Updated: Jul 19th, 2009|
After his second or third brush with death, old Heihachi Mishima is back to investigate the activities of the Mishima Zaibatsu, where some unknown entity has decided to host the next King of the Iron Fist Tournament. Thereís also some business about devil genes, schoolgirls and a sumo wrestlerís unrequited love. The outlandish Tekken may not be as refined as its direct competitors, but after more than a decade, the formula still works.
As with previous installments, the emphasis remains on offense. Strings (series of moves that donít necessarily combo into each other, but come out in rapid succession) and juggles (combos against launched opponents) remain Tekkenís bread and butter. Strings are rewarding and they can be fun to execute, but their importance has drawbacks. Learning how to do them is about as fun as doing homework, first of all. Beyond that, too many strings can make the fighting seem robotic. Once a hit opens an opponent up and turns a string into a combo, everything else is automatic. Attacks still have to be executed manually Ė this isnít Killer Instinct or anything Ė but theyíre inflexible. And despite a welcome upgrade in speed, T5 still isnít the fastest moving fighter, so watching the same combos and juggle-enders over and over can be tedious business. Also, because strings are so critical, itís not only important to memorize your own, but your opponentís as well. If someone likes to abuse Asukaís first 10-string without any sort of mix-up tactics, then you have to know that the sixth and eighth hits are low so you can parry them. More homework.
Thankfully, thereís more to the game than canned combos. There are a lot of defensive options, like the new universal low parry, that can disrupt strings and change the momentum of a match. Different characters also employ different strategies. Super sumo Ganryu emphasizes powerful knock-downs and a mix-up game to keep his opponent grounded, while luchadore King can keep them guessing by mixing combos up with his several dozens of throws. The various styles arenít as strongly defined as they are in, say, Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, but thereís enough diversity to keep things from growing stale.
However, the character balance is a little questionable. For example, while some characters have to rely on those tricky strings, or damaging chain throws, or defensive pokes, Nina Williams can effectively use all three. Worse, sheís safe from retaliation when many of her effective moves are blocked, while other characters are normally left at a disadvantage. Steve Fox is supposed to be just as bad, if not worse, but I donít have any friends who play him; we have an honor code for that sort of thing. Rounding out the ďtop tierĒ of fighters is the powerful Bryan Fury, who hits hard and from a good distance, and Feng Wei, who has fast, abuseable power moves and a lightning-quick strike which can interrupt many slower strings. Those two have their weaknesses though, so fighting them is less of an uphill battle.
On the other end of the spectrum rest the disappointing Kuma and Lei Wulong. Kuma (Panda is also playable) is one of Tekkenís original outlandish characters Ė a fighting bear who performs Mishima-style karate moves on his hind legs. Despite his expectedly slow speed, heíd actually be fun to play if not for his depressing reach. Lei, the Jackie Chan to Marshall Lawís Bruce Lee, also frustrates by relying on stances that take too much time and risk to effectively transition into. Heís still playable, but half of his movelist is unusable against a lot of characters. JACK-5 is much the same way. From my more casual perspective, the balance isnít too bad overall, it just seems like characters and moves have been added or altered a little haphazardly.
The large roster also comes with different levels of accessibility. Asuka Kazamaís juggles are incredibly undemanding, as are her combos and many of her best moves. Similarly, the powerful Paul Phoenix and Heihachi Mishima emphasize strong special moves, rather than tricky, timing-heavy button strings. Conversely, King has several long, elaborate chain throws that I can never pull off in an actual match without cheating by mapping button combinations.
A small part of my problem with execution Ė smaller than the part that stems from incompetence, but large enough to be felt consistently Ė lies with the DualShock2. The layout is perfect for Tekkenís four-button system, but the actual buttons are a far cry from the arcade, making simultaneous presses difficult; my hand is contorted like a pretzel when I try to perform certain combos. Surprisingly, I havenít had any problems with the D-pad, probably because the SNES days conditioned a whole generation of gamers to throw out hadokens and dragon punches with one.
Though itís subjective, I also donít really care for the seriesí controls. Assigning the four attack buttons to limbs is a matter of preference, but holding back to block (thereís a neutral standing guard, too) seems archaic. I prefer having more than just two attack buttons to keep motions from getting convoluted, but I also like having a button to defend so I can back away more smoothly. I think Namco found the best compromise with the Soul series, which keeps the four button system, but divides it into three easy-to-distinguish attacks and a guard. Again, a matter of taste.
The series has a reputation for being a button masher, but I havenít found that to be the case. Itís not hard to make fighters do cool stuff through sheer luck, but throwing out random attacks will get you nowhere against people who know their strings. Most combos, especially the 10-strings, require a certain rhythm that canít be achieved through arbitrary presses. Going back to basics by mixing up jabs and throws and trying to evade everything sometimes works even against more knowledgeable opponents, but knowing the combos, and how to get the most free damage off a launcher, is the most assured route to victory.
Relative to other fighters, the three-dimensional space is utilized decently enough, but movement still feels a little slow and inflexible. In Soul Calibur, fighters can circle each other smoothly and quickly while in Virtua Fighter sidestepping can lead to automatic evasions, adding some more depth to the fighting. Both games feel faster because of their takes on free movement. By contrast, fighting in T5 is a little slower and more linear. You can still move around though, and following up a successful evasion with a side throw or free combo is very satisfying indeed.
Sidestepping works particularly well against the computer, but then so do a lot of other things, as the A.I. is a little weak. The computer can execute complicated combos with the kind of efficiency youíd expect from something programmed to do just that, but it never learns, and it always falls for the same tricks. Even when itís challenging, itís too unlike human players to recommend practicing against. It will instantly duck under the high-hitting parts of strings while taking counter-hits from the most obvious, long-range kicks. There are some exceptions here and there; one of my A.I. opponents during an ultra hard arcade session played a mean Roger Jr. that gave me a lot of trouble. By going multiple rounds with the malicious marsupial, I was able to learn a lot about the character: specifically, what moves could be blocked for an advantage, and what moves were best sidestepped. Ultimately though, the soulless beastís attack patterns became too obvious, and I conquered him soundly.
