With only the second Mortal Kombat X downloadable character upon us [this week]; it's fair to say Mortal Kombat Online's focus should still be on NetherRealm Studios' current fighting game. Despite a rash of persistent software issues; the tenth instalment has been a blockbuster success for "next" generation consoles (and PC) - fuelled by a massive launch! MKX has burnt bright - but also brought into focus the encroaching influence of big business. Now more than ever, that means a certain monotony of patterns.
To date; Warner Brothers' MK output may have been sporadic, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. The two year release cycle instituted by Midway Games has roughly been upheld over three NetherRealm titles, supported by the introduction of an intended parallel franchise: Injustice: Gods Among Us.
For the forward thinking: a post-launch burst of occasional DC Comics tweets in NetherRealm Creative Director [Ed Boon]'s feed lends to a sense of inevitability. If an Injustice sequel is indeed coming, it's likely that pre-production is already well under way, or entering development stages. Jokes about flash drives aren't the only reason we're thinking about a superhero fighting sequel, but they mount a case for what might lie ahead, and that warrants talking about.
The combined drawing power of DC Comics and NetherRealm Studios was undeniable, but from a Mortal Kombat vantage point, the game struggled to connect with an existing fighting game user base. Finding equivalency, rather than a sustained loyal audience; NetherRealm's attempts to differentiate their two franchise series led to a dubious, somewhat unnecessary identity crisis. The result was a game not quite appealing to Mortal Kombat, but not nearly as different as developers would hope to claim.
All things considered - Injustice: Gods Among Us was a meritorious outing. As a fighting game, it was certainly credible, and gave NetherRealm the room to experiment. It continued DC's efforts to further entrench their characters in the interactive entertainment space, but also gave back to the boutique comics industry, generating a major crossover attraction in their fledgling digital comics business. It did all this whilst overcoming the bad taste of 2008's lacklustre Mortal Kombat versus DC Universe, as well as unflattering comparisons to their trail blazing rivals. It ticked a lot of the right boxes - so how can it be better?
Time will tell what effect Mortal Kombat X launch problems and DLC strategies have on the paying audience. For the time being, it seems NetherRealm and Warner Brothers have all the luxuries of a strong built-in base for both of their major IPs. This means they also have the luxury to lead the way - carving out a new niche in the ever-repeating cycle of copycat AAA games. Ironically, we're finding inspiration in the failed efforts of a defunct Chicago developer working on a rival franchise.
PtoP Online recently unearthed four minutes of footage from EA Chicago's cancelled work on a 2007 Marvel Comics fighter [above]. An unofficial sequel to Rise of the Imperfects - it was rumoured to be called "Marvel: Destruction" after its destructible, sandbox environments.
The game obviously predates Street Fighter IV, MK vs DC, and the games that jumpstarted a renaissance of 2D planes in fighting games that persists as standard in 2015. While not particularly impressive on first viewing, the prototype footage taps an important and relevant vein absent from Injustice: Gods Among Us, and its contemporaries.
While Capcom may have proved the fighting game viability of superheroes in the mid-to-late nineties with their spastic, over-the-top Marvel games - the medium is not natural to the concept. Superheroes, by definition of half a century of history, do not fight within the rigid guidelines of side-to-side combat!
For the comics illiterate, you need only look at one of the many Hollywood blockbusters littering pop culture's landscape to recognize the inherent flaw of trapping a superhero in a 2D fighting game Whether its the city destroying battles of Superman & General Zod, the industrial armor wars of Iron Man 3, or the construction site conclusion to The Dark Knight - environment provides massive influential variables to the way characters move, interact and fight. Throw these disparate character types into one place - in much the way Marvel's Avengers has - and you further tap the awkward uniformity of a game like Injustice.
Granted; Injustice attempts to acknowledge the awkward inaccuracy of it all. Presentation plays a big part, with stage interactions offering different types of usage based on rudimentary character classes. Super moves also use cinematic flourish to introduce some environmental accessorizing - Batman's Batmobile special, Aquaman's shark attack shoe-horning the standards of the genre in as best they can. When compared to the truly ham-fisted attempts of Injustice's pill popping story mode, it's a lot easier just to swallow the conventions of the medium. Is it really the strongest option in such a crowded space, though?
In the lead-up to Injustice, NetherRealm Studios talked about diversifying their portfolio. Mobile development has given them a new revenue niche, but much as they've done since 2002, the team continues to turn out a fighting game every 2-3 years. 2002 was also when they introduced a fluid 3D plane in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance - iterating on MK4's side step mechanic while dreaming of multi-fighter, open arena kombat.
While "3D" fighting isn't necessarily in vogue in the hardcore scene, it is still out there. MOBA gaming marshals a strong following with softcore variants on fighting mechanics, while 3D mech fighters remain strong in Japan. Godzilla tramples destructible cities on US Sony consoles in July.
The environment is just one part of developing a pure superhero experience. The demands of balanced fighting games are challenged by the inherent inequality between different superhero types. Of course, avid comics readers know super-power weight classes can easily be mitigated with skills, strategy, weaponry and other circumstances. Captain America can go toe-to-toe with Hulk, using speed, agility and his nigh indestructible shield. Some characters interact uniquely with others - the chemistry of superhero powers being another largely untapped facet of Injustice's constrained roster. [Related Article: Battle Arena Week 1: Bane v Batman, Wonder Woman v Harley Quinn]
Generating the vast variables and resources necessary to achieve a fast paced, fluid, functional open arena fighting game would be an incredible challenge - but the perfect way for NetherRealm to step up to the plate, demonstrating diversity and originality. Successfully fusing hardcore fight mechanics with free-flowing superheroics could also give Injustice the distinct identity it lacks -- especially with simple stage interactions now part of Mortal Kombat X.
[Related Topic: Editorial: The MKvsDC Crossover Nobody Sees Coming]
Eager to shake off the shackles of superhero fighting games? A DC super-fan? Register to discuss Gods Among Us and more in the DC Universe Injustice forum! Support the site by liking & sharing articles via @MK_Online, Facebook & YouTube!