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King of Fighters XII
Graphics: 8.5
Gameplay: 7
Sound: 8
Control: 8.5
Replay Value: 8
Rating: 7.3

I've had King of Fighters XII in my possession for many, many weeks now. I've played it quite a bit and have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Shortly after I got a build of KOF12, I also got BlazBlue, which prompted me to put KOF12 on the backburner for a while. Now, I know a lot of die-hard KOF fans will lambaste me for comparing the two together, but ultimately, they're both 2D fighters and will be compared to one another. Yes, sure, they're both completely different - that's one argument I've heard repeatedly. But that didn't stop Virtua Fighter and Tekken from enduring endless comparisons for the past 15 years.

King of Fighters is renowned for its groundbreaking 3-on-3 gameplay elements, and in the world of Street Fighter, King of Fighters has been Megadeth in the Metallica-Megadeth feud. Save your opinions on the quality of both bands, because I'm talking strictly about the popularity of both franchises. With the resurgence of the fighting genre, SNK has taken a note and has given us their twelfth KOF game, with 3-on-3 fighting intact.

Boasting a total of 22 fighters, this KOF game is actually quite a radical departure from the past games, which have been known to feature nearly double that amount. But with games like Street Fighter IV, Super SFII Turbo HD, BlazBlue, and Virtua Fighter V boasting a similar number of fighters, 22 is still a very acceptable by today's standards, and SNK has already stated to be working on more to download. The primary reason why KOF strays from featuring an excessive amount of fighters is largely due to the length it took SNK's developers to create one fighter.

Because the game utilizes all new hand-drawn sprites, for absolutely every piece of aesthetic detail, it took SNK as long as a year and a half to have a team of ten people finish work on one fighter. Even though the workforce behind KOF12 was decently sized, if you do the math you realize that it took quite a bit of time and manpower to develop the game, possibly as many as three years (assuming 100 people on character creation duty). To get the total of 22 fighters, the console versions feature 20 from the arcade game, and two exclusives: Mature and Elisabeth. The list as follows:

Ash Crimson
Duo Lon
Shen Woo
Kyo Kusanagi
Benimaru Nikaido
Goro Daimon
Iori Yagami
Athena Asamiya
Sie Kensou
Chin Gentsai
Terry Bogard
Andy Bogard
Joe Higashi
Kim Kaphwan
Ryo Sakazaki
Robert Garcia
Ralf Jones
Clark Still
Leona Heidern
Elisabeth Branctorche

On the topic of fighters, most of the characters featured are from the earlier entries in the series, with the exception of a select few. This was done intentionally to please fans of the franchise, and avoid having too many people complaining about a cast of unknowns. Furthermore, because the fighters are from older KOF games, they also wear their original KOF outfits, as well.

So far, I've only been describing what's to be found. What about what you won't find? Well, you won't find a storyline here. The game does not continue from where KOF2003 left off, so don't expect to play a game that'll fill in any gaps. Furthermore, and perhaps worst of all, because there is no storyline, there are no character endings, so running through the arcade mode has little-to-no incentive if you're the type who likes to unlock endings with every fighter.

The lack of a story and endings is a hard pill to swallow considering how superb BlazBlue was in that aspect. Then, there's the lack of variation. A limited amount of stages makes the game feel redundant, and many of the fighters have lost a number moves from their list. On top of that, there simply isn't anything beyond standard fighting to really entice. There are a number of things to like, but you'd have to be a hardcore fan to really love it and forget all about the other shortcomings.

Gameplay has returned to a four button layout, with the 3-on-3 matches consisting of five rounds each. Tactical Shift is gone, but a Critical Counter mechanic and a Clash mechanic has been introduced. Critical Counter is engaged when one player counters an attack with a strong punch, which then sets off the mechanic, putting the player into a mode that'll give them a brief window to allow them to string a small attack combo. And if your timing is solid, you can even pull off a special attack as your Critical Counter time expires.

The Clash system is similar to Street Fighter's parry system, in which when both fighters strike simultaneously using the same attack, the game will break the characters up by splitting them up, creating distance. Then there are the Guard Breaks and the Super gauge acts like it did in KOF94, slowly depleting once it's reached Max. The action has the tendency to go from fun, to absolutely intense, and I really loved that about the game. In fact, witnessing all of the crazy displays and pulling off some of the more advanced special attacks in the game are almost incentive enough to play the game.

From a competitive perspective, the most important aspect of this game is also one that started out great, but as people populated it more, it began to bog down. The online netcode for two-player matches was pretty solid early in the week KOF12 launched, but just a few days later, stability problems began to arise left and right. At the moment, SNK and Ignition are working on patching the netcode to ensure online matches are virtually lag-free, so you won't be able to call shenanigans when you get your ass handed to you. The fans are also asking for a boot player option, filtering games by connection speed, among other features. In the meantime, the list of features for online does include voice chat, worldwide rankings, matchmaking, in-game invites, and trophies. Hopefully SNK irons this out so we can bump the online score a bit up.

Much like BlazBlue, KOF12 looks absolutely gorgeous. Thanks to the hand-drawn visuals, the visuals look smooth and stunning, and it's certainly nice to see the game's fighters rendered in an all new look. The color palette is vivid, with a roaring light show for your eyes to indulge in every time a special attack is pulled off, giving the gamer the eye-candy they look for. The backgrounds, which are completely three-dimensional are a sight to see, but it'd have been nice to see more than just the five stages the game comes with, which is a huge disappointment. There are also some jagged edges to be seen when the game camera zooms in during close-quarter combat, nothing terrible, but it's there. Still, KOF12 is a great looking fighting game that'll really open up your eyes if you're playing it on a proper HDTV. We just hope to see some stages added as free DLC, or something - five is just too damn few.

Now, onto the audio. Sure, unlike BlazBlue there is no voice acting here, but there is a superb soundtrack with some great all new tunes, proving SNK's still got it when it comes down to a nice list of tunes. A sound test in sound options allows you to listen to the game's soundtrack if you wish, which is nice. But why didn't we get any remixes of tracks from older games? I hate it when new fighters come out and the developers keep the game stripped of references from past games, especially audio. Give us some nostalgia, won't you? Thankfully, sound effects such as all of the attacks sound bold, boomy, and fierce, helping to keep the solidity of the action present.

All in all, King of Fighters XII clearly lacks in certain areas. It has a poor selection of stages, no story, no endings, less moves, lack of innovative game modes, and an online netcode that is currently hampered. But with slick visuals and superb gameplay mechanics, KOF12 may be worth the price of admission to the devout KOF fan. Besides, once the netcode is fixed, that's one giant incentive to really get into the game, because the bottomline is that it's a ton of fun. Furthermore, with a PlayStation Store option in the main menu, I also expect to see new stages and fighters added sometime in the near future - I just hope we don't have to pay too much for them. I'd prefer not to pay for the stages, really - the fighters I understand take a lot more time and effort. Also, I should mention that the optional game install makes things run quicker, and I would recommend it.

If you're looking for only one full fledged fighter loaded to the brim with goodies, BlazBlue is what you get. Unless you're a hardcore fan, wait a bit before splurging on this $60 game. Give it time to hit $40 or less.

8/1/2009   Arnold Katayev