Mortal Kombat 4 review
Sluggish Kombat


During the 16 bit era when the SNES and Mega Drive (or Genesis depending on where you live) reigned the fighting scene was primarily dominated by two series. In one corner we had Capcom's Street Fighter, with all sorts of spinning kicks, crushing blows and hadokens flying about. Midway had their own contender in the form of Mortal Kombat, which took an even more brutal route. After all, why wouldn't you like the idea of a game where you're encouraged to literally rip opponents apart?

Having been locked to a 2D plane of movement for many years, MK4 essentially marks the first time the series steps into the 3D realm. Such possibilities present themselves with this new dimension, but in truth this doesn't change the game drastically. This is still Mortal Kombat, for better or worse.

Two fighters are thrown into an arena and proceed to beat the crap out of each other. Each character has the same basic combat setup in which they get two punch buttons and two kick buttons, split up as high and low variants respectively. Combined with the use of the analogue stick this allows for a variety of basic attacks, from standard punching to roundhouse kicks or powerful uppercuts. Tapping up will allows you to jump into the air to unleash an aerial attack with either a fist or a foot.

Basic attacks are also affected by how close you are to the opponent, meaning that each of these buttons has a second function that works when you are close. High punch produces a more powerful smash into the face while high kick knees the enemy. The remaining two abilities are grabs, but while low punch is basically a common throw move that is not new to fighting, low kick produces a powerful (and somewhat painful looking) limb breaker move. Quite how these fighters recover from having their knees snapped backwards is anyone's guess though.

The thing that really separates the different fighters is their special skills. You can input a specific button sequence to unleash a special skill unique to that fighter. Sub Zero can freeze opponents with icy blasts, Jax can strike the ground to damage grounded enemies or Tanya zips forward with some sort of drill kick. Most of these skills are pretty easy to input but since most also come with a slight startup delay then timing becomes pretty important.

There is also a button combination that pulls out a special weapon (the same combination also puts the weapon away, but there's little point to that). Most weapon are basically melee objects that replace your basic punches. You can stab, slash and even smash opponents into the 'camera'. Some weapons are more projectile based, although these are somewhat slow and clumsy.

Sounds awesome, and it would be if the gameplay just wasn't so sluggish. The combo system in the game is rather weak. The only combos you can really do is punch, punch, kick. Everything else has too much of a delay to really work into proper combos, which is a shame when you consider the potential there would be for mixing in special attacks with basic moves. From there it quickly becomes apparent how repetitive things become as well when you find yourself using the same tactics in each fight, simply because they work the best and things just aren't fluid enough to warrant mixing up the approach.

This sluggishness is compounded by the bizarre running system. All fighters can run, but rather than being incorporated solely into the D-Pad or the stick they instead assigned it to a button. Yes, you have to hold a button to run, which is rather awkward to manage. Running also depletes a special running meter, but that seems rather pointless when you consider that A) it's virtually impossible to deplete the entire gauge before you run into your opponent and B) the gauge refills to full almost instant the moment you stop running.

Sidestepping is possible, and once again we're faced with button presses to do it. THe shoulder buttons allow you to sidestep, allowing you to dodge projectile attacks and can provide an opening. Great, except the feature is horribly underused. There is rarely an occasion where it is more useful than simply blocking or jumping and it feels so sluggish moving sideways one slow step at a time.

The trademark of the series is here in full force, and yet is rather disappointing as well. Hitting an opponent with almost any attack will produce a fair amount of blood to splatter out of them. A shame that it really doesn't resemble blood at all, considering it looks rather blocky. Come now, if Turok can make it look real then why can't MK4?

Despite the look of blood the fatalities are at least cool looking. Whenever a fighter wins a match they are given a few brief seconds to deliver a finishing move, signified by the classic 'Finish Him/Her' sounding out and flashing up on screen. Each fighter has two special button combos reserved for these moments alone that allows them to deliver a rather final death blow. Feel like ripping their head off, engulfing them in flames or blowing them into pieces? Now is your chance. There are some a couple of stage fatalities that all can perform. I must admit that tossing the body into the rotating fan is quite satisfying.

