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Hands-On with Killer Instinct: Ultra Comboing into the Next Generation

Ever since its announcement at E3 earlier this summer, the new Killer Instinct for the Xbox One has been getting lots of attention not just by hardcore fans that have waited years for its return, but also the fighting game community with appearances at Evolution 2013 and San Diego Comic-Con. I had the chance to play the latest build of the game, which is the same as what was at those shows last month, at one of my local arcades in Southern California for a couple of hours. The nice folks of Double Helix Games, the developers of this reboot, brought four setups with Tournament Edition FightSticks provided by Mad Catz to the arcade and there was also a stream showcasing the current build, which you can see at the end of my preview. After playing numerous matches for a couple of hours, I can see why this game will be great for casual fighting game fans, but for the tournament level crowd, that is still up in the air.

The build that I played last week had three playable characters: Jago, Sabrewulf, and Glacius along with three selectable stages. New to this build compared to the first one at E3 was the addition of counter breakers, which I’ll talk about more later. Killer Instinct is a six button fighting game, similar to Street Fighter, and command inputs are similar to that series and even other fighting games. Each of the three characters had a distinct fighting style, which is something I like so far. Jago for example is your balanced type of fighter with hadouken and dragon punch motions for his special moves. He is also the easiest to learn so far and the character I played the most. Sabrewulf is a more in your face type of fighter with numerous ways to bridge the gap to opponents and the ability to side switch. Glacius is more of a zoning type of character, which in other words, prefers fighting for a distance. This is a little different for those that used him back in the original and Killer Instinct 2.

The core gameplay of this new Killer Instinct remains intact from the original games from long, damaging combos, combo breaking if you guess right, the characters having two health bars, and more. There are some additions to that are pretty much standards to today’s fighting games. A meter at the bottom of the gameplay screen that is used for shadow moves, this game’s version of Street Fighter’s EX moves. Another bar of meter is by the characters’ health for Instinct Mode. Each character has their own trait like Injustice: Gods Among Us as their Instinct Mode. Jago can heal back his health for a short period of time, Sabrewulf deals more damage on hit and block, and Glacius has five hits of armor. Another meter appears when doing combos (hence the image above) as there is a limit to a number of hits, but the limit can increase if your opponents guessed wrong in combo breaking. Once your opponent is in danger, you can use ultra combos, another staple of the series, to finish them off and their command inputs are easier than I thought to cater more to the casual crowd. No equivalent of fatalities or humiliations have been announced yet for this new iteration, but Double Helix is still open for those to come back as the game is still not done.

All of this seems like Killer Instinct is just another 2D fighting game that is fun to play and it surely is so far. I was able to pick up and grasp the mechanics in just minutes, so casual players can pick it up easily, press buttons on a pad or an arcade stick and make magic happen with combos. From a higher, tournament level perspective, however, this game is a whole different deal. You have to mix up your attacks during combos to prevent your combo being broken or making your opponents guess wrong, and ability to break combos on reaction remembering your opposing character’s moves. Add shadow counters and counter breakers, a counter to your opponent’s combo breaker, and there’s some more high level mechanics to learn if you want to play Killer Instinct more seriously. Plus if you want to show off and have Instinct Mode saved while doing an ultra combo, you can activate that cancelling your current ultra combo to keep it going and even perform another one. Double Helix Games are also paying attention to player feedback from bringing builds to numerous events the past couple of months such as the over usage of combo breakers and they did promise there will be changes to those in the near future.

Graphically, Killer Instinct looks great as a launch title for the Xbox One. Keep in mind the build was running on a dev kit and not final hardware, so things can get better. The hit sparks and visual effects definitely separate this game apart from the current crop of fighting games too. The game runs beautifully at 60 frames per second and the stages can be destructive from the background, not from your own doing. Another staple of the series is the announcer and he’s back mentioning every combo in action. There is a difference with the announcing of combos as if one has an actual ender, he’ll say “Blaster Combo” for example. If the combo was not finished because the player messing up, he’ll just say “Blaster.” The Rare touch of dynamic music during gameplay is also here as they have some involvement with the development of this reboot. For instance, the beats will change up according to the stage whenever someone performs an ultra combo synchronizing with the hits, which is pretty cool to hear.

The Double Helix guys are ready for another reveal of a new character later this month and it has been teased already at Evo last month. Even though only three characters have been officially revealed so far, expect your favorites from the original games to return for this reboot that is a Xbox One launch title. This game is actually only available as a digital download, but a free to play version will be released that features only Jago playable, but players can buy more to get the package they want without spending the full 60 dollars.

From my time with the game so far, Killer Instinct definitely has what it takes to be a fun fighting game for both casual and hardcore fighting game fans. Only time will tell if the fighting game community will enjoy this new iteration for a long, extended amount of time as some of the current mechanics and the fact it is a Xbox One exclusive does worry players and others involved in that scene. We’ll also see if there will be a story mode of sorts in the final game as we only seen the core fighting. For now, however, I’m ready for next generation ultra combos and looks like the fans that waited over a decade for the series to come back are too.


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