Traditional KOF fans need to stop and take notice: King of Fighters: Maximum Impact is not SNK's version of Street Fighter EX3. It isn't the classic 2D King of Fighters directly ported to 3D either, but rather, an all-new three-dimensional fighting experience that takes some of SNK's more popular components and melds them together with a few others. It's part Bloody Roar, part Real Bout: Fatal Fury, and yes, part King of Fighters. But what it isn't, is for everybody. In fact, Maximum Impact will probably end up pissing off a lot of the old-school fans for a variety of different reasons. Yet strangely enough, it may also offer a couple of redeemable qualities that'll help endear it to them as well. In short, we have ourselves one of those bizarre "mixed bag" kind of games.
The good, which is pretty obvious right from the start, is that renowned character artist Falcoon has done a wonderful job of updating all 20 of Maximum Impact's combatants to the modern age. Whether it's Mai's new shorthair look, Iori's snakeskin pants, or Terry's modified Mark of the Wolves outfit, they all look great -- and in some instances, surpass the classic designs that were established so many years ago. Of course, traditionalists out there will still have the ability to invoke the same conventional threads that helped make these characters so identifiable in the first place, but it's still pretty refreshing to have that kind of visual option.
Maximum Impact's recreation of its 2D fighters for a 3D world are pretty well done too. Though not as detailed as say, Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution or Tekken 4, they're still extremely vibrant, have large character models, and offer a decent amount of detail. Players that love to unlock all the character bonuses can even uncover "Rigging Models" that add additional costume bonuses for humorous spins on a character's personality. Yuri, for example, is forced to wear her pop's Mr. Karate mask, while Terry is adorned with a wolf's head, paws, and tail. It's funny stuff, and a nice little extra to boot
Animation aficionados, however, may not find the movements of their characters quite as fetching. A little stiff when compared to other 3D fighters in the genre, it's not going to appear as realistic as some of the heavier hitters out there. In its defense, it's not really supposed to, though, as its animations are meant to convey the same over-the-top craziness that was present in the sprite-based games. In that regard then, the movements of the characters are actually pretty strong and move much quicker than the rest of the games in the series (which has been improved considerably from the preview version I was playing several months ago).
Special effects and super moves were given just as much attention as the rest of the visuals in terms of detail, but I have to admit that they don't seem very inspired. Because as heavy with objects and alternate looks as the environments may be, there just isn't a lot going on with them in terms of personality; and the result is a rather flat background presentation. The same could also be said about the super moves and combos -- they're just not as spectacular here as they were has hand-drawn sprites; especially when you have two bloody characters like Leona and Iori not even spilling a drop when hitting their opponents with some furious ass-kick. Yes my friends, just as what happened in last year's King of Fighters 00/01, we were denied the blood in Maximum Impact as well.
Another disappointing presentational aspect in King of Fighters is the audio. Though it does have a few soundtrack bits that I found genuinely enjoyable, none of them are along the same lines as the masterpieces put forth during the Orochi years (I have yet to hear a collection of fighting game theme songs as good as what we had with 'Mad Fantasy, Fanatic Waltz, and Rhythmic Hallucination' back in the day). What really brings it down severely, though, is the terribly bad voice acting. The original Japanese tracks have been removed completely in favor of some truly piss-poor American dub work. It's kind of reminiscent of Spike TV's Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, actually, only without the (intentional) humor.
Regardless of whatever the bells and whistles may be, however, it's the gameplay in a King of Fighters title that ultimately makes the game what it is. But as was the case with the game's presentational aspects, the fighting mechanics offer up an interesting collection of both favorable and not-so favorable attributes as well. Particularly in terms of balance and timing.
First and foremost, Maximum Impact is severely unbalanced. And no, I'm not talking about the typically cheap and challenging final boss character either (it's a KOF tradition after all, so why knock it?). What I am referring to, however, is the bizarre favoritism towards a small group of characters. Kyo, Maxima, and Leona in particular are incredibly powerful when compared to the rest of the lineup; with new guys like Soiree, Mignon, and Lien capable of whipping some serious ass as well. Don't get me wrong, every fighting game out there has it's own top-tier and second-tier characters, but in the case of Maximum Impact, it can get pretty ridiculous. As the fighters I mentioned above have strong juggle and combo advantages over most of the other folks in the game.
Part of the reason that there's such a discrepancy between characters is because Maximum Impact places such a strong emphasis on using fixed chain combos. It's extremely reminiscent of the aforementioned Bloody Roar series and means that the characters who have specific multi-hit animations for their chains will usually get additional free and cheap hits simply because the end of their animation calls for it -- this is particularly worsened by the fact that juggles are so much easier to pull off in this version of KOF than any other; making it extremely easy to launch certain opponents and repeat a previously successful chain.
