Back in the heyday of fighting game glory, the Street Fighter's and Mortal Kombat's of the world ruled the arcade and living room roost. When Rare got the idea to throw their own fighter into the mix, a new king was born - Killer Instinct. This release and its subsequent sequels were more akin to MK's over-the-top violence and pure 90's cheese-esque roster. Everything, from slobbering werewolves to reanimated pirate skeletons, made up the selectable cast of fighters to choose from.
The last time anybody got to pull off an Ultra combo in an arcade full of hyper active teenagers was way back in the 90's. Now, the year is 2013. Microsoft's next-gen console, the Xbox One, is launching and it needs that one killer app that will please hardcore/casual gamers. The rebooted release of Killer Instinct is just the game for the job. For fans of the series' past exploits, its easy to see how drastically different each retro fighter looks. Jago is no longer a slim ninja who's all decked out in assassin's garb. His muscle mass has increased to ridiculous portions, his traditional garb has been altered and his sword looks a wee bit more lethal.
The new character designs are amazing to look at. Certain elements of each character have been retained, but for the most part these are fresh renditions of your favorite KI characters. The stages you'll do battle on all look amazing, too. You probably won't have much time to do some sightseeing, but the sight of active elements and interaction with each stage is cool once you notice them. Your usual array of sparks will flood your screen as you fling fireballs and other special maneuvers. Some folks may be annoyed at all the wild explosions that happen onscreen, but it makes fights way more exciting in my eyes.
One element of each fight is the way the music and audio is implemented. The fisticuffs all sound brutal, of course. Heavy roundhouse kicks, brutal slashes and icicle stabbings all elicit cringe inducing sound effects. The soundtrack covers the gamut as far as hard rock tunes are concerned (save for one terrible pop song for miss lady Orchid). Pulling off Ultra combos leads to one of the coolest audio cues of the game. Smashing your opponent with a final dosage of devastating moves leads to a beat pattern developing as you land every hit. In simpler turns, Ultra's are musical now. And that is insanely cool.
Killer Instinct is a series known for its combo heavy combat and extremely fast paced fights. These two mechanics make a return to this rebooted fighter, but a slew of new ways to use them are implemented. You can go the button masher route and get by just fine. But true experts who are familiar with terms "such as hit box" or "frame data" will truly excel at this deep fighter. Tagging together a measly 10-hit combo or a massive 50-hit combo is possible. There's a certain risk/reward meta-game that goes into these combo opportunities. There are instances where combos can be broken, but successful players who block a Combo Breaker attempt can continue their onslaught of regular attacks/special moves. Much of the game's fun comes from the hyper action and back-and-forth play for combo superiority.
Casual players shouldn't feel shut out from the game's hardcore design. The Dojo Mode provides the perfect beginners course that will help players get acclimated with how to excel in KI. It pays off immensely to go into Dojo Mode to learn everything there is to know about how to pull of Ultra's, how to initiate Combo Breakers, how to pull off stronger versions of special moves etc. Dojo Mode is a blessing for casual/hardcore fans of the genre.
At the moment, KI comes in a relatively barebones package. There's a single player Survival mode and local/multiplayer options that you can certainly spend hours playing. The lack of a full-fledged story mode, arcade mode or a character roster that goes into the double digits is disconcerting. But with the news of this initial release being the first season of what's to come, that means there will no doubt be a nice offering of content for the game down the line. Getting the most out of this downloadable fighter means sol players will stick to Survival and Dojo mode. Playing live players is something that never grows old, too.
There are customization elements that stretch out the game's current replay value. Completing in-game challenges nets you some KP, which can be used to buy a laundry list of items. Character skins, battle arenas, costume accessories, profile icons and even music from the first two KI games fill out the in-game store. It may seem like there's not much to do in KI, but you'd be sadly mistaken.
Killer Instinct's rebirth is a welcome one. Each of the characters being offered to early adopters cover a wide range of fighting game styles (rushdown, projectile-heavy, grappler etc.), so all serious fighting game followers have someone to master. The lack of gameplay options and small character roster may hurt this game's launch, but more content is being planned for DLC later down the line. At the moment, Killer Instinct is the best Xbox One launch game and the title that will get the most play time from you and your local/online friends.