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Monday, June 27, 2011

L.A. Noire (9.0/10)

Let me preface this review by saying I love Rockstar, they make great games. Red Dead Redemption was probably my favorite game of last year (although it's a close call with Mass Effect 2) and GTA IV is a true classic of this generation of consoles. Plus, Rockstar's Table Tennis was frickin' awesome (to me anyway, for those of you who don't know I used to play ping pong in nationally ranked tournaments). So I was understandably excited for their latest project, L.A. Noire. 

And the biggest thing I've got to say from the get go is that L.A. Noire isn't like anything I've ever played before. It's not really a game as far as I'm concerned. It's not even an interactive movie per say (like Heavy Rain)... but rather it's a sim, as in simulation. A detective simulation to be precise.

You play as Cole Phelps, a war hero fresh from the battlefield, who works his way up through the ranks of the LAPD. Starting off walking the beat and wearing the blues, Cole impresses his superiors by his crime scene technique, shrewd interrogation style, and ability to shoot bad guys full of holes. Before long he's on the traffic desk, then working homicide, vice, and arson cases.

But all the while he's a character that remains shrouded in mystery. I honestly don't know what I think of him. He has a huge chip on his shoulder, won't talk about his past even when his partners ask, and has flashbacks to the war. Not to mention he goes from zero to asshole before you can say "good cop/bad cop" during the interrogations (more on that in a moment) if someone isn't being straight with him. His reactions are almost over the top, like he is so full of anger it's always bubbling under the surface. But as the story develops you begin to understand why...

I've not seen much proper film noir so I don't know if this type of disjointed story telling is par for the course, but the story doesn't make much sense to start with and takes a loooooooooooong time to get going. Cole really is a tragic character, but the problem is that you don't really understand what's going on for the first three quarters of the game, and it tends to drag a bit in places. Those who stick with it will be rewarded though, as once again Rockstar weaves the various plots together (eventually) with their typical brilliance. When you finally are able to put all the puzzle pieces together and see the big picture, well, I was nodding my head in understanding... and sympathy.

Much has been made about the vaunted new facial motion capture scans used in the creation of L.A. Noire. I always give credit where it's due, and I'm glad Rockstar is making an effort to innovate (something we don't always see in this industry... I'm looking at you Activision and EA Sports!). And let me tell you, their efforts paid off. I've never seen anything like it. You can actually tell if someone is lying, read the stress in their face when they claim their innocence. In many cases you will actually recognize the actor who sat in for the motion capture and lent their voice. The unparalleled attention to detail is striking, leaving even the closest competitors miles behind. My fervent hope is that others will take the hint and do similar things in the future.

The gameplay works like this: Phelps take a case, drives to the scene and searches for clues. You have to be meticulous in your investigation, searching grizzly corpses, and looking at it from multiple angles. Leave no stone unturned, even if a lot of what you find is inconsequential. Once you've gathered clues you need to interview witnesses and interrogate suspects, adding to your evidence pile and building your case. This usually ends with chasing someone down either on foot or via car.

This is where the facial animations come to the forefront. When talking to someone, Phelps asks questions, and based on their response you need to either decide if they are telling the truth, hiding something in which case you can say you "doubt" them, or outright accuse them of lying. But be wary, if you call them a liar you need to be sure you have evidence to back up the claim.

For example, in one particularly brutal case a young woman is drugged, assaulted, and essentially driven off a cliff. She survives, but as a starry eyed dreamer trying to make it in Hollywood she is reticent to divulge what really happened. But Cole knows better because he found her torn panties in her purse at the crime scene.

And if you think that's bad, some of the homicide cases are far worse... L.A. Noire is, while not on the level of something like GTA IV, a stark and unrepentant view of what real police see every day; the very worst of what humanity has to offer and the lengths to which people will go. It's uncompromising realism left me a bit slack-jawed at a few points, and the gory crime scenes (especially in the middle sections of the game) are pretty brutal.

On a similar note to the Grand Theft Auto series, L.A. Noire is an open world "sandbox" game. The difference being that this time you play as the cop, not the criminal. Driving around, smashing into stuff, running over pedestrians and banging hookers ain't in the cards. You have to play by the rules or you'll get yelled at... plus they keep track of your indiscretions during cases and you'll actually receive a bill at the end.

