Mortal Kombat 1 review: A flawless victory

Mortal Kombat 1 review: A flawless victory
Images via Netherrealm

Written by 

Dave McAdam


19th Sep 2023 14:27

2023 may just be remembered as the greatest year in the history of fighting games, especially when it comes to the big three of fighting games. With Mortal Kombat 1 joining Street Fighter 6, and Tekken 8 shortly on the way (albeit in very early 2024), fighting game fans are eating extremely well these days.

Street Fighter 6 righted many wrongs and brought the franchise back to prominence, and hype is at an all-time high for Tekken 8. In the middle of them is Mortal Kombat 1, the latest entry in one of pop culture's most famous fighting game franchises today.

With hopes high based on the recent history of Mortal Kombat and the current quality of fighting games, can Mortal Kombat 1 live up to the sky-high expectations?

GGRecon Verdict

Mortal Kombat 1 is the most complete package I have ever seen in a fighting game. It is an excellent new chapter for returning fans and a great jumping-on point for new players. In this new golden era of fighting games, where more people are playing them than ever before, Mortal Kombat 1 is exactly what we need. A fighting game for everyone, and a beautiful reminder of why we play.

Karrying the legacy

Scorpion catching Kung Lao with his Spear in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

Netherrealm Studios has been the dominant force in fighting game single-player content for years now, with Street Fighter and Tekken still trying to catch up. This begins with the story mode - and a formula that NRS has been perfecting for nearly 15 years now.

Anyone who has played a Mortal Kombat or Injustice game in the last decade will know how these story modes work, and this continues to be true in Mortal Kombat 1. The story is linear and cinematic, divided into chapters where you play as a different character in each.

Mortal Kombat 1's iteration follows on from the events that ended Mortal Kombat 11, where Liu Kang is tasked with restarting the universe. As such, the world of Mortal Kombat 1 is much different from what came before. Many familiar faces return, but things are different this time.

Most of these differences are direct attempts by Liu Kang to nullify threats from the previous timeline before they could happen; such as making Shang Tsung a grifter with no real magical ability. Shao Khan is now General Shao, as Sindel is still alive and still the Empress of Outworld. Taking Liu Kang's place as the champion of Earthrealm is the now mortal Raiden.

Then there are some interesting changes, such as the fact that Scorpion is not Hanzo Hasashi in this timeline. Instead, he is Kuai Liang, the second Sub-Zero of the original timeline. Bi-Han is Sub-Zero here, meaning the two iconic characters are now brothers. Reptile finally gets to play a larger role, too, given more personality here than he's had in a dozen prior entries.

Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

This is not the first time the Mortal Kombat franchise or timeline has been rebooted, as this happened before in Mortal Kombat (2009). However, this is a much different kind of reboot. Where that game was retelling the first three games with the context of what came before/after, this game is a much larger departure from the established narrative. This is a necessary and welcome choice in a series that loves to reboot and reinvent itself with every few entries.

Instead, this story is quite the departure from what fans may expect from a Mortal Kombat plot. We still solve our problems by punching each other around here, but there are twists to this tale that only the most attentive fan might see coming. Regardless, Mortal Kombat 1 paints a pretty picture of Liu Kang's new universe and does an excellent job laying the groundwork for the future of the franchise.

It is easy to critique a new entry in a franchise when there are more drastic changes, whether it be a different approach or a different level of quality, for better or worse. The Mortal Kombat story modes have been excellent since 2011, and the quality simply has not dropped since. That formula that NRS struck gold with is the bone structure of MK1, so while the story mode is fantastic and I give it my fullest recommendation, the only real negative I can hold against it is that there is no real departure of any kind.

That is not to say there is nothing unexpected in it, both in the plot and in the gameplay, but to reveal more would be to majorly spoil the game. For new players, MK1's story mode is a wild ride. For long-time Mortal Kombat fans, this is more of the same high-quality content with some twists thrown in for good measure. The structure is not broken, so clearly no one saw fit to fix it, and its usage of characters and themes from games prior constantly intersect and surprise in every other chapter.

