Review: The King of Fighters XII

KingOfFightersXII.jpg SNK’s King of Fighters franchise celebrates its illustrious 15th anniversary this year, and with the celebration has come the launch of the main series’ 12th installment on PS3 and Xbox 360. Interestingly, rather than make King of Fighters XII the biggest, baddest game yet, SNK took a different approach, trimming down the character roster and mode lineup in favor of completely redrawing the 2D sprites for the first time in over a decade and heavily emphasizing online competition. Is that a worthy trade-off? Well… I guess that depends on how much you value offline content in your fighting games.

Fundamentally, King of Fighters XII is quite strong. The classic three-character, team-based 2D fighting gameplay is back in good form, landing a powerful three-hit combo of tight, responsive controls (it actually plays very well without an arcade stick, unlike a lot of 2D console fighters), quick pacing and silky smooth animations sure to leave any fighting game fan bloodied and bruised with delight.

The core gameplay is largely the same as games past – though avid fans will surely pick up on alterations to certain characters’ fighting styles and other subtle tweaks many average players probably won’t notice or care about – but there are new mechanics for both newcomers and savvy veterans to master, namely the Critical Counter move. As you dish out and absorb damage, a gauge fills, and once it maxes out you are allotted a short time in which you can land a devastating Critical Counter on your opponent by hitting a strong punch or kick close-range counter with the proper timing. If you pull one off, it dazes your opponent and gives you a chance to pound on them without resistance. This opens up some new strategies for King of Fighters players to consider, and also makes a conservative plan of attack more feasible.

Other than that, there are basic counters and reversals, various special abilities and Super Special Moves unique to each fighter, throws, evasive rolls, and light and strong punches and kicks – all typical mechanics you’ll find in any respectable fighting game. I really can’t stress enough how well this game plays. From purely a gameplay perspective, I put King of Fighters XII up with the year’s best. In fact, in terms of playability it’s more responsive and balanced than Street Fighter IV, in my opinion.

As well as it plays, though, King of Fighters XII looks even better. SNK went back and overhauled the entire graphics engine, redrawing every last character and background in stunning HD. The 2D character sprites are crisp, vibrant and smoothly animated, and the stage backdrops are bursting with activity – you’ll see fireworks and camera flashbulbs flashing away in a nighttime sports dome, sailboats flowing by and flags whipping in the breeze at a seaside plaza in France, and hordes of spectators cheering away in a Chinese street market. And it may sound strange, but I also appreciate how the characters are slightly pixilated around the edges. It gives the art a cool retro flavor.

Unfortunately, SNK invested so much time and energy into updating the graphics that other equally important content – like, ummm… actual play modes – didn’t make the cut. King of Fighters XII is the thinnest game in the series to date. There are only six background environments and 22 fighters in all – that’s the smallest roster in series history – and the offline play modes are limited to a dull time attack Arcade mode, a 2-player (or vs. CPU) Versus mode, and a Practice mode. There are no storylines or even something as basic as a Survival mode. After you go through the Arcade mode a couple times and pound away in the Versus mode for a while you simply run out of things to do.

That’s when you head for the online servers for real players to compete against, only to find that the online infrastructure has many of its own troubles. Earlier this week – that’s over a month since the game first launched – a patch was released for the PS3 version, and from what I have played over the past few days the game’s horrifying lag problems seem to have finally been remedied. That said, the Xbox 360 version hasn’t been patched yet as far as I know and is still suffering from lag and slowdown, leaving many players stuck with an unplayable mess of an online mode (lag is a killer in 2D fighting games like this).

But lag isn’t the only online killer. Long after the lag issue is taken care of on both platforms, players will still be left searching through what is a tedious (and rather ugly) online menu interface. Finding matches and game rooms to join is fairly easy, but you have to click through too many menus just to get where you’re trying to go. The offline menus are hurt by curious design flaws as well, like how if you enter Versus mode you can’t simply press a button to back out to the main menu. You either have to reset the game or go through the character and stage selection process to get into a match where you can then quit back to the menu from the pause screen. I’m sorry, but that’s just lazy design.

Deep down, King of Fighters XII is a great fighting game verging on something truly special, and it’s an easy game for me to recommend to fans of the genre. But ultimately the lack of modes leaves the game incapable of maximizing its potential, and the one mode built for replay value – the online play – has taken far too long to hit its stride and to this day still suffers from a fairly clunky interface. I applaud SNK’s efforts in attempting to revitalize this classic franchise, but unfortunately it just misses the mark.

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Pros:
+ Intense, fast-paced fighting gameplay
+ Tight, responsive controls
+ Beautifully redrawn graphics
+ Good, balanced cast of fighters, even if it’s the smallest roster in the series

Cons:
– Severely lacking in offline play modes
– Unpolished online play
– Clunky menus

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also on Xbox 360
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Developer: SNK Playmore
Release Date: 7/28/09
Genre: Fighting
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!