Absurdly long combos, an obnoxious announcer, a crazy visual style and C-C-C-C-Combo Breakers are what Killer Instinct is all about and, based on a recent hands-on, Double Helix's next-gen revival thankfully has all that and more.
Thus far the conversation surrounding the new Killer Instinct has been hung up on the free-to-play business model. It's an important discussion to have, there's no denying that, but it diverts attention away from the nuts and bolts of the game itself, which is bit of a shame since it's actually shaping up rather nicely.
Unfortunately, our hands-on with the game was too brief to really dig into the systems underpinning the the new Killer Instinct, but we got a quick primer on how all the pieces fit together and how it feels.
What we played felt like a good mixture of the casual-friendly combofest the originals were designed to be (I lost to a fighting game newbie, to my eternal shame), but there also looks to be plenty of the complex execution, split-second timing and strategy meta-game elements for fighting game aficionados to sink their teeth into.
On a basic level Killer Instinct's gameplay is still based on the same core principles that governed the originals: openers will expose foolhardy non-blockers to your onslaught, auto-doubles are quick and simple inputs that crank up the combo counter, linkers will extend a combo for an annoyingly long time and finishers/Ultras are special moves that you'll want to end with.
Then there's the iconic combo breaker, which when activated at the right moment will break the player getting their ass handed to them out of a combo string and put them back on their feet. Obviously, Double Helix has made a number of changes and additions to the framework to both balance the gameplay experience and to bring it in line with modern genre standards.
"Killer Instinct is far more complicated than we expected it to be... but it also retains that pick-up-and-play accessibility."
The biggest difference now is that combo breakers can be used during more phases of combat. In previous entries players had one shot to nail a breaker, miss it and it's a front-row seat to beatdown town. However, in the new version openers, auto-doublers, and finishers are all breakable. In effect this means battles are much less one-sided and instead the scales tip back and forth constantly.
Combo breakers themselves can also be broken now with counter breakers. These are essentially a way of introducing an element of strategy within the combos themselves through a bluffing game. If a player can predict when his opponent is about to break a combo and execute a counter breaker they can continue a combo unimpeded.
It all gets a bit complicated when you start thinking about the mind game potential this offers and build a meta-strategy around faking a combo breaker into your play. By tricking your opponent into pulling off a counter breaker at the improper time you can lockout the other player for four whole seconds, leaving them completely defenseless and open to your attacks. It's an interesting little mechanic that creates a strategic wrinkle to what is a fire-all-torpedos kind of fighting game otherwise.
The new Killer Instinct also cribs liberally from its peers for new features. Most notable among these is the implementation of a meter bar, a standard in modern day fighting games. The Shadow meter builds when delivering and taking damage, and the energy accrued can be used for special powered up versions of special moves, much like the EX moves in Street Fighter 4.
Alternatively a chunk of Shadow energy can be used for a Shadow Counter, which functions much like the Alpha Counters from Street Fighter. Hit a shadow counter at the right time and incoming damage will be nullified and your character will automatically unleash a shadow special. Naturally, you can capitalise on this with more hits and more damage.
The feel of characters is also quite similar to that of Street Fighter 4; fighters feel weighty and, compared to something like fellow combo-heavy game Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, it also feels measured. Dashes, which are quick and cover quite a distance, are the main exception, they feel closer to Street Fighter 3: Third Strike or Makoto's movements in Super Street Fighter 4.
Although we didn't get to fiddle with them personally, there's still plenty more to Killer Instinct including specific breaker inputs for linkers depending on the strength of the linker, Instinct Mode (Killer Instinct's version of X-Factor from MVC3), throwing, and what sounds like a really interesting neutral game that accommodates aggression as much as it does defence.
In fact, Killer Instinct is a far more complicated game than we expected it to be, which is exactly what avid fighting game players will want to hear, but it also retains pick-up-and-play accessibility.
It's also a game which looks stunning and runs at a slick 60 frames per second. But while the intricate detail and fluid character animations impress, it's the effects on moves that really steal the show.
Glacius in particular is great to watch as his moves all involve manipulating the structure of his ice body in different ways, creating ice blades stretching across the screen and shattering into hundreds of smaller shards, throwing balls of ice which explode when they make contact with the enemy and summoning ice clones that rise up from the ground to deliver an icy uppercut.
We're a lot more excited for Killer Instinct now that we've had some hands-on time with it. There's clearly plenty to learn and explore for those inclined, but those that just want to see an immediate, nice looking fighter will also be catered for too. Really, you can't ask much more of a game that's going to be available for free at the Xbox One's launch.