With MORTAL KOMBAT 11, NetherRealm Studios has done something so new, so uncharacteristic for the series, genre, and even medium that it took me far too long to come up with the best way to sum it up. Inspiration struck upon revisiting Paul W.S Anderson’s 1995 live-action MORTAL KOMBAT film. In a line so perfectly delivered by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, playing the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung, my experience with the latest entry in NetherRealm’s iconic fighter was captured in four simple words: “Your soul is mine!”
Like any good sequel, MORTAL KOMBAT 11 makes a ton of small changes for the combat and overall flow of gameplay. Par for the course all around. Single player, multiplayer, and a training mode are all here and work as well as you would expect from the series, and maybe even better (particularly the robust tutorial). In truth, the biggest difference between MORTAL KOMBAT 11 and its predecessors is how large of a role in your life it requires.
MORTAL KOMBAT 11 expects and demands your undivided attention. Every part of its design is focused on time spent in its Towers of Time game mode, a set of randomly generated gauntlets forcing the player to endure fights against AI opponents with numerous modifiers in play. These challenges range from basic buffs to your opponents’ attacks, like fire damage on hits or decreased cooldowns, to some completely gamebreaking ones, such as a tornado of blood that sweeps the stage, melting your health bar and healing your opponent. The towers range from frustrating to borderline impossible, but successful completion nets some of three different types of currency that can be used in a supplementary mode called the Krypt.
The Krypt has existed in Mortal Kombat games since the 2002 release of DEADLY ALLIANCE and has been a mainstay ever since. It functions as a way to spend your various accumulated currency on concept art, new fatalities, or even cosmetic skins. As you navigate the Krypt, you’ll uncover plenty of Mortal Kombat easter eggs and open a variety of chests, spending your currency to unlock items and Konsumables to help you deal with the rage-inducing Towers.
Loot Boxes: The Game
Here’s the kicker: the contents of these chests are, for the most part, completely random. There is no way to guarantee exactly what you are opening or what you are working towards. If you happen to be the most devout Liu Kang player and are chasing a particular skin, you will likely spend hours opening chests in the Krypt hoping to win the lottery and getting something relevant. If this sounds an awful lot like the loot box nightmare over the past few years, you aren’t alone.
But hey, the graphics are sweet, so what does it even matter?
The really fascinating thing about this design philosophy is how easy it would be to monetize. I’ve spent a long time watching streamers play MORTAL KOMBAT 11, and many of them wish so desperately to just pay for the skins and cosmetics for their favorite characters just to avoid this senseless, unnecessary, and absurd grind. But MORTAL KOMBAT 11 doesn’t allow even this. What little microtransactions do exist only allow you to purchase one or two randomly chosen skins from the Krypt each day.
Some reports since the game’s launch have discussed the outrageous monetization of the game, suggesting it would cost over $6000 to unlock everything, but this would be selling the Krypt short on just how hellish of a grind it is. Even if you were to spend that much real-world, hard-earned cash in the MK11 store, you could only purchase the occasional random skin for a character. On top of that, you’d have to wait for the daily rotation. So you’d be playing the game for weeks anyway! Nothing exists in the way of shortcuts; there’s no way to speed up the timer, increase your earn rate, or even directly buy in-game currency with actual cash.
So then, if the game wasn’t built around monetization and microtransactions, then why does it play like it was? Why do I need to get 50 fatalities and 150 throws just to unlock the next level of this obscenely difficult Tower? The truth is, MORTAL KOMBAT 11 rarely courts you for money. It assumes you’ll part with that easily enough on your own. Instead, the real treasure it wants is something even more valuable: your time.
Incentivizing longer play time is nothing new to the game industry. In fact, it’s become so unbelievably prevalent it’s invaded almost every genre on the market. Look no further than FORTNITE, which utilizes a Battle Pass that only exists for the duration of a game season. If you were one of the players to fork out the small sum of $10 on the pass, you could potentially receive a load of seasonal cosmetic items for the game. But, there is a catch. You have to grind to unlock them. The Battle Pass only unlocks access to these cosmetic items, assuming of course you put in enough time to grind out experience to level up the pass. The $10 investment is only justified if you put in the hours and hours of gametime to unlock all that it has to offer.
“I spent 400,000 Koins to get this one… 36 hours on this one…”
But what is this mentality doing in a fighting game? The genre already demands hours of time in a training mode before you can enter an online arena with even a modicum of confidence. These players spend enough time as it is mastering combo inputs, and demanding more on top of that for the privilege of personalization is insulting. It can take weeks to discover preferences for characters like Kabal or Skarlet; why should it take months to demonstrate it?
