Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks Review
The Mortal Kombat franchise has been a fan favorite ever since the first arcade game was released back in the early 90s. Throughout six iterations of the original franchise, we've seen dozens of Fatalities and other finishing moves, plenty of bloody, gory action, and varying degrees of commercial success. Now, Midway has decided to take the series in a new direction (at least temporarily) with Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks which allows gamers to do thinks in the MK world they haven't really had the chance to do yet.
This is a beat-em-up game, where you can take one or two players through the world of Mortal Kombat beating up dozens of enemies (usually several at a time) with many classic moves. The two playable characters to start are Liu Kang and Kung Lao, both of whom are fleshed out with a ton of unique moves and plenty more to unlock. The game takes place just after the events of the first Mortal Kombat game, and you'll see new 3D representations of just about every arena in the first two arcade titles.
While the hardcore fans of the MK series (especially those, like me, who enjoyed the earlier games much more) will go nuts over all of the reworked classic stuff, this doesn't mean the game plays like it's a dozen years old. You'll be able to fight effectively against multiple opponents with a very nice array of moves, and you can also pick up weapons for even new combo opportunities. And combos you'll want - the game's got an experience point system that allows you to buy new moves, and if you really want some big XP, that means churning up that combo meter as high as you can get it.
But the combo system here is not exactly unique when it comes to action games. We've seen it before in plenty of past titles, but one thing I specifically enjoy about Shaolin Monks is that you can get hit or even knocked down and still maintain your combo - if you can get another hit off on an enemy fast enough. You've always got a few seconds downtime to keep up your combo, so you can really maintain one throughout a whole fight with multiple enemies if you're good.
MK: Shaolin Monks isn't only about kicking ass, though. Ok, it is, but you'll need to control it in certain ways to progress through the game. For example, send an enemy flying up and onto a catapult will trigger it to launch, and that might open up a new area on the other side of the map. Or one of my more favorite "puzzles" required me to knock an enemy onto some spikes, then jump onto his body and up to a higher platform off of his lifeless husk. Other fights require you to throw a guy through a wall or a pile of boulders to progress. Fans will love fighting the enemies and bosses in MK:SM - many of the background characters from the original games are now enemies you'll have to take on, like the priests guarding the portal to Outworld. And the bosses are mostly classic MK characters, and sometimes it's not just a straight up duel. Sometimes, you will have to find a weakness or a spot in the arena to use to defeat the boss. While we've seen "gimmick" bosses in probably hundreds of games by now, Shaolin Monks does a great job in bringing in fresh ideas for all of these classic game mechanics.
While just about all of the special moves from the original games are here, Shaolin Monks mostly requires you to use normal attacks as well as throws and jumping attacks. It's not uncommon to be able to keep a guy "juggled" into the air for a dozen (or more) hits consecutively - and all this stuff is just plain fun as hell. But when you get two people together in a cooperative mode, then this becomes a blast. Players who work together can set up huge combos, and while the action is very fast and oftentimes chaotic, it's worth sticking with the game.
Shaolin Monks, like most Xbox games, supports 480p progressive scan mode for those with EDTV or HDTV sets. The problem I had was that it did not support a widescreen setup, which caused the game to look stretched horizontally on my TV - (which itself cannot show a 480p display without stretching it to the full width of the screen). There aren't many Xbox games that pull this, but the few that do make playing it on my TV annoying. It looks like our Shaolin Monks had a few too many cheeseburgers before their trip to the Wushi Academy.
Many classic bits and pieces were borrowed from the first two Mortal Kombat games in the making of Shaolin Monks, including sound effects and music. Some made it over exactly as they were, while others got a big facelift. The arenas and other parts of the world you fight in aren't particularly well-detailed, but since so much of the game focuses on the action, you'll forgive the less-than-stellar graphics. Plus, this game world's very interactive, which is something that can't be said for most of Shaolin Monks' peers.
While this might be a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, I have to say that I've had more fun with Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks than I have had with any previous MK title since the second one back in arcades ten years ago. It's not just the classic arenas and characters that I'm really enjoying though; it's the huge focus on fun, massive combos, and a fleshing out of a world that we only ever got a glimpse of in past games. The two-player cooperative mode is a blast, while the large selection of moves and many, many secret areas and bonuses really allow for replayability in a way that doesn't feel like it was thrown in at the last minute. Even though it's not a one-on-one fighting game, I still think that Shaolin Monks is by far the best Mortal Kombat game to come out in many years.