Netherrealm Studios has always been one of the more fascinating fighting game developers. They’ve always taken more creative risks than their competitors, to somewhat mixed results. Mortal Kombat was a nice return to form for the series. Then Mortal Kombat X introduced a great amount of player freedom with its variation system and sped the game up to blistering speeds, but a lot of fan-favorites were set aside for a focus on new characters such as the “Kombat Kids.” Mortal Kombat 11 introduced a gear system similar to Injustice 2 and custom variations but had a story almost entirely alienating to newcomers. So imagine my surprise that the oddly titled Mortal Kombat 1 looks to go back to the start of the timeline for a wild revisionist version of the game we know and love while introducing new gameplay mechanics that drastically alter the way we play. The result? An experience that has me excited for the new future of this series.
I spent extensive time with Mortal Kombat 1’s online stress test this past weekend, taking the game online to fight other players as well as playing a limited single player Kombat Tower, the game’s equivalent of an arcade mode. So what’s the main new gimmick of Mortal Kombat 1? Netherrealm have gone back-to-basics once more by having each fighter have a single variation of play. This means every Liu Kang player will be playing with the same toolkits as other Kang players, etc. I personally find this to be a change for the better as I found the gear and variations systems to break balance online and in tournaments. There were so many decisions and match up learnings involved that when DLC characters started to come into play, the information intake and decision making required to play at a decent skill level became overwhelming. Mortal Kombat 1 brings the game back to the glory days of the first Mortal Kombat reboot, where players can focus less on character decision making in menus and more on… actually playing the game.
Where Mortal Kombat 1 really differentiates itself from more recent entries is the introduction of “Kameo” fighters. Similar to assists in Marvel vs. Capcom and strikers in King of Fighters, Mortal Kombat 1 allows players to choose an additional fighter to complement their main choice. During a fight players can call in this fighter for various assists such as combo extenders, throws, breakers, or a good old fashioned punch. The Kameo fighter is tied to the right shoulder button and the direction held while pressed will choose the command that comes out. This means we do lose interactables in the fighting arena, which I feel were cheap shots before. Kameo assists feel far more intuitive and intentional in their designs. It feels great to be in the middle of a combo as Sub-Zero and call in Sonya to charge her energy rings to blast your opponent.
Kameo fighters also play a role in the game’s Fatal Blow system. Fatal Blows work the same way they did in Mortal Kombat 11 but now they use both fighters you choose. For example, because I had picked Sub-Zero with Sonya as my Kameo fighter, when Fatal Blow was activated, Sonya jumped in first and pulled off an aggressive chest smash followed by Sub-Zero pulling off an ultra bloody ice spike smash. I’m excited to see what wild combinations will be in the final game, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll deliver all the gory spectacle players come to expect from this series.
One thing I took notice of while playing is that while most fighters in Mortal Kombat 1 are reimagined because of the timeline reset caused by Fire God Liu Kang, the Kameo fighters seem strictly retro stylized. The three in my build of the game were Sonya, Jax, and Kano. All of them sport their original appearance from the first and second games. Now this is purely speculation but it seems to imply that Kameo fighters might be the classic fighters you know and love, while the main roster will get a bit more wild with reimaginings. There were only four main fighters available and a LOT of blank spaces, so I’m excited to see what surprises may be in store from deep in MK’s history (bring back Havik already, dammit).
In addition to Kameo fighters, air combat has a larger emphasis. For the most part, the last few Mortal Kombat games have been ground-heavy games. Never were you encouraged to jump in the air because of how punishable it is with an anti-air uppercut. That’s still true for the most part but now you’re able to launch your opponent into the air and follow it up with an air combo. It’s nowhere near the level of something like Marvel vs. Capcom, but being able to add 3-4 hits after an air launch is wildly satisfying and adds another layer to every fighter’s toolkit.
But how does the game play online, you ask? I’m happy to report that Mortal Kombat 1 plays excellently online. Mortal Kombat 11 was the gold standard for online play with its rollback netcode and I’m happy to report this new game carries that tradition. Not once in my online matches did I feel a severe amount of lag or slowdown. It felt as if I was playing someone that was sitting right next to me. Something I’d like to point out as well is that Mortal Kombat 1 is a great looking video game. Previous trailers didn’t highlight how much the visuals are an upgrade from the previous game, but in motion Mortal Kombat 1 is a gorgeous looking game with a killer style running at 60fps on the PS5. The attention to detail in every stage and character so far is staggering and I can’t wait to see what surprises are in store in the full release.
Overall, I’m very excited for Mortal Kombat 1. On the surface, removing environment interaction, variations, and the gear system may seem like a downgrade but it ultimately feels like a proper return to basics that trims the fat that was bogging down the past few entries. Building from a strong foundation, the game adds an exciting Kameo system that is at once a loving tribute to the series and a fun/unique addition to its fighting toolkit. With the full release promising a large roster, I can’t wait to see the amount of player freedom that will come from these new mechanics. I’m firmly in the belief that the golden age of fighting games is upon us, and Mortal Kombat 1 looks to be an exciting addition to the pantheon of fighting game gods.
Mortal Kombat 1 will launch for the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store on September 19. Pre-orders are now live via the official site.