This is unfortunate, since thereís a lot of solo content in the game. Story mode returns with a vengeance, as Roger Jr. tracks down his old man and schoolgirl Ling Xiaoyu tries to fund a time machine to save the Mishima family. The generations of Mishimas are once again the focus, but I prefer the antics of the supporting cast.
Thereís also a new arcade mode, derivative of VF4:E. It doesnít quite have the depth I was expecting of it, but it can be a nice diversion. To begin with, it lacks the different arcades, win-loss records and Quest Orders of its Virtua counterpart. Instead, itís an endless stream of fights for prize money which can be used to buy new costumes, colors and accessories for characters. Thereís also the option to choose from three different opponents after each victory or switch characters upon defeat. It gets progressively harder as players gain ranks, but it doesnít have a set difficulty or set match conditions. It can be played in easy, ultra hard or anything in between, with one-round matches, which means the ranks have less meaning.
The ability to customize characters is always nice, but Iím a little disappointed with the feature. The color selection is really limited, with each outfit only having three categories; I can change Baek Doo Sanís taekwondo gi to black instead of the default white, but then I canít change the black trim because thereís no option for it. Similarly, I canít change Asukaís headband color unless I want to change the color of her whole upper body, because the two are part of the same color category. Certain colors are also only available to certain characters, so no hot pink Heihachis. Worse, colors must be bought separately, per each costumeís three individual categories. Some of the accessories are cool Ė Ganryu gets nerd glasses Ė but there are only a few accessories per category, only one accessory per category is allowed and some of them are exclusive to certain outfits; Feng Wei can shave his head like a monk when heís wearing his kempo outfit, but no dice when heís got the leisure suit on. Colors and accessories donít come cheap, and itís definitely an inflexible system in general, but Iím glad itís there. Saving up the cash to buy old man Wang Jinrei a toy monkey for his back gives me something to do when I feel the need to kill time, anyway.
Other modes include survival, and the now obligatory but little-used team battle, a theatre for viewing cut scenes and the like, and of course, practice. T5ís practice mode is serviceable in that it allows you to fool around with attack properties and see how long a character is vulnerable after certain attacks, but given the gameís emphasis on tricky, timed execution, a little more help might have been nice. VF4:E lets players run through a characterís movelist move-by-move, with the commands on the screen, and it has tutorials to explain all the universal moves and even how to combo with each character. Since the AI in Tekken isnít as practical as a training method, a tutorial system wouldíve made a decent substitute, not to mention that it wouldíve saved people some cash on the strategy guide.
As a pleasant diversion, Namcoís thrown in some nice extra content: arcade history and the Devil Within sidegame. I really enjoyed checking out the arcade history, which has versions of the first three Tekkens and Starblade (the game that plays during the loading screen), but Devil Within is not so hot. Itís described as ďa 3D action adventure game where Jin learns more about his past,Ē but itís not quite so riveting. Itís just a monotonous brawler with the occasional boring puzzle and headache-inducing electronic music. The graphics are also toned down greatly to accommodate multiple attackers. Nearer to the end of the game, the platform elements and boss battles do occasionally work to a very small degree, but they arenít really worth getting to.
The normal modes remain visually impressive though, as the game draws as much out of the console as it can. Character models are solid, with fairly detailed facial features and flowing clothing. Some attacks animate awkwardly, like a lot of Bryanís moves, but I think thatís intended. There are some rare instances of dodgy hit detection, masked with the seriesí trademark Ďstarburst effectí (the colored spray that accompanies the impact of every attack) but T5 has the best graphics of any fighter on the system. The cut scenes are hot stuff too.
The stages in particular look first-rate. To begin with, they come in two flavors: walled-in and endless. Endless stages can be a tad boring, but the walled-in variety, which allow for combos that take well over half a life bar, can be frustrating. They add some strategy to positioning, though, which is appreciated. As far as the designs go, stages range from the greenlit Hellís Gate to the futuristic Final Frontier. They lack a unifying motif, but I prefer variety to cohesiveness where backdrops are concerned. Some people have complained about the oddball Polar Paradise and Poolside stages, but those are my favorites. Polar Paradise is a never-ending iceberg teeming with penguins and lesser arctic creatures that slide around the fighters, and more penguins lining up to take a dive into the ocean in the background. The stage generally gets flak first for being unusual, which is what I like about it, and second because it shows off graphical limitations: penguins constantly fade in and out of view, and will magically disappear when I back my opponent into one. I couldnít care less, though, because disappearing penguins in the middle of a serious fight between demons and ninjas are better than no penguins at all. By contrast, my absolute least favorite stage is the Urban Jungle. A bland, walled-in city arena, it has the worst background noise Iíve ever heard in a fighter, as the audience chants ďhoo huh hooĒ ad nausea for the whole fight.
The rest of the music is less obtrusive, but itís also nothing to get too excited about. Generic techno or epic opera stuff, which is typical fighting game score. The other sounds are a mixed bag: punches and kicks are satisfying enough, while the voice-acting, at least for English speaking characters, is really cheesy. Canít say if itís intentional or not, but I guess I can give Namco the benefit of the doubt.
The fifth game doesnít refine the series as much as Iíd hoped it would, and the weak A.I. and limited arcade mode make solo play a drag, but the Vs. mode is good times. Tekken, like any other good fighting franchise, has its own unique style. For its part, Tekken 5 polishes things up a bit while ultimately remaining true to that feel.