Deeper than you know.
Every year, it grows increasingly difficult to find new fighting games that are content with two dimensions. Considering the success of popular franchises such as Tekken and Dead or Alive, that's no surprise. Still, it's a concern among those who prefer sprites to polygons, defensive rolls to sidesteps. What will those folks do when the two-dimensional games stop coming? Perhaps they'll turn to The King of Fighters XI. Sure, it feels like something out of the Dreamcast fare, enough so that many people will avoid it like a bad prom date, but some daring souls will try it anyway - and when they do, they'll be in for a real treat.
One of the most immediate rewards for such savvy consumers is the attention to detail that's on display, especially the environments. Even the same few arenas can surprise a player after hours of combat. You might fight in the jungle ruins several times before your attention wanders from the birds and monkeys in the foreground to the different people cheering from nearby benches and doorframes. A few rounds later, you might notice the swaying foliage. It almost feels like the environments are changing, just because there's so much to see. It may not be as simple as children throwing snowballs in the distance while you fight in front of a palace constructed from ice. Jagged bolts of lightning, which split the horizon beyond the ruined shrine arena, evoke a true sense of darkness even though it's not the final stage.
Another selling point is the expansive character roster, which has been expanded beyond even the healthy number offered in the arcade version. Even without the 'newcomers' - who ironically include the franchise veteran and well-endowed lady warrior, Mai - there are plenty of battlers to choose from. In fact, right from the start you can select from eleven teams of three. Each trio hails from a different SNK property: You'll see the Fatal Fury team with Terry, Kim, and Duck, then something relatively unrelated like the Ikari Warriors team with Ralf, Clark, and Whip. Of course, you're free to mix and match as you go, and you'll have more than enough choices once the entire roster of about 50 fighters is at your disposal.
Given the bulging roster, it only makes sense that team play would be encouraged. If you select the default “Arcade” mode, you'll be asked to pick not one, but three fighters. During any following matches, it's possible for both you and the computer opponent to switch out characters on the fly, though this doesn't have too much impact on the battles. If for some reason you don't like the team-based system, you can instead settle things one-on-one.
Even though the game begins with a generous selection of playable characters, a lot of gamers will naturally want to start by unlocking the rest of them. The system for doing so, unfortunately, is one of the few places where The King of Fighters XI drops the ball. Eventually, things come down to completing the devious “Challenge” mode, where you'll find forty different objectives designed to test the limits of your sanity. Early on, you might be asked to defeat a souped-up opponent using only standard moves, while later matches focus on escaping from throws or fighting a rival who basically has won the match if you let him land even one lucky punch.
Though they're often quite frustrating, at least the challenges force you to learn the intricacies of the fighting system. Until you truly understand the game's finer points, it can seem like the computer-controlled opponents are cheating. They'll block your attacks with exasperating proficiency, disengage themselves from carefully planned throws and otherwise make life difficult. A few minutes in “challenge” mode will set amateurs on the path from button mashing to playing properly and they will enjoy the game a great deal more for the effort. Fortunately, there's also the expected “practice” mode, where you can master your skills without unwanted interaction from your rivals.
The excellent customization options continue well beyond the “practice” mode, too. You can tweak the computer's artificial intelligence, its resistance to your attacks, and how much work it takes to fill special meters, among other attributes. You can also choose between conventional arcade play and the special “arrange” mode that includes some content that wasn't available in the game's coin-op iteration, such as extra arenas. These enhancements mean that you'll be able to clear the game even if you stink. Even Magaki can be putty in your hands!
Yep, Magaki is the final boss. In The King of Fighters tradition, he's about as pleasant as a skid mark on a pair of white jockeys. Certainly, he's beatable with proper utilization of your evasion moves, but even then, he's more powerful than Mike Tyson if you had a spare ear. If you like watching an opponent launch an unpreventable special attack that is guaranteed to hit you no matter where you are on the screen, you'll have no issues with him. If you tend to prefer a fair encounter, though, you'll need to move in for the kill without any hesitation whatsoever. Otherwise, you could find yourself locked in a duel you can't win with an opponent who hangs out on the opposite side of the screen and has no trouble decimating your life meter from his vantage point. More than anything, it's really a matter of who can fight the dirtiest the quickest.
Magaki isn't enough to ruin things, though. There's simply too much quality content for that to be the case. If you can spare $20, this is one title you'll probably enjoy playing with privileged friends for years to come. The third dimension's grip on the genre may be unshakable, but there are times when special games come along that can ease the transition. The King of Fighters XI is one such game.