Growing up I spent many hours playing fighting games with my brother and our friends who lived just up the road from us. We only owned a few titles, Street Fighter 2 Turbo being among them, but we’d always try our hand at others when we got the chance to rent them. Killer Instinct was one of our rental favourites, the announcer’s overacting coupled with the weird and wonderful cast kept us entertained for hours on end. I can vaguely remember Killer Instinct Gold but I think it was overshadowed heavily by Goldeneye 007 which consumed the vast amount of time I spent on that console. So of course I was intrigued when I saw it was getting a revamp although, if I’m honest, I never thought to try it until it released on Steam.
Much to my surprise the Killer Instinct you see today is actually a 4 year old game, having been released on Xbox One back in 2013. A free to play version of it was released through the Windows store last year and it was only this year when the Steam version got released. This particular version comes loaded with all the DLC that has been released over the game’s life and also adds support for Windows 7, something the Windows Store version didn’t have. At its core though Killer Instinct is still the same game it was 4 years ago, just with a bunch more characters and few game modes that tempt you to open up your wallet to appease the microtransaction gods.
As you’d expect from a game that was released so long ago the graphics are pretty far behind the mark, even by fighting game standards. Killer Instinct uses Double Helix Games’ in-house HEX engine and is the developer’s third release based on it. The game does manage to look quite good during high action scenes, the high amount of motion blur and other effects culminating in a visual spectacle that feels like what I was seeing back when I was playing the original all those years ago. It’s not all roses though as there seems to be some commands that will freeze the action for a good couple seconds. Whether my PC is to blame for this or not is a question I’ll leave up to the reader but, for comparison’s sake, I had no such issues with Tekken 7.
Reading up on the game’s history it appears that getting into Killer Instinct now means having missed out on a large section of what the game was. When I burled it up for the first time I looked for the standard “fight your way through everyone” campaign mode but none was to be found. Instead I was directed to the Shadow Lords mode which was added in sometime late last year. Looking into it further it seems like the regular campaign missions were part of previous seasons and, as far as I can see, aren’t available to play anymore. It’s a bit of shame since this is supposedly a reboot of the lore of the world, something which I didn’t pay much attention to when I played the original all those years ago.
Killer Instinct manages to feel very familiar, bringing back its trademark fighting style that no game has really attempted to replicate. The game’s simulation engine runs at 90 fps whilst capping the frame rate to 60 fps, ensuring that input lag is kept to a staggeringly low 81ms. This translates into a brutally fast pace, favouring long chain hit streaks and well timed c-c-c-combo (sorry) breakers. The entire original Killer Instinct cast makes a return along with another 18 characters, most of which haven’t featured in any other game previous. Whilst all of them have their own signature moves, power ups and special abilities the game’s construction means that, unfortunately, a lot of them start to feel very similar after a while.
You see if you want to win fights, either in the single player modes or (I assume, more on this in a tick) in multi, you’re going to want to be pulling off long combos. Whilst each character’s opener’s and combos has their advantages/disadvantages (Spinal’s, for instance, being incredibly fast but not particularly damaging) there’s just not as much variety in how the combat plays out. For the most part it goes opener -> combo -> finisher, with a breaker or two in there and maybe a shadow move to finish things off. I’m willing to admit that this view may be born out of the fact that I didn’t spend as long as I used to playing games like this and the mechanical depth might show itself more in the multi.
That, however, is where we run into another issue.
With the game now being 4 years old the player base isn’t as big as it used to be. Indeed the Steam version averages a measly 100ish players at the best of times and, even with cross-play enabled, I could not for the life of me get an online match. Part of the attraction of fighting games is seeing how you match up against others and, like I mentioned in my Tekken 7 review, without that there’s not much to keep you coming back. Sure, the Shadow Lords mode is interesting if you’re into that kind of Roguelike perpetual mission thing, but after grinding that for an hour or so it felt like I was just being pushed to buy some Ki Gold so I could actually get some progression. Had I played this game back when it initially released, either on Xbox One or on the PC, my experience may have been very different.
Killer Instinct captures the essence of what made the original great with it’s lighting fast game pace, ridiculous combos and over-acted narration. Coming in at this point, where the game has been out for nearly 4 years, however feels like coming to a party long after its started to wind down. Reading up on the game’s history shows that much of what I’m seeing now would have been fantastic when it was first released. However today, with a dwindling player base and much of the content no longer available, it feels like a shell of what it could be. Had I still my bunch of fighting game friends I could see the fun extending for a few more hours but even then, without a bustling online community, there is little more to keep you coming back. It’s a shame but, hopefully, the developers have made enough from this instalment to make another. If they do I’ll be sure to be there on launch day as I’d hate to repeat this experience again.
Killer Instinct is available on Xbox One and PC right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC (with a controller!) with a total of 2 hours play time and 2% of the achievements unlocked.