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SNK are one of the greatest game's designers in history. I do not think that statement can be argued with. Metal Slug, Fatal Fury, World Heroes, King of Fighters, Shock Troopers and Samurai Showdown are all simply awesome franchises. The Neo Geo was a thing of myth when I was growing up. Costing about three times more than the fantastic Megadrive and with games retailing for around £300, it was unreal to this child. Adverts for their games would be seen in the back of Mean Machines and Sega Power, with the reader unable to grasp just how anyone could afford to play this behemoth.
Sadly, SNK have gone the way of so many classic companies. Their games could not be played on current hardware, resulting in massively inferior ports, so they only really had support in the arcade. With the death of arcades in the mid 90s, they needed a change of strategy. They started to port their games to the latest generation of systems, that could finally handle their requirements. Playstation 2 and Dreamcast gamers could finally play their games (although in many cases, the ports were still terrible). One of these games, was Garou: Mark of the Wolves.
Garou was released in the late 90s as an answer to Capcom's Street Fighter 3: Next Generation, it featured a rebooted Fatal Fury cast with few returning characters, new bosses and a new defense system.
Sadly, it did not receive further iterations unlike SF3 as the initial game promised so much. Due to the decline of arcades, few people played it until its home ports, and now it comes to Xbox Live.
The game costs 800 MS Points which I think is about £8. The Dreamcast version goes for about 5 times that, the PS2 port is in Japanese and an original arcade port/Neo Geo cartridge will cost several hundred, so it's a bargain!
The cast is a decent size, which will be welcoming for newcomers who are often put off by the sheer size of the roster in the likes of King of Fighters. Terry Bogard returns with a new outfit, but all other entrants are new (although some have similarities to other characters in SNK's worlds). In total there are 12 regular characters and the 2 boss characters can be played as well.
As usual, we have a diverse range of fighting styles, with your heavy hitting wrestler types looking to pull off a 360 grab, to combo heavy ninjas. The plot revolves around a new King Of Fighters tournament in South Town with Geese's son Rock entering to blah blah blah. Who cares about plot? We just want to crack skulls right?
The game system itself is one of SNK's better efforts. You have a life bar and a super combo bar, so everything is nice and clear on screen. A new concept is the TOP bar within your life bar. You choose which third of your bar you want this to kick in and when it does, you slowly regain health and deal more damage.
Garou uses the standard four button layout seen in many of their other games, which suits the Xbox pad nicely, as we don't have to rely on triggers and shoulder buttons unless you want to. Unfortunately, with the dpad being rather naff, some moves are rather tricky to pull off and if you aren't lucky enough to have a joystick, then you will definitely want to map some button combinations to the shoulder buttons.
Garou introduced the Just Defend system, seen in later KOF and crossover games. When an opponent attacks, pressing back at the right time will counter this attack and help to put you in control. It works very similarly to SF 3's parry system but is used more defensively, instead of allowing counters straight after.
During fights, turtling and hiding from your opponent too much can result in a guard break, allowing your enemy a chance to punish you accordingly, so Just Defend comes in handy to reduce the chance of such situations.
The combo system is gloriously fun to play with. The two levels of combo meter provide different results, sometimes allowing you to combo them together for horrifically damaging results. Certain button combinations allow you to cancel various moves, providing opportunities to further link and combo to your hearts content.
Garou's graphics are simply gorgeous, even a decade on. Personally I prefer them to that of the equally awesome SF3: Third Strike, but they do fall short of the lieks of Fist of the North Star and Guilty Gear titles. The characters are animated smoothly and the backgrounds are nicely varied with plenty of action taking place. The sound track is similarly fitting, with plenty of catchy and suitably dramatic pieces (even a rather random remix of Robert Miles' Children in there). We have some wonderful Engrish voice acting, which brings its usual blend to proceedings. Terry Bogard's 'Are you OK? Bustaaaaaah Wollllf!' is as hilarious as it is satisfying to land.
Where the game does fall down is in its implementation on a next gen console. Playing on my sexy 42" flat screen results in big borders either side of the fight, filled with artwork of Rock and Terry. I could not find an option to turn these into regular black borders, which was annoying.
Similarly, all we have is the most basic of game modes. The training mode does little to help newcomers to the game who do not understand the concept of 'footsies, 'fireball traps' 'cancelling' and the like. SF 4's trials went some way to address this issue in modern games, but was found horribly wanting, so it is a shame SNK haven't looked to develop their own version to help noobs.
The biggest appeal of this is in online play, but surprise surprise, SNK manage to annoy everyone by ballsing it up big time. On launch, the net code was universally panned and it appears that everyone stopped playing. You select if you want a ranked or simple player match and then sit there waiting for someone to join. SF2HDR's lobbies and SF4's single mode waiting were far superior and cannot be that much more difficult to implement.
I bought this about 2 weeks after it went live and have only played one person on line. The connection was pretty decent and I would love to play more, but it appears that most people have already given up on this game which is a tragedy. As someone who has now invested in three console versions of this, I feel no guilt in saying that if you are a fighting game fan, then get your PC hooked up to your TV and play this on GGPO (which is sadly not an option for me).
Garou is a bonafide classic of the fighting game genre, it is just a shame that it has been handled so terribly by SNK. If you have friends who would learn the game with you, then an investment is essential, if like me, all your friends are losers who prefer FPS, then give it a miss as you just cant get your money from the single player modes. For single player its bog standard 3/5, if you have real life friends, then easily a 5.