Saturday, August 1, 2009

King of Fighters XII - Review

It’s the year of the fighting game, of that there is no doubt, we’ve already been treated to Street Fighter IV, the very welcome surprise BlazBlue, and now it’s time for another in the form of SNK’s latest, The King of Fighters XII. SNK claims to have gone back to the drawing board with this one, and with its new, updated high definition makeover, can it truly stand up to its competition?

The answer is: Not really.While KOF XII is a solid fighter, it has a number of glaring omissions and design choices that keep it from the greatness it was hyped up to be.

To start off, the fighting is very solid. It plays just like KOF should (read: like a tangible, heavy Street Fighter) but with a few changes. New to KOF XII is the Critical Counter system, where successive attacks, blocks, damage taken fill a small meter. When it’s full, you can either tap a heavy punch or kick button to initiate a custom combo, or a more damaging version of your super move. The critical counters are simple to execute, and fun to experiment with, much like the Focus in SF4. They’re also very rewarding visually when executed properly, and I can see them becoming a staple of high level play. Taken out however, are a great deal of the offensive options. Gone are the tactical shift, skill bar, dream cancels, and super desperation moves of previous titles. The game has literally been stripped down and scaled back to the basics, ala Street Fighter 4, and while it may be a series of somewhat unwelcome changes at first, it becomes easy to appreciate the tweaks they did make and settle into a satisfying rhythm.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a review about KOF XII if I didn’t mention the visuals. It’s already no secret that SNK went back to the drawing board completely regarding KOF’s look, and for the most part, I can say they did a spectacular job. Rather than modernize it with 3D again ala KOF:Maximum Impact, or even giving it razor sharp vectors ala Guilty Gear and Blazblue, the KOF team went completely old school and animated everything with old-school pixel by pixel sprite animation. The results are more than impressive. Characters move with fluidity and weight, and are large and colorful. The stages, while very few in number are bustling and full of personality. Subtle touches like the animation of fabrics, and the fact that even environmental lighting was considered--in a 2D fighter--will continue to impress even years after this title’s release. Not one of these screenshots actually does it justice, it has to be seen in motion to be believed. The only complaint, if you can call it one, is that while the sprites are very detailed in and of themselves, their dot matrix nature means that despite the high resolution, they can come off as jagged or pixilated when displayed on an HDTV. There is a filter in place that can smooth out the rough edges( I’d recommend the 1 or 2 setting; 3 is too blurry) , but this problem is merely a consequence of the medium used, not any failure on SNK’s part.

That is something I unfortunately can’t say about the rest of the game, and this is where the bad news begins. The core fighting is solid, the visuals are top notch, but that’s all there is to the package.

At about 22 characters, the roster in KOF XII is actually the smallest the series has ever seen. The explanation for this was, due to the massive undertaking redrawing each character proved itself to be, the roster had be cut. This would be something easy to forgive if it were filled with the best of the best KOF had to offer, but that isn’t the case. Series regulars and favorites like Yuri, King, Geese, Billy, Mai, Rugal, and K’ are only the tip of the iceberg when mentioning the amount of missing characters from the roster, and even though there are some series mains inside (Terry, Athena etc), it’s not only a shame, but it’s almost a slap in the face if you’re a fan. How could some of SNK’s most beloved characters not make the cut for KOF’s next gen leap? It’s a strange decision on their part, because if their aim was to have a rebirth of the series, they had to have known that Mai would be at the top of many people's lists for a reinvention. Furthermore, the characters who did make the cut, you’ll find they’re missing moves or had their movesets changed for the worse. Gone are Terry’s Power Dunk and Buster Wolf, same goes for Clark’s Mount Tackle, Kims Haki Kyaku, and Iori, well, anyone who’s mained him for the past 15 years or so is in for a surprise.

A very unwelcome one. The loss of some iconic moves means a drastic change in character strategies, also to the overall feel of matches.

It’s this mixture of questionable and/or missing content that makes KOF XII a package I can’t recommend to anyone other than the most diehard of fighting fans. The “Arcade” mode is a 5 stage time trial with no end boss, and when you’re done with that…that’s pretty much it. An offline and online versus mode are all that remain, and if you don’t happen to have Xbox Live (for 360 owners) then the game drops in value even further. No survival, no true story mode, no 1v1 arcade, not even a mission mode to fill in the gaps. The only thing left to do is fight. Fight through a time trial, fight the cpu, fight online. While this seems like a ludicrous complaint for a fighting game, with Street Fighter 4 providing a ton of content in comprehensive training, survival, time trial modes, and BlazBlue providing extra challenge modes along with a detailed, per-character story mode, for KOF to come up short for any other incentive to play, even with regards to unlockables (everyone’s open from the start, there’s a gallery but no instructions on how pictures unlock) is disappointing.

[Note: at the time of this writing, the online play ranges from decent to nearly unplayable. The netcode is quite bad and I’ve actually had dropped matches in a 1v1 room due to it being unable to handle people coming and going]

In a sense, it’s almost as if the much lauded graphical overhaul has been a blessing and a curse to this game. Every interview I’ve read, the developers’ explanation for the lack of (insert name here) in this game was due to the amount of time it took to create the character sprites. There’s no continuation of the story because of the sprites. There’s a lack of characters because of the sprites, no bonus modes because of the sprites. I hate to say that after playing, I believe every word. While KOF XII is a very impressive looking 2D fighting game, it seems as if the team was too tired to do anything else after completing the art. Even the menus are convoluted and boring to look at. That notion of laziness, it’s unfortunately a feeling that carries itself through the entire experience, and only the truest of arcade driven fighting game fans will be able to overlook this. Everyone else will feel cheated of their $60 after their first run through “Arcade” mode. I’d even go as far to say that the game is vastly overpriced, and would’ve still felt like a bit of a wash at $30, but it'd certainly sting less than it does at this point in time.

In my opinion, calling this a “Rebirth” of The King of Fighters is a bit of a misnomer. It’s certainly a step forward visually, and to some extent technically, but it’s definitely a step backward where it counts, especially as a console release.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing! My favorite character in the series. Great Job.
    Alargamiento Del Pene