Every family has one boneheaded member whose existence serves to either infuriate the rest of the clan or make them look better by comparison. Sometimes, two of these people find each other and fall in love, creating one of those monumentally awkward situations in which everyone outwardly lists the ways it could go right while at the same time inwardly counting up the ways it won't.
So it goes with Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, a Little Crossover Fighting Game That Couldn't from the good people at Midway and DC Comics. It's a shameless name-dropper of a game that really didn't need to exist, a sad, cringe-worthy anti-tribute to both franchises.
The Mortal Kombat series has been floundering for the last couple of console generations. Competing titles continually raised the fighting genre's bar in terms of innovation, but Midway never attempted to truly branch out from its worn-out formula, creating marginally prettier iterations of the same limited gameplay despite the shackles which made that gameplay necessary (namely, the programming limitations of the 16-bit era) having long since been abandoned.
Backed into a corner by their own lack of imagination but unwilling to give up on a formula which basically boils down to "2D fighting + NC-17 gore + the 1990s = PRINT MONEY," Midway turned to the tried and true art of the crossover, unexpectedly scoring the DC license and causing fandom to collectively ask how such disparate universes could fluidly coexist.
As it turns out, poorly. MKvsDCU is heavy on the fanservice, featuring a healthy roster of nearly two dozen characters fighting their way through the best-known locales in both universes, but the halfhearted implementation makes one wonder whether Midway called on Superman himself to save the day before asking whether Kryptonians can actually code.
Instead of making room within the MK blueprint for DC's characters to actually be DC characters, Midway simply slapped capes on a few standard-issue character models, worked up some special moves which vaguely recall superhero powersets, and called it a day. The result is less Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe and more Mortal Kombat vs. DC Costume Party.
Of course, there's the obvious disparity of a game in which some guy with robot arms can flatten your average DC A-lister's head. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but these are characters who have spent the last half-century or more picking their teeth with guys with robot arms (and Australians with laser eyes, Bruce Lee clones, etc.). No amount of silly plot-wrangling will change the fact that fully half the game's resources are used to explain why Captain Marvel has been reduced to a guy in red pajamas who looks like Ray Liotta.
That lack of recognition of how the properties should dynamically mesh is a painfully prominent theme in MKvsDCU. For instance, DC's insistence that their non-lethal heroes remain non-lethal makes sense, but Midway's response to it—an assortment of "Heroic Brutalities" of varying levels of intensity—is an inconsistent way to keep the faith. Batman calling a flock of bats a la Batman Begins is perfectly in character, but having Superman turn his victim into a fleshy railroad spike isn't less violent just because we have Midway's word that his victim didn't die.
The chagrin runs even deeper when you realize how ready-made the model is for success when MKvsDCU's key players aren't involved. More than a decade ago, Marvel Comics and Capcom decided that Street Fighter II's Ryu should occasionally get to wipe the smug grin off Wolverine's face, and from that idea a great series of crossover fighters was born.
Call me nostalgic, but the difference between those games and MKvsDCU is really where the latter goes wrong. Where Capcom's series stripped the genre (which was still relatively Spartan in those days, mind you) down to its basics and seamlessly built new features and innovations into their games on a fundamental level, Midway is instead content to throw out the few innovations of the last few MKs in favor of a couple of gimmicky quick-time events which tend to appear without warning and distract from the actual fighting part of their fighting game.
To its credit, MKvsDCU isn't the worst game to come from either franchise. Midway's programming prowess is inching down the long road toward playability while being hindered by fewer obstacles than those which plagued its predecessors. While the gameplay lacks the fluidity of your average SoulCalibur or the intuitiveness of a Smash Bros, the process of getting a character from Point A to Point B and making him do hurty things to the other guy is at least workable, if not always enjoyable.
Unfortunately for Midway, listing "less torturous than Mortal Kombat: Deception!" as an achievement is like trying to pick up a burning coal by the cold end. As for DC… well, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is at least a step up for a company whose previous forays include Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis.