Publisher: SNK Playmore
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
Pentium 4 2.0 GHz, 1 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 9500 GT (256MB), 5 GB Hard Drive space
The fighter renaissance that was initiated with Street Fighter IV led to a number of older series returning to the fore with a reinvigorated step. Capcom continued on with Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition, a new Marvel vs. Capcom, and a new crossover title with Tekken while Warner Bros. released NetherRealm’s Mortal Kombat and SNK Playmore returned with The King of Fighters XIII. For fighting fans, it was a great time to be a gamer. A console gamer, that is. Despite Capcom’s release of an exceptional version of Arcade Edition for PC, and following it up with Street Fighter X Tekken, other studios failed to follow suit—initially, at least. Now, several years later, and months after Mortal Kombat Komplete Edition, PC gamers are finally getting the last of the big three major releases with SNK Playmore’s The King of Fighters XIII Steam Edition. It might have taken a while, but the wait has been worth it.
The King of Fighters series is one of the oldest in the genre, dating back to 1994 as a sort of all-star collection of fighters cribbed from earlier SNK games. The series had several strong years, as each release up through 2000 improved on the last, though some of the latter entries fell short. The lackluster King of Fighters XII might have left many fans disappointed, but its shortfalls only make XIII and its refined mechanics, stellar cast, and a solid set of gameplay modes and options that much more impressive.
When the series debuted, it was noteworthy for not only including characters from other games but for also having a more cohesive system than many of SNK’s previous fighters, such as Art of Fighting and World Heroes. The core cast of Fatal Fury, one of the better Street Fighter II contenders, offered a roster nucleus for players to explore as they branched off after getting their bearings with Terry and company. As the series continued, it not only expanded its character count but also added more and more gauges and move types. This allowed it to match Street Fighter’s additions, but the result is that the two became bloated, arcane, or both to the point where new players were intimidated and older fans increasingly uninterested. Street Fighter fared much better as the years went on as King of Fighters was more active, with new entries and several re-releases, but both waned in popularity along with the genre itself. After Capcom returned with a sleeker, more refined system in Street Fighter IV, SNK went back to the drawing board and answered with one of their best titles in years, King of Fighters XIII.
Refined it may be, but that isn’t to say that the game doesn’t have the genre’s traditional array of special moves. Players still need to mind a handful of gauges and attack types, but there are fewer than before this time around, and those included fit more naturally in the normal flow of combat. The three-character teams share meters that allow them to perform special maneuvers and attacks. Two meters are at the heart of the combat system: the two part Hyperdrive Meter and a Super Meter, both of which charge during combat. Up to three Super Meters can be banked for the first character, four for the second, and five for the third, and both meters are used throughout matches to engage everything from stronger special attacks—Desperation, EX, and Neomax moves—a variety of cancels, and Hyper Drive Mode. These can initially be confusing to new players, but most are similar to previous special abilities and are largely analogous to Street Fighter mechanics (e.g., being able to cancel so many moves in Hyper Drive Mode allows players to create various strings in a way similar to Street Fighter Alpha’s custom combos, and EX moves function the same in both series). The meat of the system comes in making the most out of those gauges–knowing when (or if) to cancel one move into another, when to hold off on unleashing an EX move, and when to give an opponent their space. All of these moves based around a small core, so once a basic cancel string or Desperation Move is understood, learning the rest is a fairly quick process as players build on those broad basics during practice. Perfecting them, however, is another matter.
Space and footing are significant factors in any fighter, and King of Fighters XIII gives players more flexibility than most in this regard. There are four jump types, forward and back dashes, full-screen sprints, and rolls. Each one quickly becomes an important component in the player’s tactics, but each is also punishable. These moves not only offer a lot of flexibility and variability, but they also make the game much faster than I had anticipated. Once a round gets going and characters are rolling under projectiles, back dashing away from blows, running under air attacks, and jumping halfway across the screen, the game’s low-res characters really come to life and the game takes on an almost cinematic quality. But more than looking nice, each offers a new way for players to approach their preferred characters and alter their strategies when playing against others. Given that there are nearly 40 characters, most of whom I found to be not only well balanced but a joy to play, there are a lot of matchup combinations to adapt to.
The game’s complexity is made manageable by a number of aides. There is Practice mode, which allows players to test out their moves as a single character against an AI-controlled opponent whose behavior can be modified in order to provide both basic and broad situations to prepare against, such as their stance, attack type, and guard type. To practice with a team, players will need to go to Versus and set their opponent to the computer; though it might be less informative than Practice, this approach is understandable given the lack of an ability to tag in or call for an assist from teammates. There is also a Mission mode that includes Time Attack, Survival, and Trial. Time Attack requires that players beat their opponents as quickly as possible, but as with Survival, it isn’t as helpful as a practice tool due to the initial periods being somewhat slow as the AI takes its time to warm up. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Trial ramps up quite quickly and will have new players scrambling to perform increasingly lengthy combo strings. The best part about Trial isn’t just that it takes training a step further but that it also provides pre-recorded demos to demonstrate what the moves look like in action, which is a great help.
