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Mortal Kombat X brings back Johnny Cage, Sonya and more for its ambitious story mode

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

For a variety of reasons, I have a hard time seeing how Mortal Kombat and Injustice: Gods Among Us developer NetherRealm Studios can ever top its latest fighting game, Mortal Kombat X.

The fighting game has an ambitious single-player story that's bigger than anything the developer has done in the past. It has a free-to-play mobile game tie-in, a persistent online meta-game called Faction Wars and a setting that pushes the fiction far enough into the future that veteran fighters like Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Jax Briggs will fight alongside — and against — their kids.

It also has what may be the most disgusting fatality I've ever seen in a Mortal Kombat game. (And they can get pretty bad.)

NetherRealm and Warner Bros. Interactive started off a recent presentation of Mortal Kombat X with a battle between stalwart fighters Raiden and Ermac. The latter won the fight and Mortal Kombat X producer Adam Urbano capped off that exhibition with one of Ermac's deadly finishing moves. Normally, these gruesome finishers are something they save for the end of a presentation, Urbano said, but they were mixing things up. I wish they hadn't done it while I was eating some breakfast at the event, because Ermac's fatality involves telekinetically lifting up his opponent, then twisting him into a human ball, shattering his bones in the process. Since that wasn't enough, Ermac then telekinetically pulled Raiden's digestive tract through his mouth, tugging his guts out in a perfectly straight line, then forming his intestines into a ball and squishing it. It's really gross. But that's par for the course with Mortal Kombat; new and twisted ways to murder your opponent is part of the fun.

As entertaining as the fatalities in Mortal Kombat are, there's much more to the series than its long-running bloody gimmick. It's become a technically proficient, competitive fighting game over the past 20 years, and NetherRealm has always endeavored to give fans something to do outside of one-on-one competition.

The game's single-player story mode is a bigger, more elaborate production than what we've seen in previous Mortal Kombat games. There are battles with hundreds of non-player characters and Mortal Kombat cameos, Urbano said, on a scale that NetherRealm just couldn't pull off before.

We played the first chapter of Mortal Kombat X's story, which focuses on cocksure veteran combatant Johnny Cage, who fights alongside returning characters Kenshi and Sonya Blade. The campaign kicks off in the midst of an Outworld invasion of Earth. Shinnok and Quan Chi's demonic forces are laying waste to humanity, and Cage, Sonya and Kenshi are leading a team of special forces in an attempt to stave off that invasion. Returning fighters Scorpion and Sub-Zero attack Cage and company in a helicopter en route to a major battle.

Mortal Kombat X's story mode is told through numerous lengthy cutscenes. These are broken up by quicktime event battles — Cage versus Scorpion and Sub-Zero in mid-helicopter flight — and the occasional traditional one-on-one fight. The ratio of cutscene to playable fighting game leans heavily toward the former; I was a little surprised to see how little I actually played compared to how much I passively watched as Johnny Cage and his Earthrealm allies talked about what was going on. Fortunately, the onscreen action was more than entertaining enough to hold my interest.

The game's first chapter bounced between Cage's story and other events in Mortal Kombat X, including scenes where Raiden and his fellow weather god Fujin battled Quan Chi's Outworld hordes. The two groups — Cage, Sonya, Kenshi, Raiden and Fujin — eventually came together in a battle against Quan Chi and his supporters: undead versions of Jax, Sindel, Stryker, Kabal and Smoke.

It's not immediately clear which of these returning characters is actually going to be playable in Mortal Kombat X. We fought Jax and Shinnok in one-on-one fights, so it's pretty likely those two characters will ultimately be playable in the game. NetherRealm wouldn't confirm who was going to be included in the roster, but we did see a couple of unannounced playable fighters, including Erron Black, in the game's attract mode.

Johnny Cage, Sonya, Mileena, Quan Chi, Jax... they're all coming back

Playing as Johnny Cage in story mode limited us to one of the character's variations, called "A-List." That's one of three fighting styles for Cage — all Mortal Kombat X characters have three variations to choose from — and it focuses on a couple of charge-up attacks that Cage can perform.

Johnny Cage's signature moves, like his slide kick and crotch punch, span his three fighting styles, but "A-List" lets players charge certain normal and special attacks for increased damage. The risk-reward is that charged attacks take a little longer to actually execute, but it's a good opportunity to mix up your moves and inflict more damage if you connect.

Cage's other variations include "Fisticuffs," in which Johnny is outfitted with a pair of brass knuckles (that, of course, read C-A-G-E across the front). Fisticuffs adds a move called fist bump that increases the damage of certain moves for a limited period of time and gives Johnny some flashy combos. Cage can also fight with a "Stunt Double" variation, with which he can create yellow mimics of himself. Instead of performing his signature slide kick or rising uppercut himself, he can launch a ghostly mimic to perform the same move. Stunt Double limits his fireball throwing ability, however. Instead of tossing two fireballs in two different arcs, a la Mortal Kombat 2, Stunt Double Cage can only throw them in a straight horizontal line, as in the original Mortal Kombat.

In addition to Mortal Kombat X's story mode, we also got a look at its new companion app, the free-to-play fighting game coming to Android and iOS.

The mobile version of MKX is designed as a card-based battler hybrid, NetherRealm says. Players can build a team of fighters and through taps and swipes of the touchscreen, battle against other Mortal Kombat fighters, upgrade their characters and take part in the Mortal Kombat X meta-game "anywhere, anytime." Like the core fighting game, everything players do in the mobile version of Mortal Kombat X contributes to your progression in the Faction War meta-game.

Players can also set an ally character in the mobile version of MKX, using him or her as their champion while also loaning that fighter out to other players so they can use them in battle as an assist character. The implementation sounds similar to a system in Capcom's Dragons Dogma, in which players could rent out other players' pawn characters.

The mobile version of Mortal Kombat X feels like more than just a distraction or side game. It's also a way for players to unlock things in the console and PC versions of the game by playing the mobile game, and vice versa. One of the examples NetherRealm offered was a simple, cross-platform achievement: Win a match on the console version and you'll unlock in-game currency in the mobile version. Those "koins" can then be spent to buy new character skins or upgrade your fighters. Certain achievements in the mobile version can unlock exclusive skins in the main game — we saw mention of an unlockable Injustice Scorpion skin and something called a farmer Jax skin. We anticipate overalls.

Mortal Kombat X for mobile platforms will be out in "early April" around the time the other versions hit PlayStation, Windows PC and Xbox platforms.