The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact seems to have come from a bizarre parallel dimension; a parallel world where there was never a Virtua Fighter, or a Tekken, or a Dead or Alive, or even a Battle Arena Toshinden (the now-forgotten game that first made "changing the axis" into a workable 3D fighting game mechanic). Maximum Impact doesn't just feel like first game in a new series; it feels like the first game in a new genre. Unfortunately, though that genre has actually existed for more than a decade now, SNK just seems to be completely unaware of it.
More than anything else, Maximum Impact is the logical extension of the KOF franchise into the third dimension. The game's greatest achievement is that it manages to keep the spirit of the classic series while changing nearly everything about it. The multiple character teams? Gone. The lush 2D animation? Gone. The stunningly huge roster of characters? Gone. Yet, even without these old standbys, the game still manages to feel like a KOF game.
The key to this is the game's fantastic character graphics and animation. All of the characters look great because the designers weren't going for ultra-realism, but rather were willing to keep them a little bit on the simplistic side, retaining the feel of hand-drawn 2D. I was amazed by how true to the original characters everyone seemed. Rock and Terry look just like they did in the recent Mark of the Wolves, and that's an accomplishment equal to the 2D-to-3D switch that characters like Mario and Sonic have made. The animation is also so smooth it's a pleasure just to watch the characters spin around each other, with the occasional kick knocking them clear across the play field.
The 3D arenas and backgrounds are nicely detailed, striking the correct balance of having enough movement and detail to provide atmosphere, but not so much that it distracts the player's eyes from the match. The one oversight is the railing that encloses most of the rings, which keeps the players from flying off. It almost feels like the arena designers forgot that they were working in 3D, and unlike 2D arenas, which have a tendency to just arbitrarily stop where the artist gave up drawing the background, the arenas need definite endings. This isn't a problem for most of the stages, which feature practical limitations, such as chain-link fences and stone walls, but others have a seemingly tacked-on 2D railing that's just shockingly blurry and low resolution.
All of the new characters do an excellent job of both fitting in with the original cast and subtly moving the overall character design schematic more to the Tekken style of slightly futuristic Japanese street gang attire. Basically this means a lot of high collars, excessive shoulder pads, and heaping helpings of cleavage. The ease of putting new clothes on 3D models mean that all of the original KOF characters can also get entirely new costumes in addition to their classic outfits, which fit in with the new design philosophy.
The gameplay also does a great job of acting as a mid-point between old-style 2D games, featuring a surprisingly accessible mix of Street Fighter style special moves and Tekken style combos. This combination isn't anything particularly new, but I found that it worked better than any of the other fighting games I've played recently, making it something of a breath of fresh air. In a bit of a funny aside, the game's special features disc has an interview with the game's designers in which they talk about all of the brand-new gameplay mechanics, including simple things like "circling the opponent" or a forward roll that passes through attacks. They talk about them as if they're completely original moves that no one has ever seen before. Well, in a KOF game, maybe…
My only real gripe about the game is its near-complete lack of story. The KOF series has always been notable for its great boss fights and wonderful character endings, and I'm sad to say that this game features neither. The main villain is pretty generic as fighting game characters go, and while he's just as massively cheap and unkillable as the rest, it's never clear who he is or why I was fighting him, leading to a severe lack of satisfaction when he's finally defeated. Worse yet, the villain just sort of leaves at the end. Not only does this mean that the game doesn't end with the traditional KOF "final stage collapses on villain as heroes flee," but that the game designers feel he's good enough to be worth bringing back.
The lack of effort put into the story and characters borders on shameful. There aren't any endings to speak of, just the in-game character saying a line or two, most of which don't even have any real bearing on the game's supposed story. Worse yet, on the special features disc there's an entire movie that purports to be devoted to the story, but is actually just the characters' bios from the bonus player guide, scrolling up the screen, without even a voiceover reading them aloud. Is it really too much to ask that if the designers are going to call the main game mode "story mode," that it actually have a story?
If this game had actually been the first 3D fighting game, it would have been a fantastic, revolutionary achievement. In this day of deformable environments, realistic injuries and true physics, it's just a light, fun experience, and a perfectly acceptable beginning to the new KOF franchise. I can only hope that next time around they try to accomplish something truly new, rather than just new to them.