As a child of the 90s arcade, there was a tier system that everyone knew. It started at the bottom with ageing coin-ops like Operation Wolf or Space Invaders, before you jumped to the modern racing thrills of Daytona USA or some sharpshooting with Time Crisis, but it was fighting games that sat at the top of the arcade pecking order. It was always the most reliable place to find a crowd, observers peering over shoulders as a stream of kids duked it out while emptying their pockets of change.
Two companies in particular were the masters of this art. Capcom’s iconic Street Fighter series went toe to toe with SNK’s faster-paced King of Fighters, first in arcades, and then at home. It’s fair to say that time has been considerably kinder to Capcom, but just like Rocky Balboa, SNK and the King of Fighters series refuse to disappear. While the last two entries have felt like the series has been simply trying to stay in the fight, King of Fighters XV brings it right back into contention.
I was among those who enjoyed King of Fighters XIV, even if the online community died a death after a year as other things came along to steal players’ attention. Its biggest failing was that it simply didn’t look like a modern fighter, with character models that already looked years out of date when it launched. King of Fighters XV immediately sets that right, and for the first time in a while King of Fighters fans can present their favourite series with a genuine sense of pride.
While Street Fighter has always favoured going it alone, King of Fighters promotes a much greater sense of unity, with matches taking the form of 3v3 encounters. You pick three teammates with an eye on good team synergy – or perhaps just your three favourites from the 39-strong roster – and then you can decide which order to send them into the ring before each match.
There’s Smash Bros. all-star Terry Bogard – I love that this is where some people will recognise him from – along with the rest of the Fatal Fury crew, while series stalwarts like Ryo and Iori are also present and correct. The newcomers will be the first port of call for a lot of returning fans, and they’re a pretty cool bunch. The beginner-friendly Isla may look like she’s escaped from Ninja Theory’s Bleeding Edge, but her spray-can throwing mystical hands make her a dangerous opponent at mid-range.
Delores meanwhile is an African hermit who looks as though she’s shopped at the Bayonetta boutique for dangerous women. Her mystical holy sand attacks are powerful and effective, though they can occasionally look a little cheap. I’m not as sold on Krohnen McDougall, falling into a goggle-toting, slightly generic character-design hole from the PS2 era. His morphing T2/Doc Ock arm makes things a bit more interesting though. I’m expecting him to be someone I enjoy beating up online.
King of Fighters XV’s roster makes for an impressive starting point, with six further characters set to appear as part of the first team-pass DLC, delighting fans of Garou: Mark of the Wolves in the process. I’m sure we’d all prefer not to have DLC characters when they could, or should, be in the game already, but that’s not the world we live in, and if it keeps interest in the game going then it’s a price worth paying.
There’s a host of tools at player’s disposal, starting with your plain old punches and kicks in both light and heavy varieties. After that it’s onto each character’s special moves with quarter and half-circles sitting alongside the odd Z motion as well. They work their way up from regular variants all the way up to the visually impressive, and downright destructive, Climax Super Special Moves. If you’ve played any of the earlier titles, or indeed any fighting game in the history of ever, there’s not much in KoF XV’s move list that’ll truly surprise you.
The classic King of Fighters flow is present and correct though, and it just feels right, even if each character still has auto-combos to annoy the purists. Those have been expanded too, with four different closing moves available depending on your fourth button input. They’ll give newcomers a leg up, but they won’t cause an issue for someone that knows what they’re doing.
Some tweaks have been made to MAX mode, but anyone coming from King of Fighters XIV should be able to adapt to the changes fairly quickly. Alongside the boosted mode there’s now also Max Mode (Quick) that gives you a shorter window to work in, but lets you combo straight into your next attack without leaving an opening. Unlike the regular version it doesn’t amp up your attacks, but it’ll be interesting to see what players can do with it when they’ve put some time in.
King of Fighters XV has a final layer heaped atop everything else, with elements like Hyper Hops, Emergency Evasions, and Guard Cancels giving you a few extra tools to surprise the unready with. The newest addition to this toolset is the Shatter Strike, a powerful counter move that you can fire off when you’re guarding. You engage it with a quarter circle and a tap of the strong punch and kick buttons together, so it’s not only mechanically similar to Street Fighter IV’s Focus Attack, it’s physically similar too. If you’ve put in time with SFIV you’ll feel immediately at home, and it slots into the action just fine, stirring the King of Fighters gameplay just enough to refresh it.
King of Fighters XV does lose some of its lustre when it comes to Story Mode. It falls into the ageing ‘big mystical being forcing us all to come together’ category, and it’s completely undone by allowing you to choose your own team, sticking together people who seemingly hate each other in the process. When you’re seeing fighting game narratives from NetherRealm that genuinely have meaning and purpose it’s a big old disappointment.
Most players will run through Story Mode the once and never return, and it’s the Versus modes, whether offline or online, where the majority of your time will be spent. King of Fighters XV is the first modern mainline game to boast rollback netcode and it’s a glorious thing to behold. Online matches are lag-free, and inputs feel timely and accurate. Hopefully, with Guilty Gear Strive setting the precedent, Japanese fighting game developers will continue to include it as standard going forward.
Online is further improved by the inclusion of a Fair Play Meter, showing you how often players rage quite before you accept a fight against them. Being able to filter these players out at a glance is a godsend, and perhaps it’ll make them rethink their actions. Perhaps.