The King of Fighters NeoWave E3 2005 Hands-On

This souped-up version of SNK's classic three-on-three fighting franchise will feature Xbox Live support and more.

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One of the games on display at SNK's floor space at the Electronic Entertainment Expo was The King of Fighters NeoWave, an updated version of the company's most popular fighting game series. Ostensibly similar to previous installments, KOF NeoWave is the first KOF game that uses the Atomiswave hardware instead of the timeless NeoGeo hardware that was the series' home for more than a decade. In practice, the Atomiswave hardware facilitates some flashier visual effects and higher-resolution graphics than what you can get on the NeoGeo. More importantly, though, the overall look and feel of the gameplay remains intact, so the transition has been relatively smooth and subtle.

We played the arcade version of the game at E3 and know to expect the same experience--plus online play--on the Xbox this fall. A PlayStation 2 version was also planned, but the sell sheet for the game states that the game is coming only to the Xbox, implying that SNK is still having problems breaking through to Sony with its 2D games. At any rate, Xbox Live support can help make any good fighting game much better, so we're excited that all of SNK's fighting games headed to the Xbox will feature online play.

The King of Fighters NeoWave basically plays like other King of Fighters games, in that you pick three characters (from an impressive roster of 43 fighters) and then duke it out against opposing teams of three. Characters fight one-on-one, until either side is completely wiped out. We noticed right away that the character select screen featured some brand-new artwork of all our favorite characters, and this high-res art speaks to one of the advantages of the new Atomiswave hardware. Once you're engaged in battle, though, the game looks a lot like earlier KOF titles, recycling a lot of the same graphics and animation, though some of the characters have been redrawn. We were especially pleased to find a young Geese Howard among the game's lineup. Geese is a classic SNK villain, but his younger, long-haired self has appeared only as a hidden fighter in Art of Fighting 2, until now.

What caught us off guard about the gameplay is the new five-button control scheme. All previous KOF games have used a four-button setup: weak punch, weak kick, strong punch, strong kick. Here, there's a new "heat mode" button--toggling it causes your fighter to flash red while his or her health gradually drains. You can cause the most damage while in heat mode, but the trade-off is obvious. Since the button is right in the middle of the other four, we pressed it by accident a number of times and didn't find it to be immediately useful...at least partly because we're so used to playing KOF games a certain way. Even if we didn't get a good feel for the new controls, though, we're in favor of KOF trying to evolve with the times.

KOF NeoWave also lets you choose from several different modes for your characters, enabling them to use super cancel moves, guard breaks, or what's called "max2." All these are tactical variants that can facilitate more of an offensive or defensive style of play, depending on your preferences.

We're looking forward to playing much more of The King of Fighters NeoWave, which looked to be a solid translation of one of our favorite 2D fighting game series and features most of our favorite characters from the series' past. We'd expect nothing less than arcade perfection from the Xbox, along with online play that should help create lots of competition at all hours. Hopefully the game will also manage to find its way onto the PlayStation 2. The King of Fighters NeoWave is slated for release on the Xbox in November of this year.

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