Fans have been asking for it for years and finally Killer Instinct has returned, albeit with a new developer - Double Helix - who have adopted a free-to-play model for the game's characters, which is also now sporting fancy new visuals. However, fans can relax their cynicism and rejoice, as Killer Instinct on Xbox One retains the original's heart and combo heavy, fast paced action, making it a good if somewhat bare-boned fighter.
Killer Instinct has gone through an aesthetic change to look a great deal more like Street Fighter IV, with crisp, chunky, vibrant, cartoon exaggerations on the cast. It's a good look that feels like a natural evolution of the original title's theme. However, there's a blandness to the characters, a lack of fine detail and naturalism that makes them look very soulless and wooden, mind you, once the combos start flying the action moves so blindingly fast that the vacant stares of the characters as they enter an arena quickly becomes a distant memory.
Flurries of punches, kicks and supernatural feats fill the screen in a blur of motion and particle effects. It's astonishing to witness, even more so when you realise there's no hint of a frame rate drop and the animation stays smooth throughout. Visuals that looks accomplished but unremarkable when static truly come to life once the action starts, of course initiating the action is a task new comers may find a tad tricky. Killer Instinct's simple to learn yet difficult to master six button layout feels familiar to other fighters on the surface but it has a combo focus that goes beyond its kin. Light, medium and heavy punches and kicks make up the standard moves, meanwhile special moves - like Jago's fireball - can be activated with established input commands like quarter circle punch. Special moves are also delivered at different strengths depending on the attack button, which in turn affects the striking distance and speed of the move. Additionally you can enhance attacks with the power of Shadow through the use of a two stage refillable bar at the bottom of the screen, and buff yourself with traits that suit your character's combat style with the refillable golden bar below your health called Instinct. Although that may sound like familiar fighting game traits, Killer Instinct is all about combos and combo breakers and entering an arena without some knowledge as to how these are used almost guarantees your demise.
It all starts with an Opener: a special move or a flying kick. You then hit a standard attack button to trigger an Auto which deals multiple hits. Next comes the Linker: another special move. You then keep this pattern of attacks going before bringing it home with an appropriately called Ender: a heavy special attack. Without the Ender the combo's damage is severely weakened and trying to string too many Autos and Linkers together can break the combo's momentum. Once you know the basics then pulling off small combos isn't too tough, but to really own the match you need to understanding exactly what you're doing. Furthermore timing is crucial, not so much with combo attacks, which offer a generous window, but with reading the battlefield and utilising attacks and specials to reduce downtime where you're vulnerable. Killer Instinct soon reveals its steep learning curve, fortunately the Dojo tutorials are excellent, comprehensively teaching you everything you need to know through over 30 lessons.
Using this knowledge is another thing, however. The aforementioned pace of the fighting is so fast that you don't have time to think. The first stage of a combo can be button mashed into existence but following up in a meaningful way asks for a lot of concentration. The control scheme is brilliantly mapped to the controller, however, giving you every chance to beat your opponent silly, with the combo breakers - pressing light kick and punch together, medium kick and punch, or heavy kick and punch to match the strength of the incoming combo - also mapped to the right analogue stick - down for light, either side for medium, up for heavy. Additionally left trigger and bumper act as triple kick and punch respectively to aid in pulling off the supremely powerful Killer Instinct special Ultra Combo. It's a bit rough on your controller though, with ours creaking and moaning as our fingers franticly dashed about trying to perfect the move-sets. After a few hours of sore thumbs we'd definitely recommend a fight stick.
Killer Instinct certainly relies heavily on its combo system, and whilst at the high skill end of play this can be a tactically broad and intelligent battle between players, at the lower to medium skilled range it feel like too much of a reliance, making the combat feel restricted. Meanwhile, with no story mode currently present and only six characters and stages available at launch there's very little on offer for the offline player. There's plenty of character accessories, concept art and the like to unlock with the in-game currency - which is also used to unlock the stages - but it's filler. Even online the options are bare boned, with not spectator option and only quick match available. However, it's practically lag free and very stable. What you'll really be craving though are more characters.
The six fighters on offer at launch are at least varied, concentrating on different combat styles to make them unique. Jago - which comes with the free download - is a balanced jack of all trades combatant. Meanwhile, the other fighters - charged at £4 each - mix it up with ranged, rush-down, aerial, and grappler archetypes. It's a fairly reasonable free-to-play business model with all six launch characters and the two additional post-launch characters covered by a £16 pack, and improvements - including a story mode - are due next year.
Killer Instinct is an incredible fast paced, technical fighter with plenty of Evo tournament potential and ideal for those looking for a combo-centric challenge to master. For the more casual fighting game player it's hard to master and the basics aren't going to cut it once you come face to face with the ridiculous combos that can be unleashed against you. However, right now it's essentially in Beta release; until all planned content is implemented the game's only half done. For now the future's looking bright for the reimaged Killer Instinct. Time will tell.