Saturday, December 21, 2013

Visiting a previously ignored franchise, part 2

Last time I talked about how I had ignored Mortal Kombat for the lifetime of the PS3, and went through the basics of the 2008 title "Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe". The other part of this reunion between me and Mortal Kombat is the 2011 reboot of the Mortal Kombat series by NetherRealm studios.

A big chunk of the Midway team that worked on the Mortal Kombat franchise and some of the other teams that worked on Midway projects in the Chicago area became NetherRealm Studios. (In 2009 after the acquisition they were just called "WB Chicago" but they got renamed/rebranded in 2010.) So, despite having been purchased by Warner Brothers, it was essentially the same team that worked on the previous game.

Having seen the success of Capcom's Street Fighter IV where 3D rendered graphics were employed to simplify development but did not use a 3D fighting system, the Mortal Kombat franchise went back to a single plane of combat. In addition to streamlining the gameplay, the 2D nature of the arenas meant that they could recreate many of the iconic arenas from the original games like the bridge over a pit of spikes, the walkway over a pit of acid, the walkway across the top of the evil monks' tower, the walkway across the front of an audience of monks both during the day and at night, Shang Tsung's throne room, and even Shao Khan's throne in an arena. (As an amusing bit of fan service, Tanya who was my favorite character from MK4 and not playable in this game as far as I am aware is occasionally one of the two people chained up next to Shao Khan's throne.)   Instead of being forced to make every fight location a large open arena with a few interesting features off in the distance, the arenas are more like hallways and walkways bringing the camera closer to both the fighters and the backgrounds. In a game where nearly all of the characters have some sort of projectile attack, having 3D movement would nullify a lot of those attacks, so now ducking without blocking is useable again for avoiding some projectiles without taking block damage.

Somehow, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe managed to tone down the violence enough to get a "T" rating but this game is much more like the original three games in terms of the tone of the violence. With the reboot, we can expect ridiculous things like complete bisections done by the sharp edge of a hat and uppercut-powered decapitations, but is supplemented by better quality graphics and some new attack types.  Mortal Kombat had started using a meter for special attacks some time ago, but it was either for a 'rage attack' feature (MK Trilogy, MK vs DC) that allowed you to do more damage and move more quickly for a limited period of time or for a 'breaker' feature that allowed you to break your opponent's combo midstream (MK vs DC). The games between Trilogy and MK vs. DC that used 'breakers' (Deception and Armageddon) just gave you three breakers per match. In the reboot, the gauge has three segments and is now used for enhanced attacks (more damaging versions of the character's special moves) which use one segment of the gauge, breakers which use two segments, and an even more damaging attack, the X-Ray Attack which uses the entire gauge. Not every character has the same attack properties for the X-Ray attack - some must be done in the air, some must be done as countermoves to an opponent's attack, and some start like a regular attack on the ground and can be chained in from a regular attack.

The story mode in the game is centered around Raiden, the thunder god.  At the beginning of the story, he is about to be defeated by Shao Khan, so he sends a message to his past self in an attempt to change the events that got him in this predicament. As the story unfolds, we play as other characters in a nostalgic tour through the story of the first three Mortal Kombat games, with subtle nods here and there to other parts of the series. However there are some unexpected plot twists here and there, and even though the game has been out for a while I'm in no mood to spoil them.

Like many of the other facets of the game that have reverted to the original style, the special moves are performed a lot more like they had been in the original three games, and in general the moves available to characters are in keeping with their original versions. Since this was the team's second attempt at using the Unreal engine for a fighting game, and they were likely able to re-use a lot of program code from Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, the game is much smoother and better animated than MKvsDC. All of the character textures are a big improvement, and most of the animation is more fluid and better executed. Like Street Fighter IV's improvements over Street Fighter II, they have managed to make a new game that pays a lot of respect to the old game, adds enough new features to be interesting, but doesn't take much away from what we liked about the games in the first place.

One of the gag features made it to the reboot, the Babality, so instead of turning your opponent into chopped entrails after the announcer says "FINISH HIM", you can turn them into an infant version of their character. Amusing, certainly not necessary, but since I haven't done one successfully yet I don't know if you get a end of match bonus on par with having successfully performed a fatality.

Now there is another game done by the same team which is only the DC Superheroes, which is Injustice:Gods Among Us, and the second version of that game dubbed "Ultimate Edition" which includes all of the additional characters released via DLC was released just over a month ago. It's not a Mortal Kombat game at all, as the control scheme is radically changed, but now knowing that NetherRealm has gotten their act together again I suppose it's something that I'd be willing to consider instead of dismissing it out of hand.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Visting a previously ignored franchise, Part One

It's funny how the passage of time colors our perception of old games and distorts our expectations of new games. I was reminded about that as I had recently picked up the two Mortal Kombat games for PS3 recently now that the cheap bin is littered with them. This post will mostly pertain to Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe.

Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe came out in 2008 - I blogged about the character lineup a few months before the game was released but never ended up purchasing the game. I didn't have a PS3 when it came out, and then when I did get a PS3 it didn't seem like I needed to get it. I recently picked up a copy for under $10. I had not played a Mortal Kombat game since 2006 when the PS2 version of MK:Armageddon came out. I had been annoyed with the fighting part of the last few MK games (Deadly Alliance, Deception, Armageddon) but I had continued to play them because the storylines were interesting. They were like a bad soap opera that I couldn't stop watching. The storyline of MK vs DC isn't part of the overall Mortal Kombat story, and DC treated it like an Elseworlds scenario also, so nothing that happens in the story of the game affects any of the other games or comics. Now that I have played it, it seems a little like a rough draft of a game. Surprisingly it sold well, and it was a great swan song for Midway Games before they went bankrupt and sold off the rights to Mortal Kombat and a few other Midway properties to Warner Brothers.

The first part of the experiment: put two storylines together in a way that helps boost the visibility of both franchises. They did a good job with this by getting comic book writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray involved. The story has some cornball features to it, but nothing any more so than any of the previous Mortal Kombat games.

The second part of the experiment: get a fighting game to run in 1080p. If you're fuzzy on what '1080p' means, review my post "Is it really HD?" In an effort to maintain fast frame rates, most fighting games run in 720p so they don't have to push the extra pixels and the game can stay fast, since a little bit of slowdown here in there in the visuals will be enough for some hardcore fighting enthusiasts to throw a controller across the room. (Thankfully, the really hardcore fighting enthusiasts only use corded controllers and often they're the big arcade joystick style so while they may do a lot of damage, at least they won't go very far.) Midway opted to use the Unreal engine with some modification to make it simpler for them to have good looking models and not have to build everything from scratch. The Batman:Arkham series games use the Unreal engine, as does the new Devil May Cry game "DmC".  First person shooter fans had already seen this game engine for the "Gears of War" series and a bunch of the "Tom Clancy" series games, just to name a very few. (If you're inclined, check out a much bigger list here.) Other than the eyes on some of the characters and some of the facial expressions, the character textures look pretty good. The more complicated outfits (Scorpion, Batman) seem to look a lot better than the characters with a lot of skin showing (Liu Kang, Wonder Woman). But, it's not a deal-breaker, and overall the game looks good in still shots. There are parts of the animation that seem a little uneven, but I'm not sure that that's the fault of the game engine they chose - sometimes they have to keyframe a few things that are impossible to do with motion capture, and you can tell somewhat which things were taken from motion capture and which things were taken from pure animation.

The third part of the experiment: Make some changes to the fighting system (again) so that it feels 'fresh'. (Stop thinking about the 'Summer's Eve' commercial.) I don't think that this part worked. They added elements where the fighting gets different when two players are up close, and another similar element where the characters pummel each other through the air as they are falling from one part of a stage to another. I'm never sure which side of the screen I need to pay attention to when they show contextual button presses for the closeup combat since my health bar stays one particular side but my character does not. It seems to be less confusing when they do the same thing falling though the air, but it seems like it just slows down the gameplay.

Part of the requirement of 'fresh' in the Mortal Kombat franchise is that it seems to need to change character's special moves on a regular basis. Since I have spent more time with the Street Fighter series, perhaps that's a product of my expectations. Since Street Fighter 2, Ryu's three signature special moves (fireball, dragon punch, and hurricane kick) have always been performed the same way. That's not to say that they haven't changed other parts of his fighting style for the sake of variation and to help the balance of the game, but they left his signature moves alone. So, even through the Alpha series games, the Street Fighter III series, the EX series, and up to the current Street Fighter IV games, anybody that's ever played Ryu has had a decent chance to grab a controller and get in the game without having to start from scratch. This is basically true for every character in the Street Fighter series except Chun Li, M. Bison, and Adon. (Since this is the internet, I'm sure that somebody will think of more.) For anyone that had played any of the previous versions of the characters, few people would have any trouble adjusting to their Street Fighter IV versions. 

By comparison, Raiden, who appears in nearly all of the Mortal Kombat games, has had his three basic moves (lighting bolt, teleport, torpedo) change often in the last four games, so by the time you get to MK vs DC, none of them are the same. This is true of the majority of the Mortal Kombat characters over the last four or five games. The other part of this is that none of the characters in Mortal Kombat have overlapping movesets. In Street Fighter, if you play as Ryu, it's not much of a stretch to play as Ken, Sakura, Dan, Akuma, or even Sagat. Moves with similar properties are input in much the same way between characters in Street Fighter. In Mortal Kombat, everybody's projectile is performed with a different controller motion, which makes it that much tougher if they keep changing it every game. Maybe it's an important design decision to them, it's just not one that I like. Oddly, I don't seem to care if they change the Fatality inputs from game to game - it's not like it's actually part of the match and seems more like a surprise bonus feature (although a gory one.)

The one part of the fighting system that they didn't seem to change was that the game is still a 3D fighter (which Mortal Kombat has been since MK4) which can tend to nullify the effects of many of the character's projectiles since they can be easy to dodge once you're used to the 3D part of the controls.

So, to sum up, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe made big strides in improving the visuals, but the controls and the gameplay seem to be a repeat of their other efforts (Deadly Alliance/Deception/Armageddon) that were not always well-received. Luckily for gamers, Netherrealm Studios learned from a lot of these mistakes before they put out the 2011 reboot of the Mortal Kombat series, but I'll have to save that for next time.