If you’ve been looking for a solid 2D fighter, then Killer Instinct should be at the top of your list. And I’m not talking about the black cartridge from Super Nintendo, either.
Were you paying attention to E3 2013 when Microsoft announced that they would be unveiling a “classic Rare franchise”? Do you remember the public outcry that occurred when that game was announced as Killer Instinct and it would not only be an Xbox One exclusive, but would contain a free-to-play model and be created by Double Helix? You know, the creators of such poorly received titles as Silent Hill: Homecoming and Front Mission Evolved? Me too! But you know what my favorite sound of all was? The sound of silence from all of the e-critics as Killer Instinct released in November 2013 and ended up being a pretty incredible game. Surprise!
If you’re a fan of the 2D fighting genre, I ask that you put aside your hesitations and give Killer Instinct a fair chance. If you own an Xbox One, there is absolutely no reason NOT to try Killer Instinct as you have access to every game mode for free.. if you don’t mind only having one character to pick from. You see, Double Helix and Microsoft have actually managed to pull off quite an amazing task by successfully creating a solid free-to-play model; giving access to one character that is rotated over time (Jago at launch, but Sabrewulf as of the time of this review posting) and full access to everything else the game has to offer.
When I explain the last part of that sentence, you may groan with disappointment or you might even care less, but the bottom line is that Killer Instinct offers a very bare-bones, cut-and-dry variety of typical fighter modes. With a story mode not slated for launch until March 2014, the offline experience is limited to Survival, Versus, Practice and Dojo, with the latter being one of the most comprehensive training modes in the history of the genre.
Using Jago, Dojo mode will teach you the basics of Killer Instinct; starting with simple movement, blocking and throw mechanics before evolving in to a finger-blistering session of linking some pretty insane combos. I’d honestly applaud Double Helix until my sore thumbs turned to bloody stumps because I was just that happy with how in-depth dojo mode got and how much better of a player I was afterwards.
In the 2 hours I spent living in the dojo, I was effectively explained the importance of hitboxes and frame work, learned all of the new game mechanics like Shadow Counters, Shadow Moves, Counter Breakers, and using the new Instinct Mode to cancel out of special moves, extend basic combos and how it effects every single fighter differently. It’s in-depth, yet easy to follow, and I loved that as someone who has taken a break from fighters since Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3. It’s especially effective, considering Killer Instinct has been absent from the fighting scene for well over a decade. You can take a look at dojo mode in the video below.
Online modes are currently limited to ranked matches and exhibitions, so don’t expect any sort of spectator mode or tournament ladders. Still, even with an overall lack of modes, Killer Instinct looks fantastic and runs at a rock solid 60 FPS on and offline. I never experienced lag or disconnects on my end, but you’ll be happy to know that disconnects do award a victory to the other party. Remember how terrible the online community was for Mortal Kombat, where the loser could fake a disconnect and avoid having a loss on their record? Not anymore!
Killer Instinct is a very combo-focused game, and those combo mechanics are well executed and easy to learn, but have a ton of depth to them. Certain moves are considered “openers”, which allow a follow-up attack called “autos”. An auto is just a single button press that will follow the opener and execute two additional hits. You can move from an opener to an auto in to a “linker”, which is essentially a special ability that can be followed by another auto attack, thus extending it to a 4-part, multi-hit combo. Combos are finished off by “enders”, which is basically the use of any special ability using the heavy punch or heavy kick buttons instead of the light or medium variant.
So with that in mind, the basic form of a combo is an opener, auto, linker, auto and ender. Sounds simple enough, right? Each hit from your combo fills a meter next to your hit counter, showing just how far you can take a combo before it’s cut off. If a combo is cut off, you aren’t able to use an ender and jip yourself out of dealing some next-level destruction.
The beauty of the Killer Instinct combo system is that you can switch autos with “manuals”, which are precisely timed single-hit attacks that not only keep your combos going, but keep your opponent guessing and avoiding the infamous Combo Breaker. You can also pop in to Instinct Mode to reset your hit counter and cause all sorts of nasty damage, like juggles that can tear off 80% of your opponents health or executing a double Ultra Combo to add insult to injury. It’s basically a non-stop game of cat and mouse, and I absolutely love it (even if I end up being the mouse sometimes).
