The King of Fighters XII PS3, Xbox 360 Review

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2009 has been a bloody brilliant year for fans of fighting games. After the woeful 2008, which saw the hugely disappointing Soul Calibur 4 and frankly pish Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, leaving us more serious fight fanatics with only Super Street Fighter 2 HD Remix to satisfy us. It was either that, or start playing Super Smash Bros

This year, you had Street Fighter IV show up and give the entire genre the boot up its arse it had been needing for quite some time, offering instant fun to beginners and insurmountable depth to those who required it. Then, XBLA/PSN delivered classic brawler Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and the absolutely fantastic Garou: Mark of the Wolves, both with full online play. With Tekken 6 and, for us unfortunate folk used to waiting for things to come to Europe, Blazblue, on their way, it is a very good time to be a fan of all things fighty.

So where does King of Fighters XII fit into this resurrection? SNK’s premier title has always been a place for the hardcore to truly test their skills, but much like the entire genre, has been resting on its laurels since its brilliant ’98 edition. No massive leaps in gameplay – hell, they’ve been recycling their own sprites for DECADES, it is encouraging to see that, in their own words, at least, that the “fight has evolved”.

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Graphically, that is absolutely the case. All of the classic characters have been redrawn in wonderfully animated high definition. Everything from the roster of fighters down to the ridiculously detailed backgrounds is in glorious 2D and shows that there is a fair bit of life in the old two dimensions even in 1080p, bump-mapping obsessed 2009. Sure, Street Fighter IV may be more advanced, and the forthcoming Blazblue has the most incredible 2D animation of any fighting game, but this still impresses. Long time fans of the series will get a kick out of seeing their favourite fighters with this new lick of paint. It is long overdue.

Now, and before you ask, there is NO way around it. It is time to discuss the new gameplay mechanics added to this installment. Hopefully, you’ll all still be following this after the next few paragraphs.

While Street Fighter IV cleverly stripped away a lot of the over-technical guff that put off many from getting into the fight game, King of Fighters XII does quite the opposite, adding many new “techs” to the classic four button setup. You’ve got the “emergency evasion”, that allows you to roll, avoiding damage and with good timing allows you to get the jump on your opponent between hits. The “guard attack” is an alternative to blocking, which will knock your opponent to the ground and do minor damage, if timed to perfection, which is best used to escape a pummelling in the corner.

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The more complicated techniques are the “blow back attacks” and the “critical counter”. The blow backs are essentially KoFXII’s version of the focus attacks in Street Fighter IV. Holding down both fierce attacks will begin the charge, releasing them will unleash a strike that, should it connect, will either knock an opponent off his feet or “crumple” them, allowing a chance to counter into a combo. These are extra effective when used in an existing combination, allowing you to cancel into another combo from it. Lethal stuff, in the hands of an expert.

Finally, the critical counter. As usual for fighting games, dishing out or recieving damage will fill up a small bar. Once full, the bar will flash and you will have a chance to pull of your critical counter before the gauge depletes. A well timed heavy counter punch/kick will activate it, temporarily stunning your opponent and allowing you to pull off a Street Fighter Alpha style custom combo – essentially a fast string of otherwise unchainable basic attacks and special moves, that although doing less damage, can add up quickly. Throwing a KoF standard “Super” at the end of one of these can finish most fights and create some combinations into some serious numbers.

Still with me? Now here’s the thing. If all of that went over your head, the rest of the game isn’t going to convince you to sit down and learn. For all of the extra stuff added to the core gameplay, the actual content on offer is incredibly meager.

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First of all, what the hell has happened to Arcade mode? King of Fighters games are known for their three-on-three battles and their coin-devouring final bosses. You’ve still got the team-based scraps (although now lack the ability to “tag out” fighters a la Marvel vs Capcom, which the previous installment had) but the Arcade mode itself has now become a glorified time trial. There are a few token cutscenes based around news coverage of the tournament but all you do is take part in five fights, clock in a time and that is IT. Once you’ve been through that a few times all you’ve got left on the menu are Versus, Practice, Replay and Gallery modes. It is criminally bare bones, even lacking things such as fighting game staple Survival mode. How hard, in all honesty, would that have been to implement?

The roster of fighters is also somewhat lacking. Due to the ongoing King of Fighters “storyline”, which still amazes me when I hear people actually talk of caring about such a thing, there are a few key characters from previous games missing. I mean, fuck storyline, where the hell is Mai, her fans and her wobbly ubbs? For SHAME, SNK. Moves lists have been scaled back for each fighter and, in the case of Iori, changed completely. Even simple things such as stages – there are a total of SIX in the entire game, one of those being a night time version of another. It also has those horrible Ignition Entertainment generic menu graphics all over everything, something that has plagued their ports for quite some time.

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Of course, regardless of the lack of modes on offer for the single player, it is all for nought if the multiplayer is rubbish. The gameplay is solid, as expected, and therefore local fights between equally matched opponents is predictably ace. The PS3 pad holds up fairly well, and one can only assume that the Xbox 360 controller is awful, as it is for most fighting games. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to test my fightstick, due to covering the PS3 release, but it goes without saying that it should be used as standard, if available to you.

Online, things take a big turn for the worse. After downloading a sizeable patch, online play remains an absolute mess. There are some great ideas in here, such as the ability to create lobbies for you, friends and other players, rather than the strict one-on-one that Street Fighter IV offers. However, that game also offers absolutely solid netcode, instead of this laggy toss. In a genre where instinct and reflexes are just as important as learning moves and combos, this renders King of Fighters XII pretty much unplayable over the PSN, and quite possibly Xbox Live, too. There could be a future patch, but right now, it is the biggest disappointment in a thoroughly disappointing package.

Back to the initial question – where does King of Fighters XII fit into this resurrection? It doesn’t, really. Although a competent beat ‘em up, it lacks not only the accesibility but the depth of Street Fighter IV, the classic gameplay of Mark of the Wolves or Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and the hardcore technical side of Blazblue. It sort of stumbles around in the middle, giving hardcore fans a bunch of new techniques to try out, then diluting everything from the characters moves lists all the way to the poor Arcade mode. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled? 2009 has been a great year for fighting games, so far. Unfortunately for this, the first next-gen King of Fighters, there simply isn’t room for any mediocre ones. Go back to 2008, where you belong!

6/10

by

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Version tested: PS3, Xbox 360

Developer: SNK Playmore

Publisher: Ignition Entertainment

Genre: Beat 'em Up

Players: 1-2