Killer Instinct is back to bust heads and break combos after an almost two-decade-long hiatus. Once you decipher the game's free-to-play pricing, you discover a bombastic brawler whose balanced fighting mechanics buck the trend towards very long, very technical combos while still providing an engaging challenge for all types of players. With all its "auto-doubles," "combo linkers," and "shadow counters," there's still plenty to familiarize yourself with, but Killer Instinct is flexible enough that even a complete novice can hop in, mash some buttons, and cobble together an impressive-looking combo.
Building a combo in Killer Instinct is a simple matter. Special moves, such as Jago's laser sword, can easily be linked together with normal kicks and punches to form long combo strings. In fact, you can input laser sword over and over and build a long combo that way. Granted, that combo won't deal a ton of damage and could easily be countered, but superficially it feels good to be whaling on another player moments after you first pick up the game.
Strong combos follow a specific structure. Some special moves are combo openers used to start combos, and others are combo enders used to--wait for it--end combos. Ending a combo in such a way could reward you with extra damage, extra energy, or the possibility to start an entirely new combo depending on the attack used. Mixing and matching different attacks is a fun way to keep your opponents guessing and prevent them from successfully interrupting your assault.
In most fighting games, long combos are treated as a one-way street. If you get caught in one, there's not much to do besides wait it out--or punch the other player in the arm. Killer Instinct handles this a bit differently. The defender isn't a helpless peon during these long strings; quite the contrary. The tables can turn in an instant, so both combatants have to pay close attention.
At any point during a combo, the defender may attempt a combo breaker. If successful, this move instantly interrupts the combo, creating some space between you and the attacker. Otherwise you trigger a lock out and be prevented from trying again for a few seconds--at which point your opponent may gleefully pummel you without concern. Layered on top of this system are the counter breakers, which are used by the attacker to break combo breakers. They also cost half of your total energy, and if used at the wrong time leave you wide open to counter attack.
The interplay between these two systems--and trying to predict when your opponent will use them--adds an engaging layer of mind games to the traditionally one-sided process of building a combo. Successfully predicting when exactly a breaker will happen means really getting into the other person's head--and when you do, it's extremely satisfying.
While Killer Instinct's combat mechanics are accommodating to a wide breadth of players, the game doesn't go far enough to hold the interest of lone players. Versus, survival, dojo, and practice modes make up the game's offline offerings, and while they all function as expected, they also represent the minimum standard for the genre. For fighting game veterans with access to a reliable source of competition, this is not a huge issue. But those looking for a strong narrative-focused mode, or for more of a reason to keep playing than "practice for online play," will be left wanting.
Dojo mode is Killer Instinct's main educational mode. Consisting of 32 different lessons, this mode runs you through the basics of movement, the combo system, and the art of counter breaker mind games. There are even some helpful lessons on how to interpret frame data and set up frame traps, two topics that are extremely important for skilled play but are rarely explained in other fighting games. But while the content of these lessons is great, the information is presented in a very dry style that feels akin to reviewing a checklist than learning the game's mechanics.
Once you feel confident in your skills, it's time to take the fight online. Far and away, the most important aspect is performance, and thankfully, in all of our testing, online matches ran smoothly. This is especially important since the game doesn't display the ping for the opponent you're facing, denying you the ability to manually filter challengers based on connection speed. Much like the game's offline modes, Killer Instinct's online offerings are just the essentials of player and ranked matches, as well as a leaderboard.
An unfortunate omission in this lineup is not being able to watch matches between other players, which is an excellent way to improve your own abilities. Killer Instinct keeps recordings of your most recent matches both online and off, but does not provide a list of other players' replays to download in the game. The Xbox One console lets you record and upload short clips from the game, a feature with amazing potential as an educational tool but one that needs more granular filtering options than "epic fail" or "review" to be useful.
Killer Instinct successfully updates the '90s classic into a finely tuned, competitive fighter that can stand alongside the genre's regulars. Its muscle-bound roster conveyes a satisfying sense of weight and force with their movements, while still feeling responsive to your commands. There is a lot of flexibility in combo authorship, but the combo and counter breakers help keep both fighters on their toes even as the hit count rises.