Forget depth, sophistication or anything remotely resembling logic: “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe” takes gamers back to the days of cheesy arcade fighting with bravado, style and an unironic sense of fun. Pitting warriors from the “Mortal Kombat” franchise against DC Comics heroes and villains is a high-concept idea that some will find ridiculous and others brilliant. But thanks to solid execution and extremely accessible, if somewhat unpolished, gameplay, it could be the holiday hit struggling publisher Midway desperately needs.
It’s relatively simple to explain the appeal of a game like this. For anyone who’s been or dreamed of going to Comic-Con, the title immediately conjures dreams of Superman battling Sub-Zero and Wonder Woman taking on Sonya Blade. That includes everyone from 12-year-old fans of the recent spate of superhero movies to 18-year-old comicbook geeks to adults who wistfully remember this game’s ’90s progenitor, “Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter.” “MK vs. DC” offers enough to keep them all happy, including casual players who just want to beat down a fanboy friend or family member.
Though the game features 11 of the most popular “Mortal Kombat” characters, players will likely care more about the equal number of superheroes and villains who have never been in an arcade-style fighter before. Whether it’s Superman’s freeze breath, Wonder Woman spinning her enemies in a lasso, Green Lantern conjuring a giant hammer or the Joker’s electric hand-buzzer, “MK vs. DC” does them right by giving each dozens of satisfying, character-specific moves. Some longtime franchise fans may be disappointed, though, that “Mortal Kombat’s” signature bloody “fatalaties” — the most infamous of which featured a spine ripped out of someone’s body — are distinctly less gory here and have been downgraded to “heroic brutalities” for the DC heroes. (And it’s annoying that learning these requires either guesswork or looking them up on the Web.)
As the first ever T rating for a “Mortal Kombat” game indicates, “MK vs. DC” isn’t primarily aimed at hardcore fans. It’s distinctly easier to learn than either past franchise installments or more intense fighting titles like “Soul Caliber.” This should help “MK vs. DC” attract a broader audience that’s familiar with Superman and Batman, but doesn’t know Kano from Kitana. Random button pressing is enough to have fun, and memorizing the combos needed for even the most complex moves isn’t too tough. Experienced players will figure things out very fast and have to either up the difficulty level to “very hard” or take on fellow experts.
Along with one-on-one fighting — either in the same room or online — and the traditional ladder of opponents, “Mortal Kombat vs. DC” also has a story mode that explains (to use that term loosely) how two fictional universes merged and why heavy hitters like Superman can be hurt by mere martial artists. The plot is completely inane, but never takes itself too seriously and provides a good introduction to the game’s characters, settings and features. Among the new ones are “klose kombat,” in which the camera zooms in as two characters grapple; and “free fall kombat” in which players do battle while plummeting through the air. Both are awesome visually, but somewhat disappointing in that success rests on lucky button presses rather than skill.
Presentation-wise, “MK vs. DC” is a mixed bag. Graphical quality is topnotch and the camera work is flawless, but backgrounds are woefully under-detailed and male characters seem to all have the same body, resulting in freakishly over-muscled versions of Batman and Flash. Voiceover acting is uniformly awful, but some of the characters are artfully animated, particularly the Joker, who moves with the sociopathic glee portrayed by Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight.”