SNK’s King of Fighters (KOF) franchise has been around for an astounding decade and a half, and with a loyal fan-following almost rivalling that of Street Fighter, the latest iteration of the long running fighting series has been anticipated for years as the rebirth of the series, which would finally place it firmly atop the podium. But does King of Fighters XII stay true to the franchise known for its massive character roster and over the top team fighting action?
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KOF XII follows the same formula as its 2D, hand-drawn predecessors – 3-on-3 team battles with teams consisting of any combination of players from the select screen. The idea is to mow down the opponent teams as quickly as possible in front of an arena audience (which is quite bizarre at times) and win the tournament. On defeating a fighter from the other team, the winner gets a small health boost and the battle continues till all 3 fighters of one team are eliminated. Each character has an assortment of regular attacks and special attacks to make his/her way to the podium finish.
The fighting system is implemented quite well. Like most fighting games, the face buttons are mapped to heavy and light kicks and punches and special moves are similar to those in Street Fighter such as quarter/half circle rotations of the analog stick and some face button combinations. Hitting both punch buttons executes a throw. Most of the interesting bits come into play during close combat. When the fighters get a little too up, close and personal, pressing both heavy attack buttons together will perform a ‘Blow Back’ attack, a push of sorts, which knocks down the opponent, giving your fighter some room to breathe.
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Another defensive manoeuvre comes in the form of a ‘Guard Attack’, which is implemented by hitting the same two heavy attack buttons while pressing back on the D-pad/joystick. This interesting move, if timed correctly, comes in handy to counter the opponent’s aggressive strike and send him whirling to the ground with the automatic follow-up attack (quite analogous to Street Fighter IV’s focus attack). Another evasive move is the quick roll, which can be done in either direction by pressing both light action buttons. There’s also a ‘Deadlock’ feature, where if both fighters connect their attacks at the same, both are pushed back a couple of steps. All these moves work well against rush attack players who merely button spam for their cheap wins.
As is standard with most fighting games, there is also a super bar that fills up when special moves are performed. When the bar is full, the player can perform a super move which deals a massive blow to the opponent’s health. In addition to the super bar, is the critical counter bar, which fills up when damage is dished either way (SFIV’s ‘ultra’ anyone?). When this bar is filled up, it starts blinking like crazy for a short period of time, indicating that the fighter is now capable of unloading a ‘Critical Combo’, which is similar to the guard attack, except it is set off by correctly timing the heavy punch button to counter the opponent’s hit when up close. This move stuns the opponent temporarily and allows the players to chain regular/special attacks together as massive combos. If connected properly, a Critical Combo can come in handy during the last moments of play by easily allowing the player to turn the tide of the battle in his favour.
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The new defensive gameplay mechanics bring something refreshingly novel to the 15-year old franchise, giving it a new coat of gloss. But barring the inclusion of those, King of Fighters XII seems to regress more than it progresses. Compared to other franchises, KOF XII has a healthy total of 22 characters but in contrast to the series’ previous iterations, each having an impressive roster comprising of not less than 30 fighters, it falls well short of expectations. The exclusion of certain fan favourites such as the well endowed Mai Shiranui is enough of a reason for loyal fans to riot on the streets.
The characters which are present feel unbalanced. Some like Terry Bogard and Kyo Kusanagi feel overpowered while Elizabeth and Leona often feel like they can be trampled on easily. Also, some characteristic special moves are noticeably absent, making some characters, like the playful old man Chin, whose awesome ‘drinking’ moves from the previous games have been spat out, a lot less awesome. Why most characters have to content themselves with a single super move while a few have multiple is also quite baffling.
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Now it would be unfair not to mention that no matter how ridiculous the plots are of fighting games, they are never-the-less enjoyable and prolong the arcade experience. Previous iterations of the series featured stories revolving around the KOF tournaments organised by massive in stature and eccentric in nature stereo-typical final bosses. Also, various characters had their own legendary back stories ranging from the Orochi clan saga to those involving the mysterious genetic manipulators NESTS. King of Fighters XII, unforgivably, has absolutely no story to speak of. Even in the jaded opening cinematics and the equally boring mid/end game animated videos featuring news reporters covering the event, there is no real mention of the origins of the tournament.
The lack of a narrative also translates into the lack of an end game boss, which comes as a massive disappointment at the end of the 10 minutes of arcade mode. More disappointing is the fact that the arcade leaderboards consist solely of the time it takes to rummage through 5 teams of 3. Since there are no points based on aggressive/defensive style or proper assortment of moves used, one can simply button-mash his way to the top of the rankings. Add to it, the blank loading screens which are seen more than often, even in the middle of the 3 member team fights and an equally drab menu, and one can’t help but feel that the presentation is sorely lacking in almost all aspects. The absent customised character endings and only a single boring ‘Congratulations’ screen shown at the end of the arcade mode only add to the misery.
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Undoubtedly, the heart of current-gen fighting game lies in its online mode, in which case KOF XII is definitely no marathon runner. The net-code never seems to match up to the fierce gameplay of the title and lag results in moves being handled out seconds after being punched on the joystick. Perhaps a patch can remove the online shortcomings, but its unforgiving why the online appears so broken in the first place. One interesting feature of the online mode is the ability to save the match replay and play it back from the main menu. This might help players study strategies of their online opponents, but with all the lag present, they’re not of much use. The only other non-online modes are the tutorial and the versus mode. The former is self explanatory and the latter is just an offline multiplayer mode where the 3-member team criterion is relaxed for single matches, with the player allowed to brawl with a single fighter in his team. The replay feature is also present in the versus mode to serve as a constant reminder of the humiliation pelted out to one’s not-so-dexterous buddies.
The graphics are a huge improvement from the earlier games, with each character getting a complete overhaul and 4 times as many pixels as his previous iterations. The animations are smooth and fluid and the characters are beautifully rendered. On the flip side, the sprites are drawn for standard resolution and look horribly pixelated when scaled up to HD. Considering its 2D animated contenders – Super Street Fighter II Turbo Remix and Blazblue – manage to run pretty well on the PS3/Xbox 360 with high definition character sprites, KOF XII falls flat on its face. Adding to the embarrassment are the obnoxiously loud background stages and the extra flashy health and super bars, as well as the completely blank loading screens, which appear even in middle of the 3-on-3 battles, and the dull anime style standard cut scenes.
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In the sound department, the music is quite likeable with each stage getting 2 slightly variant instrumental tracks. Most of the music feels like gothic-rock and accompanies the fights well. There aren’t many character dialogues to speak of and the ring-announcer has an irritating Japanese-‘Engrish’ accent.
While King of Fighters XII boasts of noteworthy gameplay mechanics capable of making it a strong contender in the current fighting games roster, everything else about the game seems lacking, the biggest gripe being the bland arcade and the online modes offering absolutely no support to the core gameplay. Rather than being the rebirth of a legendary franchise, KOF XII looks like a half-baked, rushed attempt, whose purpose is to serve as an experimental prototype for future titles in the series. Let us hope that KOF XIII manages to reclaim the ‘King’ of Fighters throne abandoned by this mediocrity.
(+) Refreshingly great fighting mechanics
(+) Smooth character animations
(-) Pixalated graphics; half baked overall presentation
(-) Unsatisfactory arcade mode with no end boss
(-) No Mai Shiranui (and other fan favourites)
(-) Broken online mode
Title: King of Fighters XII
Developer/Publisher: SNK Playmore/Ignition
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Rs 2,499), PlayStation 3 (Rs 2,799)