Tekken Hybrid gave us a decent prologue tease, along with an HD-remastered history lesson, last fall, but after more than a decade a proper Tekken Tag Tournament successor has entered the crowded fighting game arena to reclaim its King of Iron Fist crown.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is essentially a tag-team pairing of Tekken 6’s modern fighting engine, including its newer features such as bound strikes, the rage system and destructible, multi-tiered arenas, and an evolved form of the tag mechanic first introduced way back in arcades circa 1999 and shortly thereafter in the classic PS2 launch title. On top of that is a “Greatest Hits” style compilation of more than 50 fighters, the largest in franchise history, and over 20 venues, many seemingly in homage to arenas from Tekkens past.
The environments look gorgeous too, ranging from a flowery field of tulips and windmills in the Netherlands, to an arctic wonderland in Finland adorned with deformable snow, snowmen and jolly old Santa, to a poolside tropical resort in Fiji, surrounding stone walls lined with bikini-clad girls that can actually be knocked off into the water (there’s an achievement for that.) Character models and animations are improved somewhat, but don’t show a huge jump forward from Tekken 6. However, new effects, like dirt build up and clothing that becomes stained and wet, add an extra graphical flourish you will notice and appreciate.
The core mechanics remain stellar, but personally, I am not overly fond of the Tekken 6 carryovers, as bound strikes still only make juggle combos seem more cheap and the rage system, which gives fighters a temporary attack boost when their life drops to a certain point, often seems like too much of a rubber band comeback mechanism. On a personal note, Tag 2 is also the first Tekken game I’ve played on the Xbox 360. I’ve been playing Tekken since the original’s launch alongside the PS1, and while I did play a time or two in the arcades, my main Tekken experiences have always been with a PlayStation controller in hand. After all these years and so many games, it feels weird playing a Tekken game with an Xbox 360 controller, and it literally took me a few hours to adjust, before pulling off long-remembered combos felt like second nature again.
Matches can either be 1v1, 1v2, or 2v2, but given the title the emphasis is obviously on 2v2 team play. To that end, new partner actions have been introduced since the first Tekken Tag, affording players the ability to pull off much more elaborate tag maneuvers like unique tag throws, assault combos, dive-in crashes to rescue an endangered partner, and the ability to knock an opposing fighter off a balcony or through a floor and continue to juggle the enemy with the second fighter as he/she seamlessly drops into the new section of the arena. Other than that, the basics are pretty much the same as they were many years ago. Tekken is Tekken is Tekken, regardless of any move set rebalances or mechanic additions.
Namco has always been great about catering to players of all skill levels with the Tekken series, and for the most part that’s true again. Tag 2 has the immediate approachability of being able to grab a controller and jump into a fight and have fun right away without having already mastered a specific character’s combo repertoire, while at the same time has the depth to give dedicated fight fans the tactical complexity they want with individual character command lists that go nearly 100 moves deep, if not more. Getting caught up in inescapable juggles that drain your health bar by half or more in a matter of seconds may deter players with a casual interest, but whether you’re playing online or off the game does a good job of matching you against equal competition. (Offline you can lower the difficulty, online you can search for matches within a ranking range.)
Accessible as it is, though, all of Tag 2’s newest features are aimed squarely at the Tekken enthusiast, leaving offline duelists and non-franchise-biased fighting game players with limited options. Things like the World Tekken Federation online stat tracking service and Tekken Tunes, a jukebox that allows you to customize the background music for every stage with tracks from the complete Tekken series (as DLC) or from your own music library, are great and all, but they aren’t selling points to anyone outside the existing fan base. Hell, I’ve been playing Tekken forever, and I could care less about changing songs or looking up stats beyond the standard leaderboard and in-game ranking system.
In terms of mode selection, Tag 2 strips down to the bare essentials. Offline, you can play Arcade, Ghost Battles, local Vs, Survival, Time Attack, Team Battle, Practice, and Pair Play, a new four-player mode that has each player controlling his or her own fighter in 2v2 matches of tag team party fun. The only other new offline mode is Fight Lab, a glorified tutorial that tries to double as the game’s solo campaign by taking you through a silly storyline, tuning Combot into the ideal killing machine by completing challenges and scratch-building his move set from those of every other fighter in the game. As a tutorial it’s good at teaching the basics in an interesting and understandable way and slowly ramps up the challenge as levels are replayed, but it’s incredibly weak as a story mode, especially in a series that has established a high standard with past narrative attractions like Devil Within, Tekken Force, and Scenario Campaign.
