You’d think Midway would have given the Mortal Kombat action game spinoffs a rest after the failure of MK Mythologies: Sub-Zero, a game so bad only Jeff Gerstmann liked it. John Tobias wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel quite yet, though, and floated around ideas for other games based on various Mortal Kombat characters. One of these games, Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, was going to focus on Sonya and Jax in their fight against Kano’s Black Dragon gang before the events of the original Mortal Kombat.
Instead of another 2D side-scrolling title with controls designed by a madman, Special Forces would be a 3D third-person action game with a controllable camera and was planned for release on the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast. Screenshots showing Sonya fighting against Black Dragon goons appeared in magazines, and while Special Forces didn’t look like it would set the world on fire or anything, it definitely seemed like a major improvement over Mythologies. To be fair, that is an exceptionally low bar to clear, but still!
Then John Tobias did finally throw in the towel and left Midway. Mortal Kombat had lost the person responsible for creating all the characters and storylines, and the Special Forces project was in utter disarray. Eventually, Midway got together a team to finish the project or at least salvage something from the mess (Ed Boon has stated he was not involved in any way and that “one could write a book” about all the issues the development ran into). Special Forces finally surfaced in 2000, but the troubled development had left its mark on the released product. No, I’m not talking about the cover, although that is roughly as hideous as the rest of the game.
First of all, Sonya was removed altogether and isn’t even mentioned in the released game, while Jax takes over as the only playable character. In addition, the free camera control is gone and the game is now played from a Metal Gear Solid -esque fixed top down view, occasionally from behind Jax like a standard 3rd person action game. The N64 and Dreamcast versions were canceled and the PlayStation became the sole release platform.
Special Forces was absolutely murdered in reviews (Gamespot gave it a 2.1 out of 10, I’m not sure if Jeff Gerstmann was involved this time) and flopped horribly in sales. For the longest time, I didn’t even know this game had come out in the first place, only finding out about it on the internet several years after release. That said, is Special Forces as bad as its reputation makes it out to be? Let’s find out and wish we hadn’t.
The storyline this time around is that a bunch of Black Dragon members have escaped from prison with the help of Kano, and Jax is sent to apprehend them and find out what Kano’s up to. On the way, he will beat up and shoot a ton of security guards and other random mooks. There are five levels, none of which is particularly interesting or memorable, and at the end of each level Jax fights a Black Dragon member one-on-one.
Our hero. Jax was never the most interesting character in the MK series, so in an attempt to make him cooler he has been turned into some sort of a weird quasi-blaxploitation protagonist with a 70s-style funk theme tune, a purple Ford Mustang (always nice to see characters rep 3rd Street), and cheesy one-liners like “Ya want some fries with that whup-ass?” and “awwwwwhh yeahhhhhhh…”
I kinda think this game would be better if they had gone full Black Dynamite with it, thrown the MK canon out of the window and made this ridiculous spoof of blaxploitation films, but I doubt these writers had it in them to pull off any sort of parody. Fun fact: Michael Jai White, the actor who played Black Dynamite, portrayed Jax in the Mortal Kombat: Legacy series a few years later.
For whatever reason, Jax has his metal arms even though this is supposed to be a prequel and chronologically the first game in the Mortal Kombat series. I suppose that they had no choice, because everyone mainly remembers Jax as “that guy with the metal arms”.
Gemini acts as mission control and is never seen in-game, only showing up in these transmissions between levels. A good amount of the dialogue between her and Jax consists of extremely awkward flirting, made even more awkward by the quality of the voice acting. Gem sounds incredibly bored, and Jax sounds like some random dude trying and failing to act like Shaft.
The first boss of Mortal Kombat: Special Forces is some idiot with a flamethrower and dynamite. I assume one of those things was the cause for his current lack of facial features. He’s not very hard to beat, provided that you manage to dodge the flames.
When he starts tossing dynamite all over the place, get close and spam your strongest combo to bring him down. “Get close and spam your strongest combo” is basically the strategy for every single one of these fights, although occasionally you may have to block too.
Ninja master and expert swordswoman, who fights by teleporting all over the place and throwing homing projectiles. Also hits you with her swords, in case you couldn’t figure that out. Tougher than No Face but still not too hard.
After defeating and killing Tasia, Jax describes the confrontation as “awwwhhh yeah… I just got in a close shave with a twin bladed honey” in the codec call.
Of course Jarek would be here. He is the boss of the third level, and easily the hardest fight in the entire goddamn game. He keeps throwing boomerangs that do massive damage and running away like an asshole, and when you get close to him he will kill you with a single chain combo unless you’re blocking (and even if you are, you still lose a huge chunk of health due to chip damage). He also attacks so fast that it’s very hard to get your combo started.
The way to beat Jarek is to try to get close to him and hit your combos while hoping you can attack before he does, and never let him get back to throwing his projectiles. I will admit I wouldn’t have made it past him without abusing save states, as this fight just feels broken. Jarek sucks, and Jax should have dropped him off that helipad.
Tremor is the one character introduced in Special Forces to actually make it into later games in some capacity (showing up in the challenge tower on the Vita version of Mortal Kombat 9 and as DLC for Mortal Kombat X). From what I’ve read, he was supposed to be in Mortal Kombat Trilogy instead of Rain and that Rain apparently had a bio written for Tremor in the manual, but I can’t verify that because I don’t have a manual for Trilogy. The wiki seems to think this was a bullshit rumor, so who knows.
Tremor is a lot more swole than the other ninjas and uses power moves not unlike those Jax has in his moveset. He has a ground pound and everything. I will admit I didn’t get a very good look at what the guy actually does in his boss fight, because it was all over as soon as I got near him and started spamming Jax’s super uppercut combo.