Plenty of kontent

Invasions mode in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

Story mode is not the only single-player mode in Mortal Kombat 1, as we also have the new Invasions mode. NRS has focused a lot on solo content in its games, always at the forefront of creating fighting games that are more than just competitive, online experiences. Its success in this endeavour has largely been in crafting excellent stories, as other modes have often felt lacking.

Invasions is the latest attempt, and so far, seems like a better one than most. Invasions is a campaign mode where the player chooses their fighter and sets out across various stages. Some have compared these maps to Mario Party, like miniature dioramas of locations from the game, dotted with nodes along a set path. The player moves from node to node, each one containing a challenge.

The vast majority of these challenges are fights against a computer-controlled opponent, and most of these include modifiers. Modifiers like these have appeared in many MK games, they add strange and silly elements like bombs dropping from the sky, the stage filling up with smoke, or players getting frozen at random.

You make your way across the map, completing each stage along the way. These include fights with modifiers, Test Your Might challenges, and the occasional Tower. As you explore you will find chests, puzzles, and easter eggs from across MK history. You will also gain experience that levels up your overall level, your Invasions level, your fighter level, and your Kameo level.

Raiden's mastery level menu in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

Increasing your Invasions level improves the stats of your fighters, adding a touch of RPG to the mode. The other three levels grant rewards, mostly currency or cosmetics. Each fighter, both playable and Kameo, has a mastery level system. As you rank them up through use, you gain new cosmetics, taunts, and finishers.

There is nothing here that directly affects gameplay, these are purely cosmetic rewards. Still, having these progression systems adds a lot and gives you something to work towards, whether you are playing online or offline modes. You gain experience in all modes, but Invasions is the way to go if you want to gain the most experience and cosmetic rewards.

The main appeal of Invasions mode is that it is essentially the new Krypt, it is where you go to unlock lots of cosmetic items. It isn't quite as direct as the Krypt, but as a game mode, it is a bit more engaging. It is a campaign to make progress through, with some tough challenges as you get further in, but the biggest issue with it is repetition.

Johnny Cage after defeating Sub-Zero with a low blow in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

Playing through dozens of fights against the same characters over and over again is not everyone's idea of a good time. Thankfully, the modifiers add some variety, and fights are only a single round. It feels like everything that can be done to mitigate the monotony of this mode has been done, but that does not mean it is a thrilling experience from start to finish.

Invasions mode won't be for everyone. It is a fun challenge to switch your brain off and work through, and it is also a great way to learn characters and level them up. Furthermore, the mode is seasonal, meaning the locations and rewards will change each season, which looks to last around 40/50 days each.

NRS has been quick to confirm there are no microtransactions for this mode, no ways to skip ahead by paying real money, and everything that is available will come back around in the future if you miss out. There have been controversies due to microtransactions in previous Mortal Kombat/Injustice games, so this is reassuring to know.

Further progress away from unwelcome monetisation includes the many cosmetic items that can be unlocked and purchased with non-premium currency. While the game does include currency that can be purchased with real money, the cosmetic items you can unlock vastly outnumber the items you can purchase, and you can also unlock the premium currency by playing the game.

The character customisation is not as deep as it was in Mortal Kombat 11, which could be a positive or a negative depending on your outlook. It would be nice to have the same level of customisation - but no longer having to wade through dozens of Scorpion masks for the one with the best stats, levelling up items, or equipping loadouts will be a welcome change for many.

Mortal Kombat 1 keeps cosmetics simple, and so long as that means no complicated and clunky loadouts, that is a positive in my book.

A friend you can kount on

Raiden using the Sub-Zero Kameo Fighter in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

While single-player content has been locked down in NRS games for years now, the areas they tend to fall behind the competitors in are competitive and online play. For a long time, Mortal Kombat was rarely considered a competitive game in the same way franchises like Street Fighter were, but in the years since MKX, we have seen that viewpoint shift. Mortal Kombat 1 might be the most interesting MK game from a competitive standpoint that has ever been made.

The last few games have had unique mechanics that tied heavily into the competitive potential of the game. Whether it was variations in Mortal Kombat X or the loadouts of MK11, there has been a focus on adding depth to player decisions even before starting a match.

