Seeing and getting a chance to play the forthcoming PlayStation 2 version of Tekken 5 today was kind of like running into an old friend and catching up on old times. That is, it felt good. Tekken 5 is looking great. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take any footage of the game, otherwise we'd just show you and let the game itself do the talking. As it stands, you'll just have to trust us. This is a gorgeous-looking fighting game that clearly stays true to the roots of the classic series. In fact, in many ways it seems like a sincere thank-you to longtime Tekken fans, many of whom have probably grown up right alongside this landmark franchise. Tekken helped put 3D fighting games on the map. It built on the original Virtua Fighter's gee-whiz factor with rock-solid gameplay and over-the-top moves and characters, and all these years later, the series is poised to reassert itself as the cream of the fighting game crop.
The thing is, even if you're not a longtime Tekken player, we think there's a good chance that Tekken 5 will have what it takes to draw you in. It takes a certain special kind of fighting game to do that, and Namco just happens to be responsible for many of them. Think back to Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast, for instance. As one of the Dreamcast's landmark games, Soul Calibur drew in hardcore fighting fans as well as people who had never even tried such a game before, through a combination of amazing good looks, appealing characters, and incredible depth that didn't overwhelm a fundamental pick-up-and-play appeal. While it may seem like sacrilege to draw a comparison to the legendary Soul Calibur, our relatively brief time spent playing Tekken 5 brought to mind that experience. That's because Tekken 5 downright wowed us with its incredible visuals, and it seemed to fit like a glove once we got our hands on the game for a few good rounds.
If you've played Tekken before, then you'll be in for a familiar experience with Tekken 5. The fundamentals of the gameplay are true to the series' classic installments, which means you'll be spending most of your time in traditional best-of-three-round matches, playing as one of dozens of different characters at a time and trying to beat the daylights out of whomever (or whatever) you're up against. The game's four-button control scheme remains as intuitive as ever, and the colorful character roster--which includes several never-before-seen fighters as well as dozens of other characters hailing from the past 10 years of Tekken--presents a tremendous amount of variety. Practically every real-world martial art or fighting style is represented here, along with a few decidedly unorthodox fighting techniques.
The game opens up with a shocker--Heihachi Mishima, longtime villain of the Tekken series, gets double-crossed and apparently blown to high heaven. It's sad to see his smiling face not gracing the character select screen, but it's great to see returning favorites like Kazuya Mishima, Jin Kazama, Marshall Law, Paul Phoenix, and King back in action. Tekken 5 also introduces several completely new characters: There's the badass ninja Raven, the schoolgirl-who-can-beat-you-up Asuka Kazama, and the muscle-bound kung fu master Feng Wei. These colorful fighters fit in well with the rest and feature their own arsenals of dozens of different moves.
Like previous Tekken games, this one just as easily lets you pick up and start mashing on buttons for impressive results as it lets you hunker down and start trying to master some of the advanced techniques. A comprehensive practice mode is available, letting you see and test out the move set for each and every character. Or you can just hop right into the story mode or the arcade mode for single-player action. Story mode lets you fight through a series of bouts as any of the characters, but it gives some nice context to the proceedings, thanks to a unique intro cutscene for each fighter, some intercharacter squabbles along the way, and ending movies for everybody. You'll also unlock hidden fighters by playing through the story mode with different characters.
Arcade mode may have even more staying power, though. In a nod to Virtua Fighter 4, you'll actually gain experience with your fighter as you play successive arcade mode matches. So the opponent AI will gradually ratchet up to become much more dangerous and aggressive, hopefully at the same rate as your own skills improve. To make things even more interesting, for each match that you win, you'll earn "gold," which you can then spend on customizing your favorite fighters. The customization options seem to be extensive and, in many cases, very amusing. You can get some of the fighters looking nothing like their old selves after purchasing a few choice frills. These customization options are just for show, but it's still going to be fun to collect all the different available outfits and extras.
Boxing Kangaroos and More
It's too bad you can't take your custom fighter online. There, we said it. And maybe it's a cheap shot. But any dyed-in-the-wool Tekken fan would tell you that there's no such thing as cheap. At any rate, the absence of online play is probably the only noticeable omission in Tekken 5's repertoire, and it's disappointing given the obvious quality of this game's action, as well as the presence of competing games on the market that do offer online fighting. We'd rather be playing Tekken 5 online than any other fighting game out there. Luckily, it looks so good and plays so well that the absence of an online component won't be much of a black eye. So, why no online? Namco explains it's an issue of opportunity cost--if online play were implemented, something else would have had to give, and Namco was focused on making the game rock-solid at its foundation. Fair enough.
The game's presentation must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated, but let's gush some more about it anyway. One of the best little touches that we noticed was that the characters speak in their native languages, which means you can expect to hear guys like Feng Wei and ancient kung fu master Wang Jinrey speaking Chinese, and Taekwondo experts Hwoarang and Baek Doo San speaking Korean, and so forth. The authentic speech gives the game an international flavor that's totally appropriate given that this is supposed to be some sort of big, crazy martial arts tournament, attracting all the world's finest.
The level of detail in both the characters and the environments is also pretty insane, for that matter. The fighters look amazingly lifelike and exhibit a level of personality never before seen in the Tekken series, while the environments are as diverse as they are gorgeous, and many of them feature interactive touches such as flooring that begins to crack and give way as you pound your opponent to the turf. And not only is this one of the best-looking PS2 games we've ever seen, but it already loads lighting-fast, so there's not going to be any time for twiddling your thumbs in between matches. We were also pleasantly surprised by what we heard of the game's soundtrack, which seems to be much harder hitting and more eclectic than the techno tunes we've heard in the past. Ironically, for all the lavish detail, Tekken 5 still makes use of many of the same punching and kicking sound effects that Tekken fans have grown fond of over the years.
Tekken 5 might not shock or surprise you from a gameplay standpoint, since it builds on a footprint that's tried and true. It's not attempting to rewrite the fighting game book; it's attempting to show you why this style of gameplay is certified classic material. It's definitely fun. We were reluctant to let go of the controller when our time was up. Speaking of which, the controller in question happened to be a fighting stick exclusively developed by venerable peripheral manufacturer Hori, in celebration of Tekken's 10th anniversary. It felt durable and completely responsive, like part of a Japanese fighting game machine was ripped up and decked out with Tekken characters. It'll be available as part of a special-edition package (for a hefty $99), which will include the joystick, the game, and a special-edition DVD case. Fighting game players who grew up on arcade competition will definitely want to check it out.
There's actually quite a bit more to say about Tekken 5 than what we've just told you, such as further details about some of the game's hidden extras and bonus modes. This stuff's going to be really exciting for fans, and it's also going to help ensure that Tekken 5 has plenty of lasting appeal. We'll be back next week with more. For now, know that Namco is remaining mum about a specific release date, assuring only that the game will ship sometime this quarter. So, while you wait, take a look at a dozen new screens of Tekken 5 and an exclusive video interview with one of the game's developers.