Kano’s master plan was to have the other Black Dragon members distract Jax while he himself goes to Outworld and finds the Eye of Chitian, a gem that he thinks will make him the master and ruler of the world somehow. I’m not sure what the Eye is actually supposed to do aside from being able to create portals into other realms (so how did Kano get to Outworld to get it in the first place? How does he know Outworld is even a thing?) and apparently helping Jax get laid when he gives it to Gem. The game never goes into any detail about it, most likely because nobody cared by that point.
Kano fights by throwing knives at you in a really annoying pattern that is almost impossible to dodge, and when you do get close to him he hits you with a Kanoball. At any sort of distance he’s almost as bad as Jarek, although he at least is easier to take down when you actually get close — he won’t go apeshit with ridiculous combos or anything. Even though his knives do a massive amount of damage, even more so than Jarek’s boomerangs, this is the last fight in the game so you can use all those medkits you’ve been hoarding.
The levels in Special Forces are quite expansive and often maze-like. There is no map or anything to help you find whatever objective you’re looking for, so get ready for a lot of aimless wandering and backtracking. There are also several instances of dreadful pixel-hunting that bogs the game down even further. Sometimes, the key or other thing you need is behind a wall that can be blown up with a detonator, but often it’s almost impossible to see which walls you actually can destroy.
Jax gains EXP from defeating mooks and learns a new combo every time he levels up, although most of them are fairly useless. In fact, the super uppercut you learn early on will be your bread and butter combo throughout the game, and there is rarely any reason to switch things up. The longer combos are stronger, of course, but they’re also a pain to memorize and anything that starts with one of the kick buttons is far too slow to be of any real use. Most of the enemies pose no threat whatsoever, as Jax’s chain combos will make quick work of them.
You also have access to special moves, pulled off by holding R2 (called the turbo button in the controls screen) and pressing one of the attack buttons, but they’re not all that useful unless you’re surrounded by bad guys. They also require blue energy (which can be replenished by performing combos) to do. Jax can get his hands on a number of guns as well, which are somewhat awkward to use but take out most enemies quite easily. They don’t seem to do much damage to bosses, though, but maybe I just screwed up and they were blocking the bullets and rockets or something.
Generally, the game doesn’t play as badly as I expected it to, as Jax generally does what I want him to and there are no jumping puzzles a la Mythologies. In fact, I think Special Forces could have been a perfectly average PSX action game (an immensely high bar to clear, I know) if it weren’t for the godawful camera system and another issue I’ll get to shortly. When you’re fighting hand to hand, the fixed camera isn’t all that bad. However, most levels like throwing enemies with guns into the mix, and this is where things really fall apart.
The enemies with firearms can and will shoot you from off screen. Or they’ll be lurking behind corners, or in the back of a room where you can’t see them. While the game is supposed to have the enemies’ health bars pop up when they are nearby, this works about half of the time and often there’s no way to know where the next guy with a machine gun or shotgun is. You’d think Jax could use those metal arms of his to block shots, but blocking does precisely nothing to decrease the damage he takes and only stops him from flailing around when hit.
You can look around and aim in first person by pressing L1, but that is extremely awkward and segues us nicely to another problem: the draw distance is absolutely horrible, and enemies can get a bead on you before you can even see them render into view. This is a bit of an issue once you get to the guys using sniper rifles and rockets.
The single worst section of the game is the start of the fourth level (pictured above) that places the camera behind Jax and makes you fight a platoon of assholes with rocket launchers, and you simply don’t have time to aim before getting blown up with a rocket. The best way I could find to get through this gauntlet is to just run and eat the splash damage, only killing someone if they’re actually in your way.
The final level is set in Outworld, and this is also where the regular unarmed enemies start getting tougher. Your main enemies in this level are still the usual suspects — the camera and the draw distance, albeit for different reasons than before. The entire level consists of narrow walkways and small platforms over a bottomless abyss, so falling off is a real danger since controlling Jax isn’t exactly precise. It’s also very tough to see where the next portal you need to find actually is, so prepare to wander around for some time if for some reason you’re still playing.
If Special Forces had retained the freely controllable camera and maybe Sonya as a playable character to add a bit of variety, I think this game might have been okay. Not a masterpiece or even a particularly good game by any means, but a vaguely decent PSX action title and not the horrifying mess it turned out to be. Of course, that would also have required Midway not rushing it out in a desperate attempt to salvage something from the project, so realistically there never was any chance.
The actual hand to hand combat isn’t all that bad because it’s pretty much just Mortal Kombat, but the issues with the camera and draw distance make Special Forces a gigantic chore to play. In case it wasn’t clear by now, I don’t recommend this game to anybody. It does at least have the courtesy to be short, as you can finish the game in two or three hours if you know what you’re doing. It won’t take longer than five hours or so even if you bumble through it, unless of course you run out of lives while fighting Jarek or something and have to start over.
After Special Forces sold like absolute crap, the Mortal Kombat series was put on hiatus for a couple of years, and the only MK releases were ports such as the horrifying Mortal Kombat Advance in 2001. Advance, ostensibly a port of UMK3 for the Game Boy Advance, is notorious for being so utterly wretched that EGM had to revise their scoring system to accommodate a low enough score for this garbage fire.
By the time MK Advance was released, it had been four years since the last new Mortal Kombat fighting game, the new generation of video game consoles was out, and old fans such as myself were wondering if MK had died with the 1990s since no one was talking about it any more. As I mentioned, I had no idea Special Forces had even come out.
While there were some teasers about a potential new game around this time, not many saw those and even fewer cared. As far as the mainstream gaming audience went, Mortal Kombat was as good as dead at that point. Up until E3 2002, at least.
Next: What do you mean “Dark Alliance” is already taken? Well, come up with some other word that starts with D, then!