Game Review: The King of Fighters XII
The King of Fighters series has cred to spare, but it's been a long time since the glory days of '98. Right now, the series gets more lip service than actual play. The King of Fighters XII has been branded as its grand rebirth, and its aesthetic overhaul gives it a shot at relevance in the crowded fighting genre. Can this niche king end up ruling over them all?
Past King of Fighters games have been famous for multi-part story arcs, but XII is primarily concerned with re-making its roster in HD. So in place of a story mode, the main event is a series of time trials. Most players won't miss the absence of a story mode, but because it's helped KOF set itself apart from its rivals in the past, fans might lament the omission. Outside practice mode and the option to fight one-on-one in versus, there are no other substantial diversions.
Talking sheer numbers, the game offers 22 characters and six stages to host the battles. The roster is actually kind of small for a King of Fighters game, but the selection offers a lot of choice in terms of looks and play styles. If your favorite didn't make the cut, you'll have to wait until next year.
There are some other obvious compromises. Some characters, like Kyo and Robert, have a substantial arsenal of special moves; others, like Mature and Clark, are limited to two apiece. While more moves don't necessarily make for better characters, it does feel a bit uneven. Likewise, taunts, character-specific intros, and multiple win-poses have been nixed for this installment. Again, these features aren't vital to a fighting game, but they're an indelible part of King of Fighters.
The selection of stages is also lean. With only six venues to choose from, including one nighttime variation on the opening stadium, you may feel as though you're rummaging though your refrigerator even though you know there's nothing new.
The game's AI can be challenging, but competing against another human being is really where it's at. King of Fighters XII's online play is fairly standard. You can fight one-on-one, mix things up three-on-three, or bring your best character into a three-player team comprised of real people. This all sounds solid in theory, but some players are experiencing performance issues during online matches. If the bugs are worked out, online play could be the game's saving grace in terms of replay value. In the worst case scenario, you end up with a great game that you'll seldom play unless you have live competition ready to go.
King of Fighters XII maintains a solid core fighting system, carrying on the series' tradition of three-on-three matches. When a fighter is knocked out, his next teammate steps into the ring and the victor gets a boost to his life bar to deal with the new challenger. This provides you motivation to familiarize yourself with more than one character, and really encourages experimentation. If you're comfortable with two of your picks, drafting an untested third member won't necessarily wreck your chances.
Actual fighting focuses on controlling space by jumping or rolling into advantageous positions, and finding openings for quick combos. You have a lot of options for movement and attacks, and a lot of ways to mix up your offense and defense. Jumping is particularly important. Short hops and hyper hops let you attack crouching opponents from overhead and cover distance fast, but they require some finesse with the controller. Rolls are also a key feature, as they let you pass through any normal attack. Just watch out for throws.
Advanced elements add fresh new touches to the series. The deadlock system causes strong attacks to clash and effectively cancel each other, a counterattack move absorbs a single hit and responds with a knockdown, and the critical counter system gives players an extended combo opportunity to pour on the damage--if they can land a risky counter-hit before their green bar depletes. Power attacks are nothing new to the series, but you can now charge up to break someone's guard or launch opponents into the air for more potential punishment.
Certain characters seem to have natural advantages, but the game's overall balance is smart and sound. Counterattacks and critical counters are both powerful techniques, but unsuccessful attempts leave you open. Basic combos are fairly forgiving in terms of timing, while those that deliver huge damage require you to be incredibly precise. It's not necessarily a fighter that anyone can enjoy, but veterans will definitely find their efforts rewarded by its depth.
Without a doubt, King of Fighters XII is the best looking game in the series. Of course, this is the series' first major visual upgrade in over a decade, so the bar wasn't set incredibly high in the first place. It's not quite the most impressive 2D fighting around, but it's still a strong showing that adds excitement, drama, and impact to the tournament proceedings.
The characters look great no matter what they're doing, with smooth animation conveying personality, style, and power. While they look great in motion, the huge and detailed fighters are literally a little rough around the edges. A filter option lets you blur the lines, resulting in a smoother image, but one that isn't as crisp. It's a bit of a compromise either way, but it's not going to stop a guy like Terry Bogard from looking like a badass.
The stages are densely rendered with background music that gets more up-tempo as a round nears its end. Like the characters, it's disappointing that there aren't more of them. Still, the game includes one unforgettable scene: a French marketplace crowded with female spectators whose ample girth is matched by their incredible enthusiasm.
By looking great in some ways and iffy in others, King of Fighters XII does invite a certain degree of nitpicking. What's up with those dirty-looking fire effects, anyway? But the game succeeds in creating a look that enhances and completes the experience.
If you have a love of fighting games, King of Fighters XII certainly deserves some of your affection. Though the game is lacking from a strictly consumer perspective, there's lots of value is in the fighting itself. King of Fighters XII is a successful rebirth, but it's clear that the series still has plenty of growing to do.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.