Getting punched in the face sucks. I had this inkling from the get-go in my behind-closed-doors Mortal Kombat 1 hands-on, when Liu Kang punched me in the face 10-15 times as I tried to remember the buttons from Mortal Kombat 11. Then I mixed it up again by being kicked several times in the face as I realized all of those old button combos aren't all that useful as Mortal Kombat 1 hasn’t just rebooted the lore of the franchise, but also how it plays.
Characters feel a little more sluggish in general, even the fastest fighters feeling somewhat unwieldy if you’re not throwing them into combos. Sub-Zero, a fighter I’ve been playing since Mortal Kombat Trilogy on PS1, feels trickier to use now even if firing ice balls is the same button combination and he can still cheese your opponents with a variety of bone-chilling hijinks.
However, string together some moves and the characters feel much more fluid, moving with speed and grace and performing powerful attacks with little room for error on the part of your opponent. I played each of the four characters in the build: Kenshi, Kitana, Liu Kang and Sub-Zero.
They all felt similar, although Kenshi felt like his character was balanced in an entirely new way and left me after the hands on wondering “what have they done to my boy?” - instead of the speedy sword fighter from earlier games in the series, he’s now leaning much heavier into ancestral strikes, bringing forth his ghost ancestor to biff the opponent.
Karry on, Kameos
The fighting in Mortal Kombat 1 feels stripped back at this early stage. Characters only had a single variation, with none of the different fighting styles of the previous two games. Interacting with stage environments seemed to be out, too, leading to a pared back fighting system that would then punctuate fights with some of the most stupendous gore I could imagine.
Fatalities would see me feeding a man a sword or spinning my fans to create a whirling blade that turned my enemies into a pile of blood and viscera. Fatal blows also involve almighty punches, savage weapon attacks and all sorts of other grim nastiness that I don’t really mind, but increasingly feels about as necessary as Dead or Alive’s boob physics and accompanying chest bouncing slider.
Look away from all of that, though, and the headline new edition is Mortal Kombat 1’s Kameo system, which allows you to select a Kameo character to back you up after picking your fighter. These work a little like Marvel vs Capcom’s assist characters, except here they’re more closely integrated into your fighting style: if you use the powerful fatal blow, your assist character will show up as part of the animation, with the two of you delivering an epic beatdown together.
There were just three available in the build we were shown: Mortal Kombat regulars Sonia Blade, Jax and Kano. They each have their own abilities, but mechanically they’ll each involve one-off attacks, throws, combo breakers and an air attack that has brought air combos back to the fore in a way we haven’t seen in a Mortal Kombat game for 20 years.
The Kameo system is phenomenal, but it’s an extra level of strategy on top of an already complicated game that has made me absolutely sure that I’m going to be terrible at it. Often, whenever I tried to get Sonya in to assist me in a ground-based scrap I’d instead merely make her fly overhead like a Red Arrow, giving us a cheery wave as she flew past us whilst we traded blows on the ground.
The build we played on was fairly limited, too, offering only the ability to fight through a short tower in single player, and a simple versus mode for playing other competitors. I’m excited for Mortal Kombat 1 and it’s one of the best games I played at the Summer Game Fest, but I'm not sure if the Kameo system is going to lock out lesser skilled players like myself.
Either way, the beauty of watching your Kameo come in and knock an enemy into the sky just as you leap up and land a flying attack on them is glorious, and it’s going to be phenomenal to watch experts use it. That’s before you think about how many licensed characters we’ll see popping up only through the Kameo system.
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Jake Tucker is the editor in chief of TechRadar Gaming and has worked at sites like NME, MCV, Trusted Reviews and many more. He collects vinyl, likes first-person shooters and turn-based tactics titles, but hates writing bios. Jake currently lives in London, and is bouncing around the city trying to eat at all of the nice restaurants.