And while greater Los Angeles is stunning and vast (like really vast you understand... driving from one end of the map to the other would take you a fair bit of time), you're actually severely limited beyond sight seeing: finding collectible cars (there are 95 in the game), finding collectible film reels, and discovering collectible landmarks. To be honest, pursuing these optional distractions tended to be a bit hollow. Only the true 'completionist' will take the time to find them all. The cars are a good example. If you take me to a parking lot and show me twenty modern sedans chances are I'll be able to tell you the make and model. But seeing as I'm not my grandfather, I have no frame of reference to the period and thus most of the cars look surprisingly similar to me. I found more than half the cars in the game, but gave up trying to get them all because I kept commandeering vehicles from the good people of Los Angles, only to immediately get out of the car because I'd already "found" it... leaving a long line of stopped traffic and some very annoyed citizenry.

Then there are the "Street" cases. As long as you're driving a police car/partner car with a radio you can get calls from dispatch telling you that a crime is being committed. You race to the scene and deal with the situation (which range from shooting it out with bank robbers, to chasing down a pervert as he speeds away after taking some lewd photos, to rushing up a building to keep some idiot from leaping to his death). These are clever side missions that sometimes even incorporate characters from earlier in the story, but what I didn't realize at first is that they aren't necessarily as random as you'd think... they are dependent on the time of day, your location, and what you have completed in the story to that point. But what's odd is sometimes you have to drive insane distances to get to the scene. I found it was easiest to check the mini-map when I got in the car, quickly pan around the map to look for the tell-tale "running man" icon in red, then highlight it, get out of the car and have my partner drive so we could 'fast travel' there just to save me the hassle and time.

It's actually surprisingly limiting in this regard. I found I was less interested in seeing what the city had to offer, unlike GTA IV for example. Los Angeles of yesteryear is wonderfully realized and detailed, but I didn't feel the need to really explore the city. Instead I just focused on the cases. 

As good as the graphics are, the sound work is also excellent, something else I have come to expect from Rockstar. The voice acting, and there is a lot of it, is excellent. The cast does a great job, and has quite a few recognizable faces/voices. The soundtrack is great, a wonderful example of the period. So too are the sound effects, from the distinctive radio stations to the throaty growl of those older cars.

But as impressive as L.A. Noire is from a technical standpoint, the game itself (again, if it can be called a game) struggles in a few areas. Part of it might be the subject itself. I've known a few policemen over the years (not in any sort of professional capacity I assure you) and the impression I get is that being a cop does have moments of horror, of fear, and of disgust... but for the most part good police work is about attention to detail and being thorough in your investigation. In this regard L.A. Noire nails it, but that's not to say is can't be... well, boring isn't the right word, but perhaps mundane. You're doing the same things over and over with the same mechanics. You spend way to much time walking too and from your car and around the station house (is it just me, or is the layout confusing?) which just gets tedious. The novelty of the awesome animations begins to wear off and I found myself just going through the motions...

While the mechanics are okay, the camera is a bit wonky, as per every other Rockstar game, although this time it seems to pan a little too slowly. The combat and cover system is, in my opinion, below average. It was great in Red Dead, pretty good in GTA IV, but it doesn't work for me in L.A. Noire. I'm not a great driver in life, so driving these old model behemoths that don't corner too well can be a trial. This is compounded by the fact that you need to follow traffic laws. Again, I almost always found myself asking my partner to drive to each destination just to save me the trouble.

And while this isn't really a complaint as such, it's impossible not to notice the distinct lack of the trademark Rockstar humor we've seen in the past. It's all the more obvious once you realize this... Cole's story is a drama in every sense of the word.

L.A Noire is nothing if not ambitious, and Rockstar should be commended for taking a risk. They have invested and promoted technology that will ultimately improve games on the whole. I think going into L.A. Noire my expectations were just too high considering the pedigree. I'd be curious to see what police officers actually think of it. Is it really an accurate representation of their work? Is it, in fact, a proper simulation? But gamers are wondering if it lives up to the standard set by one of the giants of the industry. Is it intriguing, impressive, revolutionary, and clever? Absolutely! Did I like it?

