After being tormented at work by the still-sealed King of Fighters XII box on my desk, my arrival home was celebrated with the breaking of the shrinkwrap. I immediately popped the game in my PS3 and waited for the magic to happen. And, did it ever happen. The attract mode is, as per usual with SNK, is amazing. I then installed the game and headed into arcade mode to test out my most anticipated game of the year.
As many people know, SNK is notorious for recycling their sprite art. While I like their old-school art, many of the models looked dated and needed an update. When SNK announced XII, one of the most exciting aspects of the game was the new sprite art. It's bigger, more detailed and yet still retains that old-school feel. Terry still sports his baseball cap and Kyo's still got his jacket and chained wallet. The difference however is in the overall fidelity of each model. Each character model has about 500 frames of animation and it shows.
I've never seen such beautiful and fluid animation in a fighter before. I always thought SFIII was impressively animated; KoF XII easily surpasses that. The characters are not only animated beautifully, they have personality. When Terry does a crouching light kick, he holds his baseball cap. Kyo wags his finger at his opponent after performing his super. It's not just the characters that are animated so well; it's also their clothes. Kim's Tae Kwon Do pants move with his breathing, complete with folds in the fabric that are in tune with his movement. It's all rather amazing. King of Fighters XII is the most beautiful fighter I've ever seen.
Approaches to graphics:
Let's talk about graphic approaches. I've seen lots of people saying BlazBlue looks better. BB is a nice looking, nicely animated game with sharp sprites due to the traditional cel animation approach used by Arc Systems. This approach results in very sharp, dotless sprites. KoF sticks to a traditional 2D videogame art form: dot-based graphics. The approaches are very different and have very unique end results. Most people claimimg BB loks better have only seen KoF on YouTube clips or in stills. I'd recommend seeing it in motion on your own television before making this call. The cast of KoF has much more personality and feels much more alive than ths cast of BlazBlue. Check out SNK's Dot Gallery
for more info on how the KoF sprites were created.
Music and sound
KoF has its usual guitar music. It's not that memorable to me. The sound effects, on the other hand, are amazing. The crowd will start out quiet and then cheer as the match goes on. Punches feel solid and throws sound brutal.
Note: I'm going to compare this game to SFIV and BlazBlue. It may not be pretty. Consider yourself warned.
The system in KoF is a mixture of old and new ideas from the series. There are still 4 buttons - A (l punch), B (l kick), C (h punch) and D (h kick). Rolling is still in and is done by hitting A+B. The difference this time is that each character has a unique style of roll. Throwing is done by pushing toward the other character and pressing both punches. One of the new additions is critical counter. By hitting C+D as an attack hits you when your critical counter meter is full, you'll initiate the system. A green flash will let you know it was activated, the camera zooms in, the crowd goes wild and your opponent is shocked and you get a free combo. It's very cinematic and cool. KoF players generally favor offensive poking, so A and B are often used to find holes in your opponent's defense and then combo from that. It's very fun. Kyo's light punches are fast and seem to have a good frame advantage.
The characters have weight. I'm not sure how SNK did this, but when I switched from Kyo to Mature, she felt lighter. Not just in movement speed but in general. I think this has to do with the speed with which her jump starts, how high she jumped and how quickly she recovers on landing. Terry is much more muscular and a bit slower in this game. He feels more like Clark and Ralf than the Terry I'm used to playing. I've never really noticed the weight of characters before so it was surprising.
KoF XII offers the best fighting system we've seen this year. SFIV has some interesting ideas but it's very unbalanced, especially with the console-specific characters. Links in SFIV are really hard and the inputs are not accurate. BlazBlue has a nice fighting system and it's fun to play but it feels a bit like the Smash Bros. of 2D fighters. Combos are pretty easy and each character has a specific way they should be played. KoF feels more open and tighter than either of these games. SNK has made the inputs a bit more forgiving and the links in combos are much easier than in SFIV. After a few hours of play, I was consistently linking a series of punches and kicks into Kyo's command throw. It was pretty intuitive and fun to do. The timing feels better than in SFIV by a mile. KoF is faster and more poke heavy than SFIV, but not as fast as BB.
I'm not going to go too deep into online as the game is not officially released yet and the online will be patched for PS3 next week. I played about 7 online matches last night. 1 against a stranger that lagged horribly and 6 against a friend who lives nearby. Those matches were on par with SFIV so I'm optimistic about the patch. Honestly, if online were as good as BB, this would be the best fighter this year. I'l write more about online performance after the patch. The invitation system is interesting. Once a room is created, the player pulls up the XMB, scrolls to the friend list, hits triangle on a name and then sends an invite. To accept an invite, pull up the XMB, scroll to your name in the friend list, hit triangle and choose Accept Invitation. It's simple but not what I'm used to. I like that this keeps the room screen clear of clutter, unlike the BB screen, which is insane with all of the scrolling text and information.
KoF XII is an amazing fighting game. The graphics, the system and the atmosphere are all enthralling and refined. It feels better than any other fighter I've played this year. It seems that KoF 94-XI were just a warm up. If you started with SFIV, you should play this to get a feel for the roots of the genre and to see how much tighter 2D feels. If you stated with BlazBlue, you should play KoF to see the series that inspired many of the concepts in BB; running, back dash and offensive poking were all created by KoF.
If you like fighters, you owe it to yourself to check out KoF XII.