E3 2013: Killer Instinct – hands on with Xbox One’s free-to-play reboot

The first day of E3 2013 was full of surprises. While it would later be eclipsed by BioWare’s Star Wars: Battlefront, Dice’s Mirror’s Edge 2 and a handful of Powerpoint slides that shook the industry, Killer Instinct drew one of the biggest reactions from the crowd at Microsoft’s Galen Center conference. As we went hands on with the game at Best Of Xbox Showcase in downtown Los Angeles last night, we were greeted with another surprise: Killer Instinct is free-to-play.

Not in its entirety, though. Download the game at launch later this year and you’ll only be able to play as one character, Jago, a logical choice given his obvious role as Killer Instinct’s Ryu analogue – fireball, dragon punch and all. Further characters will be available for a fee – prices are still being nailed down, but will be critical – with Double Helix intending to drip-feed new characters rather than release them all at once.

It’s a curious decision, and curiously timed too given that both Namco, with Tekken Revolution, and Tecmo Koei with Dead Or Alive, have recently signalled their respective intent to do much the same. The studio won’t confirm whether it will experiment with the League Of Legends model, which changes which characters are free regularly, though there’s clear logic in doing so. It’s already easy to see players drift away after tiring of endless Jago vs Jago mirror matches.

In the hands, this is spiritually faithful to Rare’s original, though the influence of other recent fighting game successes is plain to see, from a power-up mode (unique to each character) reminiscent of Marvel Vs Capcom 3′s X-Factor, a Mortal Kombat-style combo damage rating in per cent, and Street Fighter IV’s inky look. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a next-gen Street Fighter looking much like this does. This, like many of the games shown yesterday, goes big on particle effects – when two fireballs meet in the centre of the screen and cancel each other out, the screen is briefly obscured by a shower of sparks.

The combo system is pleasingly beginner-friendly. If a single attack connects you can press any of the other six buttons and it automatically combos. Special moves can be added in at various points, and ending a combo with a heavy special attack does more damage. It’s light, friendly stuff, essential for a free-to-play game, but how Double Helix will ensure the game appeals to higher-level players will be critical.