I'm not sure how to answer that... yes, but as I said in the beginning, L.A. Noire is different from anything I've played before. To be honest, I was going to give the game a lower score, but the final sections brought everything together so well I bumped it up. While it may not be for everyone, or what everyone expected, L.A. Noire does show what we can come to expect from this medium. I can't wait to see what they come up with next!


Score = 9.0 / 10

Friday, June 24, 2011

Alice: The Madness Returns (7.8/10)

To read the official full-length review follow the link here: Alice: The Madness Returns.

Way back in 2000 there was a game called American McGee's Alice released for PC. It was one of those titles that flew under the radar of most people, but at the same time managed to garner quite a cult following over the years. American McGee's warped and wicked view of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland now makes a comeback over ten years later with the sequel: Alice: The Madness Returns.

And let me tell you, it comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who grew up with the (original cartoon) Disney version! See, I never played the original game but was intrigued by the sequel. I had no idea what I was getting into! Just the opening cinematic left me slack-jawed, one eyebrow raised, muttering "Ohhhhhhhkay then...."

Alice: The Madness Returns is, on the whole, a pretty good game with a few glaring flaws. The story is truly warped, the combat is decent as is the platforming (when you're not struggling with the wonky camera), and while some of the level design can be fiendishly clever, at others it can leave you scratching your head wondering what the developers were thinking.

And that, in a nutshell, can be used to sum up Alice: The Madness Returns. There are moments of brilliance; of clever design, fiendish platforming, loads of secrets, and intense combat. At others though Alice's adventure can be an unpolished, frustrating exercise in repetition. To say Alice is trippy would be more than a slight understatement. I have to say I enjoyed my journey into madness as I plunged further and further down the proverbial rabbit hole more than I thought I would initially. Still, I can't help but feel like it could, and probably should, have been better.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online!


Score = 7.8 / 10

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Infamous (7.8/10)


You ever have one of those days? You know the ones I mean... you get up, brush your teeth, head out to work delivering packages. On a whim (or so it seems) you open one (which is highly illegal). at which point it explodes with such ferocity that the blast decimates a large portion of a major metropolitan area killing tens of thousands of people in the process. But that's not all, you somehow survive and not only that, you have super powers as well!

No, huh? You haven't? Me neither... hmmmmm...

But such is a day in the life of Cole McGrath in inFAMOUS. Cole is an avid urban explorer who loves running around and climbing all over everything (a la Assassin's Creed). After the "incident," Cole learns to control his new powers, which in turn allows him to control electricity at will. But he has no memory of what happened that fateful day. Since the explosion, Empire City (read New York City) has been quarantined by the government as a contagion of unknown origin has popped up. On top of that, the panic caused by the calamity has left the police force completely overwhelmed and largely ineffectual. Roving street gangs run riot and cause havoc. In the midst of the chaos, Cole learns to channel his new abilities, making him a modern super hero. But it is how he chooses to use that power that will ultimately define him.

A good example of this is the very first mission, where Cole and his erstwhile partner Zeke (a wanna-be Elvis impersonator and one of more annoying cohorts I've run across) run to an airdrop of food and medicine which has been snagged on top of a large monument. Cole uses his parkour abilities to climb to the top, then blasts the rusted connection to the parachute with a bolt of electricity allowing the aid package to fall to the ground. Cole then jumps down and this is where choice comes into play: do you do nothing and allow the hungry and desperate people of Empire City to parcel the food out amongst themselves? Or do you zap a couple of them causing them to disperse and take the entire cache for yourselves? Thus begins your karmic conundrum... are you going to be the savior of Empire City, or it's bane?

As the story progresses a conspiracy unfolds, with Cole caught in the middle. You soon learn (minor spoiler alert) that it was he who opened the package that caused the explosion. Trish, Cole's girlfriend and seemingly sole voice of reason in his life, lost her sister in the blast, and doesn't react well to the news that he might be to blame. Cole decides to leg it out of town (seeing as how people are not too fond of him at the moment) but runs into brutal resistance as government soldiers gun down any who try to leave the island. He then meets a woman named Moya who claims to work for the FBI and is searching for her husband John. In return for his aid, she begins feeding Cole intel about the nature of the Raysphere, the device that caused the explosion and is the source of his powers.

