5 years on from Mortal Kombat 11’s series high-point, the games industry seems intent on making it the last MK I’ll ever love

Mortal Kombat 11 is five years old today. Although the 11 at the end of the title might suggest otherwise, this was actually an unusual game in many ways. As much as it represented the final chapter in a long-running story, I like to also think of Mortal Kombat 11 as the last game of its kind from developer NetherRealm.

No, it wasn’t its last fighting game, or even the last Mortal Kombat. But, as I look back at how the studio (and the industry at large)has changed its output in the half-decade since, I can’t help but lament what we’re stuck with today.

NetherRealm established a predictable development cadence, beginning with of Mortal Kombat 9 in 2011. Every two years, the studio would release a new fighting game, with MK alternating with the much less violent Injustice series.

Injustice: Gods Among Us followed MK9, and Injustice 2 followed MK10. It was MK’s turn in 2019, so we got Mortal Kombat 11. The assumption was that Injustice 3 would follow sometime in 2021, but that never happened, and the game instead ended up being the studio’s only active title for four whole years, right up until the release of Mortal Kombat 1 last year.

I’m not here to argue the merits of breaking that cycle and releasing two MK games without an Injustice palate cleanser, but it’s worth looking back at how the studio managed to keep it interesting for that long.

The Aftermath squad.

Perhaps the most significant element birthed by that new approach was the game’s Aftermath expansion. Mortal Kombat games are singular in the quality and production values of their story campaigns. There’s more emphasis on narrative elements than you’d typically expect from a fighting game, easily up there with purely story-driven games.

I play MK games primarily solo, and the single-player campaign is the thing I look forward to the most with each new one, and I know many others who share those feelings. Yet for all that, NetherRealm never flirted with the idea of expanding that story content post-launch, opting instead to stick to the tried and tested model of character passes.

Just as everyone was thinking the studio must be ready to move to its next project, however, we got Aftermath. The story of Mortal Kombat 11 needed no extensions; it brought an end to a three-game saga that was compelling enough on its own, even before you consider how contemplative it was. This might sound silly to read if you’re unfamiliar with it, but MK11’s narrative regularly interrogated its own fiction and long-standing characters (and their traits).

I finished it right around the release of Avengers: Endgame, and I remember thinking it was an even more compelling end to a long-running saga. But you could tell there was really nowhere else for it to go, so that’s where Aftermath came in. In hindsight, perhaps that’s where some of the trouble started.

Yes, I’ll have some of that RoboCop, thank you.

Aftermath picks up following the conclusion of the main game’s events, and it essentially allows for a future beyond them. It was a fun romp that I enjoyed at the time without thinking much of its implications. I was really more happy to get an addition to my favourite part of every MK game, and thrilled to see Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa reprise his role as Shang Tsung from the film.

The leeway it effectively allowed the team when crafting the story of Mortal Kombat 1 sours that memory, however. MK1’s re-telling, multiversal take on the series not only arrived at a time when everyone was exhausted with the concept, it was so bereft of new ideas that things almost always played out in similar ways.

Everything about the most recent game felt rushed (including its lack of lobbies at launch), and all the other missing features and technical issues. By comparison, MK11 was the peak of Mortal Kombat. A game whose every element reached new heights. Take the Krypt, the side mode where you go to unlock content for use in the fighting game. NetherRealm finally turned it into a third-person adventure, and it made my dream of an action game from that studio feel all the more attainable. Sure, it was essentially walking around a big mall of loot boxes and nostalgia, but the seed of something greater was there – and on its own, it was the best realisation of the Krypt.

Even the character passes all worked to fulfil some kind of fantasy. This is the game that let you play as RoboCop, the T-800 – and, somehow (thanks Warner Bros.), Rambo!

Corrupted Liu Kang faces pure Liu Kang, how poetic!

You don’t come to me for fighting game insight – Connor and Alex do that much better than I ever could – but I can tell you that I loved MK11’s bigger emphasis on movement and mind games, compared to the overreliance on combos MK is typically known for. Introducing variants each character was a clever decision, too, one that had me sinking dozens of hours into experimenting with each – and creating my own in custom games.

As I look back, however, I can see how MK11 was the progenitor of much of what ails MK1; a testbed of sorts to bring the worst parts of the gluttonous modern triple-A industry to the series. MK11 was the game that experimented with locking towers behind challenges, and a larger focus on microtransactions. Even then, they felt like they were kept in check somewhat, whereas MK1 just drops all pretence.

The one memory of Mortal Kombat 11 that will always stay with me is shouting ‘FIRE GOD LIU KANG’ in that pivotal moment in the story. Perhaps that’s enough; perhaps the joy it brought me can make up for the rest of its sins, but it will never trump my utter disappointment in MK1.