The Instinct Returns
Perhaps the most unexpected reveal at the Microsoft press briefing this year was Killer Instinct for the Xbox One. Not only is it the first Killer Instinct game to come out since the N64 era, it’s also one of the first console-exclusive fighting games to be released since Smash Bros. and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. E3 gave us a chance to check out this long awaited revival of a fighting-game classic. Here’s what we got to see.
First of all, the game’s basic system is nearly the same as it was back in the SNES and N64 days: It uses three buttons for punches, three for kicks, back to block, and everything else traditional fighting games have been using since Street Fighter 2. However, the game has been updated to fit modern-day fighting game conventions. The old Killer Instinct system of performing combos to your heart’s content, or at least until someone performs a combo breaker, is gone. Instead, combos are limited by a combo bar that fills beneath the hit-count. When it fills all the way, your opponent drops out and your combo is over.
Combo breakers have been retooled to use only combinations of same-strength attacks. Pressing both light-attack buttons will break doubles and openers (i.e. normals), pressing both mediums will break linkers, and pressing both heavies will break enders. In addition, you cannot mash combo breakers. Using the wrong breaker or mistiming one will lock you out from attempting again for three seconds.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the Killer Instinct combo system basically works by utilizing different classifications of moves in order to string together a powerful series of hits. Special moves can be openers, which increase the overall damage of the combo; linkers, which extend the combos length; or enders, which are powerful moves that change their properties depending on how late in the combo they’re performed. Enders also do un-scaled damage, so completing a combo without an ender is usually a bad idea. Of course, if your opponent guesses the move you are going to use, they can use the appropriate breaker and end the combo right there.
The basic idea behind combos is to keep the opponent standing as long as possible by using linkers between your normal attacks. You want to use moves that launch the opponent into the air as late in the combo as possible, as your juggle capability is limited. Even though your combo enders naturally link off whatever combo you are doing, they aren’t guaranteed to hit. Jago’s sword uppercut, for example, can totally whiff at the end of a combo by going underneath an opponent!
Each player has a Super bar with two levels that fills as you do damage and block attacks (and fills quite a bit if you manage to land a combo breaker). To perform a Super, you simply input a special motion with two attack buttons, a lot like Marvel or Skullgirls. Ultra combos or Supers with three buttons require a full Super bar to perform; also, your health needs to be in critical condition, but they do an absurd amount of damage. Supers can even be linked into each other, but there is heavy damage scaling in this game, so using one too late in a combo is not very effective. You are better off using a basic ender at the end of a combo.
Players also have an Instinct bar that fills over the course of the match. When it is full, you can press both heavies to go into Instinct mode. Much like X-Factor from Ultimate Marvel 3, going into Instinct mode immediately cancels you out of any move you just used, opening up combo opportunities. It also reduces your combo bar to 0, allowing you to greatly extend whatever combo you were currently in the middle of. Finally, it gives your character a boost to his stats that wears off after a couple seconds. While we played, the most damage in the game was done using Instinct mode. Damage in the game is otherwise quite low, even when performing 30-hit combos or more.
There weren’t many characters available to play as in the E3 demo. Jago and Saberwulf were the only characters that we could choose, and they notably felt somewhat unfinished. Jago has a ton of range on his sword strikes, perhaps even more than he did in classic Killer Instincs. Saberwulf is blindingly fast and has some really peculiar hit-boxes. He has to be played incredibly close to the opponent, but he is a charge character, so this feels incredibly awkward.
The game, as a whole, is sped up considerably. It runs at a silky smooth 60 FPS and utilizes full 3D graphics, though the game is 2D only. The game feels fast, but that’s just because combos are long. It takes several touches to kill a character and even then most combos can be broken out of if you know what you are doing. It’s nowhere near as fast as Marvel or BlazBlue, and it seems like it would appeal to gamers who like a game at around Street Fighter or post-patch Street Fighter X Tekken speeds.
Overall, Killer Instinct is a fun fighter, but the fact that it’s an Xbox exclusive will hold it back. Many professional-fighting gamers were swarming the booth, getting into the nitty-gritty of the combo system, but many left disappointed, as they did not plan to purchase an Xbox One. The game is certainly something to look forward to in the next generation of fighters, but at this point, we haven’t seen enough to tell whether or not it achieves killer-app status and becomes the reason for us to buy the Xbox One.