It’s been 18 years since Namco (now known as Namco Bandai Games) released the original Tekken to Japanese arcades. That’s 18 years since we first met the warring Mishima clan, 18 years since we first ogled Nina Williams, and 18 years since we first discovered a world where an alcoholic Mexican priest/wrestler/jaguar can suplex a cybernetic ninja thief onto his mechanical skull without anyone batting an eyelash.
In that time the series has spawned five official sequels, four handheld ports, four spin-off titles, three movies, a Street Fighter crossover, and most importantly for today’s review, two “dream match” games. The first of those was 1999’s Tekken Tag Tournament which dropped all pretense of telling a canonical story in favor of jamming as many characters as possible into its roster. At the time it was impressive for a fighting game to boast 39 different fighters (41 if you’re playing the PlayStation 2 version), but times change and now it takes a bit more to leave prospective virtual pugilists incredulously agape. Namco Bandai is obviously well aware of this, as Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (henceforth TTT2 for brevity) includes (almost) every character to ever appear in a Tekken game. All told that’s 53 different fighters; an impressive figure that trumps the massive rosters seen in Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and Super Street Fighter IV, not to mention other 3D fighters like the recent Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown and the upcoming Dead Or Alive 5.
That’s great news, not only because bigger numbers are almost always better, but also because over the years Tekken has cemented its place as the world’s favorite 3D fighting game franchise almost entirely through the strength of its wacky character designs. From a purely technical standpoint, the Virtua Fighter series has always been better than Tekken, and for pure accessibility the Dead Or Alive games are far easier to learn than Namco Bandai’s series. That said, neither of the aforementioned franchises can hold a candle to the sheer variety and creativity seen in the Tekken cast, and TTT2 is the perfect example of this. How many other games might feature a bear battling a giant robotic soldier, or the physical embodiment of a fighting spirit squaring off against a boxing glove-wearing kangaroo and her oddly cheery bastard offspring?
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Tekken is a bad fighter by any means. If anything Namco Bandai has hit the sweet spot between instantly accessible and overwhelmingly complex with the series, and TTT2 is a perfect example of this. Thanks to nearly two decades of refinement and an obviously massive amount of affection from the series’ creators, TTT2’s fighters are the best-balanced lot we’ve ever seen in the franchise. I won’t claim that the game is utterly perfect or that it should be adopted as the end-all be-all 3D fighter until the heat death of the universe — that’s for the competitive fighting game community to hash out — but in the 400+ matches I’ve clocked on the Xbox 360 version of the game over the past four days I’ve yet to find any character who is either overwhelmingly powerful or pitifully weak. Even characters who were designed to be unstoppable monsters like Ogre and Jun Kazama fit right in alongside the rest of the cast (though, in fairness, the Jun you fight at the end of the game’s Arcade Mode is every bit the cheap jerk you’d expect a final boss to be).
Of course, all of that is information you could have gleaned from the TTT2 arcade release. We’re here to discuss the home console version, and more accurately, praise the massive amount of extra content Namco Bandai crammed into the title to make it attractive to both those who prefer a fighting game’s single-player options, and those who only see the genre as an excuse to punch random people over the Internet.
As with every other Tekken title to date, TTT2’s single-player options start with its Arcade Mode. This is a pretty standard fighting game construct and as per usual, players are tasked with winning nine fights against opponents of various skill levels. Though the first six opponents you face are all randomly selected, the final three fights have you squaring off against a tag-team of Heihachi and Jinpachi Mishima, before fighting your way through Ogre and on to that aforementioned boss battle with Jun Kazama and her ghost werewolf alter ego. This couldn’t possibly be a more rote exercise given the genre, but it differentiates itself in the sheer number of unlockable extras for the taking. Beat Arcade Mode and you’re granted access to your lead character’s ending cinematic. That’s pretty standard for Tekken games, but these vignettes are the longest ever seen in Tekken history: Each runs at least a minute long. Likewise, these endings are surprisingly well crafted. It can’t be easy jamming an entire story into a CGI clip that can run, at most, two minutes long, yet each ending offers a legitimate plot, conflict, and climax. What’s more, there’s an incredible amount of artistic variety to be found in these endings. Bob, for instance, has a comic-book inspired superhero tale awaiting him at the end of the game, while Marshall Law’s ending cinematic is a CGI homage to paper cutout puppet shows.
Tekken games have been offering special computer-generated ending sequences since Namco issued the original in 1994, but toppling Jun at the end of Arcade Mode won’t just nab you a short movie to watch. TTT2, in an effort to appease the swelling number of people who enjoy playing dress up with their favorite fighting game characters, includes a massive suite of customizable items for characters to unlock and attach to their bodies. The underlying system behind TTT2’s customization suite is very reminiscent of that seen in Namco Bandai’s recent SoulCalibur V, and as in that game the sheer number of customization options is overwhelming. You can switch out headgear, pants, shirts, glasses, and custom outfits, while also adding miscellaneous items to your fighter, such as stop signs and handguns (and, as with Tekkens 5 and 6, a number of these special items also grant your character entertaining, though mostly useless, new attacks).
As the customization system is a big part of TTT2, getting started with it can be a bit daunting. If you were to decide that you wanted to unlock every customization option for any given character, by my totally unscientific estimates it would take roughly 30 to 40 hours of gameplay. Fortunately, TTT2 offers a very useful alternative to repeatedly slogging through the game’s Arcade Mode in the form of its Ghost Battle Mode. As with the previous two Tekken entries, Ghost Battle pits the player against an AI-controlled character (or tag team) that has been designed to mimic an actual human. Though these ghosts are no replacement for their flesh and blood analogues, they do offer a more competitive fight than the game’s Arcade Mode, and most crucially, each battle that you win offers a chance to win prizes which can include character customization options, ending cinematics and huge bags of cash. Given the number of items for sale in the in-game store, those bags of cash come in quite handy, and they appear often enough that the grind to create your perfect character is far more engaging than it was in Tekken 6.
