When it comes to fighting games in North America, Capcom has always been top banana. From Street Fighter to the VS series, it's usually the Capcom games that get top billing. However, they're definitely not the only developer with a rich history of making great fighting games. Enter SNK Playmore (formerly SNK), and the King of Fighters series. Building off their previous Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting series, KOF has a soon-to-be 20 year history, as it all started in '94. Does two decades of fighting game crafting experience add up to a great game, or is SNKP over the hill with their 13th entry?
The meat and potatoes of any fighting game. While there is a story to KOF, it's generally not what keeps the public coming back for more. Rather, if you're like most players, you'll spend the majority of your time duking it out with your rivals, either sharing a couch or through an internet connection. Local multiplayer is your standard player vs player affair, with 3v3 and 1v1 modes available. 1v1 allows both players to select one character, with which they play through multiple rounds like in most standard fighting games (aka, Street Fighter mode). It's good for when you're starting out, and learning 3 new characters at once seems a little daunting. Rather, it'll allow you to focus your time into playing and mastering one character. However, 3v3 mode is the classic King of Fighters set up, allowing each player to assemble a team of 3 separate characters to battle each other with. This is also the only mode available for online play in either Ranked or Player matches. There are also several other modes, including Time Attack, Survival, and Trial Mode, which offers a series of increasingly difficult combos for players to attempt.
The game can get fast and furious, with a hefty amount of movement options available for every character. Mastering the nuances of maneuvering your character effectively may be a somewhat daunting task for newer players, but the rewards are more than evident during gameplay. Characters can walk, run, hop, hyperhop, jump, and super jump. They can also roll, which can avoid most attacks, but are vulnerable if predicted or done at poor times.
The combo system allows for a good amount of creativity and flexibility, allowing players to come up with their own combos in training mode. The Power Meter, similar to the common super meter found in other games, is used for performing EX special moves, Desperation and EX Desperation Moves, and is necessary to perform your character's devastating NeoMAX Desperation Move. You can build differing amounts of meter depending on which character you're on. Your first character can build up to 3 stocks, the 2nd 4, and your last character can build a maximum of 5 stocks of power meter to use against your opponents. On top of that, KOF XIII introduces the "Drive Cancel" mechanic, which allows you to cancel certain special moves into other special moves using your Drive Meter. Using this mechanic, one can create very damaging and brutal combos that'll quickly drain your opponent's life bar, with each Drive Cancel costing 50% of the Drive Meter. However, to add to the combo craziness, there is also the "HD Mode" mechanic, which veteran KOF players will recognize as similar to the MAX mode from KOF 2002. HD Mode allows players to utilize the Drive Cancel mechanic freely for a certain period of time, each drive cancel costing a much smaller amount of drive meter. HD Mode also allows a character to combo certain Desperation and EX Desperation moves into their NeoMAX, otherwise known as a MAX Cancel. This allows you to create absolutely devastating combos, but only if you can manage to pull them off!
On the defensive end of things, players have the "Guard Cancel Roll," or GCAB, and "Guard Cancel Blowback," or GCCD available to them in order to help them out of sticky situations. As the name states, these moves are performed when your character is guarding, or blocking an attack from your opponent. The GCAB allows your character to perform an invincible, and unpunishable roll in either direction while blocking your opponent. Used wisely, this can be used to get out of dangerous situations, or even punish an overzealous opponent who gets too predictable by rolling out of the way of their attack sequence and striking them during their recovery. GCCD, the Guard Cancel Blowback, is an invincible attack that will knock an opponent away, giving you some breathing room and a little time to reformulate your strategy. However, if it is predicted and blocked it has a lengthy recovery, and can be punished. Each of these maneuvers costs 1 power meter, so they should be utilized only when necessary.
Much has been made of the difficulty level of this game, or rather in the difficulty of executing your characters' combos. However, these things are much exaggerated. Yes, there are some fairly difficult maneuvers to pull off, but nothing that can't be ameliorated through practice. Just as there are advanced combos that only veteran players could hope to pull off, there are still a great deal of combos that beginners and intermediate players can do with a little practice. Given the game's combo system, even players with average execution skills can do serious amounts of damage. I find that fundamental skills like spacing, good defense, and not letting your opponent get away with mistakes are far more opponent than who can do the longest, most damaging combo. Also, don't be discouraged if you only have a gamepad and not a fancy arcade stick. I myself have used a DualShock 3, DualShock 2, and PlayStation 1 Pad in the course of playing this game, and all have served me just fine. For proof, look at the combo videos I have! However, if you have an XBox 360 pad, you may wish to find something else, given the general awfulness of that controller's d-pad.
Many fighting games in the modern era have switched to using 3D visuals, even 2D fighters like Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs Capcom 3 utilize 3D graphics in their games. While this approach does have several advantages, and certainly has its appeal, the old-fashioned 2D sprite work found in KOF XIII is absolutely beautiful in its own right. Done with painstaking efforts, with each character taking the equivalent of more than a year in man hours to produce, KOF's sprite work exudes a charm that most games today just can't match. While certain shortcuts are apparent (Hwa and Joe sharing the same body, for example), the passion of these characters' development is evident in their appearance. Besides, nobody complains about Street Fighter IV's Ryu and Ken pretty much having identical bodies, and that game is in 3D! The backgrounds are also gorgeous, or at least 99% of them (you'll know which one I mean when you see it). With strong colors and a great deal of fun details and cameos, they add flair to any fight.
The PS3 and XBox versions of the game came with a soundtrack, just sayin'. The music tracks in this game are all great, catchy tunes. One stand-out example in my opinion is the theme of Team K'. Each track fits their respective teams, and works well with the action on screen. If one great soundtrack wasn't enough for you, the game also allows you to use a B soundtrack through the options menu, replacing the characters' themes with ones from King of Fighters past. Classic tracks like Esaka and Geese Howard's theme make appearances. The sound effects in the game are also very effective and add to the experience. Some games' sounds are too muted, not matching the visual flair with audio that matches the excitement on screen. KOF XIII's sound effects are fine-tuned for this game, giving each punch, kick, fireball, or giant chest laser beam an oomph that few games match.
Long story short: Get the game, it's really good. 100x better with friends.