Xbox One Preview – Killer Instinct and Ryse: Son of Rome

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Microsoft opened a preview hub for the Xbox One last week in downtown Toronto, right at Yonge and Bloor in the same spot where Magnum Ice Cream Bars took the strip by befuddled storm. Media were given time to sample the new console’s launch lineup of both first-party and third party games. From Battlefield 4 to Peggle 2, we got the chance to get a grip on the new controller and see (in brief, PR-directed spurts) what the new Xbox Dashboard looked like.

The trio of third party games already available on current-generation systems – Assassin’s Creed IV, Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts – looked generally the same as their current counterparts. They might have sharper resolution and graphical fidelity, but the high-end display televisions might have been responsible for that.

As for the games, Capcom’s Dead Rising 3 looks like a deliriously fun continuation of the series, offering a giant wrecked city crawling with swarms of zombies to shoot, blast, burn and flatten. The steamroller with dual flame throwers does all of that by itself. Dead Rising 3 is basically Resident Evil 2 as envisioned by a 12-year old.

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The Controller

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The XB-1’s controller might have been the star of the show. A natural evolution of the Xbox 360 controller, it was easy to hold and felt more natural in my hands than any gaming controller before it. The triggers were wide but not garishly large and had just the right amount of give to them. The matte rubber-ish texture gave it a nice grip, but I’m curious how that texture is going to endure over months of use and possible exposure to sweat and/or Buffalo Wing splatter from some players. The analog sticks have the same convex indent that we saw on the PlayStation 4 controllers.

The single biggest improvement is the D-Pad. It’s a cross-shape rather than the raised  Xbox 360 circle that moved like a chunky carrot slice. It’s got a slight indent on the centre to accommodate the curve of your fingers, and clicks and moves like a dream. It was able to handle a good amount of abuse in Killer Instinct, a game that seems to exist to convince fighting game players that the new controller is worthwhile. In short, it blows the 360’s pad out of the water.

I also got some quality time with two Xbox launch day exclusives.

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Killer Instinct

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Back in the neon-encrusted 90s, the first Killer Instinct made an impact on the adolescent fighting game genre with its announcer’s unbelievable enthusiasm. (“C-C-C-Combo Breaker!!”) Double Helix has a lot to live up to with its reboot, but from my initial impressions it seems like the studio is well on its way to a success.

The handful of characters I was able to try out felt incredibly responsive to the controller’s inputs. I whipped out punches, jumps, dashes and combos as fast as I could mash the buttons, and special moves came out with little to no practice. As long as you’ve played a fighting game before and know what a “quarter circle” refers to, you should be able to jump right it. Overheads, anti-airs and projectile attacks all felt familiar. It’s about as fast as Street Fighter IV, although I didn’t get to try out any larger grappling characters.

New character Sadira, a mix between Street Fighter III’s Ibuki and Beast Wars’ Black Arachnia, was also playable. Not unlike female ninja types we’ve seen in the past, she comes with double jumps, wall jumps, air projectiles and speed to spare.

The combo system in Killer Instinct has always been incredibly complex, and the same is true here. I wasn’t able to fully grasp what I was doing half the time, but even mashing buttons and throwing in a special move or two, I was able to land 20 hit combos without trouble. Combo breakers and a rage-type gauge called Instinct Mode appear to serve as buffers against first-rushdown-wins, but I’ll need more time to figure out just how all the subsystems work with each other and whether it’s too complex for its own good.

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Killer Instinct’s retail model is certainly new. The free “demo” allows the player access to one character on a rotating basis, allowing you to play with the entire cast…eventually. A $20 one-time purchase earns you eight characters (six at launch and two later on), and Microsoft promises a “second season” of more fighters in the future. Breaking down a fighting game’s cost by character always seemed suspect to me. It’s like selling a chess set at half price with only the pawns.

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Ryse: Son of Rome

Out of all the games shown at the Xbox One floor, Ryse: Son of Rome might be the only one that looks like a truly next-generation game.  Sunlight glints off of the metal bands on Roman soldiers’ shields. Weathered plumes flit along with the wind. Everything’s at a level of fidelity I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a console.

In Ryse you play Marius Titus, a beast of a man covered from head to toe in heavy armour, armed with a sword and shield and tasked with defending Britannia against a horde of Barbarians and – I’m guessing here – other threats to the Roman Empire. In the introductory scenario Marius helps his soldiers defend a Roman building against a horde of besieging barbarians. You’ll duel with enemies, hawk at the Kinect sensor (or just hold the L Button) to order supporting volleys of arrows, and settle behind a bolt thrower for a completely been-there, done-that turret section.

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The hand-to-hand combat is the main attraction. Marius can attack with either his sword or shield (the latter throwing an enemy off balance), as well as dodge and counter. The combo-and-counter system seems to favour one-on-one fights, but a brawl against five or so enemies proved versatile and enjoyable as well, forcing you to direct your counters in several directions as barbarians attempt to block your movement. The influences of Assassin’s Creed and Batman’s Arkham combat are hard to ignore; several times I pressed the Y button to counter by instinct, only to clumsily throw my shield forward and get rewarded with a barbarian’s club to the face.

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Beat down your opponents enough and you can enter a God of War-like finishing sequence, pressing the button that corresponds with your enemy’s temporary glowing colour. If he glows yellow, hit Y. Blue? X. And so on. It ends in a gruesome death animation rife with swords through the throat and severed limbs in frighteningly bloody next-gen resolution. This isn’t for the kiddies, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s for me.

Marius has access to several combat and overall health upgrades (available either with Gold or “Valor” earned by killing enemies). I’m not sure how long the system will hold up for the 12-hour or so campaign, or what surprises Marius has for players in the long run, but it’s a promising glimpse at the Xbox One’s graphical potential.

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