Once Capcom started making fighting games that pitted their stable of characters against the likes of the X-Men, the Marvel Universe and SNK, cross-overs that seemed impossible suddenly seemed very plausible. Could there eventually be a Marvel Vs. DC? How about Mortal Kombat Vs. Street Fighter? In early 2008, the now defunct Midway surprised many when they announced their first ever attempt at a shared universe fighting game with the unveiling of Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe. The public reception of the game was not kind, possibly due to the fact that unlike Street Fighter which crossed over somewhat easily with Marvel as Capcom’s flagship fighter only ever carried a “T” rating, Mortal Kombat was well-known above all else for being one of the most over-the-top violent franchises ever. Mixing DC’s roster of characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman with the multi-coloured ninjas, wizards and gods seemed like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, yet bizarrely, the developers at Midway made the combination work. Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe is a game that has no right being as good as it is that never got the respect it truly deserved.
Capcom’s Vs. Series never had much in the way of story or reasoning as to why MegaMan is going one-on-one with Venom, but for an idea like Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe to work, it had to have a frame-work for matching Superman against Sub-Zero. Mortal Komabt Vs. DC Universe’s main single player mode is a fifteen chapter campaign divided amongst the two franchises: Mortal Kombat and the DC Universe where picking one or the other frames the conflict from the perspective of whoever you picked. When you settle on one, you play through chapters where you’re placed in the role of one of the game’s fighters where you’ll do three-to-four fights, each followed by a cut-scene that move the story along by changing the scenario and fighter. At the conclusion of each of the chapters, you change fighters and when all is said and done, you’ll have sampled fifteen fighters from the game’s cast and fought against the rest.
When a battle in the DC Universe with Darkseid concludes at the same time as one in the realm of Mortal Kombat against Shao Kahn, an interdimensional imbalance fuses the villains Darkseid and Shao Kahn into a more powerful being, Dark Kahn, who is infecting the heroes and villains of both universes with an uncontrollable rage while also weakening the barriers between the two worlds. To seperate the two and bring order back to both worlds, it’s up to everyone from both worlds to separate Darkseid and Shao Kahn from one another both it spells the end of both universes. The story is what you would expect from the makers of Mortal Kombat, and I don’t mean that as an insult. The franchise has lasted for over two decades not just because of the gameplay and violence, but also because of the characters and story. Though not the best video game story every told, it does a terrific job of merging the two franchises that shouldn’t really be together, and providing a solid explanation as to why Liu Kang can topple Superman, or why the Joker is suddenly as strong a fighter as Kano.
In the GameCube/PlayStation 2/Xbox era, Mortal Kombat had three successful entries that while they had their fans, they weren’t as exactly as user-friendly as the 16 and 32-bit entries in the series. While incredibly deep for those who wanted to learn, the mechanics of the previous three Mortal Kombat games that saw each character not only have a series of super moves to learn, but three different fighting styles, one of which turned the game into a weapons fighter, that linked together into some very complicated combos. This was not what you call casual friendly. This entry in the Mortal Kombat franchise had to be simpler, so simplify Midway did.
The three fighting stances were boiled back down to one and the use of the three-dimensional plain was so underplayed that it might as well not have existed, a course correction that future Netherrealm fighters like Injustice: Gods Among Us and Mortal Kombat X would apply. With the exception of the rudimentary use of 3-D for things like dodges, this chapter feels more like the SNES era and it works all the better for it. You have four attacks on the face buttons, a dodge that can be activated with the left-trigger or using the left stick, a button for throws and another for blocks. The fighting engine still isn’t as fluid or dynamic as Street Fighter and there’s still plenty of stiff looking dial-a-combos, but what’s present is still very fun to learn and can be as deep as you really want it to be.
As this is a different take on Mortal Kombat, some new additions were added though they don’t feel as natural as the core fighting mechanics, save one. Getting hit and landing hits builds up a “Rage” meter and when topped off, you can hit the two triggers to activate it until the meter depletes and needs to be recharged. This mode allows you to not only take less damage, but deal out more. This helps turn the tide in many a losing battle, as well as keep you on your toes when your opponent uses this against you. The other three modes came in three different varieties, yet all are a series of button mashing mini-games. Two have you transitioning from arenas as you either plough your opponent through a fall or in free fall, and the other puts you more up close as one opponent deals damage while the other tries to break free. Though the ability to change arenas mid-fight is a great mechanic, the way you go about doing so is so random you never feel in control. These ideas would be better implemented in other games from the studio later on, and while they’re nice additions for this game, they aren’t as well thought out as they could be.
The loudest complaint against Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe was that it was the first game in the history of the MK franchise to be rated “T” instead of “M”, which is something I never really had a problem with. There’s still blood and fatalities, though toned down obviously for the rating, as well as heroic brutalities for the DC characters.While it was the first Mortal Kombat game for that generation of consoles, it was never positioned as the next true chapter in the series, but more of a spin-off like Capcom’s Vs. games before it. Those games, though clearly being heavily influenced by Street Fighter, were not the next evolution of that franchise and Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe was also never meant to take the place of the next true Mortal Kombat.
Though mechanically speaking Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe was trimmed down for the better, it also noticeable missing features that people came to cherish in the last three games when they weren’t playing against a friend. Both campaigns are great, and you can play through arcade mode to get endings specific to each of the characters, but there’s no equivalent to the Krypt or adventure mode and not much else outside of arcade and story other than to practise combos for each fighter. The game does have a big roster of characters with a good mix of both universe’s, but there’s only three unlockable characters: Darkseid, Shao Kahn and Dark Kahn.
By the time this game came out in 2008, Midway had making characters like Sub-Zero and Scorpion down to a science, but this was the first time they were responsible in bringing another companies characters to life. The designs of the DC characters are very classic and traditional, and I’m glad that they weren’t given an extreme or Mortal Kombat style reimagining. The contrast in the outlandish designs of the Mortal Kombat crew to the clean look of the DC characters really sells the idea of the crazy mash-up and why each side would be so untrusting of the other. Unfortunately though not all characters are created equal, especially when it comes to the female designs. I actually like Wonder Woman’s design in this game more than in Injustice: Gods Among Us, however Catwoman is another story, with her suit zipped way down to show off her “assets”. The female case of Mortal Kombat have never have the most conservative, even now, and it’s a shame that designed carried over at least somewhat to the DC comics characters.
Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe is not the deepest or best fighting game in the world, but just because it isn’t either of those two things, it doesn’t mean it’s not very enjoyable. On paper, the mash-up of the two IP’s shouldn’t work but with a story that embraces how off-the-wall the concept is, the developers at Midway made it work when it had no right to. Though it’s missing a lot of the bonus content found in other Mortal Kombat games, there’s still a lot to keep you occupied with the pair of campaign’s and roster of over twenty characters to learn that reads as a “best of” for both Mortal Kombat and DC. Open your mind, grab a like-minded friend, and take a look at the prototype of what would become the 2011 MK reboot and eventually, Injustice: Gods Among Us.