For the cost of absolutely nothing, fans could not demand more from Killer Instinct. As a free download, players receive a full-fledged survival mode, the genre’s finest tutorials, multiplayer access, and Jago, the well-rounded, all-purpose fighter (just call him Ryu). Minus seven additional characters (two coming soon), which runs you twenty bucks, developer Double Helix locks none of the game’s features behind a paywall – they lay out Killer Instinct’s merits and shortcomings for every Xbox One adopter to see. Good news, then: the good largely outweighs the bad.
At least from a novice’s standpoint, I should say. Although I love most fighters, I am no savant. Fortunately, Killer Instinct assists newcomers in becoming proficient players, not just serviceable. Quick, name the advantages of a heavy attack over a medium one! Did you say greater damage? What about longer reach? Undoubtedly Killer Instinct’s standout feature, the Dojo (training mode) teaches fighting theory. Instead of giving people a bottomless list of commands to perform, Double Helix educates the masses on the basics of attacking, all the way up to top-tier tactics like maximizing frame traps or purposely resetting combos.
Where else can you get shirtless ninjas fighting werewolves?
Few other games provide a sense of achievement when hours of practice finally come to fruition. Did you know Jago’s Tiger Fury (Shoryuken) can be executed while knocked down? Did you know you can roll the analog stick forward to throw fireballs instead of entering the forward quarter-circle motions separately? Such common knowledge has eluded me since Mortal Kombat II because of painfully inadequate tutorials. Whatever your speed, Double Helix distills fighting slang into easy English.
Still, some moves might remain too difficult to grasp even for experienced players, evident in the franchise's notorious C-C-C-Combo Breakers. Once an opponent starts laying on the hurt, a breaker interrupts that combo and negates any potential damage. However, you must guess the strength of a challenger’s attacks (light, medium, or heavy) and counter at the right moment, or else the game prevents you from executing a breaker for a couple seconds. I could never consistently read rivals' moves despite completing every training lesson.
But Killer Instinct excels at visual feedback, so players learn from their mistakes even while losing. For example, an orange exclamation mark above your fighter’s head lets you know you mistimed your breaker; a red exclamation mark means you guessed a breaker’s strength wrong.
Glacius is dominant at long range.
The rest of the presentation also packs punch. The announcer looses a shout after every combo, guitar whammy bars besiege menus, and the particle effects make this one hell of a pretty fighter. Drops of rain splatter off the characters, and fireballs dissipate in a shockwave of sparks. Not much about Killer Instinct appears definitively next-gen (it does need some anti-aliasing in its stages), but you should get your eyes checked if anything strikes you as ugly – especially when paired alongside Killer Instinct’s original claymation abominations. You feel the impact of the punches, the oomph of the kicks. Few titles deliver a primal rush rush like Killer Instinct once the soundtrack syncs to a character’s finisher and the announcer screams "ULTRAAAA!"
Baby steps, though. Players can practice their moves against increasingly difficult AI in the game’s survival mode, but it makes a poor substitute for online competitions. The multiplayer might replace anyone’s go-to fighter ... once they locate a match. I waited minutes before joining another lobby; sometimes I waited seconds. The netcode, however, is solid. I had no problems performing ninja kicks or uppercuts during third-world dial-up matches.
Exquisite matchmaking notwithstanding, Killer Instinct is not without nitpicks. The developers will release an arcade mode after they add Fulgore and Spinal to the roster, though they have no plans for a story whatsoever. Also, six current fighters is paltry by downloadable standards. While I have trouble mastering one, let alone five more, the limited character count leads to many mirror matches. Double Helix plans to rotate the free fighter League of Legends-style, except players cannot use Orchid, Glacius, Thunder, whomever – to practice with or against – without buying them first.
Players can buy apparel for their fighters with in-game credits, or purchase alternate skins with real money.
At least every character controls the same – if you perfect Jago, you can learn Sabrewulf. Killer Instinct uses a six-button configuration comprised of openers, linkers, and enders. A character’s special moves, like Jago’s Wind Kick and Laser Sword, initiate combos (openers). A single button press then keeps combo strings going, called an auto-double. Follow up with a linker (another special move) and you can tack on another auto-double.
The real kicker is the ender. As you pummel opponents, you chip away at their health. However, part of their health bar also turns white. Killer Instinct calls this potential damage. If you pull your ender off (Jago’s Endokuken and Tiger Fury, for example) at the conclusion of a combo, you’ll deal that potential damage. If you screw up an ender, or your opponents lands a breaker, they gain that damage back.
Killer Instinct is all about mind games. You could attempt a 50-hit combo, but the longer the chain, the more chances a rival has to counter it. Killer Instinct is a tough title to rank objectively, though the fact that I have not put it down after repeated losses is a strong indication of its staying power. Fans may bemoan a lack of features here and there, like spectator lobbies, but when was the last time a demo gave you access to all the game's ingredients? No, scratch that. Killer Instinct is no ordinary demo; it is the Xbox One's definitive launch game.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Double Helix Games
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Number of Players: 1-2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed)