The latest in Midway's influential and long-running fighting game series, Mortal Kombat: Deception, picks up where 2002's Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance left off by featuring lots of new and returning fighters, a variety of surprising new modes of play, and, perhaps best of all, the ability to play online. The strangest part about Deception is how it includes several completely off-the-wall modes, the likes of which you'd never expect from a fighting game. These include the single-player konquest mode, which is a story-driven adventure; puzzle kombat, a competitive Tetris-style puzzle game that's an unabashed homage to Capcom's Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo; and chess kombat, which is inspired by the classic computer game Archon. The konquest mode is disappointingly bland, while these other two modes are at least amusing. However, the core one-on-one fighting action--whether you play it offline or online--is easily the best part of the game. Like its predecessor, the fighting in Mortal Kombat: Deception is gory, intense, and quite complex, meaning it captures much of what's made MK an institution among fighting games.
This wouldn't be an MK sequel without some inexplicable character roster updates. Kung Lao's gone, and Jade's back in. Huh?
The fighting system in Deception hasn't changed much from that of Deadly Alliance. Once again, the main twist that distinguishes this game from other 3D fighting games is that each character may freely switch between three different martial arts styles during battle--one of which is always a weapon-based style of some sort. Characters each possess a handful of unique special moves, as well as a bunch of different chain combos, some of which involve switching between different martial arts styles in midcombo. The sheer variety of different martial arts featured in MK: Deception is quite impressive, and the overall look and feel of the action is clearly inspired by kung fu movies--to good effect. Whereas many fighting games take their cues from anime and aim for action that looks more stylish than downright painful, MK: Deception goes for the hard-hitting staccato rhythms of Hong Kong action cinema and doesn't skimp on sheer graphic violence. The results don't always look perfectly fluid or natural--especially since many of the characters actually look rather stiff--but the fighting in MK: Deception nevertheless features a ton of painful-looking moves that cause the opponent on the receiving end to reel backwards, oftentimes gushing blood. The fighting action is ridiculously over-the-top, and, as a result, it's actually often quite funny.
There's a good, responsive feel to the action, and there's decent variety within the roster of selectable characters. In MK tradition, the fighters here aren't drastically different from one another. Though their special moves and combos are unique, it's not difficult to learn how to play as the different characters once you've grasped the basic game mechanics. A dozen fighters are initially available, and a dozen more are silhouetted on the character select screen, practically taunting you to unlock them. The typical match unfolds as your average best-two-out-of-three-rounds fighting game battle, but MK: Deception does have a few twists. For one thing, it's now possible to execute combo breakers (in a nod to the fighting game Killer Instinct) that let you instantly disrupt the opponent when you're on the receiving end of a string of attacks. Combo breakers are actually really easy to perform, but the catch is that you can use these only a few times during a match, and they cause no damage to the opponent. So they introduce a welcome bit of strategy to a match. Should you use your breakers right away or try to save them to turn the tables at the end of a match? MK: Deception makes a few other tweaks to Deadly Alliance's gameplay, such as eliminating the powerful impaling moves from that game and adding (back) a whole bunch of uppercut attacks--MK standbys that seemed noticeably absent from Deadly Alliance. Deception also adds a fairly useless graphical threat indicator, which (among other things) flashes red when you're susceptible to taking extra damage from a counterattack. In practice, it's just not possible to glance at this small row of flashing lights while concentrating on match action.
Mortal Kombat's particular brand of so-gory-it's-funny action is in full effect here.
A much more noticeable, and welcome, addition is in how most of the battle arenas in MK: Deception feature death traps that may instantly end a round, either for a satisfying finish or a surprise comeback. For example, Mortal Kombat's classic "pit" stage returns (and MKII's acid-filled "dead pool" level is in here too), but this time, you don't need to wait until the end of a match to knock your enemy onto the spikes below. Now, if you just get him or her near the edge of the elevated platform, you can uppercut the poor sap to certain death. Should you die in this fashion, you only lose the round and not the match, which is something that's inexplicable but makes obvious sense from a gameplay standpoint. It's a like a much messier version of Virtua Fighter's ring-outs.
Most of the death traps are tucked away into the recesses of a level and sometimes require you to smash your opponent (or get smashed yourself) through a lower level before the deadly portions of it are exposed. These dangerous areas are also conveniently indicated by a red border, so you'll know when you're in a troublesome spot. A few of the levels--including one in which the edge of the level keeps collapsing, making it more and more likely that someone ends up falling--are definitely a little too prone to deaths-by-death trap. But the fact that these elements of the stages make you have to be mindful of where you're fighting mostly just help to make the combat more interesting. Plus, the death trap-related fatalities are pretty entertaining. So death traps actually turn out to be a much more fun addition to the game than you might expect. However, if you really don't like them, for some reason, you can disable death traps in the game both in offline and online play.
Of course, this wouldn't be Mortal Kombat without a whole bunch of fatalities, and, fortunately, Deception's got plenty of them.
Deadly Alliance had just one fatality per fighter, but Deception has two. And most of these are barbaric and really gross, meaning they're excellent. In fact, it's fair to say that MK: Deception packs in some of the best, most brutal fatalities in the series to date. Another new addition to the series is the hara-kiri, or self-fatality. Basically, players who've lost a match have the ability to punch in a command to perform a self-fatality. These are pretty amusing, much like most all the other fatalities in the game. As a result, the losing player is given a sort of fatality advantage. Whereas the winning player must be in the proper position to execute a fatality, you can pull off a hara-kiri as quickly as you can punch in the command. So, in practice, you won't have much opportunity to pull off a fatality against someone who's memorized the hara-kiri maneuvers. Regardless, it doesn't really matter either way, because--as in past MK games--fatalities are just for show. And they put on a great show indeed.
Beware of traps. Many of the fighting arenas in Deception are every bit as dangerous as the opponents you'll face in them.
The standard fighting mode is playable versus the computer or against another player. When you play against the computer, you'll fight your way past a number of combatants until you finally square off against a typically overpowered Mortal Kombat boss. Each character has a fairly elaborate ending, should you win the bout, so fans of the MK mythos should enjoy the arcade mode if not for this reason, then because the enemy artificial intelligence is actually pretty fun to play against. It's susceptible to some tricks and patterns, and at higher levels of difficulty it fights pretty cheaply, but mostly it's a good way to practice your skills, master some combos, and maybe see a fatality or hara-kiri you've never seen before.
Online play is a major attraction in MK: Deception. You can play puzzle kombat or chess kombat online, but the regular one-on-one fighting is where the real action is. It's easy to get into a match, and we experienced surprisingly smooth, lag-free gameplay in each of the different online modes, which is impressive considering this is the first-ever online-enabled 3D fighting game to hit consoles. Furthermore, the game's very timing-intensive, which would make lag not just noticeable but quite detrimental. Interestingly, you have access to all of your unlocked characters while playing online. Some of the game's hidden characters seem noticeably stronger than average, so the play balance--especially with the death trap-filled environments--is a little suspect. On the other hand, it's not like you're dropping quarters into a machine each time you play. At any rate, like pretty much any fighting game, MK: Deception is at its best when you're playing a similarly skilled opponent. And the presence of online play means you should be able to find ready and willing competition 'round the clock. It's a huge deal and a major milestone for 3D fighting games.
Soon enough, you'll be tempted to gain access to the game's variety of hidden characters, alternate outfits, and additional battle arenas. So, unfortunately, you'll have to stop playing the arcade mode and switch over to the aforementioned konquest mode.