As you've probably noticed over the last week or so, the whole world has been going crazy for that gathering of the gaming industry's finest, largest and loudest that is E3. With plenty of new PS3 and Wii stuff to marvel at as well as some great new 360 titles, it's fair to say that this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo was the next-gen show. An appropriate introduction to this review really, since SNK Playmore has really gone to town with the glorious high-def visuals of Neowave to give the world's shiniest fighters like DOA4 a real run for their money. Ahem. If you hadn't already guessed, that was an absolute lie. If we were to crank the Cynic-O-Meter up to 11, we could even say that this should have been a Xbox Live Arcade download. But were not going to do that because we're not idiots.
True to form in this genre, what we have here is a collection of reused sprites from older games thrown onto a set of not-so-spectacular backdrops and told to fight. On paper, that might look like a bit of a mess but then traditional fighters seldom sell themselves through such deconstruction and beneath the tired surface lie a slew of enhancements and surprises that make Neowave a worthy purchase. To give the game its due, there's a definite charm to its style despite its ageing looks and with almost fifty characters to pick from, you could spend weeks learning the strengths and weaknesses of each. There have been some far greater changes under the bonnet than these few, however...
The crucial difference between this and the rest of the King Of Fighters games is the choice of fighting styles this time around. Super Cancel gives you a triple stock of supers and allows you to link specials into supers (like in the Street Fighter games) and vice versa for some impressive looking chains while Guard Break grants just two bars of super in exchange for a powerful guard crush move and the wonderfully technical Just Defence system (guard at the right time to avoid chip damage). Third option MAX2 is by far the simplest, giving the player exclusive access to a character's most powerful super (in theory, at least) and upping attack power at the cost of losing many evasive moves and only having a single, constantly building super meter. The three are surprisingly well-balanced and just like in Capcom vs SNK 2, different characters are better suited to different styles. For instance, there's little point in picking Super Cancel mode with a grappler and by experimenting in Practice mode, you'll be able to work out which characters have useless MAX2 desperation moves. There's also the addition of Heat Mode across all three systems, allowing you to drain your own life in exchange for a power boost.
Compared to other games of its ilk, a lot of powerful attacks have rather laughable priority in Neowave, meaning that super attacks can often be interrupted by jabs or simple specials. Depend on your way of thinking and how you like to play, this will be either a very good or a terrible thing - if you're all about spamming super attacks as anti-airs, you'll be eating a lot of jump kicks and getting very angry but if you're the type of player that virtually always combos into supers anyway (a good player, in other words), it shouldn't be too much of an issue. Aside from a few tweaks here and there, Neowave is in essence a ‘special edition' version of KOF2002 with bonus characters, ‘grooves' and backgrounds as well as a refined engine. Which is no bad thing, we can assure you.
There are only a very small percentage of gamers that would be interested in this game to begin with but with its varying play styles and loaded cast of great characters, Neowave is actually a great little fighter and a brilliant introduction to the King Of Fighters series for those that have never sampled its delights. It's still overshadowed by the oft-cited ruling duo of the 2D scene - Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Garou: Mark Of The Wolves - but as with crossover title Capcom vs SNK 2, it's the freedom to play characters in different ways that will allow Neowave to coexist with the big boys of the genre without getting its lunch money stolen. Live play adds to the package on the condition that you can find people out there that a) aren't still wasting their time on Halo 2 or b) haven't gone 360 bonkers, but even if you just get a few mates over now and then for a scrap, Neowave will sit happily alongside more popular games as something a little different.