Skip to main content

Mortal Kombat 1's slick story mode instantly shows up its new seasonal challenge mode

A great idea for single player likers, but its execution leaves something to be desired

Scorpion and Sub-Zero ready an attack in Mortal Kombat 1
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Warner Bros

As someone with a general aversion to online competitive modes in games, I'm always grateful when someone, for once, especially in this age of endlessly bland multiplayer experiments, thinks of the solitary solo player. I'm especially grateful when us single player preferers get a knowing nod of acknowledgement in fighting games, too, which are so naturally geared toward pitting your skills against other human beings that anything involving playing against the AI is often either an afterthought or so threadbare that you can't help but feel like you're missing the point.

But that's still, for my sins, how I like to consume fighting games when I occasionally play them - which isn't often, I'll admit, for exactly the reasons described above - and so when I sat down for my Mortal Kombat 1 demo session at Gamescom this year, I was pleased to see not just a very slick story mode in attendance, but also a new single player challenge mode called Invasions that publishers Warner Bros described as "a giant interactive board game" that "lent into action RPG" territory. Its numerous node-based missions looked substantial based on what I played, and the idea of applying a seasonal service model to it, endlessly rotating in new locations and missions every so often - a whole different Invasion, so to speak - is actually something I'd be very much behind. It, that is, I was a) good at Mortal Kombat, and b) the missions I played during my demo weren't quite so… err… boring.

Sub Zero walks through a forest setting in Mortal Kombat 1's Invasion mode
A lively city scene in Mortal Kombat 1's Invasion mode
Sub Zero walks through a mountainous region in Mortal Kombat 1's Invasion mode
Sub Zero walks through a rural village scene in Mortal Kombat 1's Invasion mode
Some official screenshots from Warner Bros showing off upcoming Invasion settings. | Image credit: Warner Bros

In a presentation video I saw before I started playing, we were shown an Invasion set in a rural, rice paddy village which I'd later discover (in its infinitely more interesting story mode) is the home town of Raiden and Kung Lao. The one I actually got to play was set inside Johnny Cage's enormous mansion, which was being invaded by both imp-like little demon boys and, seemingly, a cabal of very unwanted house guests. You're free to pick whatever character you like to tackle these invasions, but the structure of them is the same: each location is divvyed up into a branching grid of mission nodes, which each one representing some kind of challenge.

One, for instance, could be a shop or a treasure chest that unlocks either wads of in-game currency or one-time status buff capsules that might, say, reduce certain types of elemental damage by 50% for the next fight. But these are few and far between. Based on the 30-odd minutes I spent with it, 99.5% of these nodes are just more fights, in which you punch, kick and occasionally skewer your opponents with fat shards of ice through their mouths - puncturing their actual goddamn spinal cord in a supposedly 'fatal blow' when you're low on health... and then kick and punch them some more when they get back up again and start whaling on you again, completely unaffected. Other 'fatal blows' are available, of course, but that happened to be the one at my disposal playing as Sub-Zero.

The further I got into the Invasion missions, the more mode 'modifiers' kept cropping up. These are unusual extra fighting conditions that, in the video presentation at least, were talked up as being quite the game changers - slow down effects on attacks, for example, or projectiles falling from the sky and near-constant elemental effects to dance around. In practice during my demo, however, all I saw were natty little demon imps occasionally flying across the arena and spitting fireballs at me. As I said, I was only able to play for about 30 minutes, so I'm sure some of these more interesting-sounding modifiers will be present later on in the mode. But I was hoping for a bit more variety earlier on, especially as, given you're confined to a single main location here, you're playing on the same map over and over and over and over again.

Sub Zero visits an in-home cinema complex in Mortal Kombat 1's Invasion mode
Sub Zero walks outside a large mansion in Mortal Kombat 1's Invasion mode
Here's what I actually played, which was set inside Johnny Cage's enormous mansion. Despite the different location of each node within the house, however, it was just the same stage on repeat throughout. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Warner Bros
Sub Zero runs through the hallways of a large mansion in Mortal Kombat 1's Invasion mode
The interior of Johnny Cage's mansion is the ultimate 'sad man bachelor pad', just sayin'... | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Warner Bros

It's a shame there isn't a smidge more variety here, especially as you're supposedly moving between different rooms in Johnny's large mansion. As you shunt your character around its mostly linear pathways, you'll have fights that technically take place in his personal theatre room, or his secret, neon-lit gamer cave, but each actual fight just takes place by Johnny's poolside - the same one we've seen in all the trailers so far. Don't get me wrong, said pool is lovely a couple of times in a row, but on your tenth, twelfth, twentieth battle there, it all starts to get a little tedious, and I could feel myself growing more bored as my demo session went on. I mean, props to the guy's cleaning team for making it so spotless all the time - the amount of bloodied ice shavings I left behind each time can't have been pretty.

I'm hopeful that, given a proper go at it, I'd be able to dig a little deeper into its RPG-like talismans, relics and stat boost items to give it more flavour and variation. Warner Bros. also mentioned you'll be able to create character loadouts to help you get past its various challenges, too, as well as earn new character skins (eh) and powers (ooh) through its global progression system. But if each invasion is going to last for six weeks and be filled with "hundreds of challenges", they arguably need to do a much better job of hooking you in earlier with the cool, interesting stuff rather than leaving it all until the end.

Still, with Warner Bros pledging to support Invasions "for the life of the game" and "completely refresh the entire mode" with each new one, maybe there's hope yet for things to improve. As I said at the start, the idea of a seasonal single player mode like this is actually a pretty great one in my books, and were it attached to a fighting series I had a bit more affinity with - your Street Fighters and SoulCaliburs, for example - I think I'd probably lap it up quite happily (especially if it had Street Fighter 6's modern control scheme, hoo boy that would be the dream, I'm tellin' ya).

Two fighters prepare to fight by a poolside in Mortal Kombat 1's Invasion mode
Get ready for a lot of this... | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Warner Bros

After all, as slick as Mortal Kombat 1's story mode looked, that's the kind of thing you'd probably only play once - even though in a demo setting it was instantly more engaging to me as a concept as it charted the budding rivalry between young Raiden and Kung Lao. The story mode is extremely cutscene heavy, too, but the way it seamlessly transitioned between cutscene and fight scene was absolutely masterful, and it also quickly pitted you against MK classic bads such as Scorpion and Sub-Zero as it set about establishing its plotlines. That's the kind of instant, attention-grabbing moxy I wish Invasions had, to be honest, as a little more structure and narrative oomph would probably go a long way in giving me a reason to care about the "hundreds" of challenge bouts in front of me.

That said, bless Netherrealm for including it anyway. As I said, I'd love to see more of this sort of thing in today's fighting games, and 30 minutes is probably nothing but a tiny slice of what that mode has to offer. It might not have put its best foot forward, but I'll be keen to see how it develops and plays out in practice when Mortal Kombat 1 launches in full later this month on September 19th.

For more of the latest news and previews from Gamescom 2023, head to our Gamescom 2023 hub. You can also find everything announced at Opening Night Live right here.

Read this next