(Originally published on MyIGN on April 28th, 2014)
Okay, here it is, first sentence I think Killer Instinct is great. Boom. Done. Peace out. K thanks bye. So long, and thanks for all the fish.
When I bought the Xbox One back in November last year, I was initially unaware of Killer Instinct. Sure, yeah I had of course come across references to the iconic ‘C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!’ in the general pop-culture of games media, and a rough awareness that the original game was considered a classic fighting game of the early 90s. Other than that though, I couldn’t tell you much more about it. Now, however, only a mere 4/5 months after the game has launched, I’ve become hooked – addicted to combos and ultras, complete with a manic look in my eyes, Killer Instinct is slowly taking over my life. I’ve got Killer Instinct classic (an emulation of the original arcade game included with Ultra Combo pack on Xbox One), I trawl through various Killer Instinct wikis for character bios and info, I’ve racked up a ridiculous amount of played hours so far (just under 53 hours total I’ll have you know), cleared all the achievements, played over 3150 total matches and, to top it off, I even own one of the fucking (ace, actually) Madkatz TE 2 fightsticks! What the fuck actually happened to me!?
Now, I believe it’s time for a quick detour back in time for a bit (waves hands in front of reader in a Wayne’s World style to trigger the necessary flashback sequence). Personally, I’ve never really been into fighting games before. I found that the barrier for entry was just too high; having to learn all the combos, then needing the time and practice to learn said combos to a sufficient degree just seemed like such a long and arduous endeavour. Why would I do that, when I could be spending that time killing demons in Doom, or dashing away from boulders and nitro-glycerine obsessed psychotic kangaroos in Crash Bandicoot (I’m easily amused, as you can see). More importantly, not having someone to play and practice against meant that the early classic fighting games like Street Fighter 2 didn’t interest me and passed me by. Not having a second player at hand to force into matches with me meant that you’d end up just button-mashing against computer-controlled opponents, which would, more often than not, absolutely destroy you. I think part of the fun of playing a fighting game is the player to player tension during the match; if you’re both approximately at the same level of skill at the game, then the fun comes from punishing your friends errors, and in turn you dread the bloody retribution your friend takes when you inevitably mess up later on. Playing against a CPU character is like trying to fight a mindreading Bruce Lee (as scary as that sounds) – they’re punishing, their skill greatly outpaces yours, they know exactly what you’re likely to do before you do it and due to their brutal difficulty there is usually not much room for a noob like me to actually learn the game’s mechanics or get invested in it. The human element of error is exactly what makes fighting games so ridiculously fun; lacking this vital ingredient of friendly (and willing) participation during my early gaming days, I passed over fighting games largely until the Gamecube era, when I got to experience Super Smash Bros. Melee – the second game in the fantastic Smash Bros. series released in 2001. I did have some great times on both Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Gamecube, and later Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii, but these games are often considered more party games rather than fighting games by the fighting game community due to their simplistic controls and combos. Being the only gamer in my household, I never really consistently played multiplayer games with friends until the release of Halo 2 in 2004. I did briefly enjoy a phase of getting the rest of my family hooked on playing Timesplitters 2 and Timesplitters 3 with me, with a sense of very real and present bloodthirsty competition between us, but sadly no other games have grabbed them to the same extent. Plus, with the games and franchises I pick, I’ve always been very much a single player focused gamer anyway, where the plot, atmosphere, in-game universe and lore are all carefully tailored to spending long extended sessions with the game in a solitary manner.
I only ever really recall owning one ‘proper’ fighting game aside from the Smash Bros. games and before Killer Instinct, and that was Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, again for the Nintendo Gamecube back in 2003. Looking back, I can’t think why I actually bought the game, as I was still not really interested in fighting games. The only other major exposure to fighting games I can recall happened during a school trip to London, where upon stopping at some lonely squalid service station on the journey there, me and a group of friends discovered an arcade cabinet for one of the Tekken games (think it was either Tekken 2 or 3, not sure). Being more of a FPS/action game guy, I was much more enamoured with the House Of The Dead 3 arcade machine nearby which had some fantastic plastic shotguns that instantly caught my eye. As a result of being distracted by said fantastic plastic shotguns, I got destroyed at Tekken. Having said that though, I did have a particularly good streak (I have absolutely no knowledge of the Tekken series other than you can play as a kangaroo with boxing gloves; a fact that I think is well worth the price of admission alone, so bearing that in mind the following information could well be just plain wrong and the product of my faulty brain; in which case, I deeply apologise and I look forward to a good ol’ lambasting in the comments) playing as a character called ‘Superogre’, I think, which could fly into the top corner and just funnel an endless cone of flames down onto the opponent below. I won a few games using ungentlemanly and unsporting tactics like this, before ultimately being walloped to death by some other character and their pesky anti-air moves. Grrrrr!
