Possibly the most recognized name in videogames, Mortal Kombat has been one of the most controversial, popular, and oddly enduring franchises in videogame history. Its longevity is a surprise not only because the series' reputation was built on its content rather than its gameplay, but also because as the series ascended into unparalleled mainstream popularity with toys, movies, and a cartoon show, the games themselves descended into a dead sea of uninspired mediocrity. Its late foray into 3D with Mortal Kombat IV only sealed the coffin on its aging gameplay with the game's utter inferiority to Tekken, Virtua Fighter, and Soul Edge. With Deadly Alliance, the Mortal Kombat series makes a surprising comeback with what is both the best game in the series and a fighting game that offers a challenging, well-balanced design distinct from its peers.
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance expands on the Mortal Kombat mythology with a surprising twist at the onset of the game and allows players to learn more about the Mortal Kombat universe by unlocking various storyboards and movie clips hidden in the game's "Krypt" chamber. The series' longtime troublemaker Shang Tsung has formed an alliance with the sorcerer Quan Chi to take over EarthRealm and wreak havoc on humanity through a new Mortal Kombat tournament. Many new combatants grace the lineup along with plenty of old favorites making a return.
Deadly Alliance takes a difference twist on the genre by its integration of different martial arts styles. Some of them are quite accurately represented, while others, particularly grappling arts like Judo and Aikido, look almost nothing like their real-life counterparts. Each character has three styles (two hand-to-hand and one weapon) that can be cycled through with the press of a button. The character will instantly change stances and integrate a unique set of moves for each chosen style. Despite the new fighting system, the gameplay stays remarkably true to the series' roots: the fighting is heavily offensive with an emphasis on combinations and special moves. But with a few minor improvements, such as a quick sidestep and moves such as pushes, reversals, and a backdash, there is more balance and subtlety than ever before. There is a satisfying degree of freedom within the combo system, which allows players to link each character's various styles to create a deep repertoire of varying combinations-vastly improved from the strictly preset combos of Mortal Kombat III.
The only real weakness in the fighting system is the lack of a deep grappling system. There are a number of characters who purportedly use various styles of wrestling and throwing arts, but these styles are usually limited to one or two throws and some basic punches and kicks. As a result, the characters unlocked later in the game begin to feel boringly similar to one another. With so many arts done exceptionally well, such as Kung Lao's Praying Mantis or Shang Tsung's Snake style, it's puzzling that Ed Boon and team weren't a bit more adventurous with some of the more interesting martial arts styles.
The key to Mortal Kombat's success has always been its accessibility. Fans of the landmark Street Fighter franchise were quick to malign its lack of depth and balance problems, but Mortal Kombat's success has been made by casual gamers, not hardcore fighting fans. It's easy to learn yet still challenging to master, and Deadly Alliance does it far better than any other game in the series. A quest-like tutorial introduces each character's moves, which are significantly streamlined when compared to that of other 3D fighters. Nearly all of the moves are simple one-direction, one-button commands. To pressure an opponent with distance, low attacks, or timing, the player simply switches styles and is given a new set of simple moves. The greatest challenge of a fighting game is not so much to have depth, but to make learning its subtleties a surmountable venture. Deadly Alliance executes impeccably.
Of course, Mortal Kombat made its fame with its outlandish gore, and Deadly Alliance is no different. Blood spews from combatants by the pint, littering the arena floor for the duration of the match as the characters visibly bruise and bleed. Thankfully, cheesy self-referential gags like "Babalities" have been done away with in exchange for a return to basic Fatalities like those found in original game. Some of them are a bit too bizarre to avoid any unintentional humor, but many of them are cringingly satisfying. With plenty of new violent and "mature" games on the market to stir up controversy, it's unlikely that Deadly Alliance's exaggerated gore will draw much attention to itself from mainstream media. Perhaps so-called "pro-family" groups have found addressing such obviously exaggerated violence passé.
Deadly Alliance is creative, unique, accessible, and polished. It comes up lacking in a few areas, but is clearly the most effectively realized version of Mortal Kombat yet. Ed Boon set out to revive the Mortal Kombat franchise, and regardless of the long-term success the game may or may not achieve, he's succeeded in delivering a smartly crafted fighting game that gives new life to the series.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.