We're playing Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Batman screams and drops to the floor, burnt to a crisp by iconic undead ninja Scorpion's firery breath. Flash speeds past Sonya, stunning her for a few seconds in a crippling daze. And Superman frantically smashes his fists onto the head of Sub Zero, pounding him into the ground until there's almost nothing left. It's absolutely savage, and feels so very weird.
And also very, very exciting. Exciting because, lest we forget, this is a brand new Mortal Kombat game, playable for the first time at E3 2008 in LA, a series that has been going for years and continues to sell tremendously well. All gamers know MK. And most have played it. And it's exciting because, well, Superman and Batman are in a beat em up that's got a great chance of being pretty good.
So we're excited. But, if we're being honest, we're also a little worried. The trailers released for the game up to this point have suggested a somewhat rigid, clunky and constrained fighter. Time to find out if the interesting new ideas Ed Boon and co have come up with are coming together to form a fluid, enjoyable fighter.
MKVSDCU is an attempt to bring back that old school 2D fighter feel. To that end, the d-pad is used for all 2D style movement, crouching, jumping and moving forwards and backwards. But Ed hasn't totally ditched the 3D vibe from recent titles in the series. The left thumb stick controls 3D movement, so you'll be able to move in and out of the area just like before.
And here lies one of our concerns with the game - it's impossible to use the d-pad and the left thumb stick at the same time, since both require your left thumb. We found that we completely ignored the left thumb stick, not deliberately, but naturally. We couldn't exactly go without jumping now could we?
So, using just the d-pad, we jump, sweep, special move and combo just like we used to back in the day. It feels very early 90s. And then Superman grabs Sub Zero, the camera zooms in, the two heavy weights start snapping limbs in Klose Kombat and we're reminded that, actually, this is 2008 and things have come on a long way since then.
Klose Kombat, triggered by landing an interactive throw, uses a new set of face button controls and feels somewhat like a mini-game. There are five different attacks to cause damage with. As the defender you don't have to sit there and take it though. There's a small window of opportunity where one of your own face buttons flashes and you can counter. Some of the close combat attacks are painfully brutal. The knee to the spine and the arm breaker are particular highlights. It's simple, accessible and not particularly sophisticated. Once you get used to the timing countering becomes fairly easy, which begs the question: why would you go for an interactive throw if you know there's a good chance your every attack is going to be countered?
Better than Klose Kombat is the new Free-Fall Kombat feature, which sees you blast your opponent through the level wall and jump straight after them, pummelling each other as you both fall out of the sky. The aim during this transition is to max out the super meter. Once done you'll be able to trigger a super combo attack that smashes your falling foe into the ground below, doing massive damage. The risk, however, is in being countered so that the defender now becomes the attacker and takes control of the super meter.
Each arena will have a unique transition. The Metropolis arena, which sees both fighters smash through wall after wall of the media building until both fighters end up on the other side, triggers a 'Test Your Might' button mash competition, ala Gears of War 2's chainsaw duels (in another link with Epic's third person shooter, Midway is using Unreal Engine 3 to build the game).
Midway is well aware that these new gameplay features are, well, a bit simple. So it's built in a new Pro-Move system which rewards players who know their charge attacks from their cross-ups. Every special move has a Pro level. Take, for example, Sonya Blade's Energy Rings projectile. After you've performed the motion (charge back then forward and punch) there's a small window of opportunity to repeat the move and have a second ring fire out straight after the first. Another example is Superman's Eye Laser. By timing a press of all four face buttons after performing the special move Superman will continue the Eye Laser for longer and cause more damage. It's a mechanic that's designed to provide depth for more advanced players. We picked it up pretty quickly (being the fighting game gods that we are), and, eventually, used them to mix up attacks and make our play less predictable.
Now that we're playing the game ourselves, and we can see it up close, the lovely graphical detail that's been put into the game comes through loud and clear. Flash's clothing rips, exposing open, bleeding wounds on his arm. Batman's cowl tears, exposing pockets of his face, something, we're told, Midway had awful trouble convincing DC to approve. And Scorpion, after getting nailed in the back, finds his spine exposed. It's genuinely impressive - the character damage reveals the classic characters from both universes in a new light - we're not used to seeing Superman torn up and bleeding - he's invulnerable after all. The best example, however, is Sub Zero's classic freeze attacks (he has a new counter freeze block to play with). The character model freezing is something else, and up there with the best upcoming fighting games have to offer.
Talking of Superman, he's extremely powerful but somewhat slow. His somewhat sluggish style focuses on devastating close combat that cause tons of damage. Flash, however, is the opposite, with an emphasis on speed, predictably, and light flurry attacks. MK fans hoping to go online take note, senior designer Brian Lebaron tells us Flash will be one of the most popular characters among hardcore players when the game's finally released. Batman falls somewhere in the middle of the two comic superheroes. His Batorang projectiles are useful for keeping close quarters enemies at a distance and on their toes (one Batorang attack flies up into the air and hits behind). This, coupled with a teleport attack, leads us to believe that the Caped Crusader will be one the pros will get lots of satisfaction from.
Of course the biggest MK related topic for discussion at E3 is the game's fatalities. At Midway's Gamers' Day in April Ed Boon told us that the team was trying its best to squeeze every last drop of blood out of the teen rating. Thankfully we can confirm that there is blood in MKVSDCU. Plenty of it in fact. It sprays from Superman, Batman and anybody else's face when they're hit. And fatalities are in the game, too. The only catch is that not everyone has them.
All the Mortal Kombat characters, (Sub Zero, Scorpion, Shang Tsung and Sonya confirmed), and the DCU villains (Catwoman) have fatalities, and many are very similar to the gruesome finishing moves that have gone before. Scorpion, for example, still pulls of his face mask, reveals his skull and toasts his hapless enemy. "The DC villains will be able to do some bad s**t!" reassures Brian. Still, he confirms that there will be no ripping off of heads, which will be a big disappointment for many MK fans.
The DC heroes, however, are a different kettle of fish. The comic company has obviously put its foot down and said no to Superman, Batman and co killing, and thus their finishing moves can't be called fatalities. In the build we're playing they're called Brutalities, but this isn't final. Brian performs one of them for us to get a flavour of what Midway is talking about - Superman roars, his eyes glow then, like hammering a nail into wood he pummels his opponent into the ground with both fists. It's not a fatality, but it's still a shocking sight to see Superman, the Man of Steel himself, perform such a brutal, unforgiving action.
So, as our E3 hands on comes to an end, we find ourselves enthused by what we've played, but buzzing with unanswered questions. We're reassured by the graphics, depth, old school MK feel and, crucially, by the solid gameplay. Will that, and the guys and girls from the DC Universe, be enough to make up for the lack of flying heads? We'll need more time with the game to work that one out.
Another question is the roster, confirmed to include 10 from MK and 10 from DCU. We've been told all on the DCU side will be iconic characters, so it's not a giant leap to expect Midway to announce the Joker in the coming months. What about Bane, Scarecrow and Two-Face? And on the hero side, how about Robin, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman?
This year's E3 has come in for a lot of slack, a lot of it warranted, but we'll remember it fondly for rekindling that beat-em-up fire that burned so brightly in our early teens, a time when Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were the two biggest games on the earth and children everywhere took sides in the playground. Midway and Ed Boon are bringing Mortal Kombat back and, across the hall, Capcom is bringing Street Fighter back. We can't wait for the two to collide.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is due out for Xbox 360 and PS3 this November.