After two long years of silence, SNK Playmore has finally unveiled a playable version of King Of Fighters XII at the Amusement Machine Show in Japan, which will continue to run at the Makuhari Messe convention hall in Chiba Prefecture until September 20. Needless to say, GameSpot was there to check it out.
Development on KOFXII seemed to be progressing well, and the build shown at the AM Show was already 60 percent complete. Character animations are extremely smooth, and our experience with the game blasted away any of our doubts that the developer has just thrown its best animations into the previously released trailer to make it look good. According to the game's producer, there are about 400 to 600 animation frames per character, and it showed. You can see animation even in detailed parts such as the hair, and the characters are animated even when they're crouching in neutral position, not doing any sort of attack. Up until now, Capcom's Street Fighter III series has been considered by many to be the epitome of 2D fighting game graphics. KOFXII is of the same caliber, but with much larger sprites.
That said, for gamers looking forward to smooth, high-res character graphics that resemble an animated drawing, here's a big surprise: KOFXII is pixelly. But before you get disappointed, rest assured that the graphics are well detailed and that it's simply due to the philosophy of the developers. The artists at SNKP decided to purposely go with hand-dotted, pixelated art sprites rather than the cel-shaded line art style used in titles like the Guilty Gear X series and Arcana Heart, because that's how KOF has always been.
One of the things that may not be too obvious from seeing KOFXII's trailer is that, as previously mentioned, the characters in KOFXII are very big. In fact, the game zooms out when you're far away from each other, reminiscent of the Art of Fighting series. In terms of data, the character sprites are quadruple the size of their old NeoGeo era. With the size of their sprites, the artists were able to detail in natural-looking wrinkles on the characters' clothing, not to mention their facial texture and expressions.
The characters in KOFXII still have their KOF feel to them, because most of them have kept their traditional outfits and moves. The sprites have been redrawn from scratch, rather than being blown up and traced like in KOF '94 Re-Bout. The art style, especially the coloring, is distinct and strong compared to previous KOF games. While the male fighters in the KOF series have traditionally looked like slim fashion models rather than martial artists, it's a bit different in KOFXII. The fighters look more buff and muscular, and you can almost feel their weight, particularly due to the heavily colored art style and detailed shades. Athena, who's been criticized by some series fans as looking a bit chubby in KOFXII, actually seems normal-size in comparison to some of the other fighters.
The backgrounds in KOFXII are hand-drawn as well, rather than done in 3D like the recent home ports of SNKP games. The background animations loop and there aren't any interactive elements with the fighters, but they're drawn in high-resolution with detail. There are a lot of spectators in the background and the stages are based in various locations of the world, making the game feel like a real KOF tournament, similar to KOF '94 and KOF '97. Four stages were shown in the AM Show version, which didn't have location names but looked like a street terrace in France, a food market in China, a piazza in Russia, and a ritual ground in Egypt.
The effects for special moves have also been redrawn from scratch, and they animate extremely smoothly, complementing the character graphics. That also goes for the effects in the background, like flames in the Egyptian stage. There also seems to be some form of alpha channel in the game. When characters move into a shadowy part of the stage, they actually get casted by the shadow. If a body is partially in the shadow, only that part will get shaded.
KOFXII doesn't have as many characters as previous entries, perhaps because the artists simply can't draw enough in their given development time. The game will feature a total of 20 characters by default, which is actually four characters fewer than even the original KOF '94.
Eleven of the characters were playable at the AM Show: Kyo, Terry, Ryo, Ash, Robert, Kim, Ralf, Shen-wu, Benimaru, Leona, and Athena. That leaves nine characters to be unveiled, though we've already been given hints to three of them. In previous events, SNKP has shown illustrations of Elisabeth (from KOFXI), and in the KOFXII leaflet given out at this AM Show, Iori is printed on the cover. There's also a big wrestler with a blue mask facing his back on the same leaflet, which seems to be Raiden from the Fatal Fury series.
