Spending most of my childhood in arcades I saw a lot of fighting games come and go, from various Street Fighters, to Tekken, SNK Fighters, and Mortal Kombat, but there is one fighting series that holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know why it does exactly. It could have been the stylish graphics for its time, the bass-thumping high-energy soundtrack, or the intense action. Whatever the reason Killer Instinct was my “go-to” arcade machine back then. A sequel was released a few years later that also caught my interest, but nothing lasts forever. As the years passed by arcades closed one-by-one, and my once-favourite game faded away. Nintendo released versions of Killer Instinct for the SNES and N64, but it somehow just wasn’t the same. Fast forward to present day, a reborn Killer Instinct has been released exclusively for the Xbox One. I got chills when I saw the trailer for it for the first time at E3, but will it live up to its legacy and my fond memories of the series?
The initial roster of the full game (more on this later) brings back five members of the old line-up, and adds one new face. So you can look forward to playing Sabrewulf, Jago, Thunder, Orchid and Glacius, as well as a new female fighter named Sadira, who has a thing for spiders. Two additional characters – Fulgor and Spinal – will round out the roster soon. It’s hard to say if the rest of the characters from the first two games will show up, but I hope they do, likely for a “Season Two”. It’s a weird decision to launch a game with only six playable characters and promise more to come. It’s almost like they were not completely ready for launch day.
Once you dive the game there are a few modes to play. First off is the single player mode, which is a good place to start if you are new to the franchise. Here, you have various options such as “Versus”, which lets you play against another player locally or the computer; “Survival”, where you have one life bar to work with and keep fighting opponents until your health is all gone; the “Dojo”, which is basically a training area that will show you all the basics of the game and how things work, similar to what you might fight in Capcom’s fighting games; and finally the “Practice” mode, where you can test out combos and learn your favorite characters’ moves. I have to admit I was rather surprised at not seeing a traditional “Arcade”-style ladder match as found in the original games, and other fighting games; however, the publishers have stated that this mode will be added after the remaining “Season One” characters are released early in 2014.
Moving on to online multiplayer modes, you have your standard Ranked and Exhibition matches. I spent a lot of time here once I felt confident enough to bring my skills online. I was paired up pretty consistently with people with similar skill level. There were plenty of very close matches, so I wasn’t being crushed every time and I didn’t lose interest due to my lack of skill. I did encounter some issues where I would be left waiting indefinitely, but I ended up just rebooting the system, restarting the game and headed back into multiplayer mode where the game found someone right away. I’m not sure if it was just me, an XBL issue, or there is some sort of bug. It seemed to happen regularly after switching from one Xbox profile to another. Actual gameplay during an online battle was usually very smooth, and only rarely did it lag or the occasional disconnection occur. I suspect some disconnections were from rage-quitters, and I hope Microsoft’s new “Reputation” system helps make these types of players less of an issue over time.
The actual gameplay mechanics have not changed too much since the first two installments. You still have light, medium, and heavy attacks (kicks and punches). By default, the controller’s four face buttons are the light and medium attacks, and the right shoulder button is for heavy attacks. Pressing the left bumper is the same as pressing all three punches together, and the left trigger is all three kicks, which comes in handy for performing special moves. Pressing both light kick and punch buttons will do a throw. There is one thing in Killer Instinct that we cannot forget, and it is the main star in the game: COMBOS! Oh, the glorious over-the-top-combos that will have your blood pumping when you pull off your first ULTRA COMBO… it had that effect on me. Veterans of the series will find the combo system familiar as “opener” moves string into “autos” and on into “linkers”, which you can join together with good execution and use an “ender” to finish the sequence and deal the most damage to the opponent. Ultra Combos are still pulled off once you have your opponent down to a “danger zone” area of their health bar by performing a combo of sorts then finishing it with your characters finisher move.
Of course Killer Instinct brought back the famed Combo Breakers, which adds a considerable amount of depth to the game. While your opponent is wailing you on you can stop them and negate some of the damage they’ve done by pressing the proper strength button at the same time they do. However, pressing the wrong buttons will lock you out from doing anything for a few seconds. This encourages players to become intimately familiar with each character’s attacks so they can react correctly.
Adding even more depth is something new to the series are Counter Breakers. They are like a pre-emptive strike against an attempt at a Combo Breaker. Pressing both medium kick and punch buttons during your in-progress combo does this. If your opponent attempts a Breaker during this time he will get locked-out for even longer than usual, allowing you to continue your current combo for great damage. Of course, this can be a bit of a mind-game as if they don’t attempt a counter your combo is ended.
