We’re starting to suspect that particle effects are part of the platform holders’ next-gen developer terms. Killer Instinct is full of them, its stages saturated with torrential rain and heavy snowstorms, its characters flinging projectiles and twirling batons that emit showers of sparks. When two fireballs meet and cancel out, the resulting particle geyser briefly obscures the screen. And this will be a familiar sight given Double Helix’s business model.
Killer Instinct is a free download and free to play, but you only get one character gratis. Jago is the Ryu of the piece, with a moveset that mimics the Street Fighter star – a fireball, flying uppercut and spinning kick, plus a katana slash – making him a natural choice for a free character. A further five are available for a small fee (the same business model applies to the game’s half-dozen stages), with a $40 outlay getting you the whole lot in one go. Two more fighters will be added after launch, but for the time being you can expect to see an awful lot of Jago mirror matches. Fireballs will meet, sparks will fly, and ennui will quickly set in. Any Street Fighter aficionado will tell you that a Ryu mirror match, while one of the most fascinating matchups in the game at a high level, makes for tiresome viewing when less skilled players are at the controls. That applies here as well, but Double Helix has devised a smart battle system that will let even beginners pull off flashy, extended combos, while ensuring the more skilled will generally triumph.
Special moves are split into two types – one used to begin or sustain a combo, and the other to end it. Jago’s Wind Kick and Laser Sword serve as Openers and Linkers, while his Endokuken fireball and Tiger Fury uppercut are Enders. Land an Opener and any two subsequent button presses will continue the combo; add a Linker and the cycle can be repeated, but not indefinitely. A meter beneath the combo counter fills as you land hits. Once it is over 90 per cent full, a further repetition will bring the combo to an abrupt end. And while you’ve been landing hits, a chunk of your foe’s health bar has been turning white. This is Potential Damage, which will only be taken off if you finish the combo with an Ender. It’s an excellent concept full of interlocking systems that benefit beginners more than any comeback mechanic ever could – as Jago you can mash the Spin Kick input and hammer medium kick for a ten-hit combo, but it won’t do much damage unless you have the presence of mind to tag on an Ender.
Potential Damage is just one of a host of little mechanics woven into the combat system with more skilled players in mind. The Super Combo equivalent is the Shadow Special, an extra button press adding a flurry of extra hits to a standard special move, and these can also be used as Openers, Linkers or Enders. There’s the Combo Breaker, activated by tapping your two light, medium or heavy attacks at the same time when your opponent is pressing a button of the corresponding strength. Get it right and you’ll knock your opponent down; get it wrong and you’re put in Lockdown state, an exclamation mark over your head while you’re prohibited from attempting another Breaker for three seconds. Tap both heavy attacks for Instinct Mode, a 15-second power boost that extends block- and hit-stun on all your moves and can also be used to cancel a move’s animation frames after it’s connected or been blocked, extending combos or correcting mistakes.
Yet as thoughtfully put together as the combo system is, clearly it’s nothing that wouldn’t have been possible on older technology. In fact, strip away the particles and there’s little to Killer Instinct that feels new. Sure, it runs at 60fps, but so do its 360 and PS3 equivalents, and it does so only in 720p. Character models whiff of the previous generation – Jago’s hairdo is supposed to be spiky, but not jaggy – and stage backgrounds similarly fail to make a compelling case for Xbox One’s processing power. One mountain range backdrop looks disappointingly flat, but even the more enclosed stages are let down by drab, low-detail scenery.
Most disappointing of all is how little meat there is on these intricate bones. Even with the Ultra Combo Pack, which unlocks all available characters and stages, repetition quickly sets in. Each fighter is different – Orchid an up-close whirlwind of batons and kicks; Glacius’s ice attacks best used from range; Sabrewulf’s Run move, with its multiple endings, keeps an opponent guessing – but they’re united by the combo system to the point of sameyness. Since normal moves play the same role in combos whoever you choose, there’s no need to learn a fighter’s entire moveset. Learn their special moves, their Ultra finisher and you’re away.
Those afraid to venture online will find the singleplayer component lacking, too. A 40-stage Dojo tutorial is pitched as not only an introduction to Killer Instinct but its genre as a whole, yet the former comes first. You’re asked to perform extended combos before being walked through fighting game basics such as cross-ups and reversals. An Arcade mode will only be added once the roster has expanded to eight fighters; in the meantime, you’ll have to make do with a Survival mode that partially refills your health after each victory.
Fighting games live or die online nowadays, but Killer Instinct’s business model dictates that Jago will be your most frequent opponent. Double Helix intends to rotate which fighter is offered for free, but that will only go so far with so slender a roster. There’s a fantastic combo system at Killer Instinct’s core, but right now it feels like half a game – one full of promise, certainly, but not an especially next-gen one either. The cascade of particles may not be enough to retain player interest until the rest of the game arrives.