It floors me when I think of how many members of the current fighting game scene have never touched a King of Fighters game. KoF was once held in the same regard as the various Street Fighters, being the go-to alternative to Capcom's offerings. It still remains one of the most popular fighting game franchises on a worldwide basis, but a combination of unfortunate factors surrounding parent company SNK steadily took its toll on KoF over the course of a decade. King of Fighters XII was intended to bring the franchise into the HD era with an all-new graphics engine, but was so lacking in features and polish that it felt like a retail demo for a game that could potentially be really awesome. Well, you can forget that "potentially" part, because King of Fighters XIII is that awesome game.

King of Fighters is a team-based, 2D fighting game. When I say "team-based," I don't mean the sort of tag teams seen in the Versus series or Tekken Tag Tournament: you play by picking teams of 3 fighters, and once one guy's down, the next character on the team hops in to take their place until everyone is eliminated. You can't call in your teammates for assists or to swap out; you're strictly playing one-on-one the whole time. It might sound restrictive, but it's actually the opposite. In a game like MvC3, you might feel discouraged from playing characters you like because they simply won't work in a tag-team dynamic. The format of KoF ensures that you can enjoy using whatever combination of characters you please.

The first thing you'll notice when you boot up KoFXIII is that the game has an incredibly distinct -- and incredibly beautiful -- visual style to it. Characters and backgrounds are all drawn and animated with traditional 2D sprites in stunning high resolution detail. The characters look like moving paintings, and their animations and designs are full of interesting little nuances that make each of them distinct and memorable. Those disappointed with the limited cast selection of the previous release will be pleased to hear that many fan favourite characters like Mai Shiranui and K' make their gorgeous high-resolution debut in KoFXIII, and they look every bit as good as you've imagined.

But the most amazing visuals in the world don't mean anything if the gameplay can't back them up. Fans need not worry here, because the fighting engine in KoFXIII is fantastic. The overall feel of the game is more grounded than titles like BlazBlue or MvC3 (as in, no super jumps or super-high-speed motions), but slightly faster paced than Street Fighter IV. You have four attack buttons -- two punches and two kicks -- and a wealth of regular and special attacks for each of the 30-some characters available. The timing for combos feels less strict than Street Fighter IV, but considerably less lenient than a Versus title -- in other words, you won't struggle with incredibly tight links, but you also won't be able to pull off a bunch of easy chains. But you've also got a wealth of options available to you at all times.

As you fight, you'll accumulate stock in two meters: Power and Hyperdrive. The Power meter is for executing traditional-style EX special attacks and supers, as well as dodges and counters on block. Hyperdrive is a bit more interesting: with correct timing, you can expend the Hyperdrive meter to chain specials into other specials and even supers. You can also spend a completely stocked Hyperdrive bar to enter into a "chain combo" style mode that will let you chain all manner of moves together within a limited time period. It's a system that's fairly easy to grasp, but offers a great amount of depth. Coupled with the variety in the cast, there's a lot to keep the most voracious fighting fiends satiated for quite some time.

The King of Fighters XIII

No doubt in response to the criticism levied at KoFXII, the developers at SNK Playmore have taken it upon themselves to pack King of Fighters XIII with all sorts of features. There's the standard-issue single-player arcade mode where you fight teams of opponents in sequence, but there's also a story mode that goes more in-depth with the various personalities and factions within the King of Fighters universe via text and cutscenes. KoF has traditionally put a great deal of emphasis on its story, and it's great to see it fleshed out in an appealing way -- though the lack of additional voiceover is a bit of a disappointment, and series newcomers will likely just scratch their heads at some of the plot points.

 Next page: Learning the ropes

I've often complained about the fact that fighting games tend to throw new players into the fray without bothering to really show them the ropes. KoFXIII actually starts off with the tutorial option selected when you first boot the game, which is very smart. The actual tutorials themselves, however, are a bit lacking. While they go over the functions of the controls and the various options you have in combat, they often fail to emphasise key elements like timing and practical in-fight use, leaving new players with an understanding of function but not application. What are far better are the trials available in Mission Mode, which demonstrate and teach a series of combos each character can use effectively and feasibly in a fight. They'll still take practice to pull off consistently, but it's wonderful to have such a nice training resource available. Practice mode also offers a wealth of options for specific character training, and you can even make use of it while you wait for online matches to start up.

There are a lot of other great extras, too: Time Attack and Survival modes, a gallery for art and music, a nicely featured replay saving/storage mode for online bouts, and a (free!) character colour editor. But what's really going to be a selling point for some is the online play. In my testing, I was easily able to hop online, find a room, and get some matches going. Your connection is ranked with up to 4 bars, and anything within the 3-4 range should play smoothly. You can search for matches based on connection strength, so finding players to fight against with a good connection won't be too tough. One thing you can't do, however, is spectate matches, which is a serious downer. Still, after the disaster that was KoFXII's online play, KoFXIII is definitely passable, even if it's not perfect.

The King of Fighters XIII: Specs

  • Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 Age rating: 12
  • Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 Age rating: 12

OUR VERDICT

King of Fighters XIII is a title that every fighting game fan should take notice of. It's gorgeous and surprisingly accessible, yet challenging and deep for competitive play. There's no shortage of solo gameplay appeal, either: the characters are great, the story is intriguing, and there's a wealth of varied content to keep you playing. There are a few issues, and the online isn't perfect, but it's clearly a game that's had a lot of love poured into it. SNK Playmore clearly took the criticisms surrounding KoFXII to heart, and used them to deliver a superb product in KoFXIII -- an example I hope more developers will follow. If you've been clamouring for a Street Fighter IV alternative, your new King has just arrived.

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