Anyway, to drag us kicking and screaming out of the fusty cobweb-covered recesses of my mind and back into the present, I was barely aware of the newly announced Killer Instinct for Xbox One until I had already pre-ordered the system for Dead Rising 3. I didn’t get chance to catch the 21st May Xbox One reveal event last year as it went live, but a friend later sent me a very funny clip of youtuber Maximilian Dood; a fighting games expert and all-round old-school Killer Instinct fan, reacting to the announcement of the Killer Instinct reveal at E3 last year (see below…no it’s okay I’ll wait…awkwardly checks phone whilst reader watches clip).
Ah! Excellent, you’re back! Right then, onwards. Although I didn’t respond quite so emotionally and hilariously to the Killer Instinct teaser trailer as Maximilian Dood did, the vibe of that trailer planted the early seeds of excitement deep into the pulpy wrinkled flesh of my brain. The ridiculous announcer voice, the cheesy characters (with their even cheesier names) and the powerful thudding combat animations all set to a thundering yet clichéd early 90s heavy metal soundtrack definitely had me hooked. When Nov 22nd rolled around, and I finally got my desperately greedy little fingers on my Xbox One, the first thing I did was get Killer Instinct installing. I was actually wanting to get stuck into Dead Rising 3 first, being a lover of all things zombie related, but my friend (the same one who sent me the funny Maximilian clip) who was also getting an Xbox bought the console for Battlefield 4. The only game we had in common was Killer Instinct, so I got the game downloading and proceeded to launch it. Neither of us knew what we were doing or what the combos were, so it was just a hilarious mash of buttons from both sides, but it was an awful lot of fun. It was a start, a rough, clumsy and awkward start, but a start nonetheless, for my love and fascination with Double Helix’s Killer Instinct.
I think that the single-most crucial aspect of Killer Instinct‘s design is the fact that it is a free to play title (cue astonished gasps of horror and outrage from reader). “Heresy!” I hear the readers cry, “What filthy slander does this vagabond blogger attempt to peddle on us? Seize him brothers and sisters, and let us cut out this peddlar’s rotting, slanderous tongue from the root as an example to all those who see any aspect of the free to play framework as potentially good!” Fuck! “N-no no wait, hang on, wait a second guys, before you go all “Un Forestreto!” Resident evil 4 style on me” I cry, backing up into a corner as the angry mob marches closer with pitchforks and burning torches, “Let me explain!” (the angry mob waits expectantly with weapons drawn). Phew!
Making Killer Instinct a free to play game gives every player a similar good incentive to download it, play it and get good at it. This was a large part of the reason I jumped in like a ridiculously keen, yet still very much insane ODST trooper on day one. If Killer Instinct was another fully priced game available on the Xbox marketplace, then I likely wouldn’t have bought it and not paid it much further attention. I imagine that this must have been the thinking of the guys at Double Helix/Microsoft; by making the game free to play, it encourages in the naïve but interested noobs like me, as well as the pros who would have likely paid for the game anyway. The free base version of the game allows access to all the modes, both offline and online, so there are no dreaded paywalls that you find on many free to play games and apps. The only part of the game that is limited to the free players is the character roster. Essentially, the only features you pay for are the characters you want to use, and you can buy them all in bulk for a bit of a discount (with some optional extras if wanted), or get each one as and when you want. However, the free character is regularly rotated on a weekly basis, so you can get a feel of each character’s particular nuances before parting with a penny of your cash if you’re patient enough to wait and try them all; my favourite so far is the scantily-clad but lethal spider assassin Sadira. Knowing everyone was likely to pick up the game and hopefully keep the online community going for some time, I put money down for the Ultra Edition add-on. This gave me access to 6 characters available at launch, plus 2 more which would be released later as dlc (Spinal came out on the 31st of January, and Fulgore came out a bit later on the 9th April), in addition to alternate character outfits, accessories and the original arcade port of Killer Instinct.
