Xbox Review: King of Fighters - NeoWave

While there are those out there who feel differently, people fear change. They hate it so much they're willing to deal with the status quo no matter how dull it's become just to avoid having to start over. Why else would fans of the King of Fighters franchise stick with it year in and year out?

To be fair, there have been some leaps of faith over the years. Taking the series into 3-D with Maximum Impact was expected but still gutsy. Wild new character designs began to creep in. New gameplay mechanics like the extra striker character were introduced.

And now we have NeoWave which does, well, not much of anything new.

It's a working formula. King of Fighters is still right up there with Street Fighter and that series incomprehensible number of games in terms of gameplay depth. The 40+ characters included are a well planned variety to appease anyone looking for that inevitable KOF fix. The secret characters are all unlocked from the start, so there's no need for replaying this one constantly and always ending up at that stereotypical *insert favorite term here* SNK boss battle.

That also limits replay value for those without Xbox Live, as all they have to do is plow through the survival mode to see everything. They do that using one of three new fighting styles, the only real innovation the game provides. In this case though, Capcom's been doing this for a while. These styles can break open a fight at any time, and appeal to any style of play, whether offensive or defensive. There's also "heat" mode, which saps life in exchange for extra power. The benefits are meager. The roll evasion is back too, a great defensive feature, but again, nothing we haven't dealt with before.

With nothing else left, the core gameplay sticks to its basic feel. It's presented like it always has been, with beautifully animated 2-D sprites. The problem is the backgrounds, now fully rendered in high resolution, clashing with the characters we're all familiar with. The addition of graphics options (like smoothing) are barely noticeable, and end up feeling like SNK pushed out a lazy product.

Also aggravating are the load times. They're not long, just excessive. For whatever reason, the soundtrack also resets itself between rounds. Repetitive would be an understatement. While it's understandable that the backgrounds need to be loaded initially, there's no excuse for why each character sprite needs to be cued up after each round.

NeoWave has its saving grace in online play, the perfect cure for the lacking single player. The competition mode is an incredible piece of work, allowing 128 players to start up a tourney filled with match options (start time, time between bouts, dates, etc.) basic Xbox Live options are here too, including quick friends list access, rankings, and private rooms. The only problem is finding competition. Opponents are rare, so if you want to challenge others, be prepared for a lot of rematches.

That said NeoWave is reliable. While even die-hard fans have to be tiring by now, they're not going to be disappointed either. Besides, this is only a $20 disc, a far cry from the days of $350 AES carts.

(*** out of *****)

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