Words by Nick White
In the last ten years, the Mortal Kombat franchise has been through a tempest, up and down like a ship on a storm-tossed sea. Mortal Kombat I and II thrilled us with digitised graphics and brutal action, and was almost the spiritual antithesis to the more discerning Street Fighter series. After the apex of MK1 and 2, the series descended to the depths and resorted to gimmicks and introducing characters who looked exactly like other characters (Smoke, Reptile, Sub Zero and Scorpion…we are not fooled). Mortal Kombat 3D is something we never speak of in polite society. Deadly Alliance in 2002 utterly reinvented the franchise, and proved a worthy combatant to Soul Calibur 2. Mortal Kombat: Defiance again expands the series with additional moves and fatalities, a host of new and classic characters and chess. You heard me. Chess. Most importantly, Defiance brings back the finest character of them all: Baraka.
This Mortal Kombat coil
Deception begins at the point which Deadly Alliance ended, and events descend further into the dark realms of the netherworld. The ‘Deadly Alliance’ between Shang Tsung and Quan Chi was a success, and the malign duo defeated Raiden in kom…sorry, combat. Possibly due to his ridiculous hat. Loyalties, it appears, are transient things in the Outworld, as, like a pair of teenage girls both after the same man, the immediately turn upon each other, and this time it is Quan Chi who is the victor. And it is an equally transient triumph. The original ruler of the Outworld, Onaga the Dragon King, returns from the Realm of the Terrible Plotlines to slaughter whoever wrote the synopsis for this game. It becomes even more convoluted. Initially, Raiden fought Quan Chi and Shang Tsung. Then Shang Tsung fought Quan Chi. Now we find that all three combine their might to fight Onaga. It reeks of soap opera. All that is needed is for Shiva to be pregnant with Cyrax’s gay lovechild.
We can be ever thankful that Deception is a well-conceived game, with content that spans a universe beyond the genre norm of additional character biographies, a token new character and a survival mode. Arguably the highlight is the Konquest Mode, an adventure far superior to the simple map navigation found in Deadly Alliance. It features numerous quests (essentially variants of the ‘fetch and carry’ theme), hidden locations, acts as a superb introduction to the game and manages to capture the aura of a proper console adventure title. Konquest mode allows you to follow the fortunes of Shujinko, a warrior of no small import to Deception. Paralleling the masterful Fable, Shujinko begins as a child and progresses through his years as the game advances. Players will learn how he utilises his powers of mimicry to facilitate the rise to power of the Dragon King in the first place, and also why Shujinko is the sole warrior bestowed with the prowess to stop him. Konquest alone will take between twenty and thirty hours to complete, and it becomes apparent rapidly that Deception is not so much a game for Christmas as a game for life. That being said, Konquest sometimes suffers the malaise of its own ambition. Movement through the environs can feel impeded and clumsy, and invisible barriers see you traversing what appear to be agonisingly protracted detours. Whilst the quests are engaging, the speciality bouts (reminiscent of a certain Edge Master mode) are amusing, and place constraints on you such as defeating a specified foe with only half your health bar.
Additional modes in combat games are often little more than tawdry baubles to deceive the player into assuming they have somehow got more features in their game than is true. Not so with Deception; which features two additional games that could retail as games unto themselves. Chess Kombat is an absolute highlight, but players of Amiga classic Battle Chess will not be as easy to impress. Whilst diluting the standard rules of chess as they stand, there are other tactical elements involved, such as fighting either for capture of a piece or to prevent one from being taken. Fights are presented in the fashion as in the combat proper, but with some enhancements such as your more potent pieces (king and queen for example) possessing more health. Lost health, however, is not redeemed, so canny players will be able to gradually erode the health of key pieces with their own pawns. Traps and ambushes can also be set in place on the table to add further tactical nous to proceedings and, whilst Chess Kombat will not dethrone chess proper; it does make for a superlative inclusion. The second additional game is Puzzle Kombat, which is an unapologetic clone of the Super Puzzle Fighter games. Playing like a bastard hybrid of Tetris and Columns, it is not the apogee of strategy, but relatively amusing; and watching the diminutive and deformed fighters in action is perpetually amusing. Unlockable content in games is very du rigeur, but Deception raises the ante spectacularly with almost 700 unlockable items. Additional character biographies and art, movies, endings, outfits, soundtracks, a demo of Midway’s pending Area 51 title; such attention to detail has to be commended; especially as the content is actually interesting, and not merely a triviality like a new costume colour.
Players of Deadly Alliance will be firmly at ease with Deception; the core mechanics remain in place and combat is still fluid and vicious. The control buttons, in true MK style, activate punches and kicks, and no characters in the game are overly similar in how they play, which was a criticism I have leveled at the series before. Each character has a delightfully varied list of combat moves, specials and fatalities, and the roster of combatants is, mostly, well balanced. Some will be apoplectic with rage that Deception does not offer a miscellany of new moves for returning characters, so those already au fait with players from Deadly Alliance will have a sincere head start. ‘New’ characters (as in those from the series, but not included in Deadly Alliance) will still be a whole new experience, however. Swapping between the three combat styles for each character is as mandatory to success as ever, and the balancing has also been attuned, meaning that many of the ‘cheap moves’ that made for easy victories against the AI foes are not quite the powerful sucker-punches they once were. There is a great deal of depth to be found, and constructing combos between styles will leave your enemies reeling in confusion.
The multipurpose special move button from Deadly Alliance has been replaced with a defence button, allowing combatants to counter moves in a decidedly Dead or Alive style. Only called a ‘breaker’ to keep the lawyers from the door. Combos in Deadly Alliance were infuriatingly nigh impossible to halt once you were on the receiving end of a salvo of blows. The breaker system allows combos to be severed at any time, and makes the game a much more balanced experience. However, to prevent apathetic players from cowering behind their breakers, deception only allows three per match, so judicious use is the key. Also included is a defence gauge below the health bar, and the theory is that this indicates when a foe is open for a counter attack, but it lacks intuition and fails to be a benefit more often than not. Especially when you just want to eviscerate your foes in a way that generates the most arterial spray. The combat arenas have bowed to the mighty buzzword of interactivity. Which makes them sound like a Fisher Price activity centre. This is a sword both cutting and double edged. The system works, spiritually, like the ring out system, but as opposed to winning as your foe has left the ring, victory instead comes from separating the limbs and internal organs of your foe in a most ungallant fashion. These victories can be seen as ‘cheap’ wins, but forcing your foe through a grinder, or plummeting 1000 foot to their death is continually hilarious, and does contribute to the strategy of a bout.
Mortal Kombat, without the fatalities, would perhaps have remained little more than a cult favourite for the minorities, such as the Samurai Shodown titles. I have had a universe-sized soft spot for the series since 1992, when, weary of Street Fighter II, I found a new game in the arcade called Mortal Kombat and watched Sub Zero rip off Kano’s head, with spinal cord attached. An unspoken point of interest with every new MK game is always to wonder what new and deviously inventive ways have been devised to eviscerate people. We won’t mention babalities, or friendship (‘Friendship…again?!). Blood is let in many fascinating ways in Deception, and poorly-adjusted gore fetishists will be in nirvana. 48 fatalities are available, as is suicide. Losing players have the option of ending their shame exactly like a normal fatality, but performed on themselves. It does have utility in frustrating smug opponents who relish in finishing you.
Graphically, deception is no quantum leap over Deadly Alliance. The violence is presented in terms of hyperbole, with almost laughable gouts of blood spraying forth at regular intervals. The representation of the areas in Deception is masterful. Not only are the areas bursting with vibrant particle effects and elegant textures, they have an interactive element also. Players can fashion impromptu weapons, and there are various levels to fight in; usually reached by using your foe as an organic hammer and smashing through walls or floors with them. It is advisable not to try this with the family dog. I’m still cleaning up the mess and avoiding the RSPCA. Whilst the combatants certainly look impressive, the animation falls a little short of the same standard; feeling a little inflexible when compared to other genre titles or those limber and bouncy DoA girls.
Thus we have a rarity in the Mortal Kombat canon; a game both immersive and brutal with mechanics that would, ostensibly, stand well in any fighting title. Deception rates well due to its highly unpretentious nature. Many combat games seek to define or advance the mechanics of the genre. Deception decides instead to pack a solid title full of features and once again give us the thrill of dismemberment. It might not be the most complex game on the market, but it is powerfully captivating and certainly possesses commendable longevity. Tedious 2D fighting game and Tekken purists will despise Defiance, but they can go back to living in 1992 and let the rest of us eviscerate in peace. After all; nothing says ‘I love you’ like being impaled by a pair of three foot blades.