Perhaps the thing that most separates KOFXII from Street Fighter IV, however, is the very fact that it's a KOF game. The 15-year-old series is known for a number of core gameplay mechanics and they're faithfully reproduced here. Three versus three battles. Four button combat. Forward and backward rolls. Terry and Andy Bogard, Kim Kaphwan, Robert Garcia, Ash Crimson, Iori Yagami and infamous Ryu rip-off Ryo Sakazaki. Everything you know and love from the KOF fighters series is present and accounted for.
Or is it? SNK Playmore's implemented some changes that are bound to cause controversy among the KOF community. Some of the series' staple characters have seen their moves completely changed (Iori Yagami and Aoi Hana are notable victims). It’s also plays slower – more similar in terms of feel to KOF '98 than KOFXI (some will be pleased by this shift, some won’t).
More controversial than any move set change is KOFXII's art style. It's remarkable for being completely hand-drawn, giving the game a distinctive look that's deliberately designed to look old yet new. SNK Playmore's decision to dump the character sprites used over the past 14 years was always going to slice the KOF hardcore down the middle like a virtual samurai sword through video game code. On the one hand it's gorgeous in motion (screenshots don't do it justice), full of captivating, busy backgrounds and bright, fluid character animations. On the other hand it looks too pixellated, a feeling perhaps made more pronounced given Street Fighter IV's beautiful 2.5D graphics are still fresh in the memory. Yes it's in HD, the collision detection is solid and the characters are expressive, but the graphics are unlikely to wow KOF newcomers and may well alienate veterans. I love it. You might not.
Perhaps by way of peacemaker, SNK Playmore has added two console-exclusive characters to the 360 and PS3 versions of the game - Elizabeth and Mature (fingers crossed we'll get more as DLC). Interestingly, the PS3 version features an exclusive clan mode that lets you form and fight three-man teams. Clans will be able to accommodate up to 100 players, and clan leaders will be able to send “inspirational messages” to his or her followers. This, to me, sounds great, almost MMO-like.
SNK Playmore's slogan for KOFXII is “KOF Re-Birth”, and for many hardcore fans of the series it'll be just that. But the bigger question is, will newcomers spoiled on Street Fighter IV be bothered to take notice? We'll know soon enough.
The King of Fighters XII is due out for Xbox 360 and PS3 this July.