One of the main criticisms of the staggered release of the game and its content is the relatively small character roster in comparison to other fighting games. When compared to other fighting games of it’s ilk, such as Street Fighter, Tekken, Mortal Kombat or even to the original Killer Instinct, the character roster is extremely small – a mere 8 different characters. However, the fact that Killer Instinct‘s small roster is small but meticulously designed also works wonders for the beginner. I was naturally drawn to (Count Von) Sabrewulf first, due to the simple input commands for his special moves – nearly all his combos consist of left-right-any punch/kick, or down-up-any punch/kick. I was primarily drawn to Sabrewulf first however as he’s a giant bright blue slavering feral werewolf. The beauty of his design is that he is simultaneously both a great place for a beginner to start, and also an absolutely brutal razor-sharp whirlwind of claws, teeth and relentless rushdown punishment in the hands of a pro. The old adage of ‘A few moments to learn, a lifetime to master’ have never been more true.
The advantage of having a small roster means that you can quickly work your way through all the cast and find out what characters and playstyles suit you the best, without getting particularly mired down in learning combos. The combo system in Killer Instinct features simplified inputs, with most special moves and command normals requiring combinations of quarter-circle forward/backward plus light/medium/heavy punch/kick. The advantage of this is that you can take the inputs you’ve learned from using one character and (with the exception of a few moves here and there) then take them across to another character and learn their moveset which uses largely the same inputs. This makes it incredibly easy to learn how to use multiple characters that have their own unique traits and playstyles rather quickly. In turn, this also makes multiplayer matches so much fun, as most players will have a couple of characters they are good with, and part of the tactics involve guessing which character they might use from their customisable player card, and deploying whichever character you are comfortable with that will have an advantage.
I started out with Sabrewulf, the main rushdown character, and was doing pretty well with him, but up against Glacius and Jago players spamming the screen with projectile attacks and using keep away tactics, I found it hard to get in close and unleash my feral wolf fury upon them. I then tried out Glacius, a large icy alien, who is the best defensive/keep away character in the game, who can hit enemies far across the screen and push them back with ice projectiles and a powerful throw move. Unsurprisingly I then found that I’d struggle with the rushdown characters like Sabrewulf once they got in too close. Next I moved onto Sadira, who’s the quick air specialist character (soon to become my favourite), who can perform amazing mid-air juggles, web combos and viciously fast full-screen spidery launches to dominate against characters that have weaker anti-air measures, but can be backed into a corner with few defensive options if played too recklessly. I went through the rest of the cast like this, trying out what they were good at and which characters they would dominate, and which characters would in turn dominate them. The small roster is meticulously balanced, and it lets you quickly get to grips with and understand which match-ups your character will do well against, and which match-ups your character will struggle with.
I would recommend to anyone new to the game to try out whatever free character is available when you start (Jago was available for an extensively long period for the free players at launch, and is ideally the best place to start for a beginner learning how to play as he is possibly the best all-rounder in the roster), before putting down money for the others. You can buy each character individually if you prefer, and you get a rebate against the others if you decide to buy more, I believe, although it is still relatively cheap to buy the whole set (£20/$20) outright. Because I bought the full roster at launch, I often forget that the game is free to play; it is that well implemented. There are no other systems in place acting as pay to win schemes; there are no boosts or buffs you can apply to your character using micro-transactions, and everything in the game has to be unlocked using KI points, which you can only earn from playing matches and beating opponents. The only thing you are paying for is characters, and some additional costume options if you wish, though you can choose to buy just the characters. I do think that this is one of the best implemented free to play systems I’ve seen, as once you’ve downloaded the game and started to play (or paid a relatively small fee to get all the characters), you can put your wallet away and starting button-mashing to your heart’s content.
