Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Mortal Kombat: Deception

I'm one of those Mortal Kombat enthusiasts who sees the past through a pair of the ever-popular rose tinted glasses. Even though I'd never fought a single round of 3-D rendered MK prior to purchasing Deception, I unconsciously deemed every game since that switch to be of lesser quality than their vid-captured predecessors. I'd spent far too many quarters on the first three games in the series to see its trademark live-action cheesiness cast aside in favor of the polygonal rendering and three-dimensional environments that had become all the rage in the fighting genre. In a way, I want to stand by my pre existing pompous, know-it-all attitude. A lot of the charm and personality of the series was based around its B-Movie aura and the macabre sense of humor apparent therein. But the series will likely never be returning to that form, and it's probably for the best to wipe the slate clean and give these new-look MKs a chance before I blindly shit all over them.

Deception succumbs to many of the problems I'd feared it might, but it also contains a few successes I couldn't have foreseen. For instance, it's more of a variety pack than a straightforward fighting game. In addition to the standard "fight to the top of the ladder" single player brawl, the package contains a strangely provocative translation of chess, complete with death traps and damage amplifiers. Additionally, it hides a truly challenging and entertaining Puzzle Fighter knock-off, (with a handful of post-match fatalities thrown in for good measure) a sort of hybrid fighting RPG that reminds strangely of Shenmue, and a gift shop-styled "Krypt," where the credits you'll earn throughout your gameplay experience can be used to purchase production art, hidden characters, alternate costumes, movies and the like. As someone who's always shied away from purchasing fighting games in the past, due to the problems with longevity and depth that I instinctively associate with the genre, these additions were a blessing in disguise. If I found myself fed up with a particularly tough fight in MKII on the SNES, for instance, the most I could do was turn the system off or retry the battle with a different character. Maybe I'd aim for a Friendship or Animality, something to add a little spice to the repetitive process of constantly climbing to the top of the mountain and then starting it all over again. With Deception, I can step away from the fights for a minute, entertain another portion of my brain with "Puzzle Kombat" or the "Konquest" RPG, and then try again with a clear mind. Even though these extra modes aren't the most elaborate, well-executed things I've ever tried out, the rounding-out they add to the overall package can't be overstated.

Upon reflection, I probably spent more time working through the Konquest mode than I did actually fighting my way up the ladder in single-player Kombat. Superficially, Konquest is probably among the worst games I've ever played. It's wooden, it's blatantly hurried, it's insultingly elementary in both visuals, audio, controls and motivations. Speaking to the commoners that frequent a city's streets, for instance, is like reading dialog from a story written by a third grade student with a D in English. Central characters don't fare much better. The quests you're asked to complete are absolutely comedic. The storytelling is paint-by-the-numbers, and familiar faces from around the MK universe stroll in and out without reason. What's worrying is that this story was evidently supposed to be the backbone of the whole of Deception, with every character's ending sprouting from ideas presented within. Shujinko, the martial artist you control throughout Konquest mode, is the tale's pivotal character. He's obviously meant to be something of a replacement for Liu Kang, which is a nice shift, since the series' reliance on Kang was becoming borderline obsessive. As a distinct personality, however, Shujinko could barely pass as Liu's much older brother. The two share a sticky-sweet innocence that sticks out like a sore thumb alongside evil, tainted characters like Scorpion, Kabal or Baraka. It's easy to recognize that the creative minds behind Kombat are much more interested in developing their villains than they are in fleshing out their heroes.

