Glory to the Combo.
During the '90s, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat dominated local coin-op arcades as the fighting games fans preferred. But for hardcore fighting fans craving something different, Killer Instinct satisfied a certain itch with its extensive combos and stunning graphics. And after both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat successfully reinvented themselves in recent years, the diehards who never forgot the feeling of dealing out a 50+-hit Ultra combo had a rightful hope to see the return of Killer Instinct.
Right in tune with nostalgia, Killer Instinct is back along with the unforgettable announcer screaming at the tops of his lungs the hit-count of your combo, but it’s packaged very differently than any other fighting game before it. Killer Instinct is not a retail release with a full roster of fighters—it’s a free-to-download, bare-bones offering of one character, Jago. Additional characters can be purchased separately or as part of a Combo Breaker Pack that unlocks all five “season one” characters: Glacius, Chief Thunder, Orchid, Sabrewulf, and newcomer Sadira. In the future, Microsoft and developer Double Helix plan to offer more characters—the next one said to be the series favorite cyborg, Fulgore.
Despite the thin offering, Killer Instinct takes the long-string combos and combat the series made a name for itself with, and perfects it. All characters have recognizable and easy-to-perform special moves, combos, and powerful shadow moves. The combo system starts with an opener, then adds hits with an auto-doubler. From there you can end the combo or chain it in a number of ways, letting you rack up combos with double-digit hit totals. It makes for an accessible system so that button mashers will look like they know what they’re doing, yet leaves much room for tweaking and mastery so that skilled vets can put on quite a spectacle. Even when an opponent catches me in a 20-hit combo, I ain’t even mad—I’m impressed.
A new Instinct Mode brings something fresh to the table and can, in the hands of the right player, lead to some serious combo totals. Getting pummeled isn’t always fun, though, so like the Killer Instinct of old, the combo-breaker is a lifeline that can get you out of trouble in a pinch. The combo-breaker also enhances the experience, because you must not only learn to use a favorite character well, but all of the characters so you can recognize the different tells between a quick, medium, or heavy attack and then choose the right button to break the combo. If you choose wrong, you’re stuck getting locked out from breaking that combo for three seconds. And three seconds can feel like eternity when you’re on the receiving end of a beatdown.
Killer Instinct also lacks a story mode, so there is little explanation to why these fighters have made a return or why a newcomer like Sadira would take on the challenge. It also further magnifies the incomplete feeling Killer Instinct leaves. A training Dojo makes up the majority of the single-player experience, since there is little point in playing the CPU when you can take on a live opponent over Xbox LIVE.
Online versus lets you fight in unranked or ranked matches and has full-featured leaderboards to check on how you stack up against your friends and the rest of the community. Even at launch with fresh servers, there was no lag or slowdown, leaving two fighters to a smooth, stutter-free match to the death.
Winning and performing certain tasks during a match can earn points that unlock more stages and additional colors and customizations for the six available characters. It’s a nice throw-in, but I don’t see serious fighters spending that much time giving their characters a silly mask when you’re simply there to kick some ass.
In its hayday, Killer Instinct had gorgeous 3D backgrounds and characters when Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Mortal Kombat II and III had 2D sprites. Today's Killer Instinct, although leading the launch of a next-gen console, will not be known for being pretty. It's good-looking enough with detailed character models duking it out in front of bland backgrounds, but it looks more like an Xbox 360 title than an Xbox One title. Graphically, it doesn't impress. Thankfully, the fighting is so good you won't be looking at everything else very long.
It’s nostalgia overload seeing these characters back in action and hearing that “C-c-c-c-c-combo breaker!!!” interrupt a beating your opponent had caught you in. But this isn’t quite the return to form fans wanted. Missing are some other favorites like Spinal, Riptor, and TJ Combo. Granted they could arrive as paid DLC in future “seasons," but for now, Killer Instinct feels incomplete. On the bright side, you can test out Killer Instinct for free and then tailor your investment moving forward. The fighting is more fluid than ever, well-balanced, and truly satisfying for fans while being accessible for newbies. If only there were more of it across more characters that had a story, Killer Instinct would be gold. But as it stands, it’s not yet living up to the potential the series has.