Luckily, these problems are relegated to just a handful of specific characters (less than half of the total roster by my estimation), and with enough practice, you'll eventually find ways to avoid their trap. You'll have to learn pretty quick too, because Maximum Impact is much more about close-up fighting than it was when it was a 2D game; as the sidestep feature and large stages make it difficult to put together a strong long-range game against someone who knows what they're doing.
Less strategic and more casual players, however, will likely never run into opponents that can exploit those character nigh-infini-chains in the first place, and for them, Maximum Impact will be a lot more enjoyable. Because of the aforementioned emphasis on preset combos, it's a lot easier for button mashers to get into -- giving them a pretty good shot at pulling off some of the more powerful moves with a bit of luck and some random pinky wrestling. Unlike something like Tekken Tag Tournament, however, it's a lot easier for fellow beginners to defend against frantic button mashers and feels a lot more intuitive as well. You can thank ten years of history and tons of "borrowing" between SNK and Capcom's for that one.
Despite its likely repellant to old-school 2D fans of the series and its button-mashing newbie friendliness, however, King of Fighters: Maximum Impact still has a way of growing on you. And that should be attributed to more than just the frequent chest shots of Mai and the other female contestants. For one, the game is definitely among the faster 3D fighting games around (which was a nice surprise, to be honest). Second, there's a great deal of stage interactivity that may not make the environments more personable, but at least it adds another layer of strategy to the makeup of a fight. Particularly nice is knocking your opponent into a wall so hard that the momentum actually bounces them back at you faster than they'd normally move; it's a great way to corner trap if you're into that sort of thing, but not cheesy enough to the point of being unfair.
There are several other redeemable qualities about King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, however, and moderate and advanced players are sure to appreciate them. As mentioned earlier, for example, the ability to sidestep is a very handy tool for avoiding projectile nuts or dash-meisters, while rolling away from your opponents is very important and plays a much more significant role in the strategy of a fight; especially because of how close-quarters the combat is now, which makes mastering the roll a key philosophy -- and keep in mind, that you can no longer spin through your opponent as you could in the previous 2D games.
Also nice are all the available game modes. Though not online (which would have been a big boost to the game's overall longevity), it does have the usual SNK lineup of options. Three-on-Three team battles, one-on-one story mode, and the versus match-ups are as classically King of Fighters as you can get. But the two brand new modes that provide a great deal of fun are the all-new Challenge and Profile features.
Enabling players to select between Time Trial or Mission-specific fights, Challenge Mode is the primary method to unlock the game's hidden bonuses. The mission feature is great fun too, and presents players with a long list of objectives to fulfill in order to find new costume colors, stages, and other such goodies. Defeating an opponent by knocking him down five times or more, using a desperation move only, or without the benefit of a block are all examples of the 40 different missions at your disposal. It's a great way to mix things up between traditional fights.
The Profile feature is just as interesting, and offers up complete bios, costume listings, and personal information about every character in the game. What's more, this is the section where players can equip their fighter with the Rigging Model version of themselves I mentioned earlier -- which will allow them to stick a cowboy hat on Rock Howard, or a helmet and a gun for Clark. Plus, gamers will also be able to zoom-in and rotate each model until their heart's content. It's not the biggest deal in the world, sure, but it's a whole lot more than what the other KOF games have offered.
For a first try, King of Fighters: Maximum Impact is a strong first attempt at moving the legendary 2D series into the third dimension. Though it does suffer from its own share of balancing issues, chain favoritism, and a welcoming for button mashing newbies, it really grew on me with its high-speed action strong accessibility. It's hard for me to get other guys in the office to sit down with me and play a round of Virtua Fighter or Tekken, but KOF seemed a lot more realistic to them -- which opened up the opportunity for us to have a lot of fun. And there is a lot of fun to be had here; you'd just better be prepared for the growing pains that come along with it.
Load times aren't bad but they certainly aren't quick, and we had a hard time figuring out what the point of the story was -- how can Rock Howard be in this and have the plot make any sense?
The character models look great and Falcoon's new character designs are strong. Backgrounds, however detailed they may be, lack the personality of earlier King of Fighters games.
A couple of strong musical tracks make for the occasional audio treat, but the lack of original Japanese voice acting and absolutely dreadful American dub work leaves a lot to be desired.
Maximum Impact offers a solid transition from 2D to 3D without compromising too much from the game's classic roots. But the imbalanced characters and occasional cheese does create problems.
Lasting Appeal: 7.0
An interesting variety of gameplay modes, 40 different missions, 3-on-3 fighting, and 20 battle ready fighters should please solo players quite a bit. Too bad online isn't an option, though.