Yet, despite all the horrors contained within, underneath the surface of Konquest resides some intangible element that just kept me coming back over and over again. It could've been my endless drive to reach 100% completion, but I've quit only halfway through on lesser games before. I think it was an underlying interest in understanding and mastering the nuances of the game as a whole. Although it's fairly elaborate and large-scale, the meat and potatoes of this RPG mode is a training regimen for every character in the game. Since Shujinko's fighting style is a mix of special moves and combos from each combatant, (I refuse to spell that with a K instead of a C) it makes sense for him to spend time learning each character's fighting style. The end result is not only a close familiarity with Shujinko's story, but also a clear understanding of both basic and advanced attacks with every playable character. As the story unfolds and the number of characters you haven't yet trained with dwindles, the lessons give way to challenges and strange sets of circumstances. Characters will challenge you to defeat them without blocking, or using only throws. They'll intimidate you by inflicting triple damage, or setting an incredibly short time limit, and they'll make Shujinko's life extremely difficult in so doing. Likewise, these strange circumstances and seemingly insurmountable requirements make that sense of pride and confidence twice as rewarding if and when you finally do overcome the handicaps and emerge victorious. I think I can safely say that I've never spent twenty hours working through a tutorial before, but in Konquest mode I scarcely noticed.

As with any long-standing fighting franchise, a new chapter brings new playable characters, and Deception is no exception. Nine fighters are making their debut this time around, including the non-playable final boss, Onaga. Yet, with only one or two exclusions, these new faces can't even compare to the classics, neither in form nor function. They seem much more faceless than the creatures we've come to expect in a Mortal Kombat game. Their fighting styles are much more subtle and martial arts-based, and while there's something to be said for going the way of realism for a change, the new warriors just don't look formidable alongside Scorpion, Sub-Zero and Raiden. Their special moves are far weaker and overspecialized than those of the more established names, but their hand-to-hand skills and combos are much more refined and potentially damaging. You take some, you leave some, I suppose.

The sheer number of fighters in the game is quite deep, weighing in at a whopping twenty four playable faces, especially considering each character comes equipped with two distinct fighting styles and a unique weapon style. Having avoided the franchise for almost two full console generations, I'm not sure if that was something new for Deception, but the concept of more than one fighting style per character really appealed to me. I liked the additional depth and individuality it gave to each character, along with the potential it opened up for some explosive combinations, branching fluidly from one form of combat to another. Although the boundaries between styles are very rigid, (you're either fighting straight-up Tae Kwon Do or straight-up Vale Tudo, there's very little overlap outside of lengthy combos) the game's heart is in the right place and it functions very well. Should you find yourself struggling with a particular style, a transition to a completely different approach is just a press of the L1 button away.

The inclusion of weaponry to this scheme throws something of a wrench into the equation, both in terms of playability and believability. It can be incredibly disruptive to attempt a transition between a quick-striking hand-to-hand style and an attack with a slow, powerful weapon. Suddenly, rather than the quick aggressor, you're the slow brawler who's picking his shots. Of course, with experience comes familiarity with the process, but that such a learning curve exists in the first place only serves to defeat the otherwise-impressive style branching system. In terms of feasibility, I'm sure I don't have to explain just how far one's disbelief must be suspended before they can buy the idea that the guy on the screen just successfully blocked a sword attack with their bare arms. What's more, how does an uppercut to the face induce exactly the same amount of damage to one's opponent as a slash across the throat with a heavy axe? I don't want to come right out and poo-poo the whole concept of weaponry within the Mortal Kombat mythos, but maybe these items could be a momentum-shifter, only available to fighters struggling through a battle or under special circumstances? Something must be done, whatever it may be, because the blades and knives aren't working all that well in their current incarnation.

Carrying over that question of feasibility is the continuation of the series' more questionable offensive maneuvers. Now, as I've said in my opening paragraphs, I consider myself to be something of an older-minded fan as far as the MK series is concerned. I liked the old games, complete with their goofy projectile attacks and inexplicable teleportations from one side of the screen to the other. It was taken for granted that such silly abilities would still be present with this year's model, and that surely is the case. Unfortunately, in their unyielding quest to constantly top themselves, the special move as a whole has become so far over the top and hard to believe that it's really starting to hurt the gameplay. If I'm fighting an eight foot dragon and he breathes flames over 97% of my body, I can accept the fact that my fighter may have trouble continuing. If I'm picked up, flown to a height of thirty feet, and spiked down directly onto my head, I'll cope with the knowledge that I probably won't be moving around too much any more. Hell, I'm still totally OK with the idea that a ninja can fire a mystical, freezing blast from the palms of his hands. Where I start to have questions, however, is when my fighter is knocked unconscious by a guy stomping really hard on the ground fifteen feet in front of me. Or when I'm KO'd by that same dragon from an earlier example merely flapping his wings and firing a stiff breeze in my direction. Something tells me it's time for the team at Midway to take a step or two back and think about where they're going with their special attacks, because Deception is really stretching it with some of these things.

