Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon confesses, “I don’t think we ever thought we’d be able to tear Batman’s head off.” He’s a nice man - firm handshake, nice smile, surprisingly tall - but for the last 16 years, he’s been orchestrating some of the most brutal killings in gaming. Spines have been ripped out, arms have been torn off, characters have been inflated, eaten, dissolved, burned, stabbed, eviscerated, flayed, shot, electrocuted and - in one game - crushed by arcade cabinets. Ask anyone who was a teenager in the ’90s what Mortal Kombat means to them and they’ll probably say “Finish Him!” or “Fatality!” in that growl. And now, it seems, it’s all over. You can’t kill Batman. Nobody kills Batman. So what was Boon and co thinking?
“It was probably half my idea,” says the nicest psychopath in games development. “The idea of crossing MK with another movie or fighting game we’ve been talking about for years, but when we talked with other companies it was like, if we made Mortal Kombat Vs Tekken who would develop it, us or Namco? Then our head of marketing asked if we’d be interested in DC. So we had a meeting with them, and before we knew it we came to a final decision - ‘Yes, we’re gonna do it.’”
There were issues, of course. DC are notoriously protective of their characters and continuity, and their heroes are a lot nicer than even Kombat’s good guys, let alone the bad ones. Batman doesn’t kill. Superman tries to avoid it unless he’s fighting intergalactic cyborgs. Even Aquaman probably has some sort of moral problem with doing the splits and punching fishy muggers in the nuts. “Their villains are probably worse than ours,” muses Boon, although he won’t confirm or deny the inclusion of the likes of Brainiac, Lex Luthor and the Weather Wizard (he’s always fighting Flash, though we’re not sure how). But still, it’s difficult to imagine DC allowing the Joker to dissolve people with a squirting flower or electrocute them with a handshake-buzzer, so how exactly did the companies come to a compromise? “We said in the early meetings, ‘We don’t want a wimpy game, we want a brutal game,’ and we wanted to do some damage.”
Indeed, during our tour of Midway HQ, the big news was that DC had just agreed to let the heroes have their symbols - Batman’s bat, Superman’s ‘S’ - torn off their chests. It isn’t in the character models yet, but there’s plenty of wear and tear already on display. Superman has rips all over his Kryptonian tights, showing cuts and bruises - yeah, we know, we’re getting to that - underneath. Scorpion has charred patches on his ninja tunic, and Batman’s got a bloodied lip. Viewed up close - closer than you’ll see in the game - the character models are incredibly detailed, down to tiny ice-crystals around Sub-Zero’s hands and slightly raised lightning bolts on Flash’s chest. Sonya Blade - who’s mercifully uninjured, because we feel weird about scrutinising wounded girls - has a jangling set of dog tags, a tiny special forces insignia on her hat and even tan lines where she’s presumably been wearing a swimsuit or something. Between Outworld invasions, maybe. Whatever, the heroes look a bit more vulnerable.
Okay, you probably caught it. Damage? On Superman? Are the Kombat gang wearing kryptonite gloves, or is something else going on? “It’s all explained in the Story mode,” Boon assures us, although he’s pretty cagey about exactly what that means. “The DC fans will be really excited about that. You play from two different perspectives, the DC side or the Mortal Kombat side. The same events happen in each one, but you see it from two perspectives. And the DC writers that we have - Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray - have so much knowledge that they helped make sure we stayed consistent with the characters’ back stories.”
Fighters’ abilities are scaled back so that they’re competitive, while retaining their signature moves - so Superman will fly during special moves, but not during regular play. We think that’s a fair compromise. Enough talk, though: it’s time for action. Flash versus Scorpion action. We’re playing as the scarlet speedster, Boon’s favourite character: “Oh, easily. There’s something about super-speed. I have a ton of comic books from when I was a kid. It was ridiculous having a character who could run faster than light. In Mortal Kombat 3 we had a character called Kabal who had nothing to do with super speed, but he had this move that’s very similar to...” We’ve already found it. Tapping ‘back-forward-low punch’ sends the Flash racing across the screen not once, but three times, whirling Scorpion like a top.
After a bit more fiddling, we work out that ‘down-forwards-high punch’ makes him sprint towards the other character and deliver a flurry of jabs, while ‘down-back-high punch’ sends them both airborne with a Mach-two uppercut. There’s more, though - repeatedly tapping the button after the first uppercut delivers another two, turning a simple move into an easy juggle combo. Every character has moves like this: superficially easy ones that better players can extend to do more damage.
Most characters now boast five or six special moves, in comparison to the two or three each from previous games. It’s a better way to do justice to the DC gang’s special powers, but also extends the possibilities for combos. That aside, the game’s been simplified - there are no characters with multiple fighting styles, and no weapons. It feels like a deliberate shift towards the simpler fighting seen in the earlier Kombats. “There’s something clean about 2D fighting,” says Boon. “I think there’s a good amount of MK players that like the 2D feel of Mortal Kombat. But there are plenty of other strategies to find. Right now Batman has the batarang, but we’re in discussion with DC about what other abilities he’ll have. My argument is that it’s a fighting game, so he needs more abilities.”