Killer Instinct Season One Review (XBONE)

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Make your body move to the killer groove

For all you young’ins out there, the original Killer Instinct was an arcade fighting game released in 1994 by Nintendo. Developed by Rareware who were fresh off Donkey Kong Country, KI was meant to be a showcase for Nintendo’s then-upcoming Ultra 64 console and had the Ultra 64 logo prominently featured in its attract mode. The arcade game ran on very different hardware than what was actually inside the Ultra 64, but we didn’t know that because no one knew much about the console at the time. We wanted to believe that we’d be playing KI in our homes in late 1995, though, because just LOOK at these GRAPHICS!

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Warrior Monk against werewolf. The backgrounds were actually videos stored on the arcade cabinet’s hard drive, and you’d get all kinds of neat pan and zoom effects as the fights went on.

Yes, that does not look like much nowadays, and the whole “prerendered models digitized into sprites” graphics style of KI and Donkey Kong Country is often considered ugly. But seriously, back in early 1995 THIS SHIT BLEW MY GODDAMN MIND and I didn’t even get to play it in the arcades, I just saw screenshots in magazines and drooled over them (not literally… well, not always anyway). Remember, this was when the 32-bit consoles were just starting to make their way to the market, and early 3D fighting games like Virtua Fighter and Tekken looked crude and blocky compared to KI whereas other 2D games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat looked positively ancient. Add the ridiculous combos that could extend to 20-30 hits, the colorful cast of fighters including dinosaurs, skeletons, and werewolves, one of the best video game soundtracks of all time, and the over-the-top presentation with the overly enthusiastic announcer (“C-C-C-C-COMBO BREAKERRRR!”) and you had a recipe for success. The game was far from balanced and didn’t really play all that well compared to other major fighting games at the time, but we were kids and didn’t care. We just wanted to play it at home, on our shiny new next-gen system.

Oh yeah, and there were fatalities as well. They weren’t as violent as those in Mortal Kombat and some of them were actually pretty damn silly:

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….Yeah. Moving swiftly on… (although I must say I like to imagine the opponent dies because he can’t comprehend the strange rectangular breasts Orchid’s character model has)

Of course, the Ultra 64 was delayed and renamed the Nintendo 64, and we wouldn’t play KI in our homes in 1995. Well, not on a 64-bit system, anyway; Rare ported the game onto the 16-bit Super NES instead (there was also a Game Boy version but who cares).

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The port wasn’t bad per se, all the gameplay and moves and characters were there, and in fact this is the version I grew up with. Still, it was not the arcade game and we all knew it. All the FMV and graphical tricks had to be cut, so it just didn’t feel the same. It did come with the Killer Cuts soundtrack CD, though.

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Killer Instinct 2 came out in 1996. It was not a bad game by any means, but by this point Virtua Fighter 2 and Tekken 2 had come out and Virtua Fighter 3 was just around the corner, so no one really cared any more. KI2 was eventually ported onto the N64 as Killer Instinct Gold, which had to be modified to fit on an N64 cartridge (mainly, the FMVs were removed again and the prerendered video backgrounds were replaced with actual polygonal backgrounds) but was still a much more faithful port than the SNES version of KI and includes new tournament and team battle modes. KI Gold was seen as a fairly lackluster effort from Rare and I remember being disappointed at the time, but in all honesty it’s not that terrible a game and you could do much worse if you were looking for a fighting game for the Nintendo 64. Of course, if you were a fighting game fan, you probably owned a PlayStation and/or Sega Saturn.

