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.
Criminally, there's no fatality or heroic brutality list anywhere in the game or manual, there's no explanation of the Pro Move system, which allows you to score extra hits with special moves if you're quick enough to input extra commands, and there's no mention of the fact that you're able to chain basic moves into special moves if you're quick enough to input the command into the five or so frame window. Some of the combos listed in the Kombo Challenge mode will require that you do these advanced moves, but there's no explanation of how it works, which is a definite problem. This might have been acceptable in the early 90s, when the arcade scene was rocking and word of mouth allowed people to share discovered moves and combos, but in this day and age it's archaic. Having to keep glancing at your PC monitor to learn anything beyond the basics is, for living room gamers, one hell of a pain in the arse.
Barring these problems, the new mini-game elements Midway has introduced into the series work well. Klose Kombat, where the camera zooms in and you engage in some bone-crunching fisticuffs, is a rudimentary guessing game involving predicting what buttons your opponent is going to press. Freefall Kombat triggers when you land a particularly powerful blow near the edge of an arena, sending your opponent spiralling towards an above or below platform. In mid-air this guessing-game of fisticuffs returns, except this time there's a risk reward system involved in that if you counter your opponent you're able to switch sides and land the final damaging blow instead. And lastly, you're able to grab your opponent and send them horizontally smashing through walls in a Test your Might mini-game. Here the amount of damage you do is dependent on your ability to mash every button as quickly as you can, and, conversely, the amount of damage done can be reduced by doing the same thing. These three new gameplay elements don't crop up often enough to get annoying, and indeed they're pretty useful since they have the potential to reduce your opponent's life bar by up to 30 per cent.
MKVSDCU's story is, like with most fighting games, largely pointless, but at least there's been some effort made here beyond the normal intro ending cut scene/FMV. The story mode asks you to firstly choose a side - MK or DC. Then, over the course of eight chapters, you're charged with winning a number of one on one battles with all the characters on that particular side. Each fight is broken up by a number of cut scenes with full voice over. The story itself is so ridiculous you can't help but laugh, and it's hilarious to watch Midway's explanation of how the coming together of the two universes not only happens in the first place, but is resolved. The cheesy dialogue is so bad it's good, Kombat Rage, which has caused everyone to beat the crap out of each other (and their eyes to glow yellow), is so bad it's good and Catwoman's bouncing breasts and seductive purring is so bad it's good.
The Unreal Engine 3-powered graphics, however, are unquestionably excellent. The characters themselves are wonderfully detailed, and while the hit boxes are all over the place, the animations are superb. Joker suffers from the fact that he's not modelled on the still fresh in the memory Heath Ledger, but he's still the best video game recreation of Batman's arch enemy ever. The fighters on both sides feel like they carry real weight, and take up a lot of the screen. You'll notice some lovely little touches, too. Clothing will tear, skin will cut and bruise and blood will weep from open wounds. The 'getting up' animations, triggered after a lost round, and the 'winning animations', triggered after winning a round, are great, although some of them are recycled across various characters. Raiden's stance shifting after he's won a round is a highlight, as is Superman's getting up ground pummel animation after he loses a round. The arenas, too, are brilliant, and often distract the eye from the task at hand. And the graphics are complimented by excellent audio. The sound of crunching bone and pounding flesh is wonderfully effective, and adds to the feeling that superheroes are going at it in epic battles. When Captain Marvel screams "Shazam!" and electrocutes his opponent with a bolt of lightning sent down from the Gods, you almost feel it yourself.
Some of the game's flaws don't become apparent until you go online and you find yourself on the wrong end of a beating from a real life opponent. Chief of these is character balance. Batman, Flash and the Green Lantern are popular choices and can feel extremely cheap to lose to. Green Lantern especially - he's able to trap you from a distance with his ring power and take off large chunks of your health bar as a result. Flash, as you'd expect, feels cheap on account of his speed. But we'd rather have to work at developing anti-cheap strategies than have to battle crippling lag, which the game is somehow completely free of. Say what you will about MKVSDCU's inferior fighting engine compared with its more refined rivals - this game has the best net code seen in an online fighting game.
Criticising MKVSDCU for not being as in depth and rewarding a fighter as, say, Street Fighter IV, seems a little unfair, since they're so different they're almost not in the same genre. We had a blast playing the game here in the office, with almost everyone gathering to watch. But it is an inferior fighting game, no matter how oddly compelling it is to see two sets of fictional characters clash in such improbable circumstances. Think of it like this, if Street Fighter IV is The Apprentice, then Mortal Kombat VS DC Universe is I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!