Mortal Kombat 1 reboots the bloody fighter with a focus on new players

The team at NetherRealm Studios is rewinding the clock on Mortal Kombat, starting the 30-year-old series back at 1. Mortal Kombat 1, out on PC, PlayStation, Switch, and Xbox on September 14th, offers fighting game fans the over-the-top gory kombat they’ve come to love and expect. And with Liu Kang resetting the cosmic clock, the game also gives beloved characters the chance to have a peaceful, kombatless life free from the worry of having their innards pulled out inch by bloody inch. But Mortal Kombat 1, more than being yet another reboot, will also offer players the chance to experience the seminal fighting game in a totally new way: as an RPG.

The Verge had the opportunity to have a hands-on experience with Mortal Kombat 1, talking with its developers and exploring the game’s new stories, the new Kameo fighters, and Invasion, the brand-new game mode just announced at Gamescom 2023.

Previously, Mortal Kombat games have always been 1 on 1 — players select one character and play as them one at a time for each match. With the new Kameo fighter system, players can select two fighters: a main one that will do a majority of the fighting and a secondary character players control that can tap in and out like a tag team wrestling match. 

Raiden and his Kameo partner Kung Lao in Mortal Kombat 1
NetherRealm Studios

When I first saw the Kameo system, I thought of it as a simplified version of the way characters can tag in and out of matches in fighters like Marvel vs. Capcom or Dragon Ball FighterZ. But when I played with them, I was surprised to find more Kameo fighters than I initially thought. More than the ability to pop in, extend your combo, and pop out, Kameo fighters also offer defensive assists. Sub-Zero can encase his partner in a protective ice vest that reduces damage for a couple of hits, while Motaro (a new Kameo fighter introduced during Opening Night Live 2023) can physically block incoming attacks. In my relatively short time with the hands-on preview, I wasn’t able to trigger any defensive assists beyond simply disrupting my opponent’s combo, but I’m intrigued to see how MK1 makes use of each Kameo fighter’s unique abilities to be both offensive and defensive assets.

Despite my personal inability to make the most out of my Kameo fighters, Mortal Kombat 1 felt exceedingly beginner-friendly. The game features a good handful of options, like simplified inputs that make kombat easier and more accessible to beginner fighters.

“The goal [for Mortal Kombat 1] is that this game feels fun and rewarding for your casual player,” said lead designer Derek Kirtzic. “The Kameo system being just a simple bumper press makes it very easy for you to integrate it into your playstyle versus adding it to a complex input string.”

An example of Sub Zero’s Kameo abilities.

For an unseasoned player like myself, Kirtzic was right in that it was easy for me to naturally incorporate hitting a shoulder button to call forth my Kameo fighter. Over time, I was also able to execute different Kameo moves with the help of the move set list accessed via the pause menu. For the story campaign, there’s an easy mode (which isn’t that easy for reasons I’ll get into in a moment); a simple input option that replaces diagonal inputs for combos in favor of up, down, left and right; and release check option that changes how combos fire either from the last button press or its release. 

The most substantial accessibility setting for me was the one that let me increase the timing window for executing combos. Though I mostly fought against AI opponents, I played like I was fighting against my cousins in my aunt’s basement way back in 1993 — ala frantic button mashing. Realizing that my opponent was a computer got me to calm down and think about what I was doing and how I was doing it. Relaxing the timing windows allowed me to get comfortable with executing distinct combos thoughtfully without my typical spray and pray approach. I took the small, short lessons these simpler controls taught me and applied them in my multiplayer matches to decent success, and it’s that little microcosm of a player’s improvement that’s at the heart of Mortal Kombat 1’s new game mode, Invasions.

Invasions is the new live service feature of Mortal Kombat 1 that incorporates a lot of elements from Mortal Kombat’s past, like Test Your Might challenges and MK11’s The Krypt. 

“With Invasions, we really wanted to introduce almost like a second campaign with MK1,” Kirtzic said. “And progression was one of the key things we really wanted to hit, like ‘I got to this point. I can put the controller down, I can pick it back up, and I’m continuing my story — my journey of the season.’”

Invasions are structured like a giant board game. In the one I played, I got to explore Johnny Cage’s fancy mansion. There’s a multitude of paths to take — some open, others requiring special key cards to unlock — with nodes at each intersection that represent some kind of kombat encounter. For these encounters, you fight against the computer in matches that have all kinds of modifiers to make fighting more interesting, like fire tornadoes that occasionally scroll across the screen or monsters popping up to disrupt the fight. It felt very much like a dungeon crawler game in which I’m regularly afforded the opportunity to beat my opponent to death with my bare hands.

“[Invasions] add these RPG elements where you’re leveling up and you’re doing stat allocation,” Kirtzic said. “There’s elemental opponents and elemental challenges that make you go, ‘I’m going to try this character because I know their element is stronger than [my opponents],’ so maybe you’ll start to explore more characters.”

“We have a whole forging system. We have a relic system. Invasions has over-the-top boss fights in multiple phases, things that we’ve never done before.”

Kombat in Invasions is by no means easy. In my fight against Mileena, she kept spamming a vicious grab attack that I could not figure out how to block or counter, while Smoke had this egregious, life-bar-draining knife combo. On several occasions, I got my ass neatly and roundly handed to me despite the fact that I had every assist option turned on and the difficulty at the lowest setting. According to Kirtzic, this is by design.

“All the opponents are scripted where we’ve actually taken the time to create these independent little fighters,” he said. “They have a stripped-down moveset so that you’ll actually learn what the block combos are.” 

Once he said that, it finally clicked that in my Mileena fight, that move was the only combo she used. Same with Smoke. “We telegraph moves so that you’ll start to learn, ‘Oh, here comes a straight punch,’ or, ‘Oh, I can duck,’” he said. “And that will start to translate into the competitive game mode.”

Despite being on easy difficulty, Smoke’s knife combos are vicious.

Beyond the suite of options that make inputs easier, the various difficulty settings, and the game’s story mode, Invasions is the feature that is the most laser-focused on Mortal Kombat’s casual audience. It’s meant to teach players the skills the pros have, it’s a vehicle for earning cosmetics and skin shaders, there’s a fun little story that you get to drive, and for casuals and hardcore players alike, it’s a way to keep the game fresh long after the campaign’s been kompleted.

“We have a whole forging system. We have a relic system. It has over-the-top boss fights in multiple phases, things that we’ve never done before, just to really kind of gamify the experience that is Invasions while you get a bunch of good rewards, too,” he said. “There’s as much depth as people want to engage with.”

From the previously unheard-of levels of hyper-violence the series started with in 1992 to the addition of weapons in Mortal Kombat Gold to the selectable “fighting styles” in Deadly Alliance, Mortal Kombat has always been a series willing to do new things with its format. For MK1, Kameo fighters and Invasions are now the next phase of Mortal Kombat innovation.

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