LICENSE TO THRILL?: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (2008)

It’s not quite Marvel vs. Capcom, but the DC heroes give it their best shot in this cross-franchise fighter. 

Who made it?: Midway Amusement Games, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (Developers), Midway Games (Publisher).

Genre: Beat-em-up.

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360.

Format: Blu-ray disc, DVD-ROM.

Released: November 21, 2008 (UK).

Fighter fans either love or hate the Mortal Kombat series. But is it all that hard to see why? Since the franchise debuted in the early 90s, there was more emphasis put on executing gruesome finishing moves (or fatalities, as most know them) than there was on a distinct fighting engine. These fatalities, though, are what separated MK from any other fighter of its era.

The classic Street Fighter games – released parallel to the bloody MK series – was far more family-oriented, as was cult favourite World Heroes. It wasn’t until the first Mortal Kombat and, more specifically, its smash-hit sequel, Mortal Kombat II, that game developers started creating their own gruesome one-on-one brawlers with plenty of blood, gore, and winning-round executions. Some are better than others (Eternal ChampionsEternal Champions: Challenge from the DarksideWeaponlord, and Primal Rage to name a few), while most others were simply cut-and-paste affairs that were little more than clones of MK’s invigorating if shallow gameplay, as well as their gruesome if cool fatalities (the Atari Jaguar’s Kasumi Ninja and Midway’s late-90s offering, War Gods, immediately springs to mind). MK was, in fact, an innovator for all the wrong reasons.

Whereas Street Fighter became historic for introducing technique and variety in a fighter, and Killer Instinct popularized the combo system, Mortal Kombat has always relied more on excessive blood and gore, as well as increasingly ridiculous ways to “finish” your opponent. It should come as no surprise, then, that when an already ridiculous idea such as the Mortal Kombat fighters battling characters from the DC comic book universe was announced, fans nearly had heart attacks. An even bigger issue was the obligatory Teen rating and a once rumoured omitting of fatalities. This would mean that, if there were fatalities (which, in fact, there are) they would be massively truncated or not exist at all. It has been said that DC didn’t want their characters – which are well-known and adored by children – to either execute horrendously brutal finishers or be finished off themselves via the MK roster or fellow superheroes.

With that said, I think the first thing I should mention is that, despite the Teen rating on the box, this doesn’t feel at all like a Teen-rated brawler. Sure, blood doesn’t cover every inch of the arena during fights and instead looks more like red mist than it does the large geyser-like spurts of past games in the franchise, but the violence is still effective. This entry introduces a level of restraint not seen in any MK before it. Yes, there are fatalities for every MK fighter and a handful of DC regulars (including The Joker and Deathstroke), and the remaining comic book luminaries do have finishers, but they are not necessarily fatal (again, a result of DC stepping in). These are called Heroic Brutalities.

I feel I should mention, though, that there were two finishers trimmed for the US release. Joker and Deathstroke both have fatalities that involve their opponent being shot in the head and, although we no longer see the impact of the bullet, their censoring was somewhat unnecessary. It is quite strange that Deathstroke is able to jab a sword completely through his foe’s stomach during his gunshot fatality and that remains intact, but the bullet impact is censored. There is also a fatality where MK favourite Jax uppercuts his opponent into the air, pulls out a machine gun, and fires multiple rounds into their abdomen with resultant blood splatter. That fatality is completely uncensored, mind you. The violence may have been trimmed-down – meaning there are no more decapitated heads or missing body parts – but the violence still hits hard. There are head impalements, body impalements, scorched bodies, crushed heads, shootings, knifings, broken necks, electrocutions, soul-snatching, head-into-ground pounding, and so much more that I could not believe was allowed into a Teen-rated game without further censoring.

