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King of Fighters XIII review

You might think you're pretty good at fighting games because you know your hadoukens from your hurricane kicks, but King of Fighters XIII is about to prove you wrong. It's one of the strictest, most execution-heavy brawlers out there, but if you have the time to perfect your inputs and learn its unique game mechanics, it's also one of the most exciting and rewarding.

As one of the last 2D fighting games to use sprite-based characters, where every frame of animation is created from individual pixels, King of Fighters XIII is unashamed of its retro roots. Unlike Street Fighter, the series which arguably kick-started the whole genre, developer SNK Playmore has refused to make the move to 3D rendered models. That should please anyone with fond memories of playing previous King of Fighters editions in arcades as the new game is instantly recognisable, even with higher resolution characters and incredibly detailed backgrounds.

Every character is lovingly drawn and the animation is simply gorgeous in motion, looking fluid at 60 frames a second. Each stage has dynamic background animation that speeds up depending on the pace of the match, reaching a crescendo when the round is over. If you've ever wondered what head-banging elephant looks like, King of Fighters has you covered. The sprites don't quite scale perfectly from the engine's native 720p, which means playing on a high resolution screen softens the characters slightly, but we still think it's one of the nicest looking "proper" 2D fighters out there.

Once you get past the lush graphics though, you'll quickly find a deep and complex game that demands concentration, meter management and precise execution. If you're still trying to play on a keyboard, this might be the game to make you upgrade to a controller or arcade stick.

King of Fighters XIII is a one-on-one game, but players have to pick three characters from the 30-strong roster. Instead of swapping characters at any time, your first pick keeps going until they are KO'd – then the second fighter takes over. The first player to beat all three enemies wins, whether you need all three of your own fighters or not.

The strategy comes in deciding who to send out first and who to save until last. Unless you can master three characters equally, you're almost certain to end up with one "main" and two "secondary" picks. If you struggle to deal damage with your weaker characters, it means pinning all your hopes on a comeback with your best, but putting them in the ring first could mean you struggle later if they get knocked out.

There's the usual mix of fireball, charge and grapple characters to choose from, and with only two punch and two kick buttons it's easy enough to land your first few hits. Special move inputs take a little more skill, and chaining them together even more so, but it's the hyper drive (HD) bar that gels it all together. Once activated, every attack can be cancelled into a special move, and every special can be cancelled into another. It's by mastering these execution-heavy specials into multi-hit juggles that players begin to dominate matches.

Because every character has a mix of quarter- and half-circle motion moves, charge moves (where you hold one direction for a second or two, then tap the opposite at the same time as a kick or punch) and throws, there's little question King of Fighters is going to tax all but the most gifted of fighting game fans. That's not to say there's no pick up-and-play aspect, however; the story mode, challenges, time trials and training missions all serve as welcome diversions before it's time to test your abilities online.

As ever, longevity depends on how much time you're looking to invest in KoF XIII's online multiplayer mode. You earn ranking points as you defeat enemies and climb the global leader boards, but there's no real end-game; if you never intend to play another human opponent, it may not have long-lasting appeal. Although connections are rarely perfect, they are much better on PC than they were on consoles so you don't have to deal with too much lag.

Although there's a lower skill barrier to entry than there was with previous entries in the series, KoF XIII is by no means for beginners. It's punishing on anything other than perfect inputs, with a lot of mechanics to get your head around and three characters to master rather than just one. The PC version is arguably superior to the console editions purely on the basis of its multiplayer netcode, which should please serious fans that want to practice their skills ready to take to tournaments, but casual players that don't have the time to invest may find Street Fighter IV more suited to pick-up and play.









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