As one of the front-running 3D fighting games, Tekken is a favorite of hardcore and casual players alike. However, after the disappointing-for-purists Tekken 6, the series has fallen somewhat to the wayside--but Namco has come back, firing on all cylinders with Tekken Tag Tournament 2.
Those of you who've played the original Tekken Tag Tournament in arcades or on the PlayStation 2 will instantly be at home with the basic tag-match gameplay. You can either go solo, or pick two characters and fight it out tag-style--like the original TTT or Street Fighter X Tekken, all you need to do is knock out one character to win the match. For players worried about the often-complex controls of fighting games, Tekken eschews the sometimes-confusing-for-newbies "light-medium-hard" attack structure of most fighters in favor of a "one button per limb" control scheme. In addition to grim-faced martial artists and hyper schoolgirls, Tekken's cast includes kung-fu bears and a freakin' velociraptor. The 50+ (and growing!) cast of characters all have around 75-150 individual moves each, with simple-enough inputs that newbies can accidentally do a move or two while just fooling around and mashing buttons. However, the game isn't so broken that rookies can win on blind luck alone--strong players win with a combination of skill and experience.
Along with the expected Arcade, online and offline Versus, Time Attack, Team Battle, Survival and Practice Modes, the Tekken series spices things up with a few series-specific additions: Ghost Mode works as something of an "active practice" mode that lets you play against a series of computer-controlled opponents who mimic arcade players' styles, and Pair Play lets four players battle it out in teams of two. The biggest features the new title pushes is Fight Lab--which doubles as the game's Story Mode--and a very in-depth character customization mode.
Fight Lab is like many other training modes seen in recent fighting games, but it does something new: it actually teaches. You see, in the real world, you don't pass for doing something right once, and then move on to the next lesson--but in video games, this is the way "teaching" has always been done. TTT2's Fight Lab follows Lee Chaolan as he attempts to rebuild Combot, a customizable fighting robot. Taking control of Combot, players learn the basics of Tekken's fighting system, starting with movement, then going into strikes, throws, and later focusing on core mechanics like follow-up attacks and tagging.
Instead of just having you practice a move or principle over and over again until you get it right once, Fight Lab tells you what you'll be practicing, tells you why it's important and how it's used, then gives a looping demonstration so you can see what you'll be learning in action. Once you think you've got it, you'll then try and get the technique down several times, and once you pass you're given the option to replay the tutorial if you think you need extra practice. Finally, at the end of each stage of Fight Lab, you're given a Boss Battle--essentially a "test" combining everything you've learned up to that point, but focusing on that stage's lessons. It's by and far one of the smartest ways of teaching fighting gameplay that I've ever seen. By mixing lessons up, gradually increasing lesson difficulty, and throwing it in the framework of a story, Fight Lab works as a game all on its own for new players, and serves as a great refresher course for advanced Tekken fighters.
Unfortunately, higher-level players looking for offline practice in Ghost Mode won't have much to work with--on a whim, I decided to test the game's AI and just do one simple combo, over and over, and see how long it took before the game adapted to the repetition. 24 wins later (on Hard!), I got sick and tired of doing the same combo over and over and decided that Tekken Tag Tournament 2's Ghost AI comes in two flavors: "infuriatingly cheap boss" and "here are some crayons."
Speaking on those bosses, you'll have a total of four encounters in Arcade Mode: a Heihachi/Jinpachi team-up, True Ogre (simply called Ogre in this game), and lastly Jun Kazama followed by her dark alter-ego Unknown. No matter what rank you've progressed to in-game, the bosses will be very, very high rank--every Jun I've fought offline has so far been at Duelist or Conqueror rank, so you'll have to stay on your toes when you're playing offline and scrounging for credits to customize outfits.
It's sad to say, but Tekken's customization has never been on the level of Virtua Fighter or even SoulCalibur. Even so, TTT2 has a pretty solid selection of outfits, accessories, hairstyles and glasses for almost every character, ranging from douchey to practical to ridiculous. Santa outfits, Power Rangers/super sentai costumes, formal wear, and insane cosplay are all available, but there are some missed opportunities. I was sad that I couldn't make Hwoarang look like a trendy young Korean man (no scarves!), and I was very disappointed that I couldn't make Julia Chang Jaycee look like an even bigger granola-hippie fake Native American dork.
For the most part, fans were let down by Tekken 6's sloppy online, with constant lag and long waits between matches. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 comes with greatly improved netcode, giving fans on both HD consoles a great online experience. Playing on the 360, I've had the joy of playing lag-free matches with opponents in Japan, the UK, and across the US, and I've only heard reports of sporadic, minimal lag for the PS3 version. The wait time for setting up matches is really short, and if matchmaking takes longer than a few seconds you're dumped in Practice Mode so you can warm up before your fight.
Even with all it does right, Tekken Tag Tournament 2 drops the ball in a few areas. Going solo instead of picking a team is somewhat unbalanced, since solo characters get attack and defense buffs, automatically heal (inactive, tagged-out characters heal while offscreen), and automatically enter Rage (granting a massive attack boost) once they hit 50% health. The game has a huge cast, but there are quite a few clones or mostly-copies, like Christie/Eddy/Tiger, Marshall and Forest Law, Michelle Chang and Jaycee, Alex and Roger Jr., both JACK units, Kuma and Panda, and the Williams sisters. Finally, Julia's switch to "Jaycee" and the luchadore costume is only skin-deep--aside from changing a throw and giving her a few new attacks, she's still the same old Julia underneath, so don't be fooled. She still has a PETA petition she wants you to sign.
The whole point of buying a fighting game is to play against other people--whether against friends, or to challenge yourself and improve your skills online. But having plenty of offline content to unlock makes a game stay in your console longer, and makes you more willing to try out what the game has to offer. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 provides a brutal and challenging online arena, but it also has a wealth of offline content--newer players will especially want to check out Fight Lab. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to work toward getting that bubble blower accessory for Dragunov.
+ Massive "dream match" cast featuring favorite characters from Tekken's entire history
+ Fight Lab is one of the smartest, best-implemented training/tutorial modes the genre has ever seen
+ Great online play with minimal, almost nonexistent lag
+ Variety of offline modes and tons of unlockable content will keep you playing and earning credits for a long time
+ While somewhat limited, Character Customization gives you plenty of options to make the cast "yours"
- Huge cast is still filled with clones and copycat characters
- Solo match option is broken compared to exciting and balanced (for now) tag matches