In many ways playing MKVSDCU is like watching an episode of Celebrity Big Brother. It's the video game version of car crash TV - the coming together of such differing personalities and brand images that you can't help but sit back, enjoy the carnage, and have a lot of fun. Sub Zero versus Superman? Scorpion versus Batman? Raiden versus Joker? It's all here, clawing your eyelids open with bloodied fingers and forcing you to watch.
If the video game press was left scratching its head following the announcement of the game, long-standing Mortal Kombat fans were left fuming. With an enforced Teen rating and DC cracking the whip on what could and couldn't be done with its super heroes, Midway's Chicago team had to censor the one feature that has come to define the Mortal Kombat series throughout its phenomenally popular life - grizzly, gruesome, gory fatalities. "Lame!" was the collective scream, voiced with anger and potency on forums across the internet. Lame indeed.
While on these shores the game has a 15 rating, and, unlike in the US, Joker's inspired 'fake gun then real gun point blank shot to the face' fatality is actually shown rather than performed off-screen, MKVSDCU does feel censored. Yes, there are fatalities in the game, for the Mortal Kombat characters and the DC villains, but the DC heroes are left with 'heroic brutalities' - finishing moves that knock out rather than kill. Superman, for example, pounds his opponent into the ground with his fists. The Green Lantern crushes his foe with a shrinking bubble. Flash simply punches and kicks his enemy really fast. Lame indeed.
But, heroic brutalities aside, you can feel Ed Boon and co pushing DC and the censors' patience to the limit with every move and animation, which has resulted in an ironic situation where the violence is more gritty than over the top, and therefore more affecting. One of Sonya's fatalities, where she does a handstand on her enemy's shoulders and breaks their neck, is, despite the fact that there's no blood, sickening. Both of little-known DC villain Deathstroke's fatalities are gory in the extreme - the first sees him stick his sword in his opponent's belly then shoot them in the head. The other brings his enemy to their knees with a sword slice to the chest before a slow and considered neck break. There are many fire-based moves that burn characters to a crisp, and when they do, the dying screams and writhing bodies are shocking indeed. MKVSDCU might be toned down, with no beheading, flying limbs or spinal columns dripping with blood, but Midway has still produced a game that, if it were a movie, wouldn't dare be shown before the watershed.
It seems the sheer ridiculousness of the game and the furore surrounding the fatalities has overshadowed the actual gameplay. If you've played any MK game down the years you'll know what to expect. MKVSDCU suffers from the same wooden gameplay, questionable collision detection and awful 3D movement that every MK game suffers from. The flaws in combat system are made even the more glaring if you play the game immediately after a round or two of Soul Calibur, or Street Fighter 2, or Virtua Fighter, or Tekken, or any beat-em-up to come out of Japan. It's just not very good.
But it is accessible, and, if you don't take it too seriously, no small amount of fun. All of the characters share the same special move commands - down, back and a button; down, forward and a button; forward, forward and a button; back, back and a button; back, forward and a button and forward, back and a button. They're easy to pull off, (with the PS3 d-pad, the Xbox 360's awful d-pad makes things much more difficult). Mashing buttons, the scourge of any knowledgeable beat-em-up fan, will actually get decent results, too. Most of the characters will perform a three hit punch combo just by mashing 1 (X on the Xbox controller or Square on the PS3 pad). And, as has always been the case, jumping forward or backwards is a simple case of pressing diagonally up in either direction, and that famous MK uppercut is still down and 2 (Y or Triangle).
The 3D movement, rather than improve the gameplay, actually makes the game worse, and Midway's stubborn refusal to go back to the series' 2D roots frustrates yet again. You can move around the arena in three dimensions using the left thumb stick, or by using the d-pad while holding the left trigger. Like Capcom has done with Street Fighter IV, Midway really should have reverted back to classic 2D gameplay. The 3D movement is largely redundant - it's neither intuitive or particularly useful in a fight. MK simply works better as a 2D fighter.
The combat system, on the face of it, is bare bones. But, once you've had a bit of a play, soldiered through the tiresome but strangely entrancing story mode perhaps, and you're still interested, the Kombo Challenge mode is where you'll find more advanced training. Here, each character is presented with ten multi-string combos to perform perfectly. There's an extremely basic legend that tells you what speed to input commands, but apart from that the game doesn't give you any help at all. In fact, at times it feels as if it's actively trying to prevent you from getting better at the game. The move list, accessible after pausing mid-match, won't remember what move you've scrolled down to learn, so you'll have to scroll back to it every time. And there's no way of having the computer demonstrate the combo for you while in practice mode either, as there is in other fighters, which is a glaring and frustrating omission.