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.