Rare kept making hit games (Goldeneye, Banjo-Kazooie, Diddy Kong Racing, etc) for the N64 and also created Star Fox Adventures for the GameCube in 2002. After that, the company was bought by Microsoft to develop games for the Xbox, and they did… not much of note, to be perfectly honest. Most of the talent from Rare’s glory days left the company years ago, and nowadays Rare mostly does Kinect and Avatar bullshit for Microsoft. There were some rumors over the years that Killer Instinct might be resurrected, but nothing ever materialized and most fans gave up hope. In late 2012, the Killer Instinct trademark was renewed by Microsoft, but this was widely assumed to simply be a case of Microsoft not wanting to let the rights expire and not many people believed that there would be any new games. At most, Microsoft might be releasing the original games on Xbox Live. In any case, nothing was announced.

Fast forward to E3 2013. I’m watching Microsoft’s Xbone press conference and being bored out of my skull with the TV and Kinect nonsense the suits on stage were desperately trying to sell us. Then, out of nowhere comes this:

Hype level: Critical. To be fair, I wasn’t that excited after the reveal, because this would be an Xbone exclusive and at the time there was no way I would be buying an Xbone. Remember, this was still when they had their draconian always-on DRM system in place, and Kinect was required for the system to function. Not only that, but it was then announced that the game would be developed by… Double Helix Games. Fucking Double Helix. The people who made the abysmal Silent Hill: Homecoming.

Then they announced that KI would be a free-to-play title only available on Xbox Live, with one character being free and the rest being available to purchase separately or in a bundle. There would be six characters at launch. Six. Mortal Kombat 1 back in 1992 had seven. Fuck me, this is going to be a trainwreck.

Months later, the Xbox One actually comes out sans DRM, sans region-locking and sans mandatory Kinect. Killer Instinct is one of the launch titles, and it… actually looks fun and is getting good reviews? I watched some videos such as the Giant Bomb quick look, and suddenly I had the urge to play the game myself. Sure, the Xbone is still not very good but these games look really fun and…

And here we are.

Killer Instinct on the Xbox One is way better than anyone —  including me — expected. The gameplay has been retooled so it now plays like a modern fighting game, while still retaining the over-the-top combos and presentation that were so memorable about the original games. While the game does still get scoffed at by some parts of the fighting game community as well as many of those who like making fun of the Xbox One, it is still much better than it really had any right to be considering its origins.

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Warrior Monk against werewolf, the rematch. KI on the Xbone runs at 720p and 60 frames per second, and while it’s not necessarily the most beautiful game ever, the lighting and particle effects are absolutely top notch.

The gameplay in Killer Instinct centers on the combo system, as you might expect. You have a six-button layout much like Street Fighter, with light, medium, and fierce punch and kick buttons, and the way combos work is that you start with an “opener” special move, hit one of the attack buttons for an autodouble or manual, use another special move as a “linker”, do another double, and finally hit a special move or heavy attack designated as an “ender” to cash in all the potential damage from your combo. If you don’t end your combos, the opponent gets most of that health back, so always use an ender before your combo gauge fills up completely.

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Jago gets to know the full meaning of Orchid’s “Touch me and I’ll break your face” catchphrase from her theme song. Did you know Orchid is Jago’s older sister? That was a plot point in KI2, although this game never mentions it. (Update: Actually, it is mentioned in some of the arcade mode endings)

Naturally, opponents aren’t just going to stand there and let you beat them into submission. The Combo Breaker makes its return, and this time the breaker input depends on which strength the doubles in each combo are. For instance, if an opponent uses medium doubles, you hit the medium punch and medium kick buttons to break the combo. Autodoubles are easy to do and easy to break, whereas manuals are much tougher to break but also require incredibly strict timing. There are also counter-breakers that you can use to prevent your opponent from breaking your combo — if successful, the counter-breaker resets your combo gauge and puts the opponent in lockout (which also happens if the wrong strength of breaker is used or the timing is off, and means they can’t break for three full seconds), meaning you can build up an even longer combo. If not, you’re stunned for a second and your opponent gets in some free hits.

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Jago shows off the Shadow Wind Kick in training mode. His special moves are all done the same way as those of the Shotokan characters in Street Fighter, so he’s a very good character to start with if you’re new to the game.

