A killer return is nearly slain by bungled execution

Jon Mercer
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Killer Instinct
Xbox One

There was a brief period during the mid-summer when I contemplated switching my since-cancelled PlayStation 4 preorder (damn you, winter tires) for Microsoft’s Xbox One, which made its way to store shelves and gamer homes on Nov. 22 of this year.

A screenshot from the game Killer Insitinct,” for Xbox One. — Submitted image

The reasoning behind this was not news of a new “Halo” or “Gears of War.” Nor had it anything to do with the sadly lacklustre “Ryse” or “Dead Rising 3.” Microsoft almost had me with the announcement of the long-overdue return of “Killer Instinct,” a long gone but never forgotten fighting game that was a smash hit for Nintendo and developer Rare Ltd. in the mid 1990s.

It’s the one Rare property that gamers have been screaming for since MS acquired the British game developer in 2002. Lo and behold, more than a decade after the fact, it is finally here! And as a launch title for the brand new Xbox One, no less!

But even after a few hours of fresh, fighting bliss, it’s dolefully clear that “Killer Instinct” burns as hot and as brilliantly as some of the genre’s brightest stars, but lacks the fuel to last.

Free, at first

The first thing you need to know is that KI is free to play. With a download from Xbox Live Arcade, you’ll get the game with a single character (the Ninja, Jago at the start, but developer Double-Helix has stated that it will revolve over time), and can download an additional five contenders for $5 each, or all six (plus an additional two in early 2014) for $19.99.

So, at a price point, it’s not bad. But it’s not exactly brimming with content. More on this later.

The closest comparison one could make for KI would be its base similarity to “Street Fighter IV.”

‰ Six inputs for attack, three for punches, three for kicks and all of varying strength.

‰ Thickly designed, intricately detailed 3D characters moving and brawling on a 2D plane.

‰ Special moves execute with familiar controller inputs (hell, Jago practically has SF’s Ryu’s move set with a couple of twists).

But once the fighting actually starts, it blossoms and comes into its own. The combo system is easy to grasp, and flashy enough to make players want to invest the time to push the hit counter even higher.  Everything begins with what the game calls an “opener,” a special move or attack (such as a jump kick). From here players continue with any basic attack, which begins a canned animation called an “auto.” With a simple one-two-one-two rhythm, you can keep the combo going into the double digits until you choose to close it, or the game forces you to close it with a heavy hitting special move called an “ender.”

Of course, this is all well and good until your opponent drops a C-C-C-Combo Breaker in the middle of your intricate beat down. These are as simple as hitting two corresponding attacks of equal strength at the same time when an opponent is doing an attack at that same strength level (i.e.: light kick and light punch to counter a light attack).

The trick is to keep them guessing by not constantly recycling the same attacks. It is a fresh but somewhat simple system that both discourages and encourages random button mashing.

It doesn’t hurt KI’s first impression when you realize how stonkingly bewitching it is from a presentation standpoint. The characters are massive, with designs that simply don’t exist in any other modern fighter. They have crazy amounts of detail in their designs, and the stages are freaking AWESOME for about two minutes. The amount of chaos unfolding in the backgrounds could never have occurred on previous hardware, but don’t do anything to hold the attention beyond the time spent in them.

It’s here that the wheels don’t exactly come off of the machine, but they do rattle a little and the engine wheezes for lack of gas. There’s just not a whole lot to do with “Killer Instinct” for anything longer than a couple of rounds.

Outside of online multiplayer, there are only a tiny handful of Time Attack and Survival modes, and no story to speak of. With a grand total of eight characters going to be available in 2014, “Killer Instinct” pales in comparison to fighting rebirths from six years ago.

“Street Fighter IV,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Tekken,” “Soul Calibur,” “Marvel vs. Capcom” — they all come packed with combatants that feel different from one another; with tons of game modes and bonus material to sift through, all buried under deep and elaborate fighting engines.

“Killer Instinct” is an explosive flash of brilliance that doesn’t last nearly as long as its history or its fan base deserve. The fighting engine is far too breezy to make it on the tournament circuit, and die hard fighting gamers will probably be done with KI in a week.

Double Helix states their intention to release a second season of fighters both brand new and returning, plus extra game modes, to make “Killer Instinct” a must-have for Xbox One — all things that it should’ve had to begin with. As it stands, it’s a killer return nearly slain by bungled execution and an interesting but unnecessary microtransaction based sales platform.

Platform: Xbox One

Developer: Double Helix / Rare, Ltd.

Publisher: Microsoft

Release Date: Nov. 22, 2013

Rated: T for Teen.

Walking through the wastes of the digital frontier, Jon Mercer fights a lonely war against the nefarious agents of boredom and mediocrity. If you seek his help, or wish to join his cause, send a communiqué via thejonmercer@gmail.com.

Organizations: Microsoft, Nintendo, Rare

Geographic location: Fighter IV

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