E3 2013: Killer Instinct hands-on

Killer-Instinct-1The new Killer Instinct reveal was something that hardly anyone was expecting to hear from Microsoft during E3. Being developed by Double Helix, with additional help from Rare developers, the game is probably the one true killer app that the Xbox One has going for it, even in the midst of controversy surrounding the console itself.

I probably spent more time on this game than on anything else on the show floor, mostly because it was that much fun to mess around with. It truly is an amalgamation of several different games from the fighting genre, all thrown into this mixing pot of ideas and concepts, and splattered across a giant white wall like some kind of modern art piece. The end result is something that just works, and it works very well, while still keeping the overall feel of KI intact.

The heavy emphasis on doing combos is still present, but not just because it’s KI. Characters, at least in regards to Jago and Sabrewulf in the demo, have a lot of health. This means that combos really are necessary to do big damage. Thankfully comboing by itself is a fairly simple task, as almost every move can chain into something else. Add in linkers, doubles, and enders for the really big damage, and you have a lot of cool things you can mess with in order to maximize your combo potential. It sounds complicated, but once you play it yourself, things start to fall into place.


Combo breakers also make a return, allowing players to break out of any potentially damaging combos at any time. Breaking a combo can be done by pressing the two buttons that are the same strength of the attack that your opponent is using. For example, if a Jago is using a medium or heavy breaker, you have to be able to hit either the medium or heavy buttons at the right time to correspond with the attack used. Failing to do so results in being locked out and unable to break again for a period of time, during which the attacker is free to do whatever he wants with your face. Because of this, the game places a huge emphasis on mixups and rush down, to try and make your opponent miss a breaker and get himself locked out.

Another benefit to playing offensively is how you build meter in the game. Characters have two different meter bars, a Shadow gauge and an Instinct gauge. The former is the one you use for EX attacks, which act like supers, but also serve as combo extenders. This meter builds super fast, as players gain meter by attacking the opponent, and gaining more if they’re blocking. Making them block a special move grants almost half a stock of meter alone! Because of this, blocking in the game is often times a bad idea, as you can always recover from a basic eight hit combo or a single fireball, but giving your opponent free meter by staying on the other side of the screen and is generally a bad idea.

The Instinct gauge, meanwhile, behaves differently. This one builds by taking damage and breaking combos. When filled, you can activate Instinct mode during a combo to automatically cancel your attack animation and return to neutral, allowing you to continue your combo in a new way. It also resets the Knockout gauge, a separate meter that causes opponents to automatically fall out of a combo if it fills up, which allows you to inflict further punishment without worrying about the opponent popping out before you can land your ender.


Characters also get special benefits while in Instinct mode. For example, Jago’s attacks recover faster on hit, and especially on block, allowing him to keep the pressure, build more meter on a blocking opponent, and set up more mixup opportunities. Sabrewulf, meanwhile, can link the same normals to each other repeatedly and quickly while in Instinct mode, doing a huge amount of damage, though this can be easy to break if the opponent isn’t locked out. Other characters will also have unique perks in Instinct mode, and although it feels a bit like a comeback mechanic, its main use is as a combo extender, allowing you further punish your opponent.

Ultra combos also make their much anticipated return, though in a bit of a different manner. When an opponent is close to being defeated, they are susceptible to being hit by an Ultra combo, which guarantees to finish off the small portion of health they have left. It also simply looks freaking cool, and you can continue the combo afterwards for as long as you can, cementing your victory in an extremely flashy manner, even after the opponents health is completely drained. Imagine someone on the main stage of EVO completely destroying their opponent with a flashy combo at the end of the round and the crowd going nuts during the whole thing.

The game itself feels really accessible, as even someone like me who hasn’t played a Killer Instinct game since the days of my youth was able to at least pick up on the basics. Comboing itself is something that even someone new to fighting games can do, and the game can feel a bit mashy because of it at times. However, once you learn the intricacies of the combo system and how to mix up your attacks, then you can pump out some heavily damaging combos that exceed 50% health. It’s a bit of a risk vs. reward system, where the fancier combos can risk getting broken, but the damage potential is worth the effort.

Killer Instinct is set to be an Xbox One launch title, though hopefully the negative reception to the console thus far doesn’t affect it too badly, as it definitely looks to generate an all new brand of hype for fighting games.

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