-- There are a handful of games that critics like to discuss when we talk about the evolution and maturation of the video game. "Braid." "Red Dead Redemption." "Mass Effect 2." Lately, "Portal 2."
"Mortal Kombat" (Warner Bros., for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) will never be a part of that conversation. Few long-running series have proven as resistant to change. It's still pretty much the same boneheaded slugfest it was 20 years ago. It's rated M, for "mature," but that's because kids shouldn't play a game in which one can rip out an enemy's spine – not because of any newfound adult sophistication.
Of course, not every game needs to be clever and ambitious. Sometimes you just want to pound on a controller and turn your onscreen opponent into hamburger. And gamers who get a rush from that kind of action will get more than their share from "Mortal Kombat."
The new "MK" has been billed as a franchise reboot, a return to the days when it ruled the arcades. And it's entertaining in short bursts, particularly if you're competing with friends in the same room. Online, the King of the Hill mode recreates the arcade experience – the winner faces any contenders who have stacked their quarters (figuratively speaking) on the machine – but it's easy enough to find a quick match if you just have a few minutes to kill.
And "kill" is the operative word, with the series' notorious "fatalities" making a flamboyantly gory return. Why settle for a beat down when you can behead or disembowel your opponent? You can also execute X-ray moves, which let you see just how much damage you're inflicting on an enemy's bones and internal organs. The graphic mayhem makes mixed martial arts look like tickle fighting.
Beyond one-on-one and tag-team matches, "Mortal Kombat" offers a surprising amount of solo action. The main event is an eight-hour campaign that recasts the events of the first three "MK" games of the 1990s, and the story is too preposterous to interest anyone but die-hard fans. It does introduce you to the fighting styles of most of the game's 20-plus combatants, but their battles are separated by stiffly animated, awkwardly written cut scenes. These non-interactive sequences will try most players' patience – and, unforgivably, they can't be skipped.
Beyond the fatuous story, I was most aggravated by the inconsistency of the computer-controlled opponents. Some of the battles pit your solo hero against two enemies, but those fights may be easier than one-on-one matches against overpowered competition. Then again, I lost several matches where I couldn't even land a punch – only to dominate the same enemy in a replay in which I simply pounded on the same buttons over and over.
The Challenge Tower, a ladder of 300 solo events, amplifies the inconsistency by shuffling ridiculously easy fights with seemingly impossible ones. And some of the minigames – like Test Your Sight, which is basically the old shell game – are just pointless.
Between the story mode, the Challenge Tower and the infinitely replayable online options, "Mortal Kombat" offers an awful lot of content for fighting-game fans. It reminded me, however, of one of those restaurants that serves huge portions of lousy food. It gave me a bit of a stomachache, and I never want to eat there again. One star out of four.