Emerging from a 17-year hiatus, Killer Instinct has found its way back to the fighting arena for the Xbox One, courtesy of Microsoft Game Studios and Double Helix. As a former Nintendo exclusive developed by Rare, Killer Instinct wowed audiences with its pseudo-3D graphics and over-the-top fighting combos. For the 2013 reboot, it appears Double Helix has stayed true to the series’ roots while modernizing its cast and improving its gameplay mechanics. IGN’s review of Killer Instinct praised the game for its flashy presentation, strategic combo system, and easy accessibility. Other gaming websites have also praised Killer Instinct for its fast-paced fighting, impressive visuals, and sensational audio.
Yet, when taking a look at Killer Instinct’s Metacritic score, its above-average ratings don’t seem to match the game’s praise. So what’s holding Killer Instinct back? Skimming through the reviews, a common complaint towards the game can be seen.
The reboot of Killer Instinct is pure gameplay with a well-crafted combat system. The rock solid 60 fps action is fun as hell for those who will try to master the shiny gameplay. Sadly, the lack of content is a big issue and six characters are simply not enough.
– Eurogamer Italy
There’s a fantastic combo system at Killer Instinct’s core, but right now it feels like half a game – one full of promise, certainly, but not an especially next-gen one either. The cascade of particles may not be enough to retain player interest until the rest of the game arrives.
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.
Spot the pattern? The lack of content currently available in Killer Instinct is souring the game’s Metacritic score. What it specifically is lacking is a story mode, arcade mode, and a roster filled with more than six fighters. These problems are expected to be fixed when more of the game’s season one content is released next year. For now, though, Killer Instinct’s limited content is hurting its first impression and status as a killer-app fighter for the Xbox One.
With season one of Killer Instinct expected to end in March, it questionable why Microsoft didn’t delay the game until then so that it could be better received. The Xbox One’s launch lineup wasn’t exactly sparse, with twenty-two first- and third-party titles available on day one. Also, when interviewed by Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, Microsoft Studios chief Phil Spencer discussed how Microsoft toyed with the idea of launching a new Halo game with the Xbox One. However, Spencer didn’t want the fifth installment to be rushed by 343 Studios after they’d finished work on Halo 4 for the Xbox 360. It’s an admirable move by Spencer and Microsoft and one that would have benefited Double Helix in their revival of Killer Instinct.
So why didn’t Microsoft give Double Helix more time to include everything they have planned so far for Killer Instinct? The answer to that question is because Killer Instinct is Microsoft’s first serious attempt at a free-to-play game. And like mobile games, such as Candy Crush Saga or Rayman Fiesta Run, free-to-play games often provide new content to keep players hooked. By releasing new content for Killer Instinct month-to-month, Microsoft will ease console players into their new mobile strategy and ensure the game’s longevity with Xbox One users. Another similarity Killer Instinct and the Xbox One’s launch titles share with mobile games are its microtransaction.
Microtransaction had been creeping into console gaming earlier this year with Tomb Raider and Dead Space 3, but Microsoft took a gamble by including it in their Xbox One launch titles like Killer Instinct, Ryse: Son of Rome, and Forza Motorsport 5. Killer Instinct hasn’t been scrutinized for its microtransactions like Ryse and Forza has, but its pay structure isn’t perfect, either. By itself, Jago is the only playable character in Killer Instinct — but if you buy all the character for $4.99 each or all together in pricier character packs, you’ll have access to the game’s eight fighters. In comparison to other free-to-play fighters, like Tekken Revolution with its eight playable characters at the start, having only one free fighter in Killer Instinct is a drag.
If the bare bones edition of Killer Instinct seems insufficient, imagine how reviewers feel as they cry for more content and as they play the slightly meatier version. After paying $499 for an Xbox One, the last thing anyone wants to do is shell out more cash for a game proclaiming itself as free-to-play. Sure, microtransactions are typically part of the free-to-play strategy; however, the best games are the ones that set you up with everything you need to have fun and only ask for payment for unnecessary upgrades. Anyone can download Candy Crush Saga and solve the puzzles without opening their wallets for power-ups, but being limited to one fighter for Killer Instinct ruins the expanding and diverse cast fighting games should have.
Spencer has said in interviews with Kotaku and Multiplayer.it that the implication of microtransactions in early Xbox One games and the business strategy behind Killer Instinct is all experimental, which hopefully, they’ll improve in the future. With that said, experimentation that comes at the cost of game content shouldn’t be done so willingly. In a way, Killer Instinct‘s revival as a free-to-play game represents some of Xbox One’s initial digital future. It’s a game that’s currently only available in digital form and relies on online connectivity for multiplayer matches to get the most joy out of it. While the Xbox One is predicted to evolve over time into a far more reliable, traditional console, Killer Instinct’s future as an digitally-evolving title doesn’t quite sync with it.
Killer Instinct for Xbox One has survived its bruises with the media for its associated gaffe at E3 2013 and by longtime fans, who questioned the talent behind the revival. Despite overcoming these obstacles and being well received by critics, the game’s limited content has hindered its “Supreme Victory.” Hopefully, the Xbox One audience are willing to stick with Killer Instinct throughout its first season to experience the full game Double Helix imagined. If not, I can’t blame them for dropping a game that expects you to pay more for little in return.