Preview: Going Ultra with the return of Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct (2013) Screenshot - Jago

A lot of surprises threw gamers off guard this year, as announcements were made for longtime projects that we never thought we'd see. We're getting a new Star Wars: Battlefront – from DICE, no less; Kingdom Hearts III is finally in development; and Mirror's Edge II will give gamers another shot at playing Faith. But perhaps one of the biggest surprises was the return of Killer Instinct.

A fighting franchise that got its start in the mid-90's with the help of Nintendo, KI helped establish a great brand in no time flat for both arcades and Nintendo consoles, including the SNES and Nintendo 64. With its tight gameplay, ferocious multi-hit combos (we're talking anywhere from 3-hit to 30+ hit), and unique cast of characters (ranging from a boxer to a werewolf), it really struck a chord with the fighting community. But then, just like that, it vanished.

Well, it's returning later this year as a free-to-play fighter for the Xbox One, developed by the folks at Double Helix Studios. While that may worry those who were hoping Rare Ltd. (the original game's developers) would be working on the game, relax. We had some hands-on time with it, and you've got mostly nothing to worry about.

Killer Instinct Jago

I say "mostly" because it still takes a while to accept the new visual approach that the series is taking. The original KI games had a goofy yet entertaining style to them, with rendered 2D characters in 3D arenas, executing moves that looked, well, badass. In the new version, the characters are rendered in full 3D and look a little more muscular than we were expecting. Sabrewulf is a bit too blue for his own good, and Jago is far more muscular than he was in the original game. Still, taken in stride, the graphics do look good, and the one arena we fought in – a dank building that reacted with nearly every strong hit – wasn't half bad. We just need to see how the rest of the cast shapes up.

Audio is about right on cue with what the Killer Instinct experience should be. The over-the-top announcer is back again, delivering indications when you land a multiple-hit combo. The sound effects are also quite good, with Sabrewulf's howls and Jago's grunts completely in check. And the music is about right for KI's standards, a remixed version of a classic theme from the original game. You can expect the final release to have a bunch of these.

Where Killer Instinct manages to define itself, though, is its gameplay. After all, if it doesn't have its multi-hit combos, what's the point? Double Helix has paid a great deal of attention to this area of the game, and it just plain feels right. Using the Xbox One Tournament joystick (made by Mad Catz), it almost felt like we were back in the arcade again, executing 20+ hit combos with ease and performing the dreaded "C-C-C-C-Combo Breakerrrr!" when the situation called for it. The gameplay works just fine for the two characters we tried, and the others should fit right in with no problem.

Killer Instinct Jago and Sabrewulf

We're not sure how the free-to-play approach will work just yet, but we're guessing that the first two characters – Jago and Sabrewulf – will be available right off the bat, and others can be added for a small fee, along with tournament options. Once Microsoft confirms exactly what the plan is, we'll let you know.

No, this isn't exactly the same Killer Instinct that you grew up with in terms of appearance and pumped-up style. That said, the gameplay is quite good, and the potential for growth is definitely there. Old school fans won't want to hesitate jumping back in, and you can bet new ones will be in tow as well. We'll have more on Killer Instinct in the months ahead.

Get ready, gamers…and "FIGHT ON!" 

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Robert Workman
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Games: Killer Instinct (2013)

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