Platform: Xbox One
Developer: Double Helix
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Killer Instinct isn't what you'd typically call "free to play," and that's bloody marvellous.
See, us hacks were quick to mislabel Xbox One's debut fighting game after its E3 showing, but we eventually learned that things were slightly more nuanced than just "F2P." Killer Instinct is free to download and offers a single character, acting like a demo that lets us learn the ropes and get to grips with the mechanics, before deciding exactly how much we'd ideally like to spend. Fancy unlocking everything? That's fine. Want to choose your favourite fighters and save your pennies? No problem. In a launch lineup where microtransactions have wormed their way into the unlikeliest of places, this is a much-needed beacon of consumer choice.
Never mind all that, though, because I'm also delighted to report that the oft-inconsistent Double Helix have outdone themselves and delivered... shock horror... an undeniably good game. Their first, in fact, at least since MX vs ATV. Killer Instinct is ferocious, tactical and deep - and as brutal as you'd expect from Rare's beloved fighter. Though unfortunately it's not quite finished yet.
The action is fast, impeccably responsive and satisfyingly visceral, running at a rock-solid 60FPS. Killer Instinct's cast have been brought into the 21st century in eyecatching 2.5D style, offering pleasingly chunky character models packed with detail and personality, both in terms of their character designs and attack animations.
Each combatant fulfils a familiar fighting game role. Everyone's free character Jago provides a well-rounded selection of punches, kicks and fireballs (much like Street Fighter's Ryu), a jack of all trades and a good starting point that anyone with genre experience will quickly master. Should you decide to buy new characters individually or as part of the £16.99 'Combo Breaker' eightfold bundle, you'll find someone to suit your own favoured playstyle.
Glacius manifests gorgeous ranged ice attacks to punish opponents from across the stage, which Chief Thunder blocks and dodges to close into hard-hitting throw range. Orchid erupts into frenzied blurs of baton swipes and lashing kicks, while newcomer Sadira makes full use of her unique double-jump by staying airborne and flummoxing opponents with dense combos. And naturally Sabrewulf also makes a welcome return, complete with his ferocious rush combos and trademark howl taunt.
Whoever you choose, Killer Instinct kills off any remaining doubts you might have about the Xbox One controller's D-Pad. The retooled plastic cross is absolutely fantastic for fighting games, not just in comparison to the original Xbox 360 travesty, but to other console controllers in general. Each directional press or quarter-rotation rewards you with satisfying clicky feedback, meaning that you'll rarely want to reach for the thumbstick. The three variations of punches and kicks are mapped well across the face buttons, triggers and bumpers. On the graphical side of things, gratuitous particle effects, boisterous animations and handsome (if somewhat generic) arena backdrops make for an attractive visual experience, despite being upscaled from 720p resolution.
Killer Instinct's combo system is fantastic, and adds a refreshing unique spin to the bombasic brawling. Without wanting to get bogged down in unnecessary detail -- it's free to try, so you can just get involved yourself -- most attacks act as 'combo openers' that deal a little direct damage, but also demarkate the opponent's HP bar with 'potential damage' that will only be sustained if you manage to finish the combo. With a finisher. Naturally. Combos can be extended by adding Auto Doubles and Combo Linkers (read: other attacks), all while your opponent tries to catch you off balance or break your combo with a... well... say it with me. C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!
It's a smart and rewarding system that doesn't quite match the likes of Street Fighter IV in terms of long-term nuance (let alone Skullgirls), but provides a neat balance between accessibility and depth. Once you get online, facing down skilled opponents requires more than a little brainpower as well as fast fingers, since you'll need to act and react perfectly to secure a window to pull off an Ultra Finisher for maximum damage, and continually vary up your tactics.
This is a review, not an FAQ, so thankfully an exhaustive playable tutorial is on hand to explain both the basics and the minutiae. 32 separate Dojo exercises handle each individual gameplay mechanic in turn, preparing you for your eventual online debut. During which your arse will be well and truly handed to you. Well, that's how it went down for me, anyway, since I overconfidently launched straight into a ranked battle without finishing all of the dojo levels. Apt punishment for my hubris.
You'll almost certainly square off against Jago on your first online outing, however, which brings us to Killer Instinct's major weakness at launch: content. Since all free players will only have Jago at their disposal, you'll run into his laser sword every other match at the very least, leading to unavoidable tedium setting in after a while.
The paucity of content runs deeper than that, however. Series favourites like Spinal and Fulgore still aren't available to buy, an annoying oversight. Seriously: Spinal and Fulgore aren't in the game at launch. Spinal. And Fulgore. Really?!
Worse, the arcade and story modes are shockingly absent at launch, instead being witheld until the roster is complete. While FGC veterans won't particularly mind this omission, I personally found that Killer Instinct feels a little thin, since arcade mode is a perfect way to get attuned to each character's strengths and weaknesses without grinding away in a soulless practice simulation or straightforward Survival mode. Plus, its addition will make individual character purchases feel like far better value.
When all's said and done, Killer Instinct provides a satisfying and enjoyable fighting game on the new system, allowing a room-full of friends to pass around the controller in winner stays on marathons, all as Kinect seamlessly signs in the appropriate player. It's the local multiplayer fun we want from a Christmas console, but long-term appeal is questionable until Double Helix and Microsoft provides the missing pieces.
- Fluid, brutal and versatile action feels fantastic on the new D-Pad
- Handsome crisp visuals benefit from gratuitous particle effects
- Exhaustive playable tutorials and smart business model
- Desperately needs the story and arcade modes ASAP, feels a bit flimsy
- Jago vs Jago match-ups are already wearing thin
- Some classic characters still MIA, more memorable arenas would be nice
The Short Version: Killer Instinct is a brutal, attractive and responsive fighting game that feels fantastic on the new Xbox One controller. Its unique combo system provides accessible depth, bolstered by balanced characters and a pleasingly forward-thinking business model.
However, though it delivers on local multiplayer Christmas beatdowns, Double Helix will need to bulk out the missing characters and modes to keep us invested for the long haul.