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Being a modern title, King of Fighters XIV also has a robust online mode. Online requires you to use pre-selected teams or single characters and is split between Ranked Matches, which are simply player vs. player affairs, Free Matches, which play out in online lobbies of up to 12 players, or Online Training, letting you practice with another player online.
All of this is rather impressive considering that unlike some older King of Fighters, SNK did not have older assets to draw on for this game. King of Fighters XIV is an entirely 3D entry, a first for the series' mainline titles. (There were actually two games in the 3D-spinoff series, Maximum Impact.) This means the entire roster was created from scratch for this title.
Moving to 3D has allowed SNK to craft this huge roster much quicker and cheaper than trying to do so in high-definition 2D, like SNK Playmore did in King of Fighters XII and XIII. XII has the series' smallest roster at 22 characters and XIII expands that to 32, while KOF XIV crushes both with 50 characters.
The flipside is an art design that doesn't particularly stand out. In videos and on the showfloor, it looks rather safe and pedestrian; it was only until I was able to spend more time with KOF XIV at home that I was able to appreciate the details on each character. The animation could be better, character faces can sometimes have this plastic-style look to them, and most of the main cast are simply small tweaks on previous designs. (See also: KOF XII and XIII.) This extends to their move lists: if you've played the last two KOFs, most of returning cast is pretty much the same. When you're going up against titles with a stronger visual style, like Guilty Gear Xrd and Street Fighter V, you need to up your game SNK.
I would've charged SNK with playing it too safe if it wasn't for the new cast members, all of whom are rather enjoyable and instantly endearing. There's the kick ass Shun'Ei, a disciple of returning Fatal Fury character Tung Fu Rue who uses spectral glowing hands to fight and his perennially-sleepy teammate Meitenkun. The Mexico Team features lithe grappler Ramon, while the Women Fighters Team adds Fatal Fury fan/fanservice character Alice. Geese Howard's South Town team has Hein, a stoic butler with moves based on the game of chess, and mainstay villains Chang and Choi are joined by whatever the hell Xanadu is supposed to be.
This is capped off by three teams of entirely new characters. The Official Invitation team are the story-based antagonists, featuring the quirky electric brawler Sylvie Paula Paula, the mysterious sand-throwing Kukri, and the Mian, a female fighter who has one of the more interesting designs in the game and a gimmick that has her changing masks while she attacks. From South America hails Nelson, a boxer with a robotic arm, Bandeiras, a Brazilian who is a self-taught ninja, and Zarina, a Capoeira-using fan-favorite-in-the-making who recalls Fatal Fury's Bob Wilson. Finally, the Another World team features Samurai Showdown's Nakoruru alongside two other unique fighters: kung-fu fighter Muimui and sky pirate Love Heart.
Every new character is interesting in some fashion and fits within the overall roster. The 17 all-new fighters go a long way towards making King of Fighters XIV feel like it's a new game that has its own direction. I'm hoping in the future that SNK tries to push the existing characters outside of their boxes a bit more, either through movelist changes or new looks via DLC costumes. The company also needs to do a balance pass as some fighters are straight scrubs in online play, but I assume that'll come some time after launch.
King of Fighters XIV is probably the the most friendly KOF for new players, even if it does undercut itself at the high-end. The basics are the same: there's still four attack buttons divided between two punches and two kicks. The Maximum Gauge is KOF XIV's version of a super meter, allowing you to fill up to four stocks by attacking your opponent. That can then be used on Super Special moves, three-stock Climax Super Special moves, and Max Mode. Max Mode uses some of your saved stocks to drop you into a powered state, letting you use EX versions of moves for a limited period of time. On top of that, you can add throws, the space-creating blow back, dodging, and a guard crush system. There's also an extensive cancelling system for building huge combos.