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Right now, there's little else aside from training, survival and online modes. There isn't a story mode or an arcade mode, though the latter is promised for the future. There are only six fighters, with two more to come during the game's first season of content. As it stands, Killer Instinct is a streamlined fighter designed as a far-reaching modular experience, which highlights one of its key problems: a dearth of content. Killer Instinct is available in both free-to-play and premium versions on Xbox One. You can freely download and play with a single character, Jago, and purchase additional characters at $5 a pop, or you can purchase all six characters and the two post-launch characters for $20. For $40, the "Ultra" edition gets you all of the above and two versions of the original 1994 arcade game.
The "Dojo" training mode does a decent job walking you through Killer Instinct's basic systems, though it's limited to a single character, Jago. There's a survival mode, pitting you against a never-ending parade of CPU-controlled brawlers. There are online matches against other humans and there are local bouts, either against a friend or CPU combatant. That's the extent of the game at launch, which makes for a package without many bells or whistles.
Online play is limited to matches against random players and one-on-one private lobbies for friends. You can search for unranked opponents of any skill level, while ranked matches will pair you up with an appropriate unknown, but the biggest omission is the lack of a multi-person lobby system. Nearly every modern fighting game has some sort of lobby system, allowing players to congregate, spectate and ruminate on strategies. It's one of the most enriching, crucial and expected aspects of fighting games, making Killer Instinct's maximum of two players baffling.
It's good, then, that the core of Killer Instinct is so sound. It's a flashy six-button fighter that is incredibly inviting, thanks to a simple core combo system that efficiently facilitates chaining together special moves. If you've ever thrown a hadoken in Street Fighter, you can chain together a glitzy combo in Killer Instinct.
You essentially connect with a hit or special move, which then opens up your enemy to further punishment. You progress the combo by chaining together special moves and hits, sliding from Quick (weak) to Fierce (strong), and cap off the combo with an Ender – a special move using the Fierce variant, the most powerful version of any move.
As such, a lot of the combat revolves around opening up your enemy, landing a special move, tacking on two hits, doing another special move, more hits, then an Ender. This is just a basic composition, and there is a lot of freedom to switch up the structure of each assault. A well-executed combo can top out at over 20 hits.
Unsurprisingly, there are also some meters to keep track of. A Shadow meter, made up of two tiers, allows you to initiate a more damaging version of your special move at will. Each embellished move will eat one of the Shadow meter's tiers and can be plugged into combos with ease. There's also an Instinct meter, which fills as the match progresses and allows you to trigger a character-specific super state, but also serves a dual-purpose of canceling whichever move you're currently performing.
Shadow moves allow you to chain combos higher, which in turn grows the amount of damage you can potentially unleash on your opponent by capping off the combo with an Ender, while Instinct presents a variable use in allowing you to back out of combos and return to a neutral state, where you're open to start a new chain. Some characters, like Orchid, can throw projectiles at any time while in Instinct state, offering another facet to that particular character's combat strategy.
This makes Killer Instinct a delight to play and a uniquely enticing proposition to fighting aficionados and genre novices alike. And even though it's mostly about big, flashy combos, Killer Instinct doesn't make you feel helpless when you're the one being pummeled.
But as much as Killer Instinct is a sound and inviting fighter mid-battle, it's an experience that ultimately feels hollow everywhere else. Online play – as spare as it is – may present a limitless well of competition to draw from, but with only six fighters to master and very few modes of play, Killer Instinct lacks the value and staying power offered by most other modern fighting games.
With more characters and content on the way, the future might be different. At present, there just isn't enough to do.
This review is based on a download code for Killer Instinct: Ultra Edition, provided by Microsoft.
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