There are a total of 15 main fighters to pick from and two hidden fighters. Most of them possess notably different special talents, although the low number of them means there is a little feeling of repetition with the selection. Character costumes can be changed too for those preferring to try out alternate outfits.

The arenas you fight in are pretty disappointing though, in that there is really no difference between them that affects the gameplay. Well, some have a couple of throwable objects that you can hurl into the other fighter's face, but that's about it. Identi-kit stages might pass in 2D fighters, but so much is possible in a 3D world that the same just isn't acceptable anymore. Where's the variation in size and shape? Where's the potential ring outs? What about more interaction?

Arcade mode is the main single player mode. Players pick a fighter and then proceed to the 'Choose Your Destiny' screen. There are five towers on here with varying difficulty and number of fights, and each tower can be rotated to display any of their four sides, which changes the fighters on that tower. Once a player has picked a tower they then make their way through each fight all the way to the top.

Sadly, the computer is not particularly interesting to fight against. These fighters have a tendency to unleash completely random attacks and it shows immensely. Even on harder settings they choose not to increase in intelligence but instead simply become cheap, striking with a throw or limb break every time you try one. There is an odd problem with Shinnok especially, since the computer never uses any of his special abilities when they control him. This makes for a terrible final battle, as Shinnok is generally easy than pretty much anyone else as he relies on basic attacks.

Even stranger is how the fight before is a lot harder, as long time fans will relish the chance to take on Goro once again. Again we're not talking about intelligence, but Goro does a lot of damage and takes little himself. Quite clearly Goro should be the last battle.

Versus is basically the two player main mode, and is probably where you'll draw most of the game's entertainment from. Before each fight players can enter a button code that can activate various effects. Such effects can influence gameplay, like one hit wins, or have mere cosmetic value, like big heads.

Team mode lets you build a team of up to five fighters and pit them against another team controlled by either the computer or a friend. This setup of elimination as you work down your team is interesting, though I wish they made it so players couldn't fill their team with the same character.

Survival mode is not all that interesting. In fact, it's basically the arcade mode except health doesn't regenerate between fights. Tournament mode lets you set up elimination battles, and is also your opportunity to watch the computer fight it out (if watching random attacks is your thing).

Training mode is the ideal place to practice your skills. As well as setting a fair few options to help your training you are also presented with a handy command list for your chosen fighter that displays all the available special skills and even the fatality commands.

Visually the game is pretty mixed. The character models look pretty good and the stages are fairly well designed. There's a little flatness in some places but nothing majorly noticeable. However, the effects in the game aren't always that good looking. As mentioned earlier, blood simply looks poor and some of the fatal effects don't really work. One of Tanya's fatalities results in a snapped neck (not sure how it differs greatly from her basic limb break...) but the visual effect is the head just spinning on the neck, which just looks weird.

Music is pretty good. It's atmospheric enough to match up to the game's theme and each stage has a melody to suit. The sound effects are good too and there are a fair few voice clips for the fighters as they take and give damage.

The plot isn't amazing but at least they stopped with the whole Shao Khan thing so some credit for that. Shinnok is an evil bitter elder god freed by an evil sorcerer, who then launches an attack on the Earth realm. The real key to the plot comes with the different characters, where the game does pretty well. Some of it is predictable for fans of the series but some characters have rather interesting backstories and endings, like Tanya and Scorpian. Some just suck though, like Reiko who must win the award for most under-developed character ever up to this game.

Mortal Kombat 4 is an attempt to bring the bloody fighter up to date, but it's not really all that successful. Gameplay is shallow and doesn't really feel like a 3D fighter. Even it's trademark gore isn't as effective here. The game just doesn't run fluid enough to provide the intense fun factor fighting games should deliver. There are better out there.

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