Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe? Really? Sub Zero vs. Batman? Really? Apparently so.
We knew it was coming, on account of the leakage power of the Internet, but the assembled media at the Red Rock hotel in Las Vegas, us included, still thought it might have been a joke - April Fools overspill perhaps - until Ed Boon himself took to the stage and the game's debut trailer kicked in across three massive screens.
The decision to pair Mortal Kombat with Batman, Superman and co is at the very least a surprising one. It's hard to work out if it's one of the coolest crossovers in gaming history or simply a gimmick. Ed Boon is certainly convinced, as we found out during our post-presentation interview with the beat-em-up legend. "I've always wanted to cross MK over since about MK4, or something like that," he says. "I'm a big fan of all of the other fighting games, Street Fighter, Tekken. I always thought, wouldn't it be cool to have MK vs. SF and MK vs. Tekken. We pursued some of those ideas to the extent that we could but we always ran into some kind of road block and couldn't do it. So our marketing people knew that we were interested in doing those kinds of things so they presented the DC Universe idea to us. We weighed the plusses and minuses of doing it but in the end the whole idea, the whole magic of having Batman and Sub Zero on the screen at the same time doing their moves against each other, prevailed over everything else."
How the gaming community reacts to the marrying of the Mortal Kombat and DC Universes is, however, the least of Ed's problems. What is of more concern is the reaction to the reduced violence. Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is going to be a teen rated game. Despite what you may have heard, there may well be blood in the game, just not streams of gushing blood as we're used to seeing from the series. But, and this is the biggy, there won't be bone crunching, spine shattering fatalities. Instead, Ed intends to include finishing moves, which will work similarly to fatalities in that they will be spectacular attacks designed to finish your opponent, but they won't involve tearing Batman's head off, or pulling Superman's heart out and showing it to him.
This is all down to the collaboration with DC Comics of course. Ed says that he's in negotiations with the ESRB, America's game rating body, about what exactly T for Teen means these days, and is pushing to see exactly how much violence, blood and gore he can get out of the rating. "There's obviously a line that can't be crossed," he explains. "We're basically looking for that line to see what we can get away with. We don't want to lose the spirit of what MK is, very brutal, very intense, there's a certain amount of violence that's associated with MK. It's MK vs. DC, it's not just a DC game, so we want the spirit of MK and the spirit of DC. We don't know exactly what the answer is now because the game isn't finished. But that's something we're constantly working on."
This redirection seems at odds with Ed's vision for a darker, grittier Mortal Kombat, with fewer saturated colours and over the top gameplay mechanics (more on that later). But as soon as the idea was presented to him, Ed always knew a Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe game would have to be much less of a gore fest than what's gone before. "We went into it knowing that that was going to be the case. I don't think we ever said, can we rip Batman's head off? We didn't even bother asking that." Much in the same way that car manufacturers are averse to allowing vehicle damage in racing games, DC Comics was never going to allow its standard bearers to have their limbs torn off by white-haired Gods.
The Internet, as you'd expect, has already delivered its verdict on the move, a bit like football managers ranting over a refereeing decision the second after the final whistle has blown. Perhaps as the dust settles on what is the eighth (has it really been that long?) game in the hugely popular Mortal Kombat series (the last game sold two million copies), and more gameplay details emerge, fans will begin warm to Ed's vision. Perhaps. But then, with a teen rating and the introduction of Batman and Superman, hardcore gamers, perhaps those who spent an unhealthy amount of time in grubby, early nineties arcades refining their six-string fatalities in front of a crowd, are perhaps not on Midway's demographic radar.
We're prepared to give Ed and MK vs. DCU a chance, a chance to convince us that improvements in gameplay will more than make up for the lack of gross violence. And that's because much of what Ed tells us makes sense. It makes sense to those who have grown tired of the series in recent years. It makes sense to those who played MK in its heyday - back when beat-em-ups ruled the world. It makes sense to those of us who thought the last MK game, 2006's Armageddon on the PS2, Xbox and Wii, was somewhat of a disappointment. Gone are the stance changes. Gone are the weapons. Gone is the high punch low punch combat system which has held true for so long. Gone are the masses of playable characters (Armageddon had over 60). And gone, to some extent, is the trademark gore.