We heard from KOFXII's producer that the concept behind KOFXII will be "Rebirth." Given that the KOF franchise will be marking its 15th anniversary next year, the developer has decided to give a new start to the series with KOFXII. And indeed, the characters have gone back to their basic styles and classic outfits, losing their newer moves. For instance, Terry wears his old, red costume and has his trademark moves like Rising Tackle, Power Wave, Burn Knuckle, Crack Shoot, and Power Geyser, but he doesn't have his Power Dunk, Fire Kick, or Buster Wolf. Kyo is in his newer KOF '99 black leather jacket, but he fights in his old KOF '94 style with a projectile and flaming uppercut. Robert has reverted back to command move attacks, and he no longer plays with Guile-like motions.
Ryo still has a projectile that doesn't fly (though Robert's does). Otherwise, Ryo plays like his old self and no longer has his silly fighting pose from KOF96. Kim seems to have his move sets from KOF94, and his Hishoukyaku locks on to the character in the old style, jumping back after it hits. Athena is back in her schoolgirl outfit, and with the big sprites in KOFXII, you can see that the artists have drawn her eyes similar to the official illustration. The big redrawn sprites have also done wonders for Ash, who constantly has a sly look on his face as he's fighting. Shen wu, who had a rather stiff animation in previous entries, still moves around in similar poses and attacks, but the additional frames of animation has done wonders in making him look better.
Then there are the military fighters, Leona and Ralf. Leona plays the same way as before, but her costume has been newly redesigned to a tank top, which makes her look a bit like Blue Mary. Ralf is a major exception in the KOFXII roster so far, and he looks and plays like nothing before. He's been redesigned into an extremely hulky, muscular warrior, and for some reason, he's also lost most of his special moves for new ones, which makes him play as a close-range fighter now.
In terms of gameplay, KOFXII reverts back to the simple fighting from the '90s and feels very different from recent KOF entries. It's based more on reading the opponent's mind and making careful but powerful attacks, rather than executing long combos. Recent elements like the tactical order system and leader system have been abolished, and the game has returned to the classic three-on-three elimination match format. Together with that simplification, the developer has also toned down the game's jump speed. While KOFXII still lets you control your jumping height, spamming your opponent with short jump attacks is no longer an efficient strategy. That's not to say that you fight by causing small damage in the game. Combos can take away good life, and super moves, while too slow to be used in combos (at least in the current version), diminishes nearly a third of the opponent's life meter.
High-priority moves, which have always been an issue with KOF, also seem to have become a thing of the past. KOFXII has a collision system similar to that of Guilty Gear, where attacks cancel each other out when they collide. When that happens in KOFXII, the characters stop doing whatever attack they were executing and hop back into neutral position, bringing them into an even, 50-50 position in close range. From what we've played, the collisions seemed to happen quite often in KOFXII. Aside from normal attacks colliding out with each other, we've had it happen with Kim's Hououkyaku (his super) and a normal foot sweep, Athena's Phoenix Arrow in midair with Terry's Power Geyser, and Athena's Psycho Sword (antiair attack) with Kim's Hishoukyaku (aerial stomp attack).
The rounds in KOFXII can start off pretty intensely. The characters begin their matches by facing each other from a distance like in any other fighting game (to note, you can't move around before the fight begins). However, perhaps because of the large size of the characters, you're actually within reachable distance of each other. We experienced matches where both sides started out doing a special attack or a foot sweep and canceled each other out, and in some matches, one side would try to get an upper hand by jumping.
In terms of game controls, series fans shouldn't have any problems getting adapted to KOFXII since the developers have kept the same formula. You use four buttons for attacking: A and C are used for weak and fierce punch, with B and D for weak and fierce kick. You can roll by pressing the A and B buttons together. Throws are done by pressing A and C together.
As in previous KOF games, you can do a thrust attack by pressing the C and D buttons together. The developer has added a few new elements to it in KOFXII. If you keep holding on to the two buttons before letting go, it adds a guard-breaking attribute to your thrust attack. You can also hold back on the joystick when pressing C and D, which lets you do a guard attack. It lets you guard for a moment before executing your thrust attack, which can be useful for breaking out of situations.
The AM Show version of KOFXII didn't feature any form of power meter, and it allowed for infinite supers since the developers wanted to show visitors the impressive graphics. On the other hand, one of the new systems--the Critical Counter, which opens up opponents to combos when they're countered with a fierce attack in close range--wasn't implemented yet. This will be changed in the final product. So far, KOFXII plays pretty solidly, and we should see more progress in future beta tests. The game is slated for arcades in Japan next April.