In that same vein is the series' infamous cherry-on-the-top fatalities immediately following a fight. These, too, occasionally go too far over the top, but are granted a bit more leeway than the special attacks I mentioned above. For the most part, they're at once hilarious and horrific, with little touches and nuances making them all the more disturbing. Like the way an impaled torso squirms for a moment, after being separated from each of its limbs and its head, before falling into inactivity for the last time. Hilarious, because it's so unabashedly violent, but also sickening, because the layman wouldn't even think of something like that before witnessing it in all of its polygonal glory. In Deception, as with each supplemental chapter in the series, finishing maneuvers take a number of shapes and sizes... just not quite as much so as in previous episodes. Deception represents more of a back-to-basics approach to its finishers, with merely two fatalities and one hara kiri (a suicide move, meant to steal the glory from your opponent at the last moment) per character - no Animalities, Babalities, Friendships, Brutalities or the like. On one hand, it's refreshing to see the emphasis moved away from frivolous finishing maneuvers with no effect on the outcome of the fights, but on the other it seems like a lot of content is missing. After all, it was the fatalities, the blood, and the guts that brought this game to the dance in the first place.

One method of incapacitation that's still in use, despite that trimming down, is the stage-specific fatality. In earlier games, these were limited to something basic - you'd uppercut somebody and they'd fall off of a platform to a grisly demise, or maybe send them plummeting into a vat of acid. Within Deception's three dimensional world, the stakes have been upped considerably. Not only can a stage fatality occur at any point during the battle, but they often do so in a chillingly unexpected fashion. Take a powerful blow in the wrong spot and your fight is over in the blink of an eye, regardless of how far ahead you were in the brawl before that moment. It would probably be somewhat challenging to continue a round after a trip through an eight foot meat grinder, after all. For the most part, these stage fatalities are a nice addition that allows every player, regardless of skill level, to have a puncher's chance. Unfortunately in a single player fight, they allow for a quick, cheap win for the computer more often than not. The AI will always find a way to jump over your head and perform these things instantaneously, which does get a bit aggravating after a few performances. You'll find yourself groaning when a few specific maps load, thanks to the stage fatalities contained within.

Even on those fields with a handful of cheap, easy-to-use stage fatalities, one can't help but admire the game's universally outstanding level designs. Truly, the attention to detail, variety of interactive objects, and all-around size of these levels are an outstanding accomplishment. Each board is multi-layered in the style of the Dead or Alive series, with each section presenting its own set of unique hazards and extras. That means there's constantly something to find, or something to run into, that you hadn't noticed before. The presence of these cool little surprises and nods to the past keep the experience fresh and rewarding for more experienced players. I must've fought on the "dead pool" two dozen times before I noticed Shang Tsung, in his full MKII wardrobe, enjoying the battle from a tiny balcony in the corner. Speaking of which, one stage I especially enjoyed was Tsung's "nethership," where four or five corpses, long-dead, sway to and fro during the fight, tethered to the ceiling by their nooses. Competent fighters can use these poor souls to their own aid, by shoving them into their opponent or using them as a sort of human shield to deflect blows. Totally gross, but utterly cool and undeniably at home within the world of MK.