In is a vastly reduced playable character roster ("Every single character is a known DC character, a known MK character. Because they're so iconic, we don't feel like we want to do the huge, massive roster. We just focus in on these core 20 characters"). In is a new combat system which sees switches in perspectives and controls. Take the Freefall Kombat, for example, which you can see in the game's debut trailer. Here two characters knock two lumps out of each other as they are falling from one level of the multi-tiered arenas to another. Then there's Klose Kombat, which involves another switch in perspective as the camera zooms up close and personal when you grab your opponent and drag them into a boxing mode. In is a tag team single-player mode that allows you to pick one character from the Mortal Kombat universe and one from the DC universe and see events unfold from two perspectives, in a story penned by comic veterans Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. We don't have many details on the story, but what we do know is that both factions are brought together by a "cataclysmic force" and end up fighting each other while the real threat goes about its world conquering business. Hey, this is a beat-em-up. Story is never the point.
What is the point is that MK vs. DCU is at the very least an attempt to breathe new life into the series. As Ed has said in the past, and confirms to us in Vegas, it wipes the slate clean. "I really feel that fighting games need to release every several years because at some point people are going to feel that they've played the game already and it's just a slight improvement over the last one and some people might not think that warrants paying $60 for a game. It's going to be accessible but it's certainly going to be very very new."
Imagine knocking Batman off a skyscraper - as you're both falling you get to fight in the air. You hit the ground and start fighting in the street. You pull Batman towards you and start brawling boxing style with a new perspective and new controls. Then Batman smacks you out of it and blasts you through the ground floor of the building to the other side. You'll be moving in and out of these different game modes and perspectives at a frantic pace. This is a new era for Mortal Kombat. This is Mortal Kombat like we've never seen it before. As Ed describes it: "It's crazy!"
Right now only Batman and Superman, along with Scorpion and Sub Zero are confirmed playable characters. But Ed tells us that he's aiming for about 20 characters, with an equal 10 MK vs. 10 DC split down the middle. He also confirmed to us that there won't be any new MK universe characters introduced, which means we can expect another eight characters from MK games gone by to supplement the core Sub Zero and Scorpion. We expect Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, Raiden and Sonya Blade to make an appearance. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.
On the DC side, we expect to see Batman and Superman's arch enemies turn up. We're talking Joker, Two Face, Bane, Green Lantern, The Penguin, Riddler, Scarecrow, Lex Luthor and the like. A quick glance at DC Comics' heroes and villains roster over at the official site shows that there's plenty to work with, although some are a little dubious. Hell, there might even be room for Super Woman. But please, Ed, no Robin.
Of course, the burning question here is not an intellectual one. It is not a hard hitting probe into the mindset of an artist at work. It is one born out of pure fanboy logic. How can anyone beat Superman in a beat-em-up? He's invulnerable!
So Ed, how? "A million people have asked me that! The reality is Mortal Kombat is based on magic. There's supernatural, there's sorcerers, there's the nether realm and all that stuff. Superman's two weaknesses are kryptonite and magic. So when you merge the two realms he kind of gets a little weaker, the other characters get stronger and it becomes more of an even balance."
That, for now, is enough to satisfy our MK vs. DCU curiosity. More information is set to pour forth from E3 in July. As gamers and MK fans come to terms this weekend with what some are already describing as the ruination of one of the most iconic video game series in the history of the medium, perhaps it's wise to take a step back and think of the bigger picture. If Ed manages to make a MK game that plays better than any of its predecessors, the lack of fatalities and obscene gore will be an easier pill to swallow. That, my MK loving friends, as well as the prospect of upper cutting Batman off the top of a skyscraper, is all we can ask for.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is scheduled for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 in Fall 2008.