Killer Instinct is fun, accessible, and free for anyone to try… but don’t let that scare you off
Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland and myself are beating the ever-loving shit out of each other on the upcoming Xbox One launch title Killer Instinct. The game is easy to get into, and we both pull off some impressive-looking moves with some simple button-mashing as we chat over the game, talking trash and sharing gossip about the upcoming review season.
This is the power of fighting games played casually; they’re the perfect excuse to hang out, catch up on things, and bond with a friend while encased in a thick shell of violence and a high level of hand-eye coordination. You’re practicing a skill, but it feels so easy and enjoyable. Just when I begin to get a feel for the game’s systems I pull away to give another writer the chance to play, but I was able to sit down with Microsoft’s Torin Rettig, the game’s producer.
My first question was simple: How do I get any good at this game?
Learning the ropes
Killer Instinct comes with something they’re calling Dojo Mode, an in-depth series of tutorials that will get you up to speed on the game’s basics, as well as the unique combo system.
“It takes you from walking forward, walking back, blocking and doing special moves to frame data and hit boxes… all kinds of high level stuff that you want to learn and you want to do if you want to get proficient in fighting games in general, and Killer Instinct in particular,” Rettig said. Once you finish those lessons, it’s time to take your skills on the road.
“Play as much online as you can, even if it hurts sometimes,” he explained. “Even if you get destroyed, we all start out there. Go online, learn what other people are doing and get some of the best tactics.”
Killer Instinct isn’t a free-to-play game in the traditional sense, but anyone can download the game for free and play with a single character to get a feel for the game. $20 gets you all the characters, and $40 gets you all the characters, costumes, accessory packs, and the classic arcade original. For $60 you get the “Pin” Ultimate Edition or, as I like to call it: “The Giant Fucking Conflict of Interest Edition.”
But I digress. The ability for any Xbox One owner to at least try the game is novel, and I was curious about what it would do for the level of competition.
“It’s going to increase it, there’s going to be such a larger pool of players playing, since anyone with [Xbox Live] Gold can go online and play Killer Instinct with everyone else,” Rettig said. “What I’m hoping is a great concurrency online, a lot of people playing and learning from each other, coming in at the same level, new to fighting games, and playing together at the same time. Getting really into the game.”
The plan is that they’ll have more people playing online due to the free character, and this will help the community grow, and people will get hooked and want to buy the characters. It’s an interesting approach, and $20 will get you the content you need to play with all of the characters of the first “Season.”
We’ll see if this approach takes off and leads to even more characters, add-ons, and other content that keeps the game alive. The other unique aspect of the game is the combo system, which has long been something that helped the original Killer Instinct stand out.
Breaking your combos, breaking your counters
They started with the combo system of the original game, but then removed some of the complexity; you no longer have to move down the power levels during a combo.
“You can use any power level for an opener, you can use any power button for an auto, you can use any power button for a linker,” Rettig explained. “The only one where you have use a specific power button is the ender, you have to use a hard power button for an ender.”
They also simplified combo breakers: Now you need only hit two buttons of the same power, but they have to match the power of the attack you’re trying to break. So you need to hit both medium buttons if you want to break out of a combo when you’re hit with a medium attack. “We also have something new, called Counter Breakers,” Rettig said. So if you think a combo breaker is coming, you can use a counter breaker, and thus keep the combo going. The head games go on and on.
There is no visual information given to the players here, so it becomes a mind game of trying to guess what attack is coming up next, or when a combo breaker may be coming. You’ll need to learn the timing of your human opponent, or just become very good at guessing or faking out the other player.
“There are some things that can be read, that can be seen and react to it, and other things where we purposefully don’t want you to be able to react to it, so you have to be in the opponent’s head,” Rettig explained. “We want this to be a mind game that’s constantly going, this constant two-way interaction, even in a combo.”
This is all by the design, they didn’t want to make a game where the aggressor controls the other player completely during a combo, they wanted to make sure there was always a chance to turn the tables or fight back, and then to fight back from that counter-attack, all from the confines of a combo.
“You’re rarely, if ever, just locked into a situation you can’t get out of,” Rettig told me. This leads to a more active, high pressure, but accessible style of fighting.
Killer Instinct is a launch title on the Xbox One.