Mortal Kombat 1 may have the best single-player mode in fighting games

During the Gamescom 2023 festivities, PCGamesN caught up with NetherRealm Studios to preview Mortal Kombat 1, and it's looking bloody brilliant.

Mortal Kombat 1 has the best single-player mode in fighting games: An Asian woman wearing a blue mask with golden dots stands reaching out one hand holding a fan behind her with the other

The Mortal Kombat universe has smashed the big red reset button – yes, again. And, in the aftermath of an increasingly muddled, corner-painting trilogy, NetherRealm Studios has decided that it might be best to turn back the clock on the fighting game’s decades-long battle of the realms. And so next month will see the launch of Mortal Kombat 1, not to be confused with Mortal Kombat (1992), Mortal Kombat (2011), great cinematic endeavor Mortal Kombat (1995), or middling cinematic endeavor Mortal Kombat (2021).

Konfused? Well, you needn’t be. All you need to know is that the sixty-sided dice has, essentially, been re-rolled on the entire universe, and Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, Mileena, and pals may never be the same again.

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At Gamescom, I was kindly invited by WB Games to check out a new demo build of the gore-filled fighting game. Or, more specifically, to have a play around with some of the new single-player kontent (ok, I’ll stop now), including the first chapter of a promising-looking story campaign, as well as the core of the single-player experience: the all-new ‘Invasions’ mode. This latter feature is described by the developer as a culmination of all concepts and experience gained from Mortal Kombat’s entire history of single-player content, wrapped up in a neat, tabletop aesthetic.

Invasions mode sees the player guide the Mortal Kombat 1 character roster through a top-down diorama of the fight fantasy universe, getting into scrapes, gathering loot, unlocking in-game content, and discovering Easter Eggs pulled from four decades of spine-ripping mayhem. As envisioned by the developer, Invasions implements recognizable elements of previous MK modes, including The Krypt, The Challenge Towers, Test Your Might, and Test Your Luck, as well as the much-loved adventure modes from Mortal Kombat: Deception and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.

Although there is, unfortunately, no sign of Kart Kombat… Yet.

A Mortal Kombat 1 solo campaign sequence where a character approaches a locked room requiring a key to enter

Choosing Johnny Cage, I make my way through the superstar a**hole’s mansion, getting into numerous confrontations with suspiciously familiar NPCs, while learning the ways of MK1’s new mechanics, such as the assist-style ‘Kameo’ system. As I push through the garish halls of La Casa Cage, I unlock various elemental-based bonuses, accessories, and other stat-boosting items to help me on my journey. The player can readily switch characters at any time, and as Kitana and then a returning Li Mei, I engage in endurance bouts, dodge environmental hazards, discover new areas, and even encounter a shopkeeper in the form of MK11’s Kollector.

I also unlock new color schemes for Johnny Cage himself, suggesting that, to some degree, players will be able to bag skins, palette swaps, and other cosmetic items simply by playing through the Invasions mode, with an emphasis placed on earning gear that is attributable to your most-played kombatants.

The Mortal Kombat 1 character select screen showing Kitana with Kana as a Kameo character

A problem that has faced previous MK releases is that fans tend to go in extra hard on the single-player kontent immediately – grinding all of the modes to completion in mere days of release before never ever touching them again. NetherRealm hopes that Invasions will last longer than previous single-player efforts, and the studio will be actively looking to refresh the mode on a seasonal basis – adding new areas, shaking up loot, and implementing timed events. NRS plans to ensure that Invasions retains relevancy for the entirety of MK1’s lifespan.

While I only got to experience a sliver of the Invasions experience, early impressions are positive. Invasions feels more engaging than MK11’s Krypt, while sporting more personality and fan-pleasing lore than similar endeavors found in other fighters. The ability to switch characters on a whim allows the player to get to grips with the whole roster, while the unlocking of skins and colors offers a sense of actual reward. How entertaining the mode is after tens of hours of gameplay remains to be seen but, on first impression, NRS’ concept of evolving MK’s entire single-player experience is clearly and effectively demonstrated.

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Mortal Kombat, as a franchise, has always taken pride in its deep lore – a pride shared by the dedicated fan community. This, of course, reached its peak with the 2011 iteration of the gory franchise, with a fully cinematic story mode that literally redefined the entire concept of single-player fighting game campaigns. Now, it has to be said, that the ball was somewhat dropped after this initial release, where an interesting new vision of the MK universe fast became a fairly interminable story of guns, military factions, and Ronda Rousey performances. NRS, for all its good intentions, instantly painted itself into a corner with its ‘Revenant’ storyline, resulting in story sequels that failed to live up to the majesty of the 2011 release – though several threads were eventually pulled together for the much-improved Aftermath DLC expansion.

The story campaign of Mortal Kombat 1 gets to take a fresh pass not only at the narrative lineage itself, but also offers the opportunity to deliver entirely new takes on some of the series’ best-known kombatants. We have already seen evidence that veterans such as Mileena, Raiden, and Liu Kang will be afforded tweaked legacies, while forgotten warriors such as Havik and Li Mei will now be allowed to take center stage. This is an exciting development for the fanbase, who will be presented with a new, unpredictable tale of the realms and those that dwell within.

Playing the first chapter of this new timeline, I was immediately impressed with various elements of the new story, from a visual, technical, and written standpoint. A deftly swerving cold open that sees the yet-to-be powerful Shang Tsung as a pathetic snake oil merchant instantly sells this familiar but unrecognizable new world, while neatly scripted byplay between a young Kung Lao and a thunderless Raiden finds our protagonists warm and relatable. The cinematic elements of the story campaign are deftly handled, with an evocative score and legitimately fine cinematography, emphasizing a return to a traditional, Asian aesthetic – a far cry from the military bases and gun-toting warmongers of recent iterations.

A man wearing a black combat shirt and trousers poses taking a selfie with a dead character with no face

While it is not for me to give away any of the plot points, (the first chapter is viewable online at any rate), I did find myself sold on giving this fresh take on MK’s aging lore a chance. Excellent character models and brilliant mo-cap (the actual tech, not the kombatant) brought the players to life, and seeing all of these legendary characters, arguably looking the best that they ever have (as well as being universally hot), left impressions of a bold new era for one of gaming’s most stalwart franchises.

Standing alongside titles such as Street Fighter 6 and the incoming Tekken 8, nobody is saying that Mortal Kombat 1 has a free ride to the top. But, if previous years have told us anything, the franchise that furrowed brows and worried senates all those decades ago still has the capability to impress, evolve, and, conveniently, achieve record-breaking sales figures. There have been stumbles along the road since day one, and the truth has been twisted and bent on more than one occasion. Regardless, MK’s ability to somehow adapt its limited model to each new era is undeniably impressive. And it won’t be long before the fanbase finds itself rushing to the battlefield. As the trailer effectively reminds us: It’s in our blood.

Ahead of the Mortal Kombat 1 release date, be sure to check out our Mortal Kombat 1 tier list to see where your favorite fighter ranks.