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    Mortal Kombat X: New Strategy, New Fight Style

    We’re playing as Raiden, and we’ve just grabbed a man by the crotch and electrocuted him. But that’s not enough this is Mortal Kombat so we broke his jaw by swinging our heel into it. The X-Ray cam zoomed up on this, too, and we saw a single tooth fly out of his mouth. Still not content, Raiden dug his hand into the man’s back flesh, grabbed his spine and electrocuted the doomed kombatant through and through. Oh, and just before we pulled off the fatality, we punch his liver to death, too. Raiden’s back, ladies and gentlemen, and he is pulling no punches.

    Raiden’s been with Mortal Kombat since the beginning, a crazy 22 years ago. But the Guardian of Earthrealm has seen perhaps the biggest change now in the game’s tenth release, instead of just wailing on your opponents with that crazy across-the-screen lightning dash, or a grapple that electrocutes their brains, Raiden has been given three ‘Variations’ King Of Storms, Displacer and Thunder God.

    “At their core, we want each character to feel the same,” explains NetherRealm’s marketing and game manager, Ryan Goodman, when we ask him why the studio decided to add this new character-splitting dynamic. “One of the great opportunities we have with Variations is that you can easily maintain the core of a character, but really employ a whole new strategy and fight style to them. That’s where this feature becomes so important we can make a character play like more of a zoning character in one variation, but [another Variation will allow you] to get in real close and keep the pressure up.”

    It’s a fantastic addition to a game that’s traditionally been seen as the more cartoony fighting game by the pro community. It takes away the simple rock-paper-scissors cycle Mortal Kombat began life with. But what pushed NetherRealm to develop Mortal Kombat X this way ? Wasn’t it good enough before? “We always want Mortal Kombat to feel like Mortal Kombat and I think we’ve achieved that in how the game plays,” Goodman describes. “But at the same time, we’re trying to innovate and we’re trying to do something new I think we’d feel anxious if we just sat on our laurels and didn’t move into new territory. People would just get tired of the same characters and the same gameplay. New characters are a great way to keep things fresh, and we also took the Story Mode and fast-forwarded that a few years to bring this new generation of fighters in.”

    Goodman covers a few things there firstly, he mentions how NetherRealm has introduced new characters. Every Mortal Kombat has done that before, right ? But this time it feels different someone like Cassie Cage, daughter of Bruce Willis inspired Jonny Cage, allows the team to take the core moveset of a familiar face and bash it around a little, giving more creative freedom to the dev team. Then, you’ve got the entirely new guys D’Vorah, Kotal Kahn, Ferra/Torr who all bring new movesets and abilities to Mortal Kombat ’s unique roster.

    “From a fighting standpoint, [bringing in] fresh blood is really fun because it gives us a lot more flexibility to use new fighting styles and extend the movepool, and that’s a very exciting thing,” Goodman reveals. “There are definitely some characters that we feel only some of the real hardcore fighters are really going to master because of that. One of Kung Lao’s variations, for example, is a very very tricky fighter that uses his hat as a trap…similar with Raiden, where the ‘Lord Of Storms’ version can set up traps to mess with the opponent. It’s not like casual players wont be able to use it or anything, but we just think only those guys with a serious level of skill can really make those variations go and use them to their maximum potential.”

    The introduction of the Variations lets NetherRealm experiment, then, and mess around with a roster that’s been cementing itself in gaming’s culture for a while imagine if NetherRealm had released Mortal Kombat X and said ‘Hey, Kung Lao can’t throw his hat anymore, he can only use it as a trap.’ There’d be uproar, (proverbial) blood in the streets. Instead, the developer can say ‘hey, remember your favourite character ? Well here he is, exactly the same! But we also gave him two whole new movesets.’ It’sa canny strategy everyone’s a winner.

    Oh, it gets better too just because there’s effectively three versions of each character, don’t expect that to lessen the choices you have before jumping into a bout. “The main roster including character variations is going to be about the same size as past Mortal Kombat games,” Goodman laughs when we ask him if the studio has had to cut down on individual characters to make room for the Variations. “So three times that number starting number, really, is the real amount of characters we’ve got on offer [laughter].”