Performing the tasks, and becoming familiar with the moves in general, is made slightly difficult given some of the number of complex input commands and tight input windows. I have read that the game is in many ways more forgiving than Street Fighter IV, but I found the opposite to be true. Regardless of whether players find the timing difficult to adjust to or not, picking the right controller remains a common difficulty. The combination of quarter- and half-motions (Street Fighter), tap moves (Mortal Kombat), and several multi-motion moves (Virtua Fighter) can make playing with a keyboard and mouse too cumbersome, and it even becomes a trial for the traditional go-to pad, the wired Xbox 360 controller. Joysticks allow for smoother movement and more natural transitions for the extended moves, but they can be pricey and difficult to acclimate to when switching from a controller. I ended up finding a decent balance, but this is something players will need to keep in mind when going in. That said, some players have become quite good at using the keyboard and mouse, as the combo offers its own form of precision. But it’s best to have a gamepad beforehand just to be on the safe side.
Story mode might seem to be the obvious place to start when first booting up, but that assumption only holds true until the last boss. True to SNK form, the final boss forms are incredibly difficult to beat when first starting out, despite the relative ease with which players might make it to them. The story itself is an odd tale revolving around the Orochi and a tournament that includes time travel, possession, and cults. The plot isn’t bad for a fighter, though a bit convoluted for newcomers; still, there are a few decent-looking cutscenes that help to move the action along and branching paths that allow pre-selected teams to make their way through new events. It will take several full and partial playthroughs, and in various orders, to unlock all of the scenes, which add some replayability and give returning fans an interesting puzzle to figure out.
An Arcade mode is also available for those who want to fight a traditional tournament without one-off bouts or cutscenes. Strangely, the player’s pre-set customized teams are not available to select. As with other fighters, various actions unlock new icons for multiplayer profiles, but in King of Fighters XIII, progress also unlocks colors to use for customized costumes. Quite a bit of the characters’ look can be tailored, from skin tone to the hem of a sleeve. Several custom color schemes can be saved per character, and in other modes, a team can be saved with these selections already made. The level of customization is quite nice, so it’s strange that all customization options aren’t available in all modes.
Another omission is a spectator mode in Online. The feature was missing from the console version, so its absence isn’t a total surprise, yet it is somewhat given that the PC version’s multiplayer was enhanced in the form of an improved netcode. The new online experience isn’t entirely lag free, but I did have several fights that were very smooth. If players opt to go for a Quick match, they will likely encounter lag; however, if they choose a Custom game with the selection limited to the better connection settings (level three and up out of four), then there is a much better chance for a lag-free match. A problem arises with this setup not from the code itself but the player base: there aren’t enough people playing for Custom games to always be a viable option. The player pool isn’t large enough to support such fragmentation, which can result in either a long wait for a game or having to leave and try again later. There are Ranked and Player matches, and most players seem to prefer Ranked. It’s a tough choice to select between a match that looks like it’ll be laggy, resulting in a poor game ranked game, or nothing at all. Whenever a game was set up in advance, however, the action was free of latency hiccups.
Given that the PC version was improved in many areas, there remain a few interface issues that I would like to see ironed out in patches. In particular, I would like to be able to view a player’s rank in the Quick game menu without having to go into their game, and be able to back out of a Quick ranked game during the pre-match screen in the event that the lag indicator shows a poor connection. I also encountered a pervasive bug during replays that caused both characters to stop battling and wait out the clocks. Several of my saved sessions ended this way, and given that watching replays is a great way to learn the game at all levels, this was a pretty big annoyance. SNK Playmore is aware of the problem, and they have responded to players on the game’s section on the Steam forum, informing them that it is an item that should be addressed in the future. For now, though, players will just have to take a chance and hope the rounds play out normally.
The King of Fighters XIII Steam Edition is one of the best fighters of the past several years. The fighting system has a unique rhythm to it that makes each fighter a viable option for play and, despite broad generalities, unique. This is one of the rare instances where I enjoyed playing nearly every character in the roster. An improved netcode has made online games less prone to lag, but the small player pool means that those who cannot take the time to wait for another player with a solid connection will face those remaining latency issues. The interface could also be improved in a number of ways, as could the replay system, which remains buggy. The good news is that SNK Playmore is taking an active role in the community on Steam and has noted that they are working on fixing many of the problems mentioned here. Most of the items are minor, however, so even if it takes them a while, players who grab the game now are still getting a great fighter.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)