The elation that followed Microsoft’s E3 announcement of Killer Instinct was dampened somewhat when the game’s developer was revealed. Franchise creator Rare and other keen applicants had been passed over in favour of Double Helix Games, whose last output was the critically-mauled Battleship. The relatively unknown studio had earned its shot though, cutting a demo in just six weeks that won Microsoft executives over. That Rare is a shadow of its former self no doubt helped things along. That Double Helix is comprised of massive Killer Instinct fans who have the first game’s arcade machine in their office probably sealed the deal.
For those born too late to know the pleasures of Killer Instinct, it's a one-on-one fighter whose 1994 arcade appearance put it squarely in the middle of that decade’s competitive fighter boom. It distinguished itself with weird characters, a double energy bar rather than a rounds system, Mortal Kombat-style finishers, a unique soundtrack, and of course, that announcer. However, its combo system was the biggest draw, and that has been expanded in its latest incarnation.
Killer Instinct’s traditional six-button layout allows players to pull off long, creative combos, and very generally speaking these are broken up into specific phases that must follow one another. During some of these phases an opponent can break or counter the combo, and this requires quick detection of the coming attack and quicker reflexes to perform the correct action. That’s because combo breakers must not only be timed correctly, but also match an attack’s strength – a light breaker is used to foil a light attack, for instance. Attempting a break with the wrong strength will see the defender “locked-out” and unable to counter again for three face-pummelling seconds. Stringing together a combo is easy thanks to the game’s “auto” system, which allows specific segments of a combo to be activated by a single button press. However, these are easier to break or counter than their manual counterparts.
Fortunately, even those not skilled at breaking combos cannot be annihilated by one endless combo. Instead, the game restricts attackers to a certain level of damage per combo, forcing them to execute an “ender” before this cap, or lose much of a combo’s built-up power. This limit is represented by a Combo Meter, just one of the several improvements Killer Instinct makes on the prior games in the series. Double Helix has also added Counter Breakers into the mix, which are basically bluffs to trick those looking to break a combo. The game’s infamous and largely-automated Ultra Combo will immediately end a fight though, but it can only be executed if an opponent is on less than 15 per cent health.
Add to this combo system some variants on attacks, breakers, and counters powered by a Shadow Meter, and you have the makings of a properly complicated rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock match. But there’s more! A new Instinct Meter grants each character special properties that can swing the momentum of a match dramatically. Jago's Instinct allows for him to regenerate up to almost of third of his health, and it also reduces the time he is stunned, for example. Activating Instinct also resets the combo meter, allowing massive combos to be performed without topping out the combo meter.
Fortunately all of this and more is explained with playable examples by the best tutorial system in the fighting game genre. It’s 32 lessons long, and many of the skills learned there are transferable to other fighting titles, which is brilliant. Competitive fighters are often obtuse and jumping into one is daunting at the best of times, so a system like this one is long overdue.
Those already familiar with the franchise will see many positive changes. You can no longer juggle opponents in the corner of the screen, moves like Jago’s spin kick have been reined in, battles are now frame-based, and it’s much harder to counter an opener. The sparks and rain effects are awesome too, although some costumes and hairstyles are a bit stiff. Sadira is the sole new addition to the fighter roster, and her style is built more around counter-attacks, lures, and air juggles, which makes her nicely distinct next to the aggressive styles of the other five combatants. No-one seems overpowered at this stage, though only thousands of hours of stats will determine that for sure.
The netcode for Killer Instinct is absolutely top-notch – or perhaps it’s Microsoft's dedicated servers for every online game. Either way, we have yet to encounter any lag at all. However, the omission of lobbies in a game like this is just crazy. Until they are implemented, the only options for online players are single ranked or exhibition matches against friends or a complete random. It’s nice that a rank offset is included, but we had to cast the net wide to find opponents, which had us on the end of some fairly spectacular and one-sided beatdowns. That the vast majority of our opponents were Jago or Sabrewulf is hardly the fault of Double Helix though, Jago is the free demo character and Sabrewulf is very new-player friendly.
That said, a dearth of character choices probably doesn’t help. Currently, NZ$25 will fetch you all eight season one characters, but both Spinal and Fulgore won’t be available until March. The alternative is buying your favourites for NZ$7.50 apiece, or waiting for the free character to rotate to someone else. Six characters may be a slim offering in this day and age, but the price is right at least.
Another complaint is the lack of support for legacy controllers on the Xbox One. It only affects a miniscule proportion of the console’s users, but it's hundreds of dollars for a new setup and a crappy way for companies to shift new fight sticks. At least it’s possible to pull an Xbox One controller apart and wire that into an old stick setup.
As it stands, Killer Instinct is a slice of an excellent fighting game. A delicious, moreish slice, but a slice nonetheless. It’s pretty clear Microsoft was simply hell-bent on getting the title included in the Xbox One's launch line-up, so it's actually surprising how polished the game is. The oversight of original game creator Ken Lobb has obviously paid dividends, and the game should find a place in tournaments worldwide. The only real problems here are the limited selection of characters and modes, and all going well those things will be rectified by March.
That probably makes next year the time for the curious to buy, but those happy sharpening their skills against other players using a small roster should dip in immediately.