like "Animalities," and unbearably campy character designs (remember the mall-cop with the enormous ass?). And after the cataclysmic War Gods, Midway’s first entry into the 3D fighting field, everyone assumed that the next Kombat would be, well, krap. Surprisingly, MK4 has turned out a little better then expected, re-injecting some of the atmosphere and humor of the first two games -- but it’s still no world-beater.
The story is the usual incoherent nonsense about an Elder God getting loose and causing havoc, so it’s up to the Mortal Kombatants to bludgeon each other until natural order is restored to the universe. Luckily, the story does have some saving graces -- the sorry characters of MK3 have gotten the axe, and favorites from the original cast are back, including Johnny Cage, Raiden, and a new fella who looks like "Lurch" from The Addams Family.
There’s barely any difference in gameplay from the other MK games --just beat the stuffing out of your opponent before the timer runs out. To make things more interesting, each character carries a weapon that can be whipped out at opportune times. Rocks and skulls are scattered around the playing field, so it’s possible to toss something big and heavy at your opponent.
If the eight-button control scheme seems baffling, keep in mind that three of them can be overlooked -- the plane-shift buttons don’t do much in the 3D arenas, and the run button is utterly worthless. However, if you’re looking for depth, look somewhere else. In fighters like Virtua Fighter 2 and Last Bronx, each character had a totally different feel due to individual movesets; in MK4, each character’s play is nearly identical.
This is the first time Mortal Kombat has gone 3D, and it shows. The polygon models don’t seem quite as refined as the arcade version, and suffer from flickery joints syndrome -- but at least the game can run at 60fps on a modest system. Some things are harder to forgive; a few of the animations are appallingly bad -- Johnny Cage’s win pose looks like it was motion-captured from one of the mechanical Christmas elves you see at the mall -- and even the blood effects are disappointing. You’d think Midway would have made the gore more realistic than flying red lego bricks. Still, the voices sound like they were sampled from Rudy Ray Moore’s classic Dolemite, and that’s okay by me.
And then we’ve got the fatalities. Good lord! While the finishing moves of the first three games could be classified as "cartoon violence," MK4’s border on the disturbing. This is not a game for the kiddies -- unless you’re comfortable with the wee ones watching someone’s face get gnawed off, or an immolated victim running in circles and screaming bloody murder. (My personal favorite is the fatality where your character sends your foe flying into an enormous cooling fan.)
However, when you strip away the shock value, MK4 hasn’t changed much since its original debut four years ago. If you’re a fan of the series, or you’ve got an itch to play a merely competent fighting game, knock yourself out -- but more discerning fighting fans should stick with VF2 or maybe try out Midway’s other offering this month, Bio Freaks.