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POSTED: 9/19/2005  7:35 PM

ack during the Mortal Kombat I and II heydays I would have ripped out somebody’s spine for a game like Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. Fully fleshed out storytelling, 3-D versions of everyone’s favorite stages, and a classic move set are enough to get any Mortal Kombat fan excited. But did Midway score a flawless victory with Shaolin Monks or perform an embarrassing babality?

The story is set mostly in the time period of Mortal Kombat II. It turns out Shang Tsung is a pretty sore loser and hasn’t accepted his thorough butt-kicking at the hands of Lui Kang. Tsung’s ransacking of the Earth realm ultimately lures our heroes Lui Kang and Kung Lao into the outworld to take down the evil shape-shifter and many of his famous henchmen along the way. In addition to co-op play with the two monks, other famous faces like Raiden, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade pop in from time to time to lend a hand. Raiden serves as a wise mentor to the group while Johnny is his typical Hollywood douchebag self. Midway does a fantastic job of translating and expanding the personalities of its key players in Shaolin Monks.

Dancing, dancing, dancing machine!

What’s the most important element of any MK game? The kombat, obviously. And Shaolin Monks dishes it out in spades. The three attack buttons plus a throw can all be combined in simple and intuitive ways. Open up on an enemy with some quick attacks, hit the launch button to pop him up in the air, and then finish him off with a hearty heavy attack. This is just one of the many ways you can choose beat the crap out of adversaries. Running or jumping will both trigger a separate set of alternate attacks on all four buttons. And special moves are a snap. Just hold the right trigger and combine it with an attack button to initiate Lui Kang’s fireballs and jump kick or Kung Lao’s hat throw and teleport. Only a quickly recharging meter limits these advanced attacks.

Weapons scattered throughout the game not only add variety to kombat, but the also deal a ton of satisfying damage. Cut down bad guys using anything from huge swords to double hooky blades. The devastating final blows will chop off their heads, or slice them in half (vertically or horizontally). You can even incorporate throws with weapons. For example, Kung Lao can stab a guy in the heart, leave it in, jump on his shoulders, and pound the crap out of his head.

Stringing together massive combos is the only way to net you Mortal Kombat’s signature move, the fatality. After you build the fatality meter high enough, hit the fatality button to unleash a glowing green strike. If you connect, everything turns black except for you and the enemy. A line of question marks appears underneath at the bottom of the screen, and every time you press a direction or a face button it will replace one of them. Unlike the traditional MK games, you always know when the game has registered your inputs. Memorize the list of fatalities you learn along the way and you’ll be whipping them out like a champ in no time. Besides looking cool (i.e. playing soccer with a dude’s head), fatalities also proving a huge dose of experience points. Later on in the game you can unlock progressively worse multalities and brutalities, which expand fatalities out to several enemies instead of focusing on just one.

In general, you’ll gain experience points after killing bad guys. But the amount multiplies if you can pull off lengthy combos. These points can then be spent on increasing the power and amount of moves like Lui Kang’s fireballs and other specials or they can unlock custom combos for each character. With this generous system in place it always feels like the next goal is just within reach.

Even with Shaolin Monk’s excellent fighting engine, the game could get pretty stale after a while if this was the only objective in the game. Fortunately, Midway has included a robust platforming element to the melee. Standard fare like hopping from rooftop to rooftop and grabbing edges is mixed in with a bounty of creative, light puzzle solving. Knock enemies into spikes and jump off their bodies to reach an inaccessible area. Uppercut someone up into a chandelier to bring it down along with a secret unlockable. Throw an enemy into a catapult to launch him towards some spike balls, which will then tumble down a hill and destroy a barrier blocking your way. Even the standard lever pulls have an interesting twist. “Test your might” returns here by making you bash a face button as fast as possible and then hit the left trigger to strike the lever. If you manage to solve some puzzles off the beaten path you can even unlock concept art, movies, extra characters, and even a full copy of Mortal Kombat II!

But what really makes Shaolin Monks shine is the dedication to source material. Most of the standard minions are recognizable characters from the backgrounds of MK I and II. Masked spearsmen, hooded sorcerers, and even Baraka’s thugs all want a piece of you. But more famous MK bad guys like Reptile, Goro, and Kano are rightly saved for intense boss battles. Sound effects are spot on, as well. That deep voiced guy returns to say classic phrases like “Excellent” and “Fatality.” Midway even threw in a high-pitched “Toasty!” for good measure. And you’ll find yourself repeating Lui Kang’s infectious kung fu gibberish for a week after playing this game.

Where Shoalin Monks really comes into its own, however, is the kick ass co-op mode. Not only can you access areas unavailable in the single player mode, but it’s also just really freakin’ fun to team up and beat down. You and a friend can trade off combos and toss some hapless goon back and forth until he explodes in pain. Also, players can perform specialized team up moves like Kung Lao’s Michael-Jackson-crazy-spin with Lui Kang’s fireballs will splinter flamey destruction all over the screen.

A versus mode is also included, but it’s probably best to wait until you’ve unlocked some extra characters and stages before trying it out – that is, unless you’re particularly fond of an endless stream of Lui Kang versus Kung Lao matches. In this mode, characters’ specials are fully powered up, but their meters take a lot longer to recharge so it doesn’t turn into projectile-fest. You can also pick up defensive powerups, weapons, health, and a variety of other items to give you the edge.

After some solid hands-on time, it’s safe to say that this is the best co-op game since the original X-Men Legends. The best plan of attack is probably to grab a friend and blow through the game in a weekend. But with all of the secret unlockables, alternate paths, and new playable characters (certain mysterious ninjas) you’ll constantly be coming back for more. Any Mortal Kombat fan should be ashamed not to add Shaolin Monks to their collection. But the gamers who really need to pick up a copy are the ones who haven’t played the series since it went 3-D. It’ll take you straight back to those days in a dark arcade when MK still meant “photographs of real people in silly costumes animated to look like they’re beating the crap out of each other.” Ahhh, nothing better than the sweet smell of nostalgia and innovation.

-Bryan Vore

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