There is, of course, another consideration: the non-competitive player. And I think the vocal, ranked MK community are in the minority here. Mortal Kombat is one of the most commercially successful fighting game franchises due to its widespread appeal. Beyond the competitive aspect, it’s more akin to Smash Bros than Street Fighter in mainstream interest. From dorm rooms across the country, to kids in their rooms hiding the disgusting fatalities from their parents, Mortal Kombat has an audience that extends far beyond those purely devoted to registering in the next EVO.
These players need something to do beyond the single player story mode or the static Arcade that isn’t get bodied by some pro in matchmaking. NetherRealm is looking to keep these players engaged; they’ve even gone on record that they are looking to make this the title with the longest lifespan, with continued updates and characters. And really, there is no better way to do that than having players run a gauntlet of 30 Towers to unlock one really cool Liu Kang skin.
But even in theory, this also makes little sense. Even if these players aren’t keen on diving headfirst into competitive ranked matches, I presume they want to have fun somehow. And let me tell you, there is nothing fun about facing a Scorpion with five times your health while dodging environmental hazards that stun-lock you long enough for the AI to combo you into oblivion.
The game itself even acknowledges that the grind is unbearable; it allows you to create your own AI minion to run the Towers for you and lets you customize how it fights for you. Let me say that again: a fighting game actually encourages you to let go of the controller and have the AI play the game for you. All you have to do is sit back on the loveseat and watch.
Oh wow, look at how good my AI Raiden is!
And so we end up here: MORTAL KOMBAT 11, a fighter designed to be played, if not enjoyed, for as long as possible. But devoted fans are frustrated and confused. And they have every right to be. They just want to play the game normally, in a 1v1 match without blood missiles flying across the screen, ruining their flashy 24-hit combo. If they want to have a character that reflects their style and personality, why should that be a mutually exclusive circumstance? And these skins you are grinding dozens of hours for? They are a rows upon rows of simple recolors for only two or three genuinely distinct appearances. I really just wanted my Scorpion to wear red, but after days of opening chests I put blood, sweat, and tears into, only to not get anything I wanted, even that simple dream was put to rest.
Was it a mistake to make a game like this? NetherRealm is apparently starting to think so. In the two weeks since the launch of the game, almost every single patch or change has been devoted to tweaking the Tower of Time, the AI’s difficulty, the rate of currency gains, or ease of access to character specific gear. And, sure, they get credit for listening to their audience and understanding a misstep, even if it seems too late. They’ve offered a gift of currency to every player as a way of apologizing for the skewed economy, but even this is a limited time offer!
But let’s not forget this was a game that was put through rigorous QA testing all throughout development. Somehow, this senseless grind managed to ship in the final game. Then again, recent reports suggest the studio was doing its own fair share of “grinding” leading up to and since the release of the game, so it’s entirely possible NetherRealm actually believes that real humans actually enjoy horrific punishment in all parts of their lives.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the playable character Shao Kahn was offered as a preorder bonus, and is now being sold for a standalone price of $5.99, which isn’t included in the Season Pass of the game, which is being sold for an additional $50. Or that the game launched with the character of Frost is offered for the same cost of $5.99 in the store, when she is free to unlock by progressing through the main story. I’m not sure how this is being offered, aside from hoping someone doesn’t read the fine print that she is a FREE character and buys her anyway. All of this is on top of the AAA price tag of $60.
ONLY $5.99 (also get her for free in Story Mode)
All of this amounts to a truly frustrating predicament. MORTAL KOMBAT 11 is a phenomenal fighting game, with gorgeous visuals, a captivating story, and excellent online play. And I want so badly for it to be remembered for that. I want to be able to look back on MK11 as the best in the series, but I’m more likely to recall instead the days of my life I threw at the Towers and Krypt. Once again, all of the hard work spent on crafting a fantastic video game have been fatally wounded by exhausting and excessive corporate greed.
MORTAL KOMBAT 11 is proof that AAA gaming’s ambitions can no longer even be confined to “services.” Games must now become lifestyles. There is nothing more valuable to a publisher than a player’s attention, and if you’re playing MORTAL KOMBAT 11 as intended, then it has already become a permanent fixture in your routine. Playing it means you aren’t playing the competitor’s title. And through all that time you’ve spent playing, you will share your most brutal victories on Reddit, your worst defeats with a friend, or your reaction to the story mode on YouTube. You’ll repeat the kombo strings over and over in your head even as you move onto other activities. You will eat and breathe and think and dream about Mortal Kombat.
Your soul is mine, indeed