Meanwhile, Cole must now clear the city streets of the dangerous gangs that have taken control. inFAMOUS is a sandbox game where you can go pretty much anywhere you choose. As you progress you unlock more areas to explore by turning back on the power (without power there is no electricity, which leaves Cole at a distinct disadvantage) over the three impressively large boroughs of Empire City: the Neon District, the Warren (slums), and the Historic District. Cole soon learns that there are other 'Conduits,' people with powers as well, who control the gangs and are out for their own ends. These are the foes he must face, all the while unknowing of what is truly going on... and what is coming.

Without giving too much away, the story unfolds slowly but the ending is quite clever and the twists are ones I didn't see coming. Sometimes the problem with sandbox games like inFAMOUS is that you can get lost doing the little things, and as a result, the narrative can drag a bit. However, Sucker Punch (the developers) added a lot of clever little touches, like explaining why Cole can't use guns or ride in cars (the electricity cooks off the gunpowder causing the guns to explode, same with the gasoline in the cars). This serves to limit Cole in certain ways, but expands the "super hero" possibilities in others.

The gameplay is pretty much open world exploration. Cole can climb pretty much everything (albeit in a stilted, jerky manner) and can zoom around the city on power lines and the EL train tracks (although this isn't unlocked for a while which is annoying... Empire City is a biiiiiig place, running everywhere takes forever). Apart from the main story missions, Cole spends a great deal of time clearing the streets of gang activity, making them safe once again (something you'll do as either a good Cole or a bad Cole). This is done via 'Side Missions' that involve everything from helping get stolen medical supplies for a local clinic to stopping modded buses full of bad guys. Some of these are fun, others are not. The satellite uplinks (basically checkpoint races) are a pain, as are clearing a building of surveillance (you have to climb all over a specific building looking for small glowing red devices). The tailing missions where you have to follow a specific target without being seen are the worst though. These are all trial and error, which annoys me. You need to know the exact pattern or the proper path to do them correctly. Of course, all these missions are optional. But not doing them means that bad guys might show up in the middle of story missions unannounced, making things all the more difficult.

Fortunately, Cole's powers can be truly impressive. His standard electrical bolt is his ranged attack and can be upgraded as you earn experience for completing story missions, side missions, and defeating enemies. As his powers develop (which you earn by turning on the power to different areas, Cole using his own body to reestablish the circuit), he learns to do other things: a massive shockwave that can knock back enemies, electrical grenades, and static thrusters which allow him to glide amongst others. He can also melee any enemies close enough to him, although the camera can make this a bit of a pain.

As Zeke so eloquently puts it, Cole is a walking battery. Using his powers, especially the special ones, drains his supply (displayed as a meter with multiple points), and he must 'recharge' by absorbing more from nearby power sources. Clicking the left analog stick will send out a pulse which shows the location of these on the mini-map. Also scattered about Empire City are blast shards, remnants of the Rayshere explosion. When Cole finds enough of these he gains another node on electricity meter. This encourages exploration, and there is plenty to explore.

So all this said, why wasn't I a big fan of inFAMOUS? Cool super powers, massive open city to explore, intriguing if slow story? Well, that's harder to answer.

Graphically, inFAMOUS is a mixed bag. Back in 2009 when I first played it, the graphics were great and the city was immense. Now, they look awfully dated. The animations can be very jerky and the frame rate can stutter, not to mention people have a bad habit of getting stuck in the background. The lip syncing is terrible; it's like watching badly dubbed Japanese anime. The cutscenes that serve to progress the story are really nothing more than comic book style storyboards. The soundwork is decent, although some of the voice acting is pretty bad (Zeke is a tool and Cole sounds like he's trying to channel Christian Bale from... well, every movie Christian Bale has done except The Fighter).

There are lots of little things with the gameplay that simply annoyed me. At the forefront of my complaints list is hit detection and the simple fact that you can never tell just where the hell you are getting shot from! Apparently these roving street gangs are comprised entirely of former members of the Marine Recon Sniper Team. They'll shoot you from four buildings away with unerring accuracy. Problem is that when you get nailed, it can be difficult to tell the direction from which the shot came. The camera doesn't make it any easier, nor does the fact the mini-map (where enemies show up in red) is actually a little too small. If they are outside of range, but still able to hit you, then things can get really annoying.

