The annual King of Fighters series is more than a decade old, and originates on arcade hardware that's older still, though the series' solid and varied gameplay has continued to bring the faithful coming back for more each year. Although many hardcore followers consider 1998's The King of Fighters '98 to be the best game in the bunch--and some feel the series has gone downhill since then--the 2D fighting series has finally returned in style with The King of Fighters XI, a fast-paced game with a huge, well-balanced character roster and a lot of gameplay depth. Even though the game originally appeared on the Atomiswave arcade platform (arcade hardware with the embarrassing distinction of having noticeable load times), the game traces its roots, and most of its art assets, back to developer SNK's NeoGeo platform, and this reliance on older graphics is hard to miss. However, if you're a bona fide 2D fighting-game fan, there's a good chance that graphics have always taken a backseat to gameplay for you, and if that's the case, you'll get all the great gameplay you can handle in this extremely well-crafted fighting game.
The King of Fighters series changed up the standard one-on-one style of most fighting games by introducing a unique team mechanic that lets you choose a group of characters to control across a series of rounds, and teams are back again in KOF XI, along with a new "shift" system. Shifting lets you call in another member of your team in the middle of a match, either to escape a severe beating or to assist in a few different ways to one you've been dishing out. The shift mechanic seems to work just fine and favors aggressive play; it's not a safe way to escape punishment (given that there's a slight delay on it), and it adds some good variety. If you're an ambitious sort who likes to string together huge combination attacks, you can use the shift mechanic for this purpose as well, though you can get through most of your matches with little to no use of it.
Regardless of what you think about the shifting system, the game's teams are quite solid because you can select from a huge, well-rounded group of characters. Most of them are old favorites from previous KOF games, and there's a few transplants from other SNK games. In addition, you can unlock several more hidden characters both by completing the single-player arcade mode, and by playing the "challenge" mode, which has a series of odd, puzzle-like requirements (such as defeating an enemy using only a certain type of attack). By default, the game offers a solid roster of 33 characters to play (divided among 11 teams of three apiece), though you can unlock 14 more characters, which brings the roster to a whopping 47 characters total. With the exception of the unlockable bosses, all of the game's characters seem balanced pretty well; just about any team of characters can take down any other team. And because there are so many characters choose from, there's a good chance you can find at least a few that you like. But you'll probably find a few that you don't care for, either, such as the extremely powerful sub-boss Shion, and the extremely unimpressive final boss, Magaki, who has an annoying voice and doesn't look terribly threatening, but is so absurdly overpowered that your final battles with him will be a chore rather than an exciting challenge.
The whisper-thin Magaki will be a bit hard for most players to look at, but depending on your experience with and expectations of fighting games, you might have some issues with the rest of the game's presentation. No, you're not going to get a game that looks as impressive in motion as a Virtua Fighter 5 or even a Soul Calibur 3. However, if you've played these types of games before, you should easily be able to look past the dated graphics and appreciate the game's artwork for what it is. This is truly a 2D fighting game with character sprites that have been retouched and tweaked countless times over the years, and they look just fine in motion. Many of the characters have plenty of personality and lots of different voice samples that play when they attack, get hit, or recover from being knocked down. The game's voice acting is all in Japanese, but it's all delivered decently well, and the menus and dialogue screens (for between-match cinematics and victory screens) are all in decently translated English. However, KOF XI's music isn't quite as impressive. Much of it is pretty generic high-energy techno and electronic stuff that's easy to forget.
The North American PS2 version of KOF XI seems to be a straightforward conversion of the original Japanese PS2 version of the game, minus support for online play. Both versions have one-on-one multiplayer, a single-player arcade mode, an alternate single-player team mode, a survival mode, a challenge mode, a practice mode, and a gallery of unlockable artwork. Likewise, the character roster is both big enough and deep enough (every character in the game has his or her own set of fighting maneuvers with special properties you'll want to experiment with) to keep you busy just playing the game in single-player mode against the game's fairly challenging computer-controlled opponents. However, like most head-to-head fighting games, KOF XI really doesn't really come into its own unless you have some good human players to take on.
KOF XI brings together some decent extras in the form of additional play modes and unlockable art galleries, a unique twist with the shift system, and a surprisingly good single-player experience. Each of these elements is a good addition, but taken together with a fighting game that offers solid, fast-paced gameplay and a huge roster of interesting and well-balanced playable characters, you get a very compelling package for any players who consider themselves to be 2D fighting-game fans.