    That’s not a bad shout especially when you consider other 2D fighters on the market tend to ship with a pretty paltry selection of starting characters these days. It helps that Mortal Kombat, like Soul Calibur and Tekken before it, is moving the complex narrative on a few years to tidy up the storyline and help ease some of the newer fighters into the mix.
    “I think we’d feel anxious if we just sat on our laurels and didn't move into new territory. People would just get tired of the same characters and gameplay”
    “From a creative standpoint, [moving things forward] helps, you can explore how these new fighters get to communicate with the ‘old guard’ you know, the veterans and what they represent.” He’s not wrong each character has a unique intro line when they step into battle with a specific fighter, and the new kombatants are easily the best. Take, for example, Raiden’s intro with Kotal Khan. ‘You have no chance, Thunder God,’ the new Emperor of Outworld says. Raiden’s reply seems stock, generic ‘Lightning will blot out the sun’ until Khan mutters to himself ‘… Temporarily.’ It seems small, but this interplay means so much when building the world and lore around a fighting game.

    That leads us neatly onto the Story Mode a staple part of the Mortal Kombat experience. NetherRealm’s last project was the DC-licensed Injustice, a fighting game that put the cinematic experience first, making each fight feel like a scripted experience in between one long TV series. And Mortal Kombat X is no different.

    “We found that the evolution of story mode from Mortal Kombat through to Injustice became more and more integrated; you feel like the whole story is seamless,” explains Goodman. “It’s more interactive that way the Story plays out as one long interactive building.”

    It’s also handy for bringing players that are perhaps uncomfortable with the more technical aspects of fighting games (combos, frame-data, juggling, parries) closer to the game giving them a tutorial that’s more than just a bunch of moves listed in boxes on the screen. “Part of the process of building this game was all about creating features that appeal to new gamers,” Goodman tells us. “In the last few games, we’ve really taken steps to supply more single-player content it’s an easy road into the game, it’s more forgiving, and you don’t have to be incredibly skilled at fighting games to get a lot of enjoyment out of it. We’ve always tried to make the game as accessible as possible whilst still delivering a very deep and technical, core fighting game.

    “Injustice was a great experiment for us in terms of learning how to serve our fans, and provide a ton of content and a ton of opportunities for our players to enjoy the game in a variety of different ways,” Goodman explains. “One of the things we’ve become known for at NetherRealm is that all of our games deliver  tons of content; and that’s not just fighters there’s different modes, different challenges, tons of extra content you can unlock and find throughout the game… I think that’s really become a trademark of our studio.”

    Goodman wasn’t in a position to talk about Mortal Kombat’s newest feature when we spoke to him, but since then it’s been revealed that part of the overall experience of NetherRealm’s newest game is a concept called ‘Faction Wars’. Each character belongs to one of five factions; the ninjitsu pro Lin Kuei, the monks of the White Lotus, the terrorist sect Black Dragon, the evil Brotherhood of Shadow, and the shady Special Forces.

    Use your favourite character throughout the week, and you’ll fulfil criteria that will play into a metagame that pulls in data from every player on earth to help your faction unlock special abilities, new gear and other perks. It’s all part of that developmental philosophy NetherRealm has, to keep its games brimming with content. That isn’t to say Goodman wants to alienate the core fighting crowd; in fact,  Mortal Kombat has just been confirmed for a slot at the most prestigious professional fighting game tournament of them all; EVO.

    “There is a level of validation [getting the EVO listing],” grins Goodman. “It shows we’re creating a game that has an audience of professional gamers that really want to take on the challenge. And they really do it very well; we’re always amazed at what the programmers are able to do with our game. We build it with the full intention of making it a technical fighting game, but we see players that discover things in the game that we hadn’t even thought of. As far as we can go with [the game], it’s always amazing to see how much further the players take it.

    “We’re just [right now] dipping our toes into that professional gaming world, and it’s been going very well. eSports is something that we’re focusing on, and that we’re going to put our eye towards in the near future. Fighting games are built for eSports, and I absolutely guarantee that our game is built for it in terms of technical depth.”

    So not only is NetherRealm making a fighter with a narrative mode aimed at getting the casual audience hooked (something that the recent timeline reset will help with, no doubt), but the studio is also making a game that can be enjoyed for days upon days of playtime by professional fighters, who will break down every Variation of every single character, seeing who’s God-tier and whose spine deserves to be ripped from their necks.

    Mortal Kombat may have entered this world in a flurry of blood and blades rallying the mainstream against its cartoony depiction of violence but its grown up a lot since then. The original game was made in under eight months, but the tenth instalment of the iconic franchise has been in development for around two years. And every second of that time shows when you see Raiden’s battered head get lifted from his shoulders by a triumphant Reptile, when you pull off one of the most technical combos you’ve ever seen in a  Mortal Kombat game, or when you and a few hundred thousand other players cheer together because your faction won the war that week. Mortal Kombat has grown up, in a sense, but that maturity has only made the game get bigger, bolder and bloodier.

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