There are also shadow moves that are stronger versions of each fighter’s specials and are done by pressing two punch or kick buttons simultaneously, and they can also be used in combos for some massive damage and no additional combo gauge buildup at the cost of half the shadow bar. Combos can also be canceled using instinct mode, leading to opportunities for even bigger combos and special abilities. Instinct builds up as you take damage and pull off combo breakers, and it is activated with the fierce attack buttons once your instinct bar is full. The shadow bar can also be used for Shadow Counters; if you find yourself blocking a whole bunch, hit the medium attack buttons and you’ll do a shadow move to get out of the situation.

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With the latest update, everyone’s favorite killer cyborg Fulgore has returned and is cooler than ever. Hard to use, though.

Finally, there are the ultra combos. Ultras are used to finish off an opponent in style, and all you have to do is to get their health to flashing red “Danger” state and then use your ultra input (a specific move + all three punches/kicks) as an ender. Ultras can be extended with shadow moves and instinct cancels, and good players can pull off 100-hit ultras without too much trouble. If you just want to get it over with, you can hit the medium attack buttons to cancel the ultra into one big final attack. When you do an ultra, the stage often falls apart or some other cool stuff starts happening in the background, and all the hits are synced to the music. It’s quite lovely, although after a while you wish your online opponents would just get on with it so you can fight again.

If all of this sounds complicated, don’t worry because Killer Instinct has the best fighting game tutorial I have ever seen. The dojo mode has 32 lessons in total, and once you complete half of those you have a pretty good understanding how Killer Instinct works. The advanced lessons are more for those who really want to get into the deeper fighting game mechanics, and some of them are actually very hard to complete. My main issue with some of the lessons is the fact there’s not much flexibility in what kind of combos it wants you to do, and you need to follow the instructions to a fault in order to succeed. The actual gameplay allows much more creativity when it comes to building combos.

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Jago offered to help Sadira look for her pants and this is the thanks he gets. You can in fact give the ladies some pants in the character customization menu, along with giving all the fighters even more ridiculous outfits than the ones they already wear.

With the Season One content being done, there are now eight playable characters (nine if you count Shadow Jago, a dark palette swap of Jago who was only available with a Day One code), all of them returning characters from the first game except for Sadira the spider assassin lady. Sadira rules the skies in this game, as she has a double jump and various ways to ruin your day from up high. She is a very good character, but requires a ton of practice to be really effective. The characters are all good and there’s no real bottom-tier character in the lineup. As for the pricing, 20 bucks/euros/pounds gets you the game with all the characters, and if you buy the Ultra Edition for 40 you get all the customization DLC and the original Killer Instinct. You can play all the game modes for free, and the one free character changes every month so you’re not stuck with one dude for too long. You also get to fight all the characters even if only one is playable, so you don’t end up just doing Jago vs. Jago forever.

Content-wise, you have your usual versus and online modes (ranked, exhibition and lobbies), as well as survival which is just versus over and over again until the AI becomes impossible to beat. The last major update added an arcade mode with a couple of different endings for each character. There’s no real boss in the arcade ladder yet which is kind of a shame, although if you’re good you can get to the secret boss fight with Shadow Jago who really doesn’t fuck around:

Graphically, Killer Instinct looks quite nice, with some awesome particle and lighting effects and physics stuff going on in the background. It’s not the best-looking game out there and it only runs at 720p which is kind of unfortunate, but the frame rate is a consistent 60fps and that is the most important thing as far as I’m concerned. Some of the character designs are somewhat iffy, personally I’m not a fan of the new Sabrewulf because he looks like a silly cartoon wolf now whereas in the original he was FUCKING TERRIFYING:

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The source of countless nightmares for many 90s kids.