In Mortal Kombat 1, we have Kameo Fighters. This new mechanic adds a roster of support characters to the game. These work very similarly to the assists of tag games like Marvel vs. Capcom, although without the ability to switch fighters entirely mid-fight.

Each Kameo Fighter has a handful of unique abilities that you can call on during a fight. These range from Kano stepping in to laser your opponent, Sub-Zero freezing them with a Kold Shoulder, or Kung Lao jumping in to teleport you across the screen.

The Kameo roster in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

At first, Kameo Fighters can feel like a bit of a gimmick. An excuse, albeit a good one, to add more characters from MK's past to the game without having to fully flesh them out as fighters. While this is certainly part of it, having put some time in, I can say that Kameo Fighters are perhaps the best idea Netherrealm has had in years.

Personally, I have a habit of writing off new mechanics like this and ignoring them, but pretty quickly I saw the potential of Kameo Fighters and started to get the grips with them.

What I think makes Kameo Fighters so good is that they are fundamentally uncomplicated. Like any good game mechanic, they are simple to learn but hard to master. While the pros are out there coming up with the wildest combos and setups using Kameo Fighters, even the newest players will be able to use them effectively in fights.

The Kameo Fighter system adds so much depth to Mortal Kombat 1's gameplay, and makes it one of the best games for player expression I have played in my many years of being mediocre at fighting games. All new mechanics start out as curiosities- the good ones stick around, and I hope that Kameo Fighters become a staple of this franchise and other NRS games going forward.

Friendly kompetition

Sub-Zero on a roof in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

This new layer sits nicely atop the excellent fighting game that Mortal Kombat 1 is at its core. Like with the story modes, the meat and bones of Mortal Kombat gameplay have been solid for years now and only continue to be refined and get better. MK1 is a dream to play, both offline and online.

For scientific purposes, I decided to try playing online over Wi-Fi. Now, the fact that other players can see if you are on Wi-Fi does hamper your likelihood of anyone wanting to play you, but I have to say the experience was still really great.

Playing with a wired connection, online play is buttery smooth. The transition from hitting combos in single-player to online multiplayer was one of the most seamless I have ever experienced. Even the issues while playing on Wi-Fi were slight, nothing that majorly affected the fight itself.

Mortal Kombat has been on a steady rise in competitive circles for years now, only time will tell if MK1 continues that upward trend. Based on the game itself, I see no reason why it wouldn't. So far, it seems like this game has the professional players of the scene excited, so the job now is to maintain that excitement for the months and years to come.

The Verdikt (sorry)

Kung Lao and Raiden face off in Mortal Kombat 1
Click to enlarge

As I mentioned earlier, it can be difficult to criticise consistency. Mortal Kombat has been great for several games in a row now, so it hardly comes as a surprise that Mortal Kombat 1 is also great. That said, I do feel like there have been issues in the last handful of games that MK1 goes a long way to shore up.

The story mode is top tier, easily as good, if not better, than the previous entries, meaning it is hands-down better than any other fighting game on the market. Between story mode, Invasions, the classic Towers thrown in for good measure, and the fact that there will be seasonal updates, the single-player content for Mortal Kombat 1 is the best and broadest the series has had since the wild days of the PlayStation 2 3D era.

I'm not a professional player, merely a fan, but this feels to me like one of the most mechanically interesting Mortal Kombat games I have ever played, and I have played all of them. I know that regular players like me can get a lot out of the Kameo Fighter system, and based on what I have already seen posted online, I know the pros are doing amazing things with it too.

Mortal Kombat 1 is the most complete package I have ever seen in a fighting game. It is an excellent new chapter for returning fans and a great jumping-on point for new players. In this new golden era of fighting games, where more people are playing them than ever before, Mortal Kombat 1 is exactly what we need. A fighting game for everyone, and a beautiful reminder of why we play.


Reviewed on PS5. Code provided by the publisher.

Dave McAdam
About the author
Dave McAdam
Dave is a Senior Guides Writer at GGRecon, after several years of freelancing across the industry. He covers a wide range of games, with particular focus on shooters like Destiny 2, RPGs like Baldur's Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, and fighting games like Street Fighter 6 and Tekken 8.
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