This is compounded by the fact that it seems to take an inordinately long time for the blood splatter/gray screen when Cole is injured to go away. Intense firefights are common, with loads of enemies. This wouldn't be an issue if not for the wonky camera making things even more difficult to track the bad guys as the screen goes all fuzzy. Fortunately, Cole will heal more quickly when draining electricity. A good strategy is just to make tracks, heal up, then come back from a different angle.

Platforming can sometimes be a pain the ass. This is partly because of the camera (again) but also because it's sometimes difficult to judge distances. Cole sort of floats when he jumps, which is weird.  Also, for some inexplicable reason, he sometimes seems unwilling to actually grab onto sections of buildings that you might normally think he would, resulting in long and frustrating falls.

The 'morality/karma' choices are pretty self explanatory: you'll either be saintlike or satan incarnate. However, as the game progresses the results of some of these pivotal moments are not quite as black and white as you might think. What bothers me about this sort of thing is that I like to play these games three ways, the good way, the bad way, and my way. I'm not always a nice lovable fuzzball (to quote Rush Limbaugh), and in certain cases I imagine I'd be a selfish prick. The problem with games where you get certain specific powers for either being good or bad is that to get the best ones you have to be all of one or the other. You can't answer the "What would I do in this situation?" question in some of the more ambiguous situations because you know you won't have a enough good/bad points to unlock all the goodies at the end. Fortunately, when you do get Cole leveled up, the game becomes a lot more playable.

By the way, in anticipation of the sequel I played it through again, this time as the bad Cole. I have to say, the bad guy powers are soooo much cooler! 

While inFAMOUS certainly isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, I was just not as overwhelmed by this game as some people were. I really think it comes down to personal preference. If you like this sort of thing you'll probably like it more than I did. I'm not sure why, but inFAMOUS really came across as a bit of a chore sometimes despite Cole's awesome powers and an excellent ending. Here's hoping that Sucker Punch will address some of the issues for the upcoming sequel!


Score = 7.8 / 10

Monday, June 13, 2011

Portal 2 (9.8/10)


In my humble option, Portal should be one of those games that is mandatory... everyone should play it. Even if you're not a huge fan of 'puzzlers,' it's sheer ingenuity and humor make it worthwhile (it's actually been used in classrooms to teach problem solving skills). To be honest, it's difficult to explain just how mind-bogglingly different and unique the original Portal was, just as it'll be difficult to review Portal 2 without making constant references (and comparisons) to it's forerunner. But hey, GLaDOS is back baby! And I, for one, couldn't be more excited!

For those of you not familiar with Portal (SHAME ON YOU!) the idea is basically thus: you have a gun that creates two doorways or... wait for it... portals that allows passage instantaneously between them. Essentially, these gateways teleport your character (a woman known as Chell) through one and out the other. GLaDOS,' the mildly neurotic AI (now that's the understatement of the decade) shepherds you through a series of increasingly difficult tests at the Aperture Science testing labs, all the while promising cake as your reward. It culminates in her attempt to kill you via incineration after you have outlived your usefulness, and your subsequent defeat of the socio/psycho-pathic machine and destruction of Aperture Labs.

The only real complaint about the original Portal was that it was pretty short by conventional standards (you can beat it in about two to three hours), and by non-conventional standards most of us just wanted to keep playing and trying to solve more puzzles. Thankfully, Valve heard the call has brought us Portal 2: bigger, faster, deeper... but does that equal better?

Armed with a portal gun and aided by another, albeit different, neurotic AI named Wheatley (who reminds me a lot of Ricky Gervais for some reason) you once again play as Chell. Chell is the exception that proves the rule, the rare case where the 'silent protagonist syndrome' works in favor of the playable character rather than against her. While the physics involved in the portal gun are dodgy at best, the rest of it is actually fairly realistic. Emphasis on momentum is still key. Going through one portal at speed means you come out of the other portal with the same momentum, allowing you to bridge gaps if you can build up the required acceleration going in.

There are a fair number of additions Valve introduces in Portal 2 beyond just the momentum physics and standard portal gun. First, you have refractory cubes that can redirect lasers. Then there are light bridges that start at a fixed point but can then go through placed portals. There are some clever puzzles that make use of this, but be wary, you don't want to accidentally cut off the source of the bridge as all subsequent portals will therefore be rendered useless and you'll end up in the drink!

