SNK's venerable King of Fighters fighting game series started more than 10 years ago, and it has seen a new installment each subsequent year ever since it started. Given KOF's obvious staying power, and given that SNK's NeoGeo hardware--home to King of Fighters for all these years--is ancient (yet timeless, like any classic console), it's not surprising that the company would make an effort to update the series to become, well...more like other modern fighting games. KOF: Maximum Impact is the first fully 3D game in the series, which might have seemed like a fundamentally exciting transition at some point long ago, but today this doesn't seem all that remarkable. Luckily, KOF: Maximum Impact plays pretty well, and it features many recognizable characters from the series along with pretty much all their signature moves. The result is mostly suited for card-carrying King of Fighters fans, though the addition of a solid online play component makes the Xbox version of the game considerably more appealing than its PS2 predecessor.
Ask any fan of SNK's fighting games what they like so much about those games, and one of the most common answers you'll get would be that those games have a tremendous amount of personality. Despite the limitations of the NeoGeo hardware, SNK's artists and animators managed to create some interesting and memorable characters for its fighting games, which is partly what kept so many players coming back year after year. Many SNK fans rued the company's early attempts to transition from 2D to 3D, because so much of the nuance and detail in the character designs got lost in translation--as did, more importantly, a lot of the depth and complexity of the action. Years have passed and 3D technology has gotten a lot better. The potential exists, perhaps, for a 3D game to capture both the personality as well as the precision of a 2D fighting game. Unfortunately, KOF: Maximum Impact is not such a game.
SNK fans will recognize the characters, moves, and animations here as being clearly suggestive of the series' 2D roots, but it's just not done with the same pixel-perfect flair. The graphical details between all the different characters are missing, so you'll recognize them because of their clothes and special moves, not because of their faces. Actually, probably the best thing about KOF: Maximum Impact--and to the game's credit, this is facilitated by the transition to 3D--is that all of the characters feature alternate outfits, which, in some cases, are pretty wild. After all these years, SNK fans will appreciate seeing characters like Iori Yagami or Mai Shiranui in something other than their signature attire. Furthermore, with the exception of some occasional fits of slowdown during flashier super moves, KOF: Maximum Impact runs nice and fast. Ultimately, the 3D graphics on display--which are mostly just for show, since KOF: Maximum Impact basically plays like a 2D fighting game--definitely aren't bad, and they look a little cleaner than they did on the PS2. The characters look awkward when they're standing still and while emulating the fighting stances of their 2D counterparts. However, the characters do look better in motion, and they look quite good in the disappointingly rare event that you get to see them up close.
It's been more than six months since KOF: Maximum Impact landed on the PS2, but the extra time evidently gave the developers some room to make key adjustments and additions to the Xbox version of the game. Apart from the inclusion of online play, the most notable change from the PS2 version is the addition of a Japanese language option. By default, you'll still hear all the characters speaking in English, but you can go into the options menu and make them speak Japanese just like they always have. The English-speaking soundalikes for some of SNK's classic characters aren't that bad, but still, these characters' original voices have been as distinctive as their moves and appearances. The rest of Maximum Impact's audio is forgettable, mostly consisting of bland guitar rock (representing a missed opportunity to bring back some memorable King of Fighters character themes) and serviceable sound effects.
Weighing in at less than two dozen, the roster of characters in KOF: Maximum Impact isn't huge. Most of these will be recognizable to fans of the series, while the new characters--including the Meira brothers, who look like your typical anime pretty boy / bad boy ravers, and Lien, a full-figured British agent who looks suspiciously similar to the No One Lives Forever shooters' heroine, Cate Archer--fit in OK with the rest of the cast. The balance between the characters is highly suspect. Some, such as Rock Howard and Iori, have access to fast, strong moves that have no real weaknesses even if they're used repeatedly. These balance issues weren't necessarily a problem in the PS2 version, which couldn't be played online, but on Xbox Live they could be crippling. Already there are highly experienced players online routinely dishing out near-deadly combos that can end a round in just a few seconds. These must be the "maniax" the Xbox version's sub-subtitle refers to. Unfortunately, the fun they're having at ungodlike players' expense exposes some of the game's problems.
For what it's worth, online play works just as you'd expect, offering up smooth gameplay, numerous adjustable options, leaderboards, convenient character and stage select systems, and more. It's even got a few features that go beyond the call of duty, namely the ability to set up and host your own tournaments at specific times for up to 128 different participants. Stuff like this helps set a higher standard for online-enabled fighting games and bodes well for SNK's future efforts online. As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, KOF: Maximum Impact ironically represents a step backward from previous King of Fighters installments, in that it does not focus on the series' signature three-on-three battles. Instead, much like in any run-of-the-mill fighting game, you typically just pick one character at a time and pit that character in fast-paced one-on-one battles that are often dominated by damaging super moves. There's a three-on-three option in the versus mode, but loading times in between bouts make these competitions feel a little disjointed.
King of Fighters has always featured pseudo-3D gameplay in which characters could sidestep to avoid certain attacks and projectile moves, and this ability is retained in KOF: Maximum Impact. Characters can also tumble forward or backward, which may be a useful tactic for getting in close or evading a dangerous foe. Other than that, your character charges up to three stocks of energy during the course of attacking and defending, and these may be used to unleash damaging, often high-priority super moves that can quickly turn the tables. Since super moves tend to come out quickly, they can be strung into combos for some very quick wins. It's worth noting that KOF: Maximum Impact plays very fast, which is mostly to the game's credit. Pressing the attack is the way to win, especially since a guard meter prevents opponents from indefinitely defending, lest their guard be broken.
Probably the biggest change in KOF: Maximum Impact's gameplay versus previous King of Fighters games is in how you may continue to attack an opponent who has been knocked down (something that has not been possible, for the most part, in the 2D games in the series). What this means is that if you manage to corner a foe, it's possible to really lay into him with damaging juggle combos followed by more punishment when the foe hits the ground. Characters can perform a recovery roll to quickly regain their footing after some knockdown moves, but in general, getting cornered in Maximum Impact is a recipe for serious injury. It's actually pretty fun to mess with the game's open-ended combo system, since it lets you chain together a bunch of hits as well as connect multiple super moves in a row, but it can also lead to some pretty one-sided battles.
KOF: Maximum Impact doesn't offer much in the way of gameplay modes. There's a perfunctory "story mode," in which a conniving weasel invites you to take on several characters one after another until you square off against Duke, the game's gratuitously overpowered boss. Furthermore, none of the characters has any kind of real ending. At least you can unlock character profiles and some slightly alternate outfits by finishing the story mode. These give you access to all the characters' voice clips and animations, so they're a nice bonus. There's also a mission mode, in which you gradually escalate to some very tough scenarios that put you at a heavy disadvantage. These can be a fun challenge for experienced players, but they're not presented well, and the rewards for beating the missions pretty much boil down to extra colors for your characters. There's also a practice mode and a versus mode, as well as a view mode for checking out replays and screenshots of your matches.
The one thing the PS2 version of this game arguably has on the Xbox version was the presence of a bonus features disc, which has developer interviews and other content of that nature. But it all seemed like a bit much for a 3D fighting game that could hardly be considered ambitious, so its absence is no great loss. In the end, KOF: Maximum Impact is probably SNK's best foray into the realm of 3D fighting games yet, but then again, that's not saying much. Nevertheless, fans of King of Fighters, or fighting games in general, might as well check out Maximum Impact to see some of the classic characters' new duds and to experience a few decent, fast-paced bouts.