Reviewed: May 18, 2005
Released: October 12, 2004
Something I admittedly donít think about very often when it comes to video games is how hard it is for video game companies to keep up with the times. Like most gamers, I just want a good game, and if a company canít deliver despite itís best efforts, I will leave it behind in the dust, often leaving a trail of negative (never unfounded, though, mind you) comments in a review. I try to be fair. Still, itís a shame to see a good series fall behind in a desperate attempt to keep up with the rest of the competition.
Such is the situation with the aging King of Fighters series. In King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, the traditionally 2D arcade fighter attempts to go 3D and fight alongside the big boys, such as Soul Calibur, and Tekken. It desperately tries to hold on to old arcade style conventions, while appearing to be every bit as exciting and new as a 3D fighter, yet Maximum Impact falls very short as even an "okay" game. I can see King of Fighters fans mourning the loss of their beloved series and new KOF fans, after this game, as nonexistent. The people over at SNK NeoGeo certainly did try, but that is unfortunately not going to be enough to convince gamers that the sun has not set on King of Fighters.
What KOF has to offer in the way of gameplay is pretty standard. Thereís story mode, vs. mode, challenge (such as time attack) and of course, practice mode. Story mode is a bit different than in the past, since each character has a unique ending that follows her particular story; instead of one overarching, nonsensical story such as was the usual fare back in the good old days of 2D KOF. Basically, your character will start out each fight listening to an upsettingly ugly slime ball explain the rules of the King of Fighters tournament (you have no choice, so donít resist, we canít guarantee your survival, blah, blah, blah) before an opponent jumps out of the shadows and spouts off some cheesy one-liner insult that would sound so much better in Japanese (i.e. when you canít understand whatís being said). Then the fun starts, or at least itís supposed to.
First, let me say that the change to 3D for KOF has done little to improve the difficulty curve to a more sane and fair level. Itís still incredibly hard, even on the insultingly titled ďcowardĒ level of difficulty. This was a bit forgivable when the games were arcade ports; of course theyíre going to be difficult. They are all difficult, but thatís why the genre has itís own dedicated following of fans with hard earned skills that come from hours of practice, which eventually lead to kicking ass behind the controller.
Itís not so forgivable in 3D, where newcomers will become so overwhelmingly frustrated that theyíll say, ďScrew this!ď and take a trip to the local GameStop for a trade in. Iím assuming here that SNK NeoGeo decided to take the plunge into the 3D world in order to appeal to a wider audience. If that is the case, and it seems it is, then why not go the whole way and make the difficulty a little more accessible to us not-so-hardcore gamers? If they wanted to keep the traditional difficulty that KOF has had in the past for the more dedicated gamer, then thatís exactly what higher difficulty settings are for. Some of us would like to feel like weíre actually getting somewhere in the game, not just working blisters up on our thumbs in a vain attempt to advance to the next level.
And while weíre on the subject of blisters working up on our thumbs, letís touch on control issues here: they suck, to be quite blunt. Maximum Impact keeps many of the same controls from its 2D predecessor even when they donĎt make sense in 3D, such as pressing back as block, or using a combo of buttons to sidestep. They feel awkward, because while the control scheme is the same, the game doesnít play in the same manner as a 2D title. Most of the controls are confusing and unresponsive (as well as being entirely digital - no analog stick relief for your thumbs), which, coupled with an insane difficulty curve, makes learning to play Maximum Impact about as much fun as an anxiety attack.
The CPU doesnít make things much better, either. For example, players still have power gauges that fill throughout battle in order to execute more powerful moves once the gauge fills. Apparently, if you, the gamer, are doing too well, the game will randomly decide to execute a move, which should be impossible, given the unfilled state of your opponentís gauge. And no, Iím not talking about the final boss who always has a full three gauges (this makes him the boss, anyway). Iím talking about normal old CPU characters becoming so cheap in the heat of battle, that they will do the impossible to make you lose a battle. It makes me wonder how KOF traditionalists feel, since strategy and skill seem to have less and less to do with the game this time around.
Speaking of KOF traditionalists, Maximum Impact is like a bad dream come true. Everything KOF was, from its 2D glory days with a huge array of characters (pretty measly for KOF this time around, even if it is understandable given the larger amount of data required for a 3D game) to itís challenging but fun gameplay is out the window, presumably for a new and improved KOF. Instead, it becomes a mess, failing to let go of what it used to be, and failing to attain what it could have become. All in all, Maximum Impact is a disappointment that can in no way compete with other games in the genre, or even past installments in its own series.
Maximum impact also comes with a bonus DVD that features each characterís background and story, interviews with the gameís developers, and showcases what the game has to offer now that KOF has had a 3D makeover. For example, the DVD shows off how players can now sidestep! Amazing, ainít it folks? SNK NeoGeo would like you very much to think so! You can also break through blocks if the button a character overuses the action of blocking (meaning, if you, dear gamer, overuse the block button, not if the CPU does.)
