The main reason I want to keep playing Killer Instinct is to hear the announcer go absolutely crazy when I do amazing things. The first time you hear him scream out "Combo Breakkkkerrrrr!!!!" you'll understand.
"Ready? Fight!" I've never wanted to please those omniscient voices commanding me in fighting games. Sure, hearing them bellow "K.O.!" or "Player 1 Wins!" is gratifying but that comes as a corollary to a win. Killer Instinct changes all of that for me.
I want to titillate this announcer. Excite him. Make him scream, well, not my name but my praises at least. It's a weird motivation to find myself with in a video game. But it's a good thing that it's there because the rest of Killer Instinct feels annoyingly lightweight right now.
So, yes, Killer Instinct is a free-to-play launch game. You only get tormented ninja Jago as the first playable character. It's a pretty lonely offering at first, especially if you're determined to not pay any money. You can unlock four more stages, various outfit colors and accessories with in-game points or netting in-game accomplishments called fight titles. But getting the most enticing additions—namely, other playable characters—calls for cash. And if you're sitting on a couch with your buddy ready to punch-kick your way to bliss, you're going to want some variety pretty quickly. New characters cost $5 a pop, by the way.
Part of me wonders if a piecemeal delivery system like Killer Instinct's is the best way to re-introduce a long-dormant franchise to players. I can understand it better when series like Dead or Alive or Tekken go free-to-play. Full-fledged versions have been coming out on a regular basis and F2P installments take advantage of that ambient presence. Pay only for who you know, not any character you may loathe. But Killer Instinct has been doing the Rumpelstiltskin for a long while. Loads of people won't remember these characters or what made them dig Orchid or Glacius in the first place. What usually hooks the players of a particular fighting game franchise are the quirks of the characters' styles and the dramatic arcs of their backstories. You get part of that built in with the gameplay itself here. But, dammit, I've always been the player to blow through the story mode of a new Tekken to see Lei Wulong's ending movie. The lack of such glossy CGI rewards in Killer Instinct makes it feel like corners were cut.
Fighting games thrive on big, fat, overstuffed rosters. They sell you a world throbbing with crisscrossing tensions that can be only resolved by unblockable super-moves and ring-outs. Killer Instinct doesn't feel like that. It feels like someone dusted off a skeleton from their closet to give you and is charging you by the muscle to turn it into a creature capable of movement.
Note: There's been some confusion about pricing so, to clarify, here's a chart straight from Microsoft:
Even if you pony up for the $40 Ultra Edition, you're still only getting six characters on day one, with two more to come soon after. More characters are coming in future seasons but it still begs the question as to exactly when this will feel like a "full" game.
This isn't a splashy re-introduction but, rather, an offering that feels more tentative. "Will they like us enough to stay and pay?," the game seems to ask. Based on just the fighting engine alone, most players would, in fact, probably stick around. KI's discplines invite you to master them more than those of other fighting games. The combo isn't just a cool feat here; it's a way of life (and death). Nailing the inputs that set off the automatic bludgeoning by the game's various characters is crucial. The only way you're going to be competitive is by figuring out how to launch auto attacks and combo breakers. Ticky-tacking your way to victory is very difficult in the revamped Killer Instinct.
Killer Instinct also highlights some issues with the Xbox One controller. While an improvement on its 360 predecessor, the controller's d-pad doesn't feel ideal for fighting game use. I already didn't like the bumpers but after trying them out for Killer Instinct, they come across as especially awful. They're slippery and too close to the main body of the controller, making it tough to get a solid angle on. I found myself wishing the bumpers had the same knurled texture as the analog sticks. At least that way, you'd be able to get more purchase on them. The option to remap buttons exists but, no matter where you put heavy punch and heavy kick, you're likely to be using those bumpers. And, yes, there's a Mad Catz fight stick waiting for you to pay for it but that's an extra $200 bucks. The only reason you want to buy it is because those bumpers feel straight-up terrible.
All of my online time with Killer Instinct has preceded the Xbox One's launch so I'm not in a position to say how the servers will stand up once players start piling on. That said, I experienced only slight stuttering in one of my multplayer matches; the majority of the ass-kickings I received were smooth. But that could all change. I'll check back once people are actively playing to see how things are holding up.
Despite the caveats above, the core of Killer Instinct is undeniably fun. Since the system here is so combo-centric, matches can have wild momentum swings when players find openings. Sit on a couch with a friend for a few hours and you'll definitely be whooping and hollering at the Shadow Moves and long-range attacks that come out as you play. Work at training yourself in the Dojo and you'll slowly peel away at the formidable strategies available with each character. Like the Soul Calibur games, Killer Instinct can be played fast and sloppy or deep and studied, with fun being had either way.
Nevertheless, right now, the fighting game's unique rhythms feel tripped up by the framework of its offering. You're left to wonder how much you should spend on the game, when new characters or features will be coming and whether it will ever feel like a peer to Street Fighter, Tekken or Guilty Gear. Some of that will hinge on how much sweat you put into Killer Instinct. But the remainder, it seems, will depend on how much cash you put into it. Combo breaker, indeed.