The same holds true for the 'Excursion Funnels.' These are tunnels that move you in stasis following the path of the tunnel. While you can't move against the flow, you can get out of them by moving laterally out of the flow. The trick comes into redirecting these tunnels to allow you to reach your goal, but also moving other objects (such as cubes, or even turrets) around the space to get them in proper position.

After an interesting plot twist in the single player campaign that lands Chell in some of the older Aperture testing facilities, you're introduced to some gels. There is the propulsion gel (which is speedy) and repulsion gel (which is bouncy). You'll often need to direct the flow of these gels onto surfaces allowing you to access other areas. These add a new layer of physics fun, especially when you have to use the two in tandem.

While I don't want to spoil any of the surprises the story offers, I have to say that I really enjoyed it. It's clever, it's funny, and most of all, it's engaging. Mysteries surrounding GLaDOS and Aperture Science are answered. There is some clever exposition, and GLaDOS' constant insults and frustration at my success not only made me laugh out loud, but also made me wonder about the nature of AI in the first place. There are even some cunningly hidden areas that expand on the narrative as well. Oh, and the end song, one of the highlights of the first Portal, is priceless this time around as well.

By far the biggest innovation to the Portal franchise is the ability to play with a friend. Co-op equals two sets of guns: twice the portals, twice the complexity of the puzzles, twice the confusion. And let me tell you, it's fantastic! As clever as the puzzles are for the single player, the difference is literally exponential. I enjoyed the teamwork aspect and figuring out some truly diabolical puzzles. There were several instances where, upon entering a new testing area, we simply turned in circles trying to figure out just where to even begin! My only complaint about the co-op is that when you get to the end sections and have to use all the different methods to solve the puzzles at your disposal (momentum, gels, light bridges and excursion funnels), those parts aren't as long as I'd hoped. Sure, they are elaborate (and trippy), but I just wanted more!

To be honest, there isn't a lot to complain about with Portal 2. If I had to find something, (the reviewer's curse) it would be the load times, which are frequent and often long. Another thing I noticed as I played the campaign was how there seemed to be a lot of distractions in Portal 2. There are more than a few 'follow the leader' bits as opposed to just solving more puzzles. I get why Valve did this, to expand the narrative (and necessarily as well). But it seemed to me that by attempting to artificially elongate the game without the gameplay, when the gameplay (i.e. puzzles) is what defines Portal, was almost glaringly obvious, and therefore harder to ignore.

On that same note, some of the puzzles seem almost intentionally misleading in parts. As opposed to finding the one piece of usable wall where you can place a portal there are often multiple ones you don't need. Sometimes this leads to finding alternate ways to solve said puzzles, other times you'll spend twenty minutes making things more complicated than they need be only to discover the simple solution and smack yourself in the forehead for not seeing it earlier. There is definitely a propensity to "over think" things here... just remember 'Occam's Razor': the simplest explanation is usually the right one!

The thing about the original Portal was simply the fact that it was so original, so out of the norm, that (most) people fell instantly in love with it. Add in the quirky humor and we were sold. But playing Portal 2, while thoroughly enjoyable, I can't escape the feeling that it's been done. It can't be as original as the original, if you see what I mean. Still, that's a hell of a thing to nitpick, isn't it? 

To be fair, these are all minor complaints-the incessant whining of someone trying to find fault for the sake of finding fault. Portal 2, like its predecessor, is a must play for gamers and non-gamers alike. GLaDOS' thinly disguised psychosis is hilarious, as are her attempts to mess with you in both the single player and multiplayer. To be honest, it's the most fun I've had with a game in quite a while. And after all, isn't that why we play in the first place? My only fervent hope being that Valve will hint there is more to come at some point in the future.


Score = 9.8 / 10

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mortal Kombat (9.4/10)

I'll be perfectly honest here... I've never been a big fan of fighting games. Well, not since we used to play them, you know, back in the arcade. But I've never really enjoyed them simply because of the inherent learning and difficulty curves irregardless of whether you play against a the computer or anyone living. Sure, I've played a few on consoles: Super Street Fighter 4 for the nostalgia's sake and Dead or Alive 4 for the boob jiggle physics, but neither one for more than an hour or two.