Instinct Mode is an interesting addition to Killer Instinct, as it reacts differently for each character. Using Instinct Mode with Jago will heal him each time he deals damage, but using it on Glacius adds a layer of ice to his body to absorb damage from incoming attacks. It’s not always a self-preservation ability either, as Orchid can use Instinct Mode to summon her jaguar to attack her opponent, or Thunder can use his to dash through projectiles and advance toward his opponent from further distances. They all play in to the strengths of each character and further define their unique play styles.
Graphically, Killer Instinct can be a mixed bag at times, but still looks fluid and delicious. Character models look great for the most part, and each stage is unique in its own way, but it definitely looks like an early next-gen game. It can also get a bit tedious viewing the same six stages over and over again, since there are only 6 fighters currently available.
One cool touch, though, is how they all react differently during Ultra Combo finishers. For instance, executing an Ultra Combo on Thunder’s stage will cause a massive rainstorm as you rake in the hits, while a giant spider in Sadira’s stage (shown below) will slowly make its way to the fighting floor. I also really dig how they incorporated the background music in to the Ultra Combos, causing it to stutter and interact with every single hit. It’s a stylish touch, and combined with the background interactivity makes every Ultra Combo fun to watch, even when you’re on the receiving end.
If you haven’t tried Killer Instinct yet, you’re probably turned off by the small roster. Hell, the original Killer Instinct at least had 10 characters to choose from, right? Don’t be. Please, please, please, don’t be. Each character is finely tuned and their balance is tweaked by Double Helix through ongoing patches, so everyone has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. While Sabrewulf may offer ridiculously fast attacks and unpredictable combos, Thunder is slow as molasses and is crippled when kept at range. Get him up close though, and it’s lights out. Glacius may maneuver slowly, but his abilities and combos let him control his opponent and keep them exactly where he wants them on the battlefield. I would honestly rather have 6 finely tuned fighters where each one feels completely different, than a large roster where 60% of them are going to get lost in the mix. Marvel vs Capcom 3 is the perfect example of this unnecessary overflow as so many of their fighters played exactly the same, and you won’t get this feeling with Killer Instinct.
If you give Killer Instinct a shot and end up liking what you see, you have a few options in how you can pay for it. Like I mentioned earlier, you’ll always have access to one fighter for free, and that fighter is rotated at random by Double Helix. If you want to buy any of the other 5 characters, they’re $5.00 US each, or you can buy a season pass for $20.00 US. The season pass comes with all 6 characters that are currently available (Thunder, Jago, Orchid, Sabrewulf, Glacius and newcomer Sadira), as well as Spinal and Fulgore when they release later this year. You can also drop $40.00 US on the Ultra Edition, which comes with all of the characters, additional costumes and a perfectly emulated version of the arcade release of the original Killer Instinct, complete with it’s own set of achievements.
So overall, the free-to-play model that Double Helix and Microsoft have come up with is pretty solid, and $20.00 is a fair price for 6 well-balanced characters and 2 more down the line. Granted you only have access to the most basic of game modes (story mode will release around March 2014), but there are tons of fight titles to earn, a currency that can be spent in the KI Store to buy costumes, taunts, color swaps and fight card icons or backgrounds, so there is definitely a ton of replay value here. Most people buy a fighting game to beat up their friends anyway, but you’re still free to play against CPU opponents offline via single versus matches or the non-stop survival mode, and these are available to you for free.
In the end, Killer Instinct worked out surprisingly well. Its core mechanics are rock solid, it runs smooth as silk, and has 6 well-defined, unique, balanced characters, all available at a steal of a price for any fighting game fan. It may be limited by the overall lack of variety in game modes, but you’re definitely getting more than $20 worth of content if you opt for the season pass like I did. I’ve been playing fighting games since Capcom and SNK ruled the arcades, and I am thoroughly impressed with how well Killer Instinct turned out. So much so that I can’t wait to see what Double Helix does with the Strider reboot later this year.