Nuances of the Fighting Engine Explained
The previously mentioned Critital Counter system is one of the big additions to the combat engine in this version of the KoF series. While most fighting games out there have a Critical system of a sorts, awarding extra damage when a player interrupts an opponent during a move, KoF XII takes it a bit further with this system. Basically, there's a gauge beneath the character's health that fills up as damage is dealt or taken during the match. Once that gauge fills out, the Critical Counter can be performed. The title's not subtle about this at all; the character with the full Critical Counter gauge has a flashing health and Critical Counter gauge, and every neutral hard punch (or kick with some characters) has a flame effect tacked on. The Critical Counter gauge will rapidly diminish once it's full, so you need to make use of it quickly. If you manage to land this blow with the flame streak as a counter move and before the gauge has emptied, the Critical Counter is activated, causing the camera to zoom in on the fighters, and the affected fighter to go into a stun, letting the character that landed the Critical perform a powerful combo, linking moves that wouldn't usually link together. Or, you could opt to perform a Super Desperation Move immediately after the counter, which would cause a bright flash and the Super Desperation Move will do more damage. In most cases though, you're better off stringing together a bunch of hard punches and kicks and ending with a Special Move or with a normal version of a Super Desperation Move.
Another of the big additions is the Deadlock system. Basically, if the fighters hit each other with a same strength move at the same time, a Deadlock happens and both characters receive only a fraction of the damage and no stun from the hit. You can also punch or kick a character's projectiles in order to negate them, working as something similar to a parry in Street Fighter III.
One feature that's unique to KoF, but that started with KoF '96 so it's not a unique mechanic to KoF XII is the jumping system. Basically, instead of having a single style of jump, KoF XII has four different kind of jumps that you will need to master if you want to make the most of the fighting in the title. There's the usual plain vanilla jump that results from hitting up on the pad or stick. But there's also the short jump or hop, which is performed by very briefly hitting the up direction. This is much easier to do with a joystick than a pad, and many practice performing it by hitting up then down immediately. The advantage to this jump is that it allows a quick, unpredictable overhead blow, beats low attacks, and gives your opponent less time to react. There's also the hyper jump, performed by pressing down/up-left or down/up-right quickly. Similar to the super jump in the Marvel vs Capcom series, but not as flashy. This one can't be performed straight up, and its mostly used to cover a lot of ground (however, it gives your opponent the most time to react). Then there's the hyper hop. You perform this one by running forward and then pressing up very briefly, as if in a hop. This jump will cover a lot of horizontal ground, but will keep the low height of the standard hop. Mastering the variety of the jumps and their uses is an important aspect of the strategy in a KoF title, and KoF XII is no exception.
Besides the jumping game, KoF XII also keeps a variety of ground mobility options that once again, were pioneered in KoF '96. The first of this is the run. By pressing forward two times quickly, the character will run towards his opponent at high speed. This is to close distance between fighters and to set up rushing combos. You can also press back two times quickly to dash back a short distance, perhaps helping you to get away from a vulnerable position in the battle. You can also press both light punch and light kick buttons together to perform the emergency evasion roll, a move that has a few frames of invincibility that can be exploited to great effect, but also has a few frames that leave you very open to counter attack, so it needs to be used wisely and sparingly.
Throws are performed by pressing both punch buttons together and a either forward or back on the directional pad or joystick. Every character has an animation of missing a throw, leaving them open for a brief moment, and their priority is overall diminished from past titles in the series and from many other fighting games in general, so you don't want to use them unless you're absolutely sure it will land. Practice will help you sort this out. You can also perform a blow back attack that's always been present in the series by pressing the hard punch and kick buttons at the same time. This one adds a version with auto guard properties performed by holding the controller back while charging this move.
As for the Super Desperation Moves, these are performed with a full super gauge. This gauge is located at the bottom of the screen and fills out during the match as damage is taken or delivered. There is only one level of the gauge, so no multiple strengh supers as in other titles, nor a way to accumulate multiple stocks. You fill it up, and then you look for a chance to use it. Fairly simple.
All of these features make for a very interesting and fun fighting engine. While some characters may feel underpowered due to changes such as throwing priorities (basically, characters such as Clark and Daimon were very powerful in previous KoF installments and this one brings them down a notch, which can be a tough reality check for players who favored these characters), the bottom line is that fighting engine is very enjoyable, feels very tight and responsive (this is one fighter I can actually play casually with the standard 360 pad; I can't stand the 360's pad in SFIV or BlazBlue, titles that I play exclusively with a joystick) and arms you with the tools to always find a way to win a match, no matter how lopsided it seems. That's an achievement in itself.