After years of fan demand, trademark and copyright issues, and Microsoft’s perceived lack of interest in the franchise, Rare, with the assistance of co-developer, Double Helix, has finally been authorized to bring back fan-favourite fighting game franchise, Killer Instinct!
Not seen since the release of Killer Instinct Gold on the Nintendo 64 in November of 1996, the combo-centric brawler series storms onto Xbox One as an exclusive downloadable launch title for the new Xbox Live Marketplace!… With a free-to-play model.
So much initial fan excitement at Killer Instinct’s triumphant return quickly reverted to confusion and rage when it was announced that Killer Instinct’s long-awaited third entry (despite being billed and titled as a reboot, this is indeed a sequel that continues the established canon of the first two games), would be a free-to-play fighter. The game’s initial free download only contains one arena and one playable character (Jago), on top of just a couple of play modes, hiding everything else behind a pay wall.
If you’re among the many people that have been silently hoping and praying for a new Killer Instinct game since the late 90’s, it’s easy to initially feel a bit betrayed with this design direction. It would appear at first glance that Microsoft is simply taking advantage of nostalgia and fan demand in a sole effort to line pockets, and not because they actually want Killer Instinct to make a proper comeback.
Don’t be so quick to judge though! Yes, it’s true that Killer Instinct has not yet reached its full potential, with only six fighters at launch, and lacking a Story Mode, or even an Arcade Mode at this point. Despite the paltry package that’s still very much a work-in-progress however, this is indeed the long-awaited Killer Instinct sequel that many have clamoured for since the late 90’s! The combo-based combat that defines the series has made a return, bigger and better than ever, and its handful of returning characters are just as cool as you remember them!
It’s difficult to shake the aftertaste of Killer Instinct feeling like an incomplete game at this point, but it still stands as one of Xbox One’s better exclusive launch titles, even now. When it’s finally fully realized its play package, you can bet that this is going to be an outstanding fighter offering for the Xbox faithful!
In motion, Killer Instinct looks absolutely stunning, even restricted to 720p resolution. Jago’s Endokuken blasts explode in a brilliant display of sparks. Glacius’s ice formations burst and zip along as breathtaking crystalline shards of death. Orchid’s glowing jaguar appears to shimmer and phase through existence as it makes its mark upon your hapless foe. Considering the heavily-aged, blocky and ill-defined 3D models that the original two games had to work with (hey, it was cool at the time!), Killer Instinct on Xbox One is more flashy and beautiful than any fan could have ever imagined!
Likewise, the current six fighting environments have been given a painstaking amount of detail. Jago’s ninja lair has clearly-defined finish and splinters throughout the woodwork and stone. The various foreboding contraptions of Sabrewulf’s mansion crackle and shudder as the fight rages on in front of them. The downpour of rains that hammer Chief Thunder’s mountain pound and slick the fighters as they do battle. It’s some of the most gorgeous set work that you’ve ever seen in any fighting game, guaranteed!
Again however, this is when it’s all seen in motion. Yes, the fact that Killer Instinct literally explodes with such gorgeous, unprecedented visuals, without even a hint of framerate drops at any point even online, is extremely impressive! It’s also impressive that the game looks better than many of the retail launch offerings on Xbox One at this point, even being a digital download game meant for Xbox Live Marketplace.
With that said however, if you scrutinize the visuals up close, they do disrupt the illusion considerably. Hair in particular feels blocky and matted together, the definition of certain articles of clothing is poor, and there are a few ill-defined textures in certain environments. It’s also difficult not to pine for true 1080p HD resolution when you’re enjoying such a fantastic-looking next-gen fighter as this.
Longtime fans may also find the alterations to certain character designs to be a tad suspect. Chief Thunder is unrecognizable from his retro counterpart, and his costume feels like an odd mish-mash of separate time periods that don’t go together. Likewise, the fact that Sabrewulf is almost entirely covered in flat, blocky fur makes him often look like he belongs on Xbox 360, not Xbox One. On the bright side, Glacius’s glassy, misty hide looks absolutely phenomenal, and Orchid’s contemporary redesign is quite well-done. Jago looks a little oddly-proportioned, but beyond that, he’s good enough. All-new fighter, Sadira also looks nicely menacing with her spider motif.
It’s best not to examine too closely, lest the visuals come apart a bit, but unfolding as the spectacle that it’s meant to be, Killer Instinct stands as one of the best early visual standouts on Xbox One!
The hard rockin’ remixes of familiar tunes from the arcade game should immediately delight fans, even if the soundtrack can occasionally feel a little minimalist and one-note. The music of the pause and results menus is more serene and reverent, which is the only time that the soundtrack doesn’t echo extreme 90’s baditude. In all fairness however, that’s kind of where a heavy amount of Killer Instinct’s charm always was anyhow.
Sound effects sound appropriately powerful, with special moves exhibiting well-defined impacts as every bone-crushing blow will reverberate through your TV speakers with impressive might. They’re not wholly realistic and still maintain an arcade-y cartoon flavouring, but at least characters feel as strong as they look during fights.
Of all the current characters, only Jago and Orchid speak proper English. Sabrewulf and Glacius just make animalistic noise, naturally, and both Chief Thunder and Sadira speak some sort of fictional language with subtitles. It’s disappointing that you’ll always hear the same entry and exit quote for each character when starting or ending a match too, making the characters feel like they’re sorely missing personality at this point, at least until Story Mode is added to Killer Instinct early next year.
The audio won’t impress as much as the visuals do, but it feels rooted in the right sensibilities. It’s a good mix of old and new that helps to assure players that this is indeed a genuine Killer Instinct experience, even if some of it is still rooted in the series’ 90’s roots. Fans would probably prefer that anyhow though.