Sadly, that major improvement over Tekken 6 is counterbalanced by the complete loss of the fan-favorite Tekken Force mode. This special mini-game, which allowed players to use Tekken fighters in a 3D action game more akin to Final Fight then traditional fighters, first debuted in Tekken 3, returned in Tekken 4, and was replaced by Devil Within and Scenario Campaign in Tekkens 5 and 6 respectively. Despite the name change those last two were effectively Tekken Force sequels, but when it came time to develop TTT2, Namco Bandai opted to ditch the series mainstay in favor of an intriguing, novel take on the standard Training Mode.
Dubbed “Fight Lab,” TTT2’s Training Mode details the creation of a new Combot at the hands of Lee Chaolan. For those of you in the dark, Combot was a robotic character introduced in Tekken 4 whose most notable character trait is that instead of learning his fighting skills, he had them programmed into his electronic memory banks. This ties into his appearance in TTT2, as Fight Lab sees you controlling Combot while Lee walks him through the game’s basic techniques. This takes place over five separate episodes, each of which includes an additional bit of storyline and unlocks new capabilities for Combot to use in TTT2’s other modes. While this only includes standard attacks, throws and dodge moves, once you’ve completed the Fight Lab episodes, you’re able to purchase new moves (lifted from the other fighters in TTT2) to beef up Combot’s repertoire of fighting moves. Generously, the game gives you four separate Combot memory slots, so if you’d like to create multiple versions of the ‘bot with entirely separate attacks, that’s quite possible.
The most impressive facet of TTT2’s Fight Lab though, is that it’s a far more effective primer on how to play the game than any I’ve ever seen in a 3D fighter. Offering a running storyline makes playing through the Fight Lab feel much less dull than it normally would be, and placing a sizable reward (in this case, an immensely customizable character) at the end of the mode gives players ample reason to burn through the whole thing. It’s also appreciated that once you’ve completed the Fight Lab, the entire mode loops, and each subsequent run through the Lab becomes increasingly difficult. Given that anyone who wants to fully trick out Combot will likely spend a lot of time in the Fight Lab trying to earn more development points, that simple tweak makes the mode feel fresh and novel far longer than it has any right to.
If it seems that I’ve been writing for far too long to have not discussed TTT2’s multiplayer component, there’s a very simple reason for that: I’ve been saving the best news for last. We can all agree that Tekken 5 and Tekken 6 were excellent fighting games, right? Likewise, I’m going to assume that we all found the online multiplayer in those games to be sub-par at best (and at worst, utterly unusable). TTT2 changes all of that. Its netcode is based heavily on that seen in SoulCalibur V and like that game, it runs as smooth as silk. In 78 online matches played so far I’ve only experienced one instance of lag, and after a few moments of frozen on-screen action the game went back to its rock solid 60 frames per second framerate. Beyond that, TTT2’s Online Mode offers a full suite of options, from team battles to downloadable replays; everything you’d expect to find in a modern online-enabled fighter is here, and we love that Namco Bandai included the option to filter online opponents by skill level and connection stability by letting players select a threshold for each that they find tolerable. This prevents wildly unbalanced matchups in which experienced veterans can pick on new players, and also ensures that players with excellent Internet connections need not worry that they might be paired up with some poor kid in the Alaskan wilds who is attempting to play the game via 14.4kbps dial-up. The highest praise I can offer TTT2’s online functionality is that it just works, every time, all of the time.
There is also the “World Tekken Federation” service that goes along with it at no cost. Once you link your account, you can then track your stats on your computer or your mobile device thanks to the HTML5 coding. You can then review your last game, check your stats, and build up clans. It is similar to the Call of Duty Elite service, but completely free. If you are constantly getting beat, you can track the number of strikes that you took, see how you got caught flat footed, and compare records against other gamers. It is a tool that the dedicated, hard core fans of Tekken, and fighting games in general, will be using to an insane degree. It is an exceptionally good addition, especially considering the $0 price tag.
I came into this review a massive fan of the Tekken series — Tekken 6 was the first game I earned 1000/1000 Achievement points on — and I’m happy to report that Tekken Tag Tournament 2 only intensifies my affection for Namco Bandai’s flagship fighter. Simply put, this game includes every feature you’d hope to see in a modern fighting game polished to a mirror-like sheen. The game’s aesthetics trump every other 3D fighter currently in existence, its solid 60fps framerate makes the fighting action as smooth as physically possible, and there’s enough pure content to be seen and unlocked in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 to keep even those who utterly ignore the game’s online options playing for dozens of hours.
I can’t say how the game will hold up when the really hardcore, competitive gaming types start dissecting it under their notoriously finicky microscopes, but if you’d accept the opinion of a guy who has been playing Tekken games for nearly two decades, I’ll say simply that I adore this game. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is the new gold standard for 3D fighting games, not because it introduces tons of new, flashy ideas to the genre, but because its developers focused on making sure that its fundamental options were as excellent as they possibly could be before offering this thing up to the general public. Propers to Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada for this decision, as it should paid off in spades, not just for Namco Bandai, but also for the fighting game community as a whole.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Namco Bandai)