Killer Instinct review for Xbox One

Platform: Xbox One
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Double Helix Games
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-2
Online: Yes

The thought of another Killer Instinct game had become a bit of a fantasy. The original game was released in 1994 and the sequel in 1996. The popularity of arcades died down, no new Killer Instinct. Newer, more powerful consoles were released, no new Killer Instinct. The resurgence of fighting games blew up again after the launch of Street Fighter IV, no new Killer Instinct. The legend of the game was almost stronger than the game itself, always rumored to be in development but never a reality. Imagine the surprise when Killer Instinct was in fact announced as launch title for Xbox One…and it is awesome.

I have fond memories of the original games. My friends and I would pull them out and play every few years. Unfortunately, the memories are better than the actual gameplay, and the sessions were short lived. Double Helix Games has done what fans had hoped for, truly upgraded the experience, not just the visuals. This was immediately noticeable from the first demonstration I saw on a fighting game tournament stream. The anticipation has been high ever since.

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First I want to talk about the distribution, which I think is quite genius. Currently, KI is only available in digital format on the Xbox store. The game, with Jago as the single playable character is available for free. 100% of the gameplay and all game modes, free. You can call it a substantial demo or a free to play game model, either would be appropriate, but it’s an awesome way to get the game in the hands of every one with an Xbox One at no cost. From there, you can choose to pay for additional characters individually or buy the whole lot for $20. $20 gets you the six characters that are currently developed, as well as two more that are on the way. There is a $40 option as well that unlocks all the in-game content (costumes/accessories) as well as delivers the original Killer Instinct arcade game.

As far as in-game content, I’d consider it a little sparse. There is hardly anything available to the single player gamer. You can play an endless supply of AI in survival mode or just one off player vs. AI matches. There is an insanely in-depth training mode called Dojo, which I’ll cover in more detail, and there is the requisite exhibition and ranked online matches. For $20, I’ve already gotten my money’s worth. If the next round of DLC was $20 and included 8 more characters and some expanded single player content, like a MvC3 mission mode or Mortal Kombat story mode, I’d be thrilled.

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The Dojo mode, which I previously mentioned, starts off like a tutorial, and then hours later turned out to be the single best training mode I’ve ever seen in a fighting game. I thought Skullgirls was good, but the 32 lessons in KI’s Dojo mode is hands down the best. Not only does it teach you the basics and gameplay systems of Killer Instinct, it teaches you solid fighting game mechanics. It shows you specific Jago moves that are easily identifiable for combo breaks. It teaches you places where manual combos would be more beneficial than auto doubles. It goes in depth into Jago’s possible combo setups, advanced juggles, and maximizing corner damage. I literally spent hours on the 32 lessons and have even gone back for refreshers. I only wish that the lessons that were Jago specific had correlating lessons for each of the other characters.

I guess we’ve gone this long without talking about how KI actually plays, but I can sum that up in one word, brilliantly. If you’ve played either of the previous games, the learning curve won’t be quite as tough since the basics of openers, auto doubles, linkers, and finishers are still mostly the same. If you haven’t played and are coming from any other fighting game series, it’ll take a bit to wrap your mind around the mechanics. What I think is so fantastic is all of the new mechanics that have been added to bring the game up to tournament competition standards.

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New additions to the game include counter breakers, lock outs, shadow breakers, shadow counters, and a finite combo gauge, all of which answer nagging complaints from the old games and anticipate solutions to the new fighting game meta. In Killer Instinct, there is an answer to everything. The player is never without options because the game didn’t allow it, only if the player wasn’t skilled enough to use them. Stuck in a long combo? Combo break. Constantly getting combo broken? Counter break.

Defending players can’t mash combo breakers hoping to land one. If you pick the wrong break strength (red icon) or have the correct breaker but time it poorly (orange icon), you get locked out from attempting it again for a few seconds. As the offensive player that is your green light to extend the combo as long as possible and rack up the damage. An offensive player may find their combos getting broken quite often by a skilled player, and unfinished combos regenerate a lot potential health damage to the defending player. They have options though, keeping the combos shorter, attempting counter breaks (which again locks out the opposing player), or attempting, the more difficult but unbreakable, manually linked combos.

Ranked play online has been a blast. This is some of the best, if not the best, netcode I’ve ever experienced. I haven’t had a moment of lag in any matches I’ve played. This seems to mirror the comments I’ve been reading in the community as well. There is so much depth to each character, and matches play out in very different ways due to the number of tools at your disposal. I honestly haven’t felt limited by the character set yet. People online have played characters in a completely different style than myself in some cases, and the different styles seem viable.

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Free to play games may still carry some stigma earned by the low budget quality of their ancestors, but you can’t just assume low quality anymore. Killer Instinct has extremely high production values in visual fidelity and sound. The visuals alone set a new bar for fighting games. The muscles bulk up and ripple when Saberwulf goes into Instinct Mode. Ice lances from Glacius shatter and the particles fall and bounce around on the ground. When you land an Ultra combo, each stage changes, like a giant spider appearing or a hurricane blowing in. All this at a solid 60fps. The sound is equally impressive. On top of being a huge fan of the soundtrack, the stage music changes dynamically during the fight. The guitar track will fade out as the players move away from each other and then really crank up during a combo. During a throw break the music scratches and rewinds a second before playing again. And during ultras, each stage has a unique beat and sound effect for every character.

Killer Instinct is deserving of all the praise it receives. I’ve already watched the top fighting game players pick it up (Justin Wong, Alex Valle, Maximillian, etc.). I enjoy watching top level play on a stream almost as much as playing it myself. For free, it’s a no brainer download. As a fighting game fan, for $20, I’m ecstatic. Sure I’d like to see another round of characters, dojo mode for everyone, and an enhanced single player mode. As strictly a fighting game, the long wait was worth it. Killer Instinct is everything I’d hoped for and more.

Grade: A-

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