Publisher: Microsoft | Developer: Double Helix
A three-word review of Killer Instinct would be dead easy – it’d simply read ‘too much shouting’. By genre standards, there’s little that stands out in terms of roster, mechanics, package or style aside from the fact that some hyperactive idiot was seemingly sat over Double Helix’s shoulders while they were making the game and somehow, his inane yelling seeped into the very code and bellows forth any time anything moderately impressive happens.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the disembodied voice didn’t have such low standards. String as few as three hits together – something which, in other fighters, might actually be an incredible technical achievement – and he’ll shout about it, even if it was just the result of a single input. And the longer the combos get, the noisier he gets.
The weird part is that this is a game all about stringing together stupidly elaborate combos, so you’d think the guy would be used to seeing them by now. As much as this might be the Assassin’s Creed of fighting games – so much impressive stuff happens for so little input – there’s at least a degree of depth to the system and experimentation is great fun. Thanks to a great training suite, skilled players will be able to spend hours pushing the combo mechanics to breaking point before trying to find a way to make these exhibition mode showstoppers practical in a match environment.
But while the art of mashing a path from Opener to Ender via several Linkers might be an enjoyable thing to explore and exploit, the Breaker system throws a spanner in the works somewhat for beginners. You see, lengthy combos are connected using regular attacks – guess which the opponent will use and hit both attack buttons of the relevant strength and you’ll end the combo early and significantly cut damage with a Combo Breaker. Cue more shouting.
So learners might be able to guess their way out of the odd combo, then, but with all linking attacks being multi-hit affairs, experts will learn to read and react to links in the blink of an eye, effectively giving them a free pass to break out of any combo as long as they’re quick enough. Yes, there are alternatives to long, damaging auto-linked combos – using weaker Light links makes them harder to catch, plus you can use Manual rather than Auto links but the strict timing makes this too the domain of the hardcore. And with free players limited to one character, you can be damn sure that anyone of any vague skill will have faced the free fighter du jour enough times to have their Breakers ready to go on reaction.
Unfortunately, there are only six characters available from launch, with another two joining early next year – an embarrassment even to indie fighters like Skullgirls, let alone the likes of Street Fighter and Tekken games. Weirdly, it’s sort of a good thing here and we’ll tell you for why.
With just six characters’ worth of links to learn, it shouldn’t be too hard for anyone who enjoys Killer Instinct to take the time to learn the Breakers for themselves. Still, it’s obviously more likely that they’ll just jump online, get battered by someone who has done that and just give up. While it’s good that such depth is there, for a game so clearly tailored to give newcomers a fighting chance, it’s just odd to see a mechanic like this that will create a clear and obvious divide between good players and visitors.
So with so few characters Killer Instinct must be packed with modes and extras, right? Yeah… about that. An excellent training mode and great net code aside, there’s virtually nothing to do. Experts might argue that should be enough, and for many it will be. But a fighter aimed at a market that largely won’t be obsessed enough to rinse multiplayer forever could probably do with a little more content, even if it need come as a paid extra given the business model. Nether Realm has this down – its games might not be super-tech but the team knows how to deliver what its target audience wants. Again, all we see in the lack of options here is another reason for people who grabbed the free version to give up.
It’s not the disaster we feared nor the rebirth we hoped. But Killer Instinct is, as it has always been, quite good and not a lot more. A victory, then, as far as fighting game comebacks go, but it’d be one hell of a stretch to call it a supreme one.