Here we have it, no less than seventeen long years since the last Killer Instinct game graced consoles everywhere, the series is back to usher in a new console generation and is promoted as one of Xbox One’s great exclusives. In actuality what is currently available is a half finished product with some amazing underlying fighting mechanics that could blossom into an amazing game in the future.
Let’s start with the first question on everyone’s mind with all the next gen games; how good does it look? Overall the presentation of the game is great from the unique character models to the excellent stages they fight on. The game look fantastic when two high level players are battling it out, trading combos back and forth with particle effects and beautiful shadow moves filling the screen with the game never dropping below a silky smooth 60fps. The sound design arguably outdoes the graphics though. Each stage has a unique score that fits the mood of the level perfectly and the music is dynamic, reacting to the on screen action. Add to this the iconic, eccentric announcer and what you have is a package that is presented superbly and a great showpiece for the new platform.
Killer Instinct is equally outstanding when it comes down to the mechanics of its brawling. It is one of the most fast paced fighting games available due to its unique rhythmic back and forth action of long combo after long combo. Anyone familiar with previous entries in the series will be familiar with the terms ‘opener, auto, linker and ender’ but in case you are new here is a run down of a standard Killer Instinct combo; a special move opener that starts the combo is followed by a double auto by pressing any regular attack button, then comes another special move to act as a linker, followed by another auto and then finished with a combo ender by executing a heavy special attack.
Where things get interesting though is when breakers come into play. At any point during a combo, the player on the receiving end can attempt to break the combo by matching the input of the attacking player and effectively guessing whether the attacking player is going to try for a light, medium or heavy special attack. There is a risk attached to this though, attempt a breaker at the wrong time or guess the incorrect input the player becomes ‘locked out’, meaning they will be unable to attempt any further breakers from three seconds and will take extra damage in the meantime. On top of this, a high level player can second guess the defender and counter the combo breaker, leading to a counter breaker and the defender being locked out for four seconds. Moreover, each character can also use shadow moves (ex versions of the specials) and each also has a unique instinct mode and flashy ultra combo finisher.
Speaking of the characters, there are only six to choose from at launch, which is a very thin line up when compared with the other big hitters such as Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Street Fighter 4 and the rest. Thankfully though, the roster is varied enough so that every fighting game archetype is covered, meaning most players should find someone to fall in love with. Sabrewulf is the rushdown character, Glacius is the zoner, Thunder the grappler, Sadira the aerial and finally Jago and Orchid round of the roster acting as the ‘well-rounded’ characters. As touched upon above, each character also has a unique Instinct mode, which acts as a comeback mechanic of sorts for fighters on the losing end. Fear not however, this is not as game changing as either Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s or Street Fighter x Tekken’s comebacks, it is simply an extra buff that can help in some scenarios. Each needs to be carefully timed and executed to make the most of it.
If all of this seems a tad overwhelming, then fear not. Killer Instinct includes one of the most comprehensive tutorial modes of any fighting game. The Dojo mode will not only take you through the ins-and-outs of its game mechanics but also lessons that can be applied to fighting games as a whole and areas that other games have never ventured such as how to utilise frame data and how to punish whiffs and unsafe attacks. Each lesson, although sometimes frustrating, is in there for a reason and will turn a nobody into an online worthy challenger given enough dedication. It is one of the games best features and the only downside to this mode at the moment is all the lessons use Jago as the player character, meaning you will be a whizz with him and know all of his combos, but still need to practice with the others if you want to be a varied player.
Technically, Killer Instinct is a free-to-play title with the whole game available from the Xbox store at no charge with access to one rotating character (currently Jago). However for players who would rather spend some cash there are other additional options:
Individual Characters £3.99- Like a specific character but don’t want the whole roster? Then this is your go to option.
The Combo Breaker Pack £15.99- The gives you access to all six characters from launch and the two remaining season one DLC characters (Spinal and Fulgore) as they become available.
The Ultra Edition Pack £31.99- All of the above, plus all costumes and accessories for all characters and access to Killer Instinct Classic, the original game, as a download.
The upside of this model is that everyone can access the game for free before they decide if they want to commit to a full purchase. For players just starting out or who just want to show off their shiny new console I would recommend starting with the free edition. For fighting game enthusiasts I would encourage you to try the combo breaker edition. Personally I struggle to justify double the price for a few costumes (which can be earned in game anyway) and a glorified Xbox Live Arcade Game and I would only recommend the Ultra Edition for serious fans of the series. However this business model is not without its flaws.
The main of these is that the game as a whole feels like an unfinished product in its current state. The underlying fighting mechanics are excellent but everything else just feels a bit barebones at the moment. The limited roster has already been touched upon and unfortunately this carries over into the available modes. For offline players, other than the aforementioned Dojo mode, there is only a free practice mode, one on one battles against the CPU or a local player or a survival mode where you battle infinite opponents until you either lose or get bored. Developer Double Helix has promised a story/arcade mode will be added alongside the release of the last season one character Fulgore (expected about March 2014). However the fear is that by that point most casual players will have given up on the title.
Online things do not fare much better with only the usual ranked and player matches available alongside a basic leaderboard system to show where you stand. However, when you head online it is an absolute joy to play based on the fact that Killer Instinct has some of the best netcode in any fighting game. Having played over 50 matches online I never encountered any lag or slowdown and it leads to a much fairer game than some of it rivals. I still lose a lot, but at least now I know I lost because the other player was better than me, not because I got screwed over by my connection.
Overall then, Killer Instinct is a bit of a mixed bag at the moment. The game is an absolute blast to play, particularly online, and its robust Dojo mode shows you everything you need to know to make the most of the game. However, as it stands currently, there is not much of a game to make the most of. It has the potential to blossom into a truly amazing game given that Double Helix give it the care and attention it deserves, but as I write this today what is one offer is limited at best. Once the story mode and whatever else they choose to add get released then it may be a much more substantial package but the worry is by that point that most players will have given up. Do Killer Instinct a favour, don’t give up on it. It won’t give up on you.