Nothing says "summer" quite like a bunch of video games crammed into a convention center. And if there's anything that would make the summer better than having one of those games be The King of Fighters XII from SNK Playmore and Ignition Entertainment, we don't want to know about it. KOFXII, as the name implies, is the follow-up to KOFXI and is the latest game in longtime fighting game developer SNK's King of Fighters series, which has traditionally let players choose a team of three different characters to challenge other players' teams, rather than limiting matches to one character versus one character. KOF XII has the notable distinction of featuring all-new character sprites drawn from scratch; they're much larger and more vibrant. The new art seems to have come at a price because the game has a roster of only 22 characters (two of which are console-exclusive), a much smaller number than in previous games.
Who's Making This Game: SNK Playmore, the creator of the Art of Fighting, Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and King of Fighters fighting series for the discontinued NeoGeo arcade hardware. SNK Playmore is also known for creating a handful of other memorable properties, such as the Metal Slug side-scrolling shooter series, but the company's main attraction has always been its fighting games.
What The Game Looks Like: The King of Fighters XII makes a huge visual leap away from all the games that came before it with completely redrawn 2D graphics. The character sprites are now much larger than they were and more smoothly animated. The same can be said of the background stages, which are all vibrantly colored and full of expressive, animated characters, many of which make cameo appearances from other SNK fighting games. Like Capcom's Capcom vs. SNK series, the game also uses 3D lightmap effects for its special effects, such as the mystical glowing energy attacks that many fighters use.
What There Is To Do: This is a one-on-one fighting game with teams, so what there is to do is choose a team and beat on any other player who steps up and chooses his/her own team or, absent other players, to beat up on computer opponents.
How The Game Is Played: The game's control scheme is pretty similar to the original four-button NeoGeo control layout: There are two punch buttons (light punch and heavy punch) and two kick buttons (light kick and heavy kick), and pressing both light attack buttons at the same time causes your character to roll forward (or perform a recovery roll after being knocked down). The big change to the control scheme is that throws are now executed by pressing both punch buttons. It's a baffling change that makes throwing harder to do (and who can say why anyone would want throws to be harder to do, since there are still throw escapes), and if you've been playing KOF for 15 years (like we have), we guarantee you'll have trouble getting used to it. In addition, KOFXI has a new "critical counter" system that lets you charge up a "critical counter" meter to full, and then, if you happen to stuff an opponent's attack with a strong attack of your own, there will be a flash of green light onscreen and an enormous "Critical Counter!" message, and your opponent will be briefly stunned. At this point, you can perform a "custom combo" not unlike those of Street Fighter Alpha 2, pounding on your opponent for several free hits. It's not yet clear whether this is a useful strategic technique since it seems to happen so randomly.
Otherwise, the game seems to have the sometimes slippery, sometimes jerky pace of the later King of Fighters games, and a lot of the standard combos that you've come to expect to work from your favorite characters still do. However, some characters have gotten completely revamped: Sie Kensou is no longer a pastry-devouring Hong Kong goofball but is now a Wu-Shu fighter in full garb; Iori Yagami has a new, darker outfit and a totally revamped move set with no projectile attack and nothing but various claw swipe attacks; and some characters, like Joe Higashi and Andy Bogard, have apparently reverted to older versions of themselves, in this case, their KOF '94 versions. In addition, as you've probably heard, the console versions have two exclusive characters. Mature, the beehive-haired blonde femme fatale, seems similar to her previous versions, though her moves have apparently been tweaked to have a much shorter range. The other exclusive character is Elizabeth Blantorche, the "magical girl" who fights with a riding crop and who first appeared in KOFXI. Elizabeth's move set also appears to have changed somewhat, though we didn't get a chance to spend much time with her.
What They Say: This is going to be a tremendous way to kick off the 15th anniversary of the King of Fighters series!
What We Say: This is going to take a complex combination of playing more combined with more playing before we can give a real verdict. It won't be long, in any case, since the game ships next month.