At the bottom of the screen is a “Shadow Meter” with two blocks that gradually fill as you fight. These fuel special “Shadow Attacks” executed by using either two-kick buttons or two punch buttons when doing a special move. These are really nasty attacks and hard to block, but not impossible. They can even be used as linkers in combos for extra damage and hits. You can spend a unit of this meter while blocking for a “Shadow Counter” should you wish, which if successful can tip the scales in your favour. Shadow Attacks in a combo can be broken with what’s called a “Shadow Breaker”, which requires pressing both medium attack buttons and taking three hits; however, your opponent could react in time with a Counter-Breaker, so it’s a gamble!
Another weapon in your arsenal is the new “Instinct Meter”. It fills similarly to your Shadow Meter during the course of the match. By pressing both heavy punch and kick buttons your character will enter a unique “Instinct Mode”. Each character has different powers, such as health regeneration, extra strength, new special moves, or more defense. It is also a great way to extend your combos – including Ultra Combos at the end of the match. After executing the Ultra just activate your Instinct mode and start your combo over again. You won’t regret it – although your opponents might hate you for it. I relished doing it to people in ranked matches and listening to them swear at me as I did so, and when it happened to me I still found it exciting to see if the opponent would be able to extend their combo, and how.
As you are fighting your way through matches you earn KI points by completing various objectives (such as winning a certain number of ranked battles, blocking or executing special moves enough times, etc.). These points are used in the “KI Store” from the main menu to unlock all sorts of extras and add-ons for your character and profile. These range from icons, character costumes, artwork, audio tracks, and more. A lot of the store items are unavailable until you complete certain objectives in the game, like winning enough matches with a character. This is a bit annoying because some of the really cool stuff is going to take a lot of grinding to get; on the other hand, it’s good to have goals to shoot for.
Microsoft chose an interesting tactic for the Xbox One’s launch in releasing the game for free with limited functionality, as it is just enough content to get a taste of what the game has to offer. You basically just get Jago to play with and his one stage to play on. In the KI Store there are two other game packages. The “Combo Break” pack, which is $19.99, gives you all six playable characters and the two soon to be released. The “Ultra Edition” pack on the other hand gives you the same content as the Combo Break pack, plus extra costume accessories and the original classic Killer Instinct from the arcades (which can be run as a separate App from the Xbox One’s interface) for $39.99. If you only want to play with only one or two characters in particular, you can buy individual characters for $4.99 each. Additional stages are purchased through the Store using your KI Points. This is a new way of doing things and I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with this. I know other games out there (mainly MMOs) have taken on the “Here is the game for free and buy the content you want” stance, but I’m not sure if I like it in fighters. Maybe I’m just too old-school? Still, you have the option to unlock everything you want for a price comparable to buying a full retail version, so I can live with it.
I am sure you are wondering if the game looks next-gen and if it benefits from being on the Xbox One. In my opinion, yes it does. Everything looks sharp, detailed and absolutely beautiful. Characters move and interact with each other perfectly and naturally. It is leaps and bounds over the original, and looks fantastic. The updated character designs grew on me quickly and look great in action. Stages are hugely detailed and you can interact with them mildly. I do miss being able to knock characters off the level like in the first game, but you never know they might add that at a later date.
In the audio department Killer Instinct does not disappoint with a high energy musical score, meaty-sounding hits, and an enthusiastic announcer. From the menu music to characters stages, it all works well and I enjoyed every track, even when I was getting my butt handed to me in matches. I want to own this soundtrack. The original announcer from the first games returns and he did not disappoint me. He even had me chuckling a few times on how over-the-top he got. I did have one occasion where the music and some sound effects didn’t play as a match started, which was a rather surreal experience until it started playing about 30 seconds into the bout; however, on the whole the audio has been solid.
Fans of the Killer Instinct franchise need not worry, this is a great game to launch with the Xbox One. I wanted to give it a higher score but releasing the game with a limited roster and some minor technical issues held it back a bit. I’m also not fully “on-board” with their pricing model, but they do have two good packages to choose from that unlocks all the characters. Don’t get me wrong; if you enjoy fighting games this is definitely something to check out. I find myself coming back to the game as it has that “just one more game!” hook in me and I have to say that I’m looking forward to future updates to make the this good game even better!