For some, fighting games are all about beating the crap out of their friends. Or complete strangers they meet online. For others, though, they’re about the challenge of taking on a computer intelligence, one that may even be more skilled than they could ever hope to be. It is for the latter group — of which I am a proud, paid up member — that I present the following critique of the new Mortal Kombat 1 (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, PC) from the perspective of someone who only played it — and only wanted to play it — as a single-player game.
For people who don’t play well with others,
Mortal Kombat 1 offers three single-player options: “Story,” Towers,” and “Invasion.”
In all of them (as well as the online modes), Mortal Kombat 1 feels a lot like the previous installments (2011’s Mortal Kombat, 2015’s Mortal Kombat X, and 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11), as well as the other fighting games made by Kombat creators NetherRealm Studios during that time (2013’s Injustice: Gods Among Us and 2017’s Injustice 2). Its controls are silky smooth and responsive; the combo attacks are challenging to get right, but effective and oh-so-satisfying when you do; the characters are nicely varied in how they hurt other people; and the locations are equally clever and unique, especially the Malibu mansion that Tony Stark would call “ostentatious” and “silly” and “how much?”
What is different is that Mortal Kombat 1 adds a new attack mechanic called Kameo Fighters. When the meter is full, you can hit the right bumper to command a chosen character to jump into your match, lay a signature smackdown on your opponent, and then get the hell out of the way. For instance, if Mileena is brawling Reiko, she can have Frost jump in, turn Reiko into an ice sculpture, giving Mileena an opportunity to make ice cubes while Frost goes back to the book she was reading off-screen.
You can also,
if the meter is full, have your Kameo Fighter attack twice in rapid succession. Or, if you time it right, come into the middle of a combo attack, adding even more hurt. If Sonya is assisting Nitara take down Raiden, for instance, and Nitara’s about to grab Raiden, you can ask Sonya to run in and smack Raiden in the face before Nitara continues the beatdown. Just make sure you time it right; otherwise, it could be Sonya getting smacked, which would temporarily slow the Kameo Fighter meter’s recharging.
Kameo Fighters can even be used to “FINISH THEM!” Or, if you get really lucky, to counteract another Kameo Fighter’s incoming attack.
In fact, the only real limitation to the Kameo Fighters mechanic is who you can use as your primary, who you can use as your Kameo. For instance, while Sub-Zero and Scorpion can be used in either position, Sonya Blade, Jax, and Goro are only available as back-up, while Raiden is only a primary. Though this may change when they add more characters in the future. Buy the Kombat Pack DLC, for example, and Johnny Cage goes from being just a primary to available as either.
all of those restrictions go out the window in “Story” mode.
In it, the universe has been remade by Liu Kang after the events of Mortal Kombat 11‘s Aftermath add-on. But he’s apparently a man of limited imagination because this new universe is a lot like the old. Hence why there’s a Sub-Zero, a Sonya Blade, a Scorpion, and a Kitana, and they’re are all fighting to the death…again.
Except this time around, as I said earlier, the combatants are using cooperation, something the “Story” mode of Mortal Kombat 1 really shows off. While the first fight has Kung Lao in a friendly fight with Raiden, they next team up to take on Smoke, followed by two bouts against Sub-Zero and Scorpion with Kung Lao in first position and Raiden as his Kameo; with Scorpion as the primary and Sub-Zero as his Kameo in the first match, and the reverse in the second.
And yes, observant readers,
I did just say Raiden was Kung Lao’s Kameo in these initial “Story” bouts, despite not being available for that role anywhere else in Mortal Kombat 1. Don’t worry, I’ll complain about that later.
For now, though, I’d rather complain about the actual story in Mortal Kombat 1‘s “Story” mode which, like previous installments — and, let’s be honest, basically every fighting game — is as overwrought and silly as a bad kung-fu movie from the ’80s. But, to be fair, I’ve never played a fighting game to enjoy a compelling narrative, nor needed one to keep me engaged in the brawling.
On top of which, the clunky story in Mortal Kombat 1 actually does serve its purpose: to set up a series of interesting squabbles, ones that can only be settled through fisticuffs. And it shows how the Kameo Fighters mechanic can be really helpful in a fight, especially since the “Story” mode presents interesting and varied combinations of primary and Kameo Fighters, as well as times when you don’t have one but your opponent does, others in which that situation is reversed, and still others where both or neither sides have them.
Along with the “Story” mode,
people who like to play fighting games alone can engage in a series of increasingly difficult showdowns in Mortal Kombat 1‘s “Towers” mode. In it, you pick your champion and their back-up, and then take on a series of brawls as you fight your way to the top. Which is great fun if you just want to punch a bunch of people in rapid succession.
What makes Mortal Kombat 1‘s “Towers” mode even more interesting is how some of the towers are constructed. First, there are three based on difficulty…sort of. In all of the towers, you can choose to have your opponents be “Very Easy,” “Easy,” “Medium,” “Hard,” or “Very Hard.” But there’s also three towers in which you can make things more or less tough on yourself by selecting how many matches you need to beat to complete the tower: 6 in “Novice,” 8 in “Warrior,” and 10 in “Champion.”
Further mixing things up in this mode are the other two towers: “Endless,” in which you keep going until you lose, and “Survivor” in which you also keep going until you lose, but your health doesn’t go back to full at the beginning of a new round. I can’t say for certain, since I can’t predict the future, but I sense these are the towers I’m more inclined to play multiple times.
Finally, Mortal Kombat 1‘s solo options include “Invasion” mode, which is kind of a second story-driven mode, albeit one that’s set up like a board game. It’s also a mode that will completely change from time to time; specifically, whenever a new “season” of Mortal Kombat 1 comes around. So, for the version of “Invasion” that’s available now, you — after choosing your primary and Kameo fighters — find yourself visiting Johnny Cage’s Malibu pad, where you initially move to a circle where you fight Kannibal Warrior and Scorpion for Johnny’s house key. You then engage in fights that open other pathways around Johnny’s house.
Mortal Kombat 1‘s “Invasion” mode…
also gives you money for each victory, which can be used to buy such augmentations as a capsule that “Grants +50% Fire resistance for the next encounter” or a Krying Stone that grants you the ability to “…resurrect back to 50% health only once for the next encounter.”
Admittedly, “Invasion” is the least interesting of Mortal Kombat 1‘s three single-player options. And it probably would’ve been even better if they’d gone further with the board game-style mechanics. But given that the fighting is the same here as it is in “Story” and “Towers” — it’s just the framing device that’s different — it’s still entertaining.
Now, as much fun as Mortal Kombat 1 may be when you play it alone, it is lacking in some areas. First, it’s odd and rather arbitrary that some fighters would just be primary or just be Kameos, at least outside of the “Story.”
Also, this needs a mode in which you can set up one-off matches. In part so you can see who works well as a Kameo, and who does not…and so I can set up an existential match of Sub-Zero and Sub-Zero against Sub-Zero with Sub-Zero. The dude has issues.
you get even more out of Mortal Kombat 1 if you also play against other people. But if, like me, you prefer to play games solo, this has a lot to offer. The “Story” mode has a great variety in its fighters and locations; “Towers” offers tons of challenge; while “Invasion” is a bit of weirdness with some good brawls as well. Which is more than enough if you’re someone who’d rather not beat the crap out of their friends.