Killer Instinct is sparse, but has potential among the heavyweights

By Dave Cook
28 November 2013 08:20 GMT

Killer Instinct is out now on Xbox One. VG247’s Dave Cook reckons the fighter has a potentially bright future, but only if its additional content avoids breaking the bank. Final impressions inside.

Cast your mind back to when Killer Instinct was first announced. Double Helix Games and Microsoft quickly came under fire over claims that the brawler would be free-to-play, and riddled with costly microtransactions. Today, you can get the full game for £19.99. That nets you eight characters, a bundle of DLC costumes and a selection of cosmetic accessories. It’s hardly a slap in the face.

Five characters were available on Xbox One launch day, and while that encourages a lot of repetition in the online lobbies and in various offline modes, the promise of new fighters is certainly something to look forward to. At first, I saw Killer Instinct’s sparse line-up as a shortcoming. I’m a fan of Super Street Fighter 4 and Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3, two games that have dizzying rosters, but how many of those characters could I honestly say I’ve mastered. About five or six at best, and I use the term ‘master’ loosely.

So I’m fine with Killer Instinct’s scale for now. It gives me time to focus on the initial wave of combatants in practice mode, and to get a feel for how they handle under different match-ups online. The studio just has to be careful of how it prices up new challengers once the first season of content ends, and the next begins. Over-charging customers for a few characters could prove disastrous in the eyes of players, and the competitive fighting circuit Double Helix so blatantly wants to become a part of.

I don’t blame the studio for wanting to appear at EVO and embrace the eSports circuit. It’s a thriving arena, and you can really see from Killer Instinct’s opening Dojo trials that Double Helix both understands and respects the technical intricacies and mastery seen at such competitive tournaments. The tutorial uses terminology such as ‘cross-over ‘, ‘frames,’ and other jargon used to describe techniques employed at the high-end of the fighting skill tree. If you want to learn how to become spatially aware during matches, or to move effectively without jumping, then you’d do well to give these lessons a whirl.

Killer Instinct also sets itself apart from the pack by employing a simple, yet deep combo system. It all starts with ‘Openers’ – specific moves that set up your opponent for subsequent punishment. You can simply stagger a character with one of these moves, tap any attack button to add additional hits, chain the move with a ‘Linker’ attack, and repeat the process before hammering the combo home with a finisher. Fail to book-end your combo tree with a finisher and it’ll do less damage. Those concerned about infinites will be pleased to hear that combos can blow-out if they go on too long without a finisher. It’s a neat mechanic.

Seeing as the foundation of Killer Instinct’s combos is easy to grasp, it is possible to button-bash your way to a respectable move chain, but without the skill to link and finish combinations effectively, you’ll never win a bout by simply mashing your way through it. There are no Eddy Gordos here, just spammers who are easily punished for their reckless tactics. Combos can also be interrupted using Combo Breakers. To pull one off, you have to match your opponents attack strength mid-combo.

For example, hitting both medium-punch and medium-kick at the same time you’re hit by a medium attack will see you breaking your way clear of the onslaught. You can also waggle the right stick in different directions to match incoming blows. It adds a deal of tension and risk-reward to the mechanic, especially when dropping your guard to try and counter a combo string. Then there’s the option to counter out of combo-breakers, and the whole thing just gets more complex from there. I’m not good enough to dabble in that area though, much to my shame.

Playing online to rank up and earn coins for new unlockables is a straight-forward affair. You simply enter match-making and take down foes to receive rewards, rank up and sample what it’s like to play with real people. Many players are stupidly good already, and I’ve been hit by one long combo after another without little room for reply. When that happens I just sort of wiggle the right stick in the hope I can break the chain, while my health bar just saps throughout one long animation after another. You need to be properly good to pull this off though.

Typically, I’ve had some ace bouts with players. Most people go Jago, seeing as he’s free with the base edition of the game. he’s Ryu or Ken basically, with a fireball and Shoryuken attack. He’s your enter level fighter, then you’ve got the balletic combo trees of Orchid, the slow, intimidating power of Thunder and the speed and ferocity of Sabrewulf. Glacius is a big target, and I don’t know if this is a match-up thing, but people playing as him tend to give me less bother. I’m sure players are just figuring out his potential just now though.

The flow of battles is both tense and blistering. Each bout plays out like a debate, with both fighters replying to each other’s combos with even bigger and more damaging move strings. Rebuttals come in the form of combo breakers, while special moves are actually used less often by skilled players, only rearing their heads to serve as combo linkers. It shows that spamming Jago’s fireball or Orchid’s twirly kick of shin-cutting death (not it’s actual name of course) will make you an easy target. Considering most specials have cooldown of some degree, you simply open yourself to ridicule. I like the way Killer Instinct’s DNA sits.

I just feel that Killer Instinct had been given something of an unfair rap before it even had a chance to set out its stall. It seems that a lot of folk expected a heavily monetised, greedy experience that demands a lot of money to fully appreciate. I haven’t found that so far, and the game itself is actually enjoyable once you wrap your head around the way shadow moves work – think EX moves from Street Fighter 4 – and the best time to unleash your Ultra combos. Combine these with a well-practiced set of base moves and you have yourself a solid entry to the fight pack.

My only real gripe is the lack of arcade mode and the pared back character roster. This is a game that functions in a season format however, so it’s natural that more content will come down the line. If you have the £19.99 base game, that will all be doled out to you as and when it’s available. It sure beats £40 for a roster of 36 characters – most of which you’ll barely use – but then again, perhaps people do use them all? We’re all different in that regard, I suppose.

Disclosure: To assist in writing this article, Microsoft sent Dave a download code for Killer Instinct on Xbox One.

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