I'll try get through this hands-on preview of The King of Fighters XII without mentioning Street Fighter IV. Oh crap....
My bad. Oh well, on the upside, it's out of the way, freeing me up to talk about this next-gen-powered reinvention of one of the most-loved fighting game series ever without reference to that other fighting game... ah to hell with it. The unavoidable fact is that most fighting game fans will be punch drunk on Street Fighter IV's intoxicating cocktail. It might have only come out four months ago, but it's still the only thing keeping many going on Xbox LIVE and PSN. So, the question is: why should you care, let alone be interested in SNK Playmore's fighter?
Playing a preview build that feels about as finished as any preview build I've ever played, I'm struggling to answer that question myself. At first glance it's remarkably similar to Capcom's classic. There's an arcade mode, a versus mode, training, online play and a replay mode. Special moves are based on half circles, quarter circles and dragon punch motions. You can dash back and forward. Blocking is directional, not an input command. Throwing is two buttons and back or forward. Moves can be cancelled. There's even a Focus Attack-style move, wonderfully named the Blow Back Attack. Holding down hard punch and hard kick charges up a strong attack. Releasing will crumple your opponent to the floor. If you then dash in before they hit the floor you're able to execute a combo. If you hold back while doing the Blow Back you'll trigger your character's parry animation. This absorbs a hit before smacking your opponent halfway across the 2D arena. Any Street Fighter IV player who's got a hang of the Focus Attack will be able to pull off the Blow Back Attack with ease.
But dig a little deeper and KOFXII reveals some interesting features that suggest it's got enough to make it worth keeping tabs on. The Critical Counter is one of them. Under your life bar is a smaller bar that fills as you land hard punch and hard kick attacks. When it's full you're able to trigger a Critical Counter. If you pull it off it opens up your opponent to an unblockable custom combo. The camera zooms in and the action goes mental - this is KOFXII at its best.
Oh, and another interesting difference: there are no individual character stories. Plot isn't the point here. Instead, every character will share a common ending. For me, this isn't a problem at all. I couldn't give a fireball about fighting game plots - it's all about the multiplayer. Street Fighter IV would have been better off without its awful anime cut scenes, and no doubt KOFXII will be too.
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.