Black humour has always been the bricks and mortar of the Mortal Kombat series. While Street Fighter was trying to attain martial arts perfection, scampering down a cliff to retrieve a bonsai for Mr Miyagi, Mortal Kombat was busy stealing jazz mags from the local corner shop. While this latest iteration is certainly trying to provide the level of technical depth you'd expect from a 2011 release, it's the same old lacerations, decapitations and bloody uppercuts that form the game's (violently ripped-out) spine.
As per usual, the controls eschew Street Fighter-style quarter circles in favour of simple tap commands. Anyone with prior MK experience on their gaming CV will find themselves immediately at home, and many of the more iconic moves are still triggered by the same inputs used for the best part of two decades. Scorpion's classic Spear Throw is still unleashed via a simple Back-Back-Punch, and it's still accompanied by the cry of "Get over here!" - a phrase that's sure to spark a few pleasantly painful memories. Developer NetherRealm Studios is pushing the nostalgia factor as hard as it can, so while several of the game's combatants have been tweaked in terms of their appearance, they're still recognisable as the same characters we've been using for years. The only genuine newcomer revealed so far is Kratos, appearing as a special guest on the PS3 version.
It's not just the cast who look familiar either, with backdrops like MK2's Dead Pool and MK3's Subway reappearing alongside mandatory stages like The Pit. At a glance this new Mortal Kombat resembles an HD restoration of one of the first three games, just as Street Fighter 4 resembled a reborn Street Fighter 2. And that's not the only parallel with Capcom's revival hit: After the full 3D of Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, the combat here is presented via a 2.5D perspective, restricting players to a single plane of movement. There's a subtle degree of camera swing as the characters approach either end of a stage, but for all intents and purposes this is a retro-styled, sideways brawler.
As far as gameplay revisions, the biggest switch-up lies in the inclusion of a three-part super meter at the bottom of the screen. One chunk of this gauge can be used up to turn a standard special move into a more powerful version - a la Street Fighter's EX commands - while two blocks can be spent on a Combo Breaker, which lets you escape from a damaging chain of attacks. Both additions bring Mortal Kombat one step closer to the tactical flourishes of more serious fighters, but there's no doubt that it's the X-Ray attacks - your prize for expending a full meter - that will ultimately steal the limelight.
The chances are you've already seen a few of these grisly show-off moves, as their spectacular qualities have been widely exhibited in Warner's many trailers. By tugging down on two shoulder buttons (L2 and R2 on the PS3) you'll perform a simple-looking, short-range attack; if this successfully connects, your reward will be a brief sequence in which your character batters the opponent in slow motion. The impact of your brutality is then highlighted via real-time X-Ray vision, CSI style. Ribs shatter, shoulder blades split, and jaws crack open into a confetti of liberated teeth. The worst (or perhaps best) of these sequences are sadistic in the extreme, heaping humiliation onto the hefty damage dealt to your opponent's energy bar. Breakers and improved special moves are arguably more sensible uses of your gauge, but X-Ray attacks seem like a neat way to shame your opponent. In short, they're like mid-match Fatalities, only less fatal.
Speaking of Fatalities, the new set of finishing moves is sure to please the gore hounds who felt that MK Vs. DCU was disappointingly tame. Again, you've probably seen a fair few of these already - although special mention should go to Noob Saibot's Make A Wish. The black-clad ninja grabs one of his opponent's legs, while a handy clone appears to take hold of the other. A playful bout of Tug o' War commences, with ripping the victim in half from their crotch to the top of their skull. Noob also boasts an X-Ray moves that ends with a boot to his rival's stomach, resulting in them vomiting all over his leg.
Your reaction to such gory descriptions will likely define your attitude to Mortal Kombat as a whole. If the violence sounds overly gruesome to you - or perhaps even just a bit immature - then it's unlikely that this will be your Game of the Year. On the other hand, if you've been hankering for a brawler that rekindles the spirit of the '90s Kombats, this is almost certainly the slaughterhouse you've been awaiting. There's still a pronounced sense of humour underscoring the bloodshed, but it's not one that you'll find particularly funny if you've never giggled your way through a bad horror film. Being something of a sick puppy myself, I find the whole thing fairly amusing - but it won't be for everyone.
That being said, there are signs NetherRealm is trying to open the game up to as wider audience. While the special moves remain simple to execute, there's also an accessible combo system that makes it surprisingly easy to string together effective chains of basic blows. Aside from the inclusion of a tutorial, practice mode and a Fatality trainer, there's also a 300-stage Challenge Tower - a vertically linear series of battles, each with a set restriction or aim. The early tasks here serve as introductions to basic gameplay concepts, but as you scale the heights you'll be presented with increasingly steep challenges, pitting you against multiple opponents, or preventing you from using specific moves or limbs. Footage online suggests that at least one scenario will physically mutilate your character, causing your arms to fall off at the start of a round where punching is forbidden.
With the added attraction of full-on tag team battles - a first for the series - it seems that there'll be no shortage of content propping up the core Story and Versus modes. All the same, it's the feel and tone of the game that will best please the long-time Mortal Kombat fans. On the basis of what I've played thus far, the look and feel is commendably close to the series' roots. True, there's a slight clunkiness to the controls, but even this feels like a nod to the past - intentional or otherwise. Mortal Kombat has always favoured grotesque showmanship over graceful precision; as a shameless slice of sadistic fun, NetherRealm's latest may well make the cut.
Mortal Kombat will be released on April 21 on PS3 and Xbox 360.