Speaking of characters, Mick Gordon’s fantastic soundtrack work is really impressive. The composer manages to update the character’s themes, capturing their original essence of what each character is about whilst simultaneously building them off the original themes; when you leave the characters to idle on a stage, the music will eventually play the corresponding stage character’s original theme, and it’s amazing to hear how creatively the composer has managed to build up original new ideas and melodies which thread in to the original musical foundation seamlessly. Without having had to play the early Killer Instinct games, the musical themes gave me an instant impression of what each character is about; the tortured and straining string quartet that plays in Sabrewulf’s castle give an insight into the werewolf’s tragic struggle to regain his humanity, the pumping energetic techno beats on Orchid’s rebel base stage get across her feisty and aggressive persona, and the brutal thrash metal guitar chugging away on Fulgore’s Ultratech Industries stage brutally bludgeons the listener over the head with the machine’s singular purpose to destroy all competition. It’s a quick and very effective way to perform characterisation for those new to the series and it gets you motivated to fight for your character’s cause.
The stages themselves are good-looking, intricate, detailed and well-designed to each character’s nature – though the music often determined which ones I would like best, as they are all functionally the same. I believe there were some plans to include stage-specific enders at some point, but it’s unclear whether that will happen now that Double Helix have been bought by Amazon, presumably to make games for their newly announced Amazon Fire TV games console/tv streaming box.
The absolute single-most important thing about Killer Instinct without a doubt is its fantastic dojo training mode. This dojo mode is made up of 32 individual lessons on Killer Instinct techniques, which begin from the very basic starting point of how to control your character’s movement on the screen, blocking and initiating combos, right up to the advanced higher tier skills such as combo breaking, counter breaking and the final lesson involves pulling off some seriously skilled finger-blisteringly fast combos! The dojo and it’s complimentary practice mode are so well designed that the game not only teaches you how to play Killer Instinct well, but also teaches you the fundamentals of other fighting games as well. Ironically, the original Killer Instinct featured possibly one of the worst training modes I’ve ever come across – the ridiculously hard computer AI you’re practising against is constantly attacking you with advanced combos and manoeuvres whilst you are trying to learn the bare essentials – making progress nigh on impossible and frustrating. Needless to say, the latest Killer Instinct does a fantastic job of transforming an absolute beginner into a competent competitor.
This is also one of the first games I’ve played in a long while where the achievement grind is not only very enjoyable, but also massively improved my skill at the game as an added bonus. Normally, achievement grinding is something to do in order to 100% the game, usually performing some arbitrary task an arbitrary number of times etc. Killer Instinct’s achievement list is made up entirely of achievements that you would accumulate naturally throughout playing the game, and this is a refreshing and enjoyable change. Each character has an achievement to get 20 ranked wins; an achievement which as a fledgling newcomer to fighting games, let alone new to the often intimidating and fiercely competitive nature of fighting game online matchmaking, initially had me thinking that these ranked match achievements were just going to be too hard to achieve and out of my ability range. However, my cold black achievement hunting heart couldn’t ignore the seductive allure of nearly 100 gamerscore going to waste, so, filled with nervous anticipation, I picked up my controller and took an intrepid step into the ring.
My first nervous steps into the ranked matches of KI were, as you may imagine, pretty punishing. Usually the first thoughts that would go through my mind upon finding and entering a match were “Oh god, what was I thinking?” as my character would get absolutely pummelled by those several ranks above me, as well as by those on my beginner level (‘button masher’ is the game’s lowest rank, and it was very much an accurate description of my play style at this point). However, I persevered; my losses still burning fresh in my mind like molten embers, I went back to the dojo and started to practice. Cue a film montage sequence: I practised blocking, attacking, opening and ending combos, performing cross-ups, ultras, shadow moves and shadow counters – all set to a driving 80s soundtrack and interspersed with footage of a giant blue werewolf in sweat pants lifting weights, running on a treadmill and showing slow gradual improvements throughout the sequence, with my obligatory stern montage trainer looking on with a rueful smile on his face at the small signs of progress (80s montage sequence, soundtrack and trainer may not have actually occurred…outside of my mind at least).