All in all, these ďfeaturesĒ are new for KOF, but not for standard fighting games nowadays. No matter how the game and DVD seem to insist that itís exciting, it just isnít. The most fun I got out of the bonus DVD was reading the back stories of each character, with their awkward and poorly translated exposťs, trying just a little too hard to be dramatic. Or maybe it was just that bad translation. Whatever. Iím not accepting excuses for this game.
At first glance, the graphics in Maximum Impact seem impressive. Then I realized that this was only because I was seeing old, familiar characters like Iori and Terry Bogard in a completely different light, which had me interested. Sure, the graphics look okay; colors are bright, characters are realistic and all that, but really, when compared to other titles, the graphics in Maximum Impact look just okay. Nothing is mind blowing. Nothing really stands out. They are justÖ there.
I really had an issue with new character designs, however. Why, oh why, must the female characters sport large bouffant and sausage roll curls? And why must their male counterparts sport slick and glorified mullets? There were too many character designs that were just lame, uninspiring, or just plain old boring. I did enjoy seeing some old characters translated into 3D, however. K' still has his hunched over, hands in pockets saunter, and Yuri still has that same grin and twinkle in her eyes. That doesnít make up for the lack of interesting character designs, however, not by a long shot.
As for background graphics, they are also merely there. Kind of boring, and kind of generic, they were altogether pretty forgettable. All of this made me consider that perhaps in 2D, it was easier to make a fighter with decent graphics. Characters had facial expressions, mannerisms, and attitudes that shine through in a simplified style. Backgrounds were fun, because there was so much visual noise with the people cheering you on or doing some weird thing or another in the background. Then I remembered Soul Calibur II, and the wonderful and unique facial expressions and mannerisms each character displayed, (Raphael in particular comes to mind.) as well as the awesome, at times downright beautiful fighting arenas. It is not impossible, or even difficult to create interesting backgrounds and arenas or engaging 3D characters at this point in the gaming industry. We no longer have to sacrifice expression for realism, so why does KOF fail to deliver?
Something that the developers stuck with in this round of KOF, is the old school music. The music in Maximum Impact sounds like itís stuck in the early nineties, which gives it a nice nostalgic quality without seeming out of place. There are plenty of rock songs with nonsensical lyrics attempting to sound cool, but instead sounding cute, which mind you, is not a bad thing. Then there are the bizarre, sort of off kilter, keyboard driven songs that take a few minutes to notice until you wonder just what the hell youíre listening to. Overall, the music is fun and reminiscent of older KOF games and similar games of the genre.
Then thereís the voice acting. I have two words for you: Mignon Beart. I hate to admit it, but this bizarre, mildly upsetting character gave me the best success rate as a fighter, but her cutesy, shrill voice speaking in the third person and talking like a child is not fun. It is not endearing. It is irritating. Other characters arenít as bad as good old Mignon, but they arenít much better. Voice acting in Maximum Impact was usually stilted and awkward, or damned annoying. I missed the Japanese dialog a lot, especially when I found that Iori no longer has his infamous laugh that suggests sheer insanity, but instead the same tired one-liner insults that make you wonder if any voice actor could have pulled off a better job.
In the past, KOF offered a decent amount of value, considering just how many characters were on roster to play as, and how much skill had to be harnessed to be good at gameplay. That was back in the day when skill had something to do with the gameplay, not random luck or the mercy of the CPUís lack of cheapness. Now, thatís not the case.
I find it hard to believe that anyone would have the patience to take on this game, considering the poor controls, difficulty level, and lack of engaging gameplay. If for some reason someone would however, Maximum Impact offers a basic degree of value. Not a lot, like in, say, Mortal Kombat Deception, but still the standard amount. You have a decent roster of characters with their own moves and abilities, as well as backstories and all that, as well as a few unlockables. Oh, and there is that bonus DVD. It was a nice touch for developers to throw that in, as boring as it admittedly is.
There isnít a whole lot to say here that hasnít been said already. If youíre a KOF fan, Maximum Impact will feel like a game thatís pretending to be KOF, and not doing a very good job of it. Itís too bad too. Even though I myself have never been a big KOF fan, I still find it incredibly disappointing when compared to what KOF used to be. Itís not that the series has completely committed suicide with this game, but they seem to be flirting with certain death all the same.
Either SNK NeoGeo needs to spend some good quality time with KOF, and figure out how to really translate it into a 3D fighter, or they need to go back to the 2D arcade fighter that its fans probably appreciate much more anyway. Maximum Impact isnít the worst fighter Iíve ever played (that esteemed title belongs to the Fight Club game).
Still, in comparison with what it used to be, KOF falls short of a decent game. Just stick around and see where King of Fighters is going next. It may not seem like it deserves your patience after Maximum Impact, but itís been around long enough to deserve the benefit of the doubt.