Killer Instinct looks and sounds the part, but fans will likely agree that the game lives and dies by its gameplay. Fortunately, Killer Instinct is a simultaneously faithful and forward-thinking revival of the series’ combo-heavy mechanics, bringing this once-vintage fighting franchise firmly into the next console generation of the 2010’s, as if it had never left!
With just a few button presses and directional movements, even novices can string together special moves and combos to lay a fast and furious assault on their opponent! Of course, this isn’t very powerful and is easy to counter, but for casual play between friends, Killer Instinct allows you to pull off ornate, impressive combos with minimal effort, making even less skilled players fight stylishly and effectively.
Of course, for the hardcore, that’s not what Killer Instinct is about. Killer Instinct is about pitch-perfect button combinations and mind games that emphasizes trapping and pummeling your foe with a relentless flurry of attacks! As before, proper timing will allow veteran players to open with special attacks that lead into Auto Doubles, button presses that continue a combo while players prepare another special, in turn culminating with a finishing special to really lay the smackdown on an enemy! While proper finishing moves are not featured, unlike the former games of the 90’s, Killer Instinct does maintain Ultra Combo’s at least, allowing players to use a legion of well-timed button inputs to perform upwards of thirty or forty hits at once, so long as the final blows would KO their opponent.
The timing for button inputs is extremely tight, especially when consuming your Shadow Meter to use ultra-powerful Shadow moves, activated by pressing two punch or kick buttons at once at the end of a special move. Whether you’re inputting directions with the left thumbstick or the D-pad, even being slightly off will mess up your entire combo string. Practicing combos in the Practice Mode is very important to be able to pull them off in a pinch, especially if you’re squaring off with the many ludicrously skilled players on Xbox Live!
While Combo Breakers are still featured, allowing someone on the receiving end of a combo to use a well-timed button input to cancel that combo and be given a chance to retaliate, Counter Breakers add an all-new dimension of strategy to Killer Instinct. Now, players have to potentially worry about shortening their combos strategically, lest the other player use a Counter Breaker, which, as with a botched Combo Breaker combination, will leave their foe helpless and unable to stop a combo for about three seconds.
This smart new addition further enhances the psychological aspect of Killer Instinct’s combat, forcing opponents to try and predict when their combo may be reversed or interrupted, or when it may not be. It’s a great sort of interplay between combatants that you don’t see in other fighting games, and it immediately sets Killer Instinct apart as an engaging, truly next-gen fighting game experience for the genre’s hardcore players.
Another new addition to the series is Instinct Mode, which has its own meter built up as a fighter takes damage. When the meter is full, flicking the right thumbstick upwards will activate it, giving each of the six fighters a unique boost. Glacius ups his resistance to damage for example, while Orchid’s jaguar continually runs around the arena, or Chief Thunder’s dash becomes unstoppable and stronger. It’s another cool new addition that encourages smart play, as good meter management between Instinct Mode and Shadow attacks could be the decisive factor in any given match.
Even being a free-to-play fighter, Killer Instinct is extremely well-designed and remarkably rewarding to continually sink time into. Accomplishing special feats with each character earns you Killer Points, or KP, on top of any achievements you may earn, which can be spent on different arenas, costumes, player profile features, and more. It may be free-to-play, but it’s a smart and unique system that does a much better job of realizing how a free-to-play design can appeal to hardcore gamers, and not just casual mobile/social game players.
The only disadvantage to what is otherwise intricate, deep and highly enjoyable gameplay is the severe lack of play modes. Killer Instinct has almost no proper single-player modes for the Xbox One launch, only possessing Survival Mode beyond just having one-off Versus matches with the CPU, a friend, or an Xbox Live player, or just practicing in the Dojo. Survival Mode simply has you attacking an endless array of fighters until you’re taken down, good for score-chasing and earning a few achievements, but it gets old rather quickly.
Fortunately, Xbox Live matches run very smoothly without even one hiccup, and playing Versus matches with your friends can be a lot of fun. Even that lacks staying power for most however, thanks to the game’s currently paltry roster of six fighters. Each of the six characters is well-balanced, has their own unique specialties, and encourages mastery of multiple methods of fighting, granted. Despite that however, there’s only a small amount of possible battle combinations before matches start growing repetitive for most players.
Once more play modes are added and once the roster fills out with more characters however, Killer Instinct will truly stand as the next evolution of fighting games. There’s not much to the package for now, but what is here is truly exceptional, and more than worthy of the Killer Instinct name!
Killer Instinct exists as a bit of a shell at this point, but even the shell stands head-and-shoulders above the bulk of Xbox One’s launch exclusives. The series’ combat mechanics are upgraded and boosted like never before, there’s always a new set of challenges and rewards to strive for, the visual design is often stunning, and the package is only going to get better as new characters, a Story Mode and more are added to it over the course of next year.
Having only six fighters will limit the amount of fun that all but the most devout of fighting gamers and Killer Instinct fans can have at this point, but Spinal and Fulgore will round out the initial roster to an acceptable, if still dinky eight characters soon. Even then, more characters and content are promised throughout 2014, so if nothing else, Killer Instinct will be constantly motivating its following to keep coming back for more.
Thus, don’t fear the free-to-play design. Killer Instinct is truly back and better than ever. As the months go by, it will only become stronger, and all the more recommendable.
Killer Instinct is an excellently refined, gorgeous and exciting revival of the fan-favourite fighting game franchise for the new-gen Xbox One, though its current build is wanting for more fighters and play modes.