The controls have been tweaked since I last played the series, which was inevitable considering the changes in the engine, and arrive fully-equipped with a handful of snags, bugs and problems. I had significant troubles with blocking consistently, especially when being attacked vigorously by a frenzied computer opponent. He'll be rattling off combo after combo, while my man stands there and stares, completely oblivious to my wishes. I also found that it was far too easy to throw, as blocking seems to be no deterrent to a character who wants to grab you and throw you across the tile. Furthermore, there's a noticeably longer pause after firing a special maneuver than in almost any other fighting game, which seems to be exclusive to the man-controlled characters. It's common practice to force a pause after a fireball, something to give the other player a chance to take advantage of their own ability to avoid the attack, but those pauses are just a beat too long in Deception.

At this stage in the consoles' lives, I think there's very little room to impress with the PS2, Xbox or Gamecube's visual capabilities. As such, MK:D is a strictly average graphical performance. There are some intriguing touches, such as the way fighters begin to display facial damage as the rounds carry on, but for the most part it's by the books. The stage designs and accompanying backgrounds, as I mentioned before, are stellar, which may give the impression that things are looking better than they actually are, but under close scrutiny it's easy to discover a few shortcuts and trimmed corners. Especially bothersome is the endings, tailor-made to each character in typical series fashion. Where there's a lengthy FMV introduction to the game that's close to five minutes in length, the endings are at most three slides of still renderings with half a paragraph of subtitles and a voice-over. I'd have much rather been entertained with an introductory paragraph at the outset and rewarded with a beautiful series of cutscenes after finishing the game with each character, personally.

Of course, the series made its name on its bloodletting, and on this front, Deception certainly doesn't disappoint. Rather than spraying abstractly into the air after each strike, the player's crimson fluids take the shape of thick, rotund blood droplets which slowly roll their way down the player's body after a rough attack. In a way, it's like watching a tree bleed syrup. When those globs hit the floor, you'll notice that a series of intertwining blood trails left behind. After a fight, if you look closely enough at the ground, you'll notice a map of where each major strike occurred during the brawl, as evidenced by the trail of blood splatters and puddles. In a way, it's kind of like a twisted version of the Family Circus maps that followed each child around the neighborhood, just with more broken bones and dislocated spines.

The audio is hit and miss, with a great set of original tunes in the soundtrack, but some downright awful voice work. The entire game seems to be missing the aural ambience and subtle sense of humor that filled previous chapters. The narrator's laughter after a fight doesn't have the same authenticity that it once did... it feels like a guy in a studio trying to sound evil and failing, rather than the belly laugh of someone who's truly amused by the way the fight ended. But that's nothing compared to the voice acting and dialog, which is beyond bad - almost to the point that it becomes a part of the game's charm, like a bad horror film. Note that I said "almost." One can only use the "that's what we were trying for" excuse so many times before it stops being cute and starts feeling cheap and underproduced.

Despite my early concerns, Deception really does retain a lot of that old-school Mortal Kombat personality. The instances are frequent where I find myself laughing at a fatality in the same way I did in '92, upon catching first glimpse of the original arcade machine. However, those instances do appear to be shrinking. It seems to be the right time for this series to reinvent itself, as the initial concept has been stretched to the point of breaking on more than one front and the threat of a descent into complete self-destruction looms on the horizon. I'm really looking for this series to re-establish itself as pushing the envelope, as it seems to have slipped into complacency in the last decade. What made it so special and so unique in the first place was its willingness to do what other games wouldn't. That's not to say that it's commonplace for other fighting games to feature fatalities, because that's still something unique to the MK franchise, but the freshness has worn off. It's often very difficult to determine when the right time really is to draw the line and jump blindly into something new, but for MK, there really is no time like the present. Deception has a lot of good elements - it's still a very challenging game, it provides a lot more variety than many of its peers, and it provides a good blend of comedy and stone-faced sobriety. As a "greatest hit," there's no question I'm happy with my purchase. What it doesn't do, unfortunately, is bode well for the future of the franchise if this path is continued for much longer.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 6.0

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