Having said that, I've always had a special place in my heart for the Mortal Kombat franchise, mostly due to the sheer unadulterated brutality of it. That series never hid from what it was... until Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, which, as soon as I heard they had toned it down, I refused to play. Apparently so many people bitched about it that for the reboot NetherRealm Studios went totally overboard with the ultra violence. After watching some videos and hearing anyone and everyone rave about it I decided I simply had to give this one a try...

This new Mortal Kombat, technically the ninth in the series, takes the franchise back to its roots. The gameplay is classic Kombat, with less focus on combos this time around. You can play in any number of modes: from the standard ladder challenge, to Tag team "two on two" battles (it's clever how they integrated combo moves between the players on the same team, although it can be a bit difficult to get the timing right), to the 'Test Your Might/Sight/Luck' minigames, to a massive "Challenge Tower" which is essentially a giant ladder putting different characters in all sorts of different situations over a whopping three hundred events.

Then there is the 'Story' mode. The tale beings as Raiden, the thunder god of Earthrealm, finds himself under the large boot of Shao Kahn, the evil emperor of Outworld. Before those size 22s land on his face (this is apparently from Mortal Kombat: Armageddon), Raiden sends a message back to himself in the past, all the way to the original Mortal Kombat tournament from the very first game. Basically, because Shao Khan is about to finish him off, allowing Outworld to absorb Earthrealm (who thinks this stuff up, honestly?!), Raiden tells himself that "he must win" to avoid Armageddon.

Sadly, he doesn't say who must win...

The story then plays out over what amounts to the major plot points of the first three games as you take on playable roles with the vast majority of the cast trying to change the course of future events. To be honest, I actually enjoyed it despite the fact I really didn't have much clue what was going on. There were some really clever plot twists I didn't see coming (mostly because I haven't played most of the games referenced and have only a passing knowledge of the characters) that flesh out the bare-bones story. It's enough to give Marty Mcfly, time traveler extraordinaire, a headache... but that's okay, it worked for me. Although I have to say that some of the battles, especially the ones versus Shao Kahn, are downright frustrating.

That leads nicely to a core problem I have with fighting games in general. Mortal Kombat is a fantastically fun game, but like so many others in the fighting genre there is a steep learning curve. Fortunately, the developers realized this, and you can look up the moves list from the pause menu. I, for one, would like to say thank you... it made it much easier to be able to simply pause, memorize a few moves and some basic combos then start fighting. For the most part you can still follow a similar pattern for all the characters (jump kick, sweep, uppercut... yeah I know, it's cheap, so what?!) but it's nice having all the 'Special Moves' just an in-game pause away. There are even several well done training levels, with one even devoted solely to 'Fatalities' so you can practice getting the distance and button sequence correct.

And speaking of the famous (or infamous) 'Fatalities,' I feel the urge to convey to you, gentle reader, just how absurdly violent Mortal Kombat is... some of the finishing moves actually left me wincing. That's saying something. I'm one of the more desensitized people you're likely to meet. This game isn't for the faint of heart, I'll say that. And it's all brought to you in glorious high definition with the graphics and sound (which are pretty good by the way) allowing all of the blood and gore to really come to the forefront. Not to mention that there is a gauge the builds up when you take damage that, when full, allows you a special 'X-ray' move which actually shows the damage to bones and organs alike, cracking and bursting under the onslaught. It's almost eye-rollingly funny that they get right on up and keep fighting without their spleens, compound fractures to every limb...

As has been the trend with more modern Mortal Kombat titles there is a lot of hidden stuff in this one as well. When you fight in any game mode (not sure about online, I didn't try that out... stupid PSN going down) you gain coins that can be spent unlocking everything from concept art to other fatalities and alternate costumes. The massive 'Krypt' spans four areas, with almost three hundred unlockables, and the 'Necropolis' where you can view what you've found and check out character bios and stats. It's a nice touch... although is does get pretty addictive as you try to unlock them all. 

Mortal Kombat is, to me anyway, an excellent game that serves the dual purpose of being a wonderful way to blow off steam. It's not without some flaws, most notably some cheap bosses, but overall it's actually a fighting game I'll hang on to... mostly for late night drunken fun I imagine. Brutality has been redefined under an old moniker, Mortal Kombat


Score = 9.4 / 10

P.S. If you have both systems, the PS3 version is the way to go. Despite the PSN debacle, you get Kratos as a playable character... yeah, that's pretty awesome.