Mortal Kombat X knows what it takes to keep you engaged. Cast your mind back to the early 90s, and series creator Ed Boon's garish pretender was the grubby chip shop time waster, while Capcom's vastly superior Street Fighter II gobbled up competitive coins in nearby carpeted arcades. There's always been a gulf in class between the two series: Midway's former brand made its name through violence and vulgarity, while Ryu and crew showed a bit of restraint and class. But the PlayStation 3's excellent Mortal Kombat reboot proved that the franchise was capable of more than just tabloid headlines: it stripped back years of fighting game fiction, focused the roster, and fashioned a fighting system that toed the line between accessible and deep. This latest PlayStation 4 foray from NetherRealm Studios very much follows in its predecessor's wake – and just like its forebear, it's no flash in the pan.

The thing that's perhaps most immediately impressive about this two-dimensional ball buster is just how much there is to it; other fighting games look bare by comparison. There's the 24 character strong roster for starters, which has been buoyed by a transfusion of new blood. Ninja nemeses Scorpion and Sub-Zero take top billing, of course, but fresh-faced combatants Cassie Cage and Jacqui Briggs hook up with the likes of Takeda and Kung Jin – all of which are familiar but unique in their own kind of way. The developer's really paid extra attention to the animation this time, ensuring that each individual looks and feels distinctive – there are no lazy palette swaps here. But it's gone one step further than that: variants mean that each brawler can be further tailored to a specific play style, adding different moves – and, subsequently, combos – to your combative arsenal. Jax, for example, can add weapons to his armoury – or swap them out in favour of old fashioned grapples.

It's a lot to take in at first – but it works. And this is how the game manages to keep you hooked: you may find Raiden's thunderous techniques appealing, but, upon mastering his main set of manoeuvres, find that you prefer his teleportation attack style over his lightning trap alternative. And it doesn't end there: new modes such as the Living Towers are all about variety, taking a traditional fighter's core structure and imbuing it with a near-limitless number of modifiers. You may, for example, end up fighting in slow-motion or at super-speed – with old favourite Stryker peppering the stage with grenades. It's no doubt a tournament players' idea of hell, but Testing Your Luck against constantly rotating rule types is undeniably entertaining – and, of course, the standard settings are still very much present and correct, so it's not like you absolutely have to indulge in the slathered on silliness.

Whichever way you play, the fighting system's rock solid: a new stamina gauge limits the spamming of certain moves – such as the environment interactions returning from Injustice: Gods Among Us – but makes it a little tougher to break combos, meaning that you'll need to think a bit more carefully about whether a specific string is worth cancelling out of. At high levels of play, the key to success comes from locking your opponent in an off-the-ground juggle – but there's enough excitement at lower tiers to entertain more casual combatants as well. In fact, the simplicity of the specials – which typically involve three button presses or less – mean that anyone will be able to throw an ice blast, and even the Fatalities aren't that difficult to execute. The all-new Brutalities, then, add a deeper layer of depth, requiring you to meet very specific conditions in order to land one of the embarrassing finishers.

They're not as flashy, but they're arguably more gratifying – and they particularly come into their own during the new King of the Hill game mode in online multiplayer. This operates similarly to a winner stays on-style ladder, but it allows you to converse with your fellow fighters using an AOL-esque chat room interface, as well as post emojis. The coolest thing, however, is that, unless you drop out into training – which is possible, too – you're able to rate the winner in a Dancing with the Stars-like fashion, awarding reputation points to your future foes. This means that playing a perfect round and landing that all-important Brutality at the end carries added value – and seeing as everyone's watching, you're never going to want to be on the receiving end. It's just a shame that, several days removed from release, the title's definitely struggling in the netcode department, with some areas of the experience straight up failing to load.

Nevertheless, there's no doubt that the online suite, for as feature complete as the offline experience is, will remain the title's enduring asset. Team Battles pit you against groups of opponents, as you fight multiple rounds trying to earn points for your comrades. Meanwhile, for those not quite ready to face-off against real people, the Tower Battle option fuses the best of single player and multiplayer together, seeing you brawl against a series of computer controlled opponents, attempting to accrue as many points as you can in a 10 minute time limit. It's also worth mentioning that, whatever you play, you'll always be earning points for your chosen faction, contributing to a global meta-game which culminates in weekly events that give you and your allies an opportunity to usurp your opponents. We'll be honest: we haven't seen enough of this in action to fully get a grasp of how it works – but the mere sense that you're contributing to a greater conflict is nice.

And then, of course, there are the Koins that you'll amass which can be spent in the first-person dungeon crawler-style Krypt. This adopts a much greater guise than ever before, with creatures coming out to attack you in QTE-style battles, and even the odd puzzle sprinkled in for good measure. Movement here is awkward – it's clearly an extra, rather than a crux – but it's charming, and only let down by the fact that a post-release patch has reduced the amount of money that you'll make, perhaps nudging impatient players towards the 'Unlock All' microtransaction accessible from the menu screen. In fact, while we're not going to harp on about it, this game does have a putrid penchant for additional money making methods, incorporating 'Easy Fatality' consumables, among much more. NetherRealm may have made one smartphone game too many, as it's getting wily at extracting additional dollars from consumers' pockets.

You can ignore all of this stuff, of course, but we raised an eyebrow when we fought Baraka in the single player campaign – a character that's not currently part of the roster, but is clearly going to be incorporated for a fee further down the line. It's not like you can complain about a lack of content here: this is the biggest first edition fighting game that we've ever played – but it still leaves a sour taste. Similarly does the story mode, which is beautifully presented, but lacks any kind of cohesion. Given the already complex nature of the Mortal Kombat universe, the constant flashbacks lead to confusion over who's fighting who; it's an IQ sapping four hours of silliness, which is only really redeemed by the fact that it's largely unprecedented in the genre, and has some exceptional looking cinematics, complete with some of the most impressive cut-scene to gameplay transitions this side of The Order: 1886.

Which just about brings us to our final point: the game looks great. Some characters, like Scorpion, are more detailed than others, but when you've got a couple of lookers – D'vorah and Goro – on any one of the title's luscious backdrops, the title's simply breathtaking. The mismatch of artistic inspirations – from kung-fu movies right the way through to heavy metal record covers – won't really be to everyone's tastes, but brawling in front of a Shaolin Monastery in the driving rain is a real sight to behold. The music's arguably less memorable, but the sound effects are great, adding real weight to every punch, kick, and, of course, upper-cut. When you're playing as the bionic armed Jax, the hollow ring of metal will reverberate around the arena, while Shinnok, a sorcerer with a silly hat, ripples and rasps around the stages using dark arts. We've got to give a shout out to the entrances, too, which incorporate unique interactions between all of the characters.

Conclusion

Mortal Kombat X doesn't hit with quite as much impact as its predecessor, but it still improves upon a brutal blueprint. The story's stupid and poorly written, but it's all of the options outside of the campaign that will keep you engaged – whether you're playing with others or alone. With hundreds of modifiers, the ever-rotating Living Towers, and some truly exceptional online additions, this game really goes above and beyond. However, it doesn't ignore what's important either, employing the new variants system to keep the fighting fresh – even if you only play as one character. Misplaced microtransactions sully the experience slightly – but this is still only a few scratches short of a flawless victory.