It's been nearly 20 years ago to the day that Killer Instinct first landed in U.S. arcades. At the time, Rare's fighting game seemed the perfect blend between the gruesomeness of Mortal Kombat and the technical finesse of Street Fighter.
Of course, to many it was just a button masher with 100-hit combos (and a "death by boob flash" fatality), but the best players understood the substance beneath the flash and rarely let their combo meter run that high. The series' revival has long been anticipated, though many are skeptical of developer Double Helix Games, whose notorious track record isn't cause for much hope. The team has worked hard to turn that perception around, and their efforts have largely paid off in the form of one of the Xbox One's premiere launch titles.
The game is about as fast-paced and energetic as you can hope from a modern-day fighter -- the announcer alone will get you fired up. While many consider Killer Instinct a lightweight game, the truth is that every character has about as many moves as a typical Street Fighter brawler. Each fighter has an average of four special moves apiece, as well as a minimum of 18 normal attacks between the six attack buttons. While the neutral game is similar to Street Fighter IV, with players moving back and forth until one sees an opening, the real game begins once you land a hit. KI stands apart from other fighters for its combo system, which is arguably its most elaborate feature.
A Killer Instinct combo begins with an Opener, after which you can perform a series of Linkers, Auto-Doubles, and Manuals until you decide to use an Ender to complete the combo. At any point in time, the other player can use one of the series' trademark Combo Breakers to stop your combo and reset the situation. This is where the mind games really begin thanks to the addition of something called a Counter Breaker.
If you go on the offensive and can predict when your combo victim is planning to use a Combo Breaker, you can retort with a Counter Breaker to shut down their attempt and continue your combo. Nail the timing and your victim can't attempt another Combo Breaker for four seconds. Even without a Counter Breaker, a three-second lockout occurs if the defensive player inputs the wrong Combo Breaker or tries to break at the wrong time.
All of this adds up to a back-and-forth game in which both players try frantically to anticipate the opponent's next move -- though thankfully it's not as complex as it sounds. A friend of mine who hasn't played fighting games with any kind of seriousness in nearly a decade picked up Killer Instinct with me over the weekend. In less than an hour, he was performing 20-hit combos and utilizing Counter Breakers like a champ -- a testimony to KI's accessibility.
Hardcore tournament player needn't worry about the depth of the game, though. In addition to the fake-out potential of the combo system, you can use Manuals (attacks that replace Auto-Doubles and require very precise timing) to make it very difficult for an opponent to utilize a Combo Breaker. In addition, you have meter management between the Shadow meter and Instinct meter (think of these like the Super Combo and Ultra Combo meters in Street Fighter IV), and all the frame data you can shake an arcade stick at.
It's worth noting that Killer Instinct is an evolving game. What you'll get at launch and the months that follow is considered "season one," which consists of six characters, three modes, and online play via exhibition or ranked matches. In January, the next character (Spinal) will be released, with Fulgore and a Story mode following around March. All of this costs around $20, and if you picked up the day-one edition Xbox Live subscription card, you'll also get access to Shadow Jago. You can actually play all of the launch game modes with Jago for free; the $20 gets you the other characters and Story mode, or you can put down $5 for a single character, a la carte. Double Helix would ultimately like to see 30 characters, though these expansions will depend on the initial game's success.
Even without a Story mode, the launch version of Killer Instinct has quite a bit to offer. The Dojo mode exhaustively teaches seasoned fighting game fans and newcomers alike the ins and outs of Killer Instinct as well as general fighting game strategies. A total of 32 lessons teaches you everything from how to neutral jump over a fireball to reading and understanding frame data. It's easily one of the most comprehensive training experiences of any fighting game to date.
Speaking of training, the Practice mode is also top notch. All of the basics you'd expect can be found here. If you're a competitive fighting game fan, you can record the dummy performing any action you wish, turn on frame data and hit boxes, and really break down each and every character.
After logging nearly 100 games, I've found the game's online performance to be silky smooth. I experienced a couple of instances in which the opposing character seemed to teleport around the screen, which is how lag is presented in the "rollback" architecture of the netcode. However, even these glitches were few and far between. The only serious issues I had with the online play is that there's no way to tell where your opponent is located (not even a ping listing), and there's no lobby system. Whether you're playing exhibition matches or ranked matches, it's always one-on-one. There's no way to watch another match aside from the Game DVR built into the Xbox One; KI automatically records your last 200 matches, online or local.
I also find the ranking system odd; the main categories are ranked by number of wins or win streak. There doesn't seem to be any kind of "TrueSkill"-style ranking system, or anything based on your rank and win percentage. There are a variety of ranks with unique names such as "Button Masher" or "Free," and you'll drop a rank if you lose too many times, but it doesn't seem difficult to climb to the top of the leaderboards if you play enough to simply get the most wins.
Another minor gripe is that while there's a ton of stuff to unlock between character skins and accessories, online titles, and even music from the original Killer Cuts CD, the unlock system was clearly designed with longevity in mind. Everything is purchased via Killer Points (KP), but it's not enough just having the proper amount of KP to buy something. For instance, to buy the fourth color for Sabrewulf you need 3,000 KP, but you can't buy it until you unlock it by earning at least 150 fight titles with the character (obtained by completing various tasks). After three days of constant playing, I've only unlocked 418 titles between all six characters, and only 109 for Sabrewulf despite him being our most-used character. It seems a bit tedious requiring two objectives to be met in order to unlock most of the content. Thankfully, you'll eventually unlock everything if you just play the game with every character, but if you're looking to get that fourth skin with any kind of quickness, it's not happening.
Minor nitpicks aside, Killer Instinct is an amazing game for the $20 price tag. The character count leaves a little to be desired, but for the price you can't complain too much. If you opt for the $40 version, you'll get the original arcade classic as well, but no online play for it at the moment. If the game had 24 characters, a Story mode, and was priced at $60, it would be a system seller for the Xbox One. Even as what is essentially an Xbox One Live Arcade game, Killer Instinct is one of the best titles for the Xbox One, and will only be improving as more characters are added. Do yourself a favor and at least try out the free version for an hour. It could be the best decision you make at launch.