Double Helix made retro costumes for all the characters (including Sadira despite the fact she wasn’t in the original games, although that costume hasn’t been released yet), but the retro Sabrewulf doesn’t really look all that much better than the regular one. One of his skins is Benny, though, and I’m down with the hype dog:

The over-the-top announcer is back in two flavors (“Mike” and “Chris”, the latter is the original) and the soundtrack, composed by Mick Gordon, is amazing and easily on par with the KI and KI2 soundtracks. Once the new Killer Cuts comes out, I am buying that shit immediately. The music is also dynamic and reacts to whatever is going on in the fight. If Mick Gordon’s soundtrack is not enough for you, you can even use your hard-earned EXP to buy the original tracks from the Killer Cuts CD! Unfortunately, the songs can only be listened to in practice mode, but still! You can get “The Way U Move” and everything.

So, it’s all awesome and fantastic, then? Well… no. See, Double Helix has been actively updating the game, and in the process they have broken more things than they have fixed. In February they added the jail system that was meant to discourage ragequitting (which is a real problem with this game, considering the fact you don’t automatically win if your opponent disconnects), but all it did was throw legit players into jail because it was completely busted. The next patch was meant to fix this problem, and I think it kind of helped but also introduced an infinite loading screen bug that would require quitting out of the game to fix. That, of course, counted as a disconnect, so enough freezes and you were back in jail. Another patch came out a week or two later, and all that did was cause some players to get locked out of the game (their profiles simply didn’t work) and others to lose their saved game progress. As of this writing, the loading screen freezing still isn’t fixed, but at least I haven’t ended up in jail either and my save is fine.

The netcode, while usually smooth, has also received some criticism because there are times desync might lead to two players having an entirely different experience in the same match. I got to see this first hand the other day, as I was fighting someone in a rather laggy match that I won on my end but somehow he got the victory anyway. Some people were convinced that this was a case of the game switching to an AI bot upon desync and that you weren’t necessarily fighting human players at all, but I honestly don’t believe Double Helix would have done something like that because having the AI seamlessly take over would be very difficult and time-consuming to implement into the game. Most of the time, my matches have been synced perfectly fine for me and I’ve been able to hear my opponent’s reactions if they have their mic on and I haven’t muted them, so desync that is bad enough for the players to have an entirely different match seems like a very rare occurrence that only happens when there are some really bad connection issues going on. Much worse is the fact KI’s online seems to be region-locked now, meaning that I only get to play European gamers (= no one, because the Xbone isn’t even out in most of Europe and has bombed in the countries it has been released in) in ranked and exhibition, and the people I do get are mostly either ragequitters or way better than me. Not very good for ranking up. Lobbies have been more reliable thus far, but sometimes I’d rather just fight a bunch of people in a row instead of having to spectate other players’ matches and do the whole king of the hill thing in the lobbies.

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Glacius is not entirely impressed with Killer Instinct’s online modes. I bet the matchmaking doesn’t find any opponents for him because he’s in Antarctica and all…

With Amazon buying Double Helix a few months ago, the future of Killer Instinct was somewhat uncertain for a while until Iron Galaxy Studios was finally announced as their successor. Iron Galaxy has worked on several fighting games and their online play tends to be solid, and they seem to respect what Double Helix has done and are planning to build on top of that foundation. KI Season 2 is most likely happening later this year, and we’re getting more characters, a better story mode, a new boss, and all that cool stuff. As far as Season 1 goes, the game is still rough around the edges but it’s still one of the best releases on the next-gen systems so far and I’ve put a ridiculous amount of hours into it. Now that we’re getting a developer who did NOT make Silent Hill: Homecoming, I expect things to get much better in the future.

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Would I recommend Killer Instinct now? Well, if you have/plan to buy an Xbone and don’t mind a bit of technical jank, I certainly would. While there are still a lot of bugs and Iron Galaxy will have their work cut out for them in order to fix everything,  the gameplay itself is extremely fun and you don’t need to be a fighting game expert to enjoy it. At the same time, it’s deep enough to provide plenty of replay value. The base is there, and now it is up to the new KI team to really make this game into something truly great.

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