After my intense training regimen, I went straight back to ranked matches and got absolutely thrashed again. However I kept going – and eventually, after what seemed like an eternity of humiliating losses, I had my first glorious win on my (now bloodied, broken and bruised) paw-I mean hands. It felt like a momentous occasion, and it spurred me on to completing many more ranked matches. What I found really interesting was the addictive nature of the gameplay. Once I understood what I was doing, I gained a massive appreciation for other player’s techniques and skills; rather than swearing loudly and hammering the controls in anger, I admired their graceful controlled movements around my character’s ungainly lurching, and observed how they applied pressure, parried my attacks and launched into brutal and punishing combos to riposte. Likewise, whenever I absolutely whiffed a move, or an attack just didn’t connect, I would wince and know I had messed up, awaiting the other player to rush in and punish my foolish mistake, rather than claiming some kind of injustice had happened or that it was the game’s fault not mine. My new-found knowledge of how to play meant that I finally enjoyed the genre and understood what makes fighting games so appealing; it’s essentially, to paraphrase Charlie Brooker, a lightning fast game of mental chess, albeit whilst punching your opponent repeatedly in the face. Winning a game in Killer Instinct is often reliant on winning the game mentally, or getting into your opponent’s head, as cheesy and cliched as that sounds. The best players will be able to read their opponents attacks and movements and know how to deal with whatever gets thrown at them. Stuck in an opponent’s string of combos? An expert player will read the strength of an attack and break out of it using the equivalent strength of one of the series’ famous ‘C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!’ moves. Your opponent consistently reads your own combos correctly and breaks out of them? A successfully deployed ‘Counter Breaker’ move will lock out your opponent for what seems like an eternity of four whole seconds from performing a combo breaker, allowing you to continue to deal out punishment. The gameplay is designed to be very balanced, so that there is always a solution or different tactic to try and throw your opponent off your plans; each match is an electrifying battle of speed, strategy and intense high risk and reward mind games. The speed required to input combos appears to be a bit more forgiving compared to the other fighting games, but not too forgiving that it becomes ridiculous. Overall, gameplay feels fantastic; all the characters have tight, responsive controls once you’re familiar with them. I’ve never once felt like I was fighting the controls, and due to the game’s great balancing, my mistakes were nearly always me hitting the wrong buttons or using the wrong inputs for special moves rather than lag or connection issues. Lag can happen when playing online, but the game slows down the movement animations to compensate. This can lead to some frustrating slow motion matrix-style fights when it does occur, but as both players are slowed down the matches are still fair and still require lightning fast thinking and reaction speeds to win.
I’ve since completed the achievements for nearly every character; Fulgore’s recent release means there’s a few more to sweep up, but now I’m more confident with the game’s mechanics and my own skills, it doesn’t feel like the massive mountain of difficulty to climb like it did when I first starting playing. By going after these achievements though, I can now utilise every character to an adequate level. I know exactly what each character’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how to use this knowledge effectively. I don’t mean to sound boastful here; I usually get destroyed in matches as I’m still very much in the equivalent of the baby pool when it comes to skill and reaction times compared to most players online – but I know what I’m supposed to do to win with each character at least, which makes the game so much fun and gives it a “Just one more match” sort of mentality. It’s again testament to how well structured and designed the dojo and training modes are. Having these features in place, and a strong focus on those without specialist knowledge really encourages new players and leads them onto greater successes online.
There was a period just after Spinal, the 1st dlc character’s release on 31st of January, where the introduction of a ‘jail’ system lead to some exceptionally buggy experiences playing matches online. This system was implemented in order to curb the tendency for players to rage-quit out of matches they were losing – the quitting player would, if she/he quit too many matches, get locked out of the online multiplayer modes for a set period of time (usually 24 hours for the first offence), effectively ‘jailing’ them from the legit players. However, in the early days of this new patch, it turned out that ragequitters would get penalised as well as the player who didn’t quit, resulting in both parties being jailed. I can say this from bitter experience; I often found myself jailed in the early days and weeks after the patch when the cowardly stinking little fuckwits of opponents I was matched against would rage-quit whilst I was on the cusp of beating them, the swines! This would leave me, the poor victim (quietly sobbing salty tears to myself) unable to play in online matches for up to 48 hours afterwards! Luckily, they’ve fixed this issue with subsequent patches, and now matchmaking generally works fast, fairly and smoothly, although you can sometimes still spend quite a few minutes waiting to be connected. The ranked system is generally fair, meaning that you are usually placed in fights with those a couple of levels higher/lower than you are, and generally not massively out of your depth – so there’s absolutely no excuse for rage-qutting! You little whipper-snappers! Arrrrrrrgh!!!
