When I think about my own history with Mortal Kombat, it was all about beating my brother or friends one-on-one so I could finish them with a savage fatality in MK3. It revolved around a light-hearted sense of competition wrapped in a disgustingly hilarious gore-filled fighting game. By no means has that been lost in Mortal Kombat 11, but it’s not necessarily the thing I’m most excited about. Even as I pay closer attention to the FGC and find pro-level play ever-fascinating, it’s the single-player content that I’m eager to jump into.
During a preview event in Chicago, Illinois–home to developer NetherRealm Studios–I had the opportunity to spend about two hours with Mortal Kombat 11’s latest playable build. This included a roster of familiar faces such as Johnny Cage, Cassie Cage, and Kano in addition to the playable characters available during January’s reveal event. But this time, I got a taste of the game’s story mode and Towers of Time challenges, and messed around with Variations and customization. Considering the pedigree of NetherRealm and the breadth of content Injustice 2 packed in, it doesn’t come as much of surprise that MK11 follows suit.
From the opening cutscene to the end of the first chapter, it’s apparent that MK11 touches on some of the best parts from NetherRealm’s previous work. After the stellar execution of Injustice 2’s story mode, that had a cinematic flair expected to accompany DC universe characters, you’d hope that carries over into MK11, and it does. Mortal Kombat 11 picks up where MKX’s story left off, and starts with the scene that was shown during the game’s reveal. In the Jinsei Chamber, Raiden decapitates the Elder God Shinnok just before the mysterious Kronika shows up to hint at her time-manipulating abilities, saying, “The arc of the universe bends to my will. It is only a matter of time,” and halting the flow of blood from Shinnok’s severed head.
Cut to Earthrealm, where Cassie Cage earns a promotion within the ranks of the Special Forces commissioned by… her mom, Sonya Blade. As the unit’s leader, Sonya insists it isn’t due to nepotism and tells Cassie that she has to pass one more test: to fight… her mom. You’re put in Cassie’s shoes in this chapter, and there’s still that smooth transition from cutscene to fight that gets you into the action without a hitch, blending gameplay and story seamlessly. After a brutal (yet respectful) beatdown that’s oddly humorous in context, the whole family comes together as Johnny Cage jumps in to celebrate the promotion with his daughter. But the good times are in short order; Raiden arrives to let everyone know that an evil Liu Kang and the Netherrealm army are on the prowl, and Earthrealm must hurry to take them down.
In the war room, Raiden, Sonya, Johnny, and Cassie gather to devise a plan for a two-pronged assault on the Netherrealm, and it turns out successful at first. Raiden mows down the hordes of brutes, raining lightning as a one-man-army while acting as a diversion for the Special Forces to infiltrate the castle. Jade and Kabal catch wind of the invasion, and start to throw hands with Jacqui Briggs and Cassie, and now you enter another playable fight. Although I’m not at liberty to discuss a few important details that close out this opening chapter, it was left on a cliffhanger when the Earthrealm army starts to get overwhelmed and Sonya falls victim to the castle’s crumbling walls. All the while, I was drawn into what MK11 is trying to do with its cast and narrative beats thanks to incredibly well-rendered character models and a high-stakes script that will have both series fans and newcomers invested. That’s not to mention the wild possibilities in store when merging timelines begin to factor into the story.
NetherRealm isn’t afraid to play fast-and-loose with its narrative and timeline. The introduction of Kronika and time manipulation may seem like an easy excuse to throw in all its characters and insert fan service at will, but it’s Mortal Kombat, and that means things were always bound to get bonkers. MK11 opens the door for some wild possibilities that are already apparent in the new story trailer (see above) by giving us a taste of not one, but two Johnny Cages riffing off of each other. It’s also evident in the trailer that this creates room for more complicated conflicts, plot twists, and ever-changing allegiances between the Netherrealm and Earthrealm.
I spoke with series creator Ed Boon about many things, but among them was story inspiration. He pointed to the writing team, stating, “They came up with this whole time bending thing and bringing characters back from the past. So when we got excited about that, a lot of it just sparked [the thought], ‘Okay, now we can do this, this and that!'” When asking NetherRealm game designer Derek Kirtzic about the direction MK11 is taking, he said, “You’re going to start seeing the resurrection of a lot of old characters. A lot of fan favorites. And it’s always just [a question of] how we can continue to expand on this universe.”
The cinematic presentation is sharp as ever, and the premise is more enticing than its predecessors. It helps big time that MK11 will be a high watermark visually for the series, with a cast that’s vividly brought to life (and death). If there’s a disappointing aspect from the small snippet I played, it’s that the story mode might be a bit light on the gameplay front by having only a few fights throughout. But let me tell you about the Towers of Time.
Towers of Time
If a heavier emphasis on gameplay and challenge is what you’re looking for in MK11, you’ll want to dig into the Towers of Time mode. Here, you’re presented with a multitude of towers, each that embody a series of thematic fights in rapid succession featuring modifiers to keep things fresh. This may sound familiar since it’s essentially a parallel to Injustice 2’s Multiverse Mode.
In the “Kold Chill” tower, I had to win four matches, one after the other, with the perk of having Sub-Zero available as an assist. I could call him into the fight for a quick attack using the right stick; directions dictate what he’d do whether it was a launching attack to initiate a juggle or a freeze that stunned my opponent for a second. Things got spicier in the “Test Your Might” tower that granted me access to Konsumables, which are modifiers that let me equip special attacks to the right stick or grant me buffs during fights. The catch here is that I had to win two rounds without my health bar replenishing after winning the first round–on top of that, the CPU-controlled opponent only had to win one round to finish the fight. It turned into this weird mix of turtling as I called in meteors and missile strikes from the Konsumable perks I equipped, but also moving in close to land a combo without taking too much damage in the process. It’s a different way to enjoy the game, and a means of acquiring new gear to tinker with the roster’s Variations.
The Towers of Time aren’t static, though. They’ll also act as incentivized leaderboards. When I asked Ed Boon about how the mode will keep players interested beyond what’s in the launch package, he said, “we’re introducing different online game modes that are single-player-focused and give you your own personal challenge, to go up leaderboards and also earn special prizes and whatnot.” You can think of these as daily or weekly challenges, similar to ongoing events in other online games. Kirtzic described it as, “almost like an infinite amount of single player content.” If my brief time with the game is any indication, NetherRealm seems to be tackling Mortal Kombat 11’s longevity from several different directions, though we’ll have to wait and see how well these future challenges sustain interest in the game and change up the experience.
A Matter Of Time
Fighting games sometimes struggle to maintain solo players’ attention, but it seems to be a concern that’s being firmly addressed in Mortal Kombat 11. The game will have Klassic Towers and the Krypt mode in addition to the story and Towers of Time, though we weren’t able to check them out. However, none of the content would really land if it wasn’t for MK11’s heavy, satisfying fighting system that improves upon a good foundation set by NetherRealm’s previous games.
There’s also a sense of playfulness throughout the game, even as dark and violent as the game can get. Relentless gore might be a deal-breaker for some but for many, the cartoonishly over-the-top brutality is a staple that makes the series what it is. You’ll be able to see for yourself when Mortal Kombat 11 hits the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch on April 23.