2-D fighting games is an old genre, one that harkens back to a time when “multiplayer” meant just one other player. Now in a world full of online games, 64 player servers and massively multiplayer titles, they still persist. And that is because they offer an experience that is difficult to find in other games. Like sword duels or jousting matches, they allow for the purest expression of skill and prowess over a well-matched adversary. Okay, perhaps I’m being overly dramatic, but fighting games are still relevant. To gamers, there still something attractive about competition at the individual level and victory where in the only factor was your own abilities (just ask those guys who clobber me at the arcades all the time). And that’s why King of Fighters XII is worth a serious look.
Developed by SNK Playmore and published by Ignition Entertainment, King of Fighters XII is the latest in this long running franchise. Considered a reboot of the series, it attempts to meld a whole new look with a trimmed down combat system. First and foremost, this is easily the best looking game in the series. Each fighter’s sprite has been completely overhauled with greater detail and higher resolutions. Some of the character designs have been tweaked opting for meaner and grittier looks for some (like Joe Higashi or Ryo Sakazaki) and old school looks for others (like Athena and Sie Kensou). Also, the interface, backgrounds and effects have been updated towards something more acceptable on a next-gen console. The overall visual presentation is one that won’t blow you away but this game is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors without compromising on style.
Where things start to get contentious is in the game’s fighting mechanics. For the most part, the core features established long ago, such as rolling, dashing and guard breaks are still there. Players use teams of 3 characters and the first to win three rounds is the victor. Now, those who have followed this franchise’s evolution for the past decade or so have seen it branch off into interesting directions with mixed results. This latest iteration is a return to simpler times, gone are the multi-stock super bars, Dream Cancels and other esoteric mechanisms. But that is not to say that it’s crude or unsophisticated. New additions are the Critical Counter (hence forth referred to as CC) and Sousai (Deadlock) systems. As you unleash attacks and take damage your CC bar will fill. When full it will activate CC mode for a short time, during which, successful counter attacks will stun your opponent allowing you to pile on the damage in ways you couldn’t normally. Furthermore, the Sousai system allows attacks to be directly countered by other attacks. When two attacks of equal priority and power meet, both are negated and either combatant is thrown into a neutral stance. In practice, both these new features add a layer of strategy and complexity without being too convoluted.
Unfortunately, extraneous combat mechanics were not the only thing left on the cutting room floor. Comparatively, the game has a very small roster, only 22 fighters (20 in the arcade version). Additionally, many of them have lighter move lists and fewer super special moves. The game also lacks any semblance of a robust single player mode, as there is no story mode. There is only the arcade mode that is basically a 5 round time trail with bits of TV news-like cinematics spliced in. Perhaps it’s all in the spirit of “keeping it old school”, but so few characters in combination with an incredibly thin single player mode makes the game feel a little hollow.
By startling contrast the online mode is superb, at least on paper. It has leader boards, stats, personal ranks, clan support (a PS3 exclusive feature), and handles multiplayer in a brilliant manner. Rather than just being dumped into random matches, players can make or browse for rooms to play in. Each room can contain up to 8 players. Before matches, players can voice chat or send messages to one another. When matches begin, those not participating get to watch the battle from character selection to the very last punch. Afterwards, the winner stays, the loser gets bumped to the bottom of the line and the next challenger get his turn. It’s a very elegant interpretation of how things operate in an arcade, a sort of digital version of putting your quarter on the corner of the screen. But from my personal experience, the online play is marred by constant lag and poor connections. Tests of the online mode for this review took place both at my home and the UGTV offices with wired and wireless connections. While there was significant improvement with a wired connection, it still lagged enough to negatively impact the experience. Barring any unforeseen updates the online mode is, disappointingly, a little broken.
So what I’m really trying to say is…
King of Fighters XII is a tough game to evaluate. Visually it’s the best of its franchise but perhaps not the best compared to other 2-D fighters. The fighting mechanics are, at its core, quintessential KoF refined with a couple of thoughtful additions. The low number of playable characters and sparse offline single-player options leaves a glaring void. With clan support and the integration of spectating and playtime, the online multiplayer would be stellar if some of the lag issues were addressed. This game should be quite a treat for hardcore KoF fans, especially those who enjoy the earlier games. But other 2-D fighter fans will have a tough time choosing between this and Street Fighter 4 or BlazBlue.
King of Fighters XII was developed by SNK Playmore and distributed by Ignition Entertainment. It is currently available for PS3 and Xbox 360 for $69.99 CND. Review based on PS3 version provided courtesy of Ignition Entertainment and played for 7 hrs. Times beaten online: more than I’d like to admit.