The arcade mode, released with the launch of Fulgore, the 2nd dlc character on April 9th, functions almost identically to survival mode in effect; using your fighter of choice, you play through 7 matches against the other characters, and depending on specific factors you get one of 3 endings for your character. It feels a bit lacklustre and barebones at this point; there was a feeling that due to the fact that the Fulgore/arcade mode patch was supposed to launch in March, the decision to put the new content back a couple of weeks to April 9th lead to online speculation from fans and developers alike that this was going to be a significant addition to the game’s good, but overall paltry selection of modes. The patch did add the ability to form online lobbies, which is really useful and a long-overdue feature for those players wanting to play their own tournaments amongst each other, but otherwise, arcade mode just feels like something that should really have been in the game from the very beginning.
However, its redeeming feature is the hidden boss fight with Shadow Jago. This boss fight can only be accessed by achieving all 3 endings with your character of choice, and then playing through the arcade mode once more on medium difficulty, ultra-ing your second to last opponent – oh, and I almost forgot, without losing a single match. This sounds alright, but in reality is incredibly hard – which is actually a good thing! The extreme difficulty of this mode gives players an incentive to keep going back to arcade mode and have another go at getting to the boss. The AI is fiendishly hard; each match the AI opponent sees which combos and combo breakers you favour, and then uses them against you, perfectly blocking, countering and if you begin to button-mash in panic just once, then you get absolutely punished. And that’s just the normal opponents – Shadow Jago himself is incredibly hard to beat. Bringing some new moves to the table, including a slide attack that can pass through your character and some variations on the standard endokuken fireballs standard Jago uses, Shadow Jago is a fiendishly hard last boss that takes some seriously skilled playing to thrash. He even has the only ‘ultimate’ finisher in the game so far, a flashy cutscene alternative to an ultra which he deploys on his unfortunate victims. For those lucky few who can dethrone the evil shadow demon, the prize is ‘Shadow Tiger’s Lair’ a final stage unlock to use in the other game modes. This prestigious stage is a shadowy blue-tinged evil version of the default Tiger’s Lair stage, which you can select as your battleground of choice in online matches, giving you another way of broadcasting your skill to subsequent players you meet.
Overall, Killer Instinct, now complete with all the season 1 content (bar a few additional alternate costumes, which will be incoming shortly) is still a very simple game. That’s a good thing; it puts fun and gameplay over all else, which has produced a fantastic looking and feeling fighting game, albeit a very stripped down one in terms of features. The lack of depth to the arcade mode, and the small character roster are valid concerns when looking at the general worth of Killer Instinct compared to other fighting games of its ilk. However, Killer Instinct has masterfully presented itself as an ideal starting point for those new to the fighting game genre, whilst also appealing to fighting game pros; I am certain that the viewing figures for this year’s EVO championship will have a significant increase due to all these new players who are now interested in both Killer Instinct and the genre itself thanks to Double Helix’s hard work. The team did a really good job to get the game ready for the day one of the Xbox One’s launch; from what I’ve gleaned from interviews and other sources I’ve read, Microsoft were wanting Killer Instinct to be part of the Xbox One launch line up (a wise decision), so Double Helix did really well to get the game to the state it was in at launch. Despite this, the staggered release of the season one content meant that the game felt unfinished and broken in the early days, and each subsequent patch released seemed to introduce more bugs and glitches into the game than they actually solved! Thankfully, the game runs pretty smoothly now with minimal problems, so new players to Killer Instinct will get to experience a more polished and structurally sound game than those who jumped in at launch.
I personally hope Killer Instinct has a long and bright future into season 2 and beyond. Or, perhaps Killer Instinct will more likely reside on most Xbox One owner’s hard drives, played a lot at launch but maybe not so much in the months and years ahead in this console’s lifespan, like a great dormant beast, waiting… until a player gets repeatedly killed by a tea-bagging noob in a later FPS game. The enraged player then fires up Killer Instinct, and throws down the gauntlet to the camper; an instant challenge to the petulant swine for a couple of rounds of gentlemanly fisticuffs, a true test of one-on-one, mano-a-mano combat prowess; a fight to the death of somebody’s pride, one triumphant winner, and a battered and bloodied loser. Time to FIGHT ON!