It is simply a testament to the development team, then, that without the MK series’ trademark gore that Midway was still able to deliver on whatever promise this mash-up may have had. Although the fighting presented is set in a three-dimensional universe, DC Universe feels very 2-D. Aside from avoiding barrages of projectiles by side-stepping through the arena, you won’t find yourself manipulating the environments much. To be frank, there really isn’t much reason for MK vs. DC to be a 3-D fighter (and that’s a good thing). This feels like classic Mortal Kombat in every sense of the word. The fighting is fast and intense, and stringing together quick, seamless attacks feels immensely satisfying. The fights are fast-paced and are a far cry from the simple punch-kick-block formula of the early MK games. There is an overwhelming sensation during each fight that these larger-than-life characters are partaking in huge, larger-than-life battles; the epic scale that Midway manages to provide with each individual fight, no matter the character selected, is astounding.

Players can enter Klose Kombat mode by simply pressing R1 next to their opponent. The camera will zoom-in and present a view similar to EA’s Fight Night titles. This mode is identical to a number of popular boxing games and it plays just like one. A total of four successive hits exits Klose Kombat, but attacks can be countered which effectively evens out the odds on both sides.

Free Fall Kombat is one of my favourite additions. To describe it best, it is reminiscent of Neo and Agent Smith’s fight in The Matrix Revolutions when they are tumbling back to solid ground. Whichever kombatant is on the offensive will, naturally, be dishing out the damage and, when it becomes available, the offensive player can tap R1 to do a special attack that sends their opponent rocketing down to the next arena.

Test Your Might is a lot like Free Fall Kombat, but instead of falling to the next arena, the kombatant on the receiving end is sent crashing into a series of walls and ran through several buildings (yes, buildings) before ending up at the next “stage.” Button-mashing is a must here as it will increase the amount of damage the offensive kombatant inflicts.

Character selection is also a plus as there are eleven selectable characters from each camp with two unlockables; Darkseid for the DC side and Shao Khan for the MK side. The story mode, though rather shallow and unfulfilling, is something I was grateful for as it introduces something new to a Mortal Kombat game other than the Tower (aka Tournament mode) or Konquest modes. A real story involving both the essential DC and Mortal Kombat characters is presented with some flaws, as there really isn’t much storytelling going on, and a lot of the emphasis is placed on fighting various characters in two-out-of-three rounds without the inclusion of finishers.

As a fighting series that has never had the best graphics, MK vs. DC is backed by Unreal Engine 3 technology, and even if it doesn’t look absolutely gorgeous, it is still a positive departure from previous games in the franchise. There is a magnificent amount of detail given to each respective fighter and every last one of them moves with such fluidity. While some of them could look marginally better (here’s looking at you, Wonder Woman), these are the graphical improvements you would expect from a current-gen MK game. It would have been interesting to see eviscerations and popped heads with the Unreal Engine 3 tech, but simply being in control of fluid fights between Batman and Joker in all their hi-res splendour, complete with deteriorating costumes and an articulate amount of detail, is reward enough for this gamer.

Even with a Teen rating, I can’t say this is for the uninitiated. This title was obviously made with love for both the MK community and the DC supporters. Whoever cries “cash cow” is completely missing the point. The next Mortal Kombat game went right back to the intense violence and insane amounts of gore, but this was a refreshing idea and, what’s more, a nice break from the laughably goofy fatalities and insane amounts of blood found in past entries. The idea of the DC world colliding with that of the Mortal Kombatants was a kooky one, but Midway pulled it off flawlessly (no pun intended), and I’ll admit to enjoying the living hell out of this game. The fatalities may be toned down, but I will commend the developers for avoiding all of the useless blood and gore and still making the game violent and fierce. It certainly isn’t as grotesque as MK: Deception, but how Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe ever got a Teen rating is beyond me. MK fans and/or DC fans owe it to themselves to check this out.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • This was the latest project from Midway Games before going bankrupt.
  • The story was written by comic writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray.
  • For the release of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe‘s Kollector’s Edition, a cover was designed by Alex Ross. Also included in the Kollector’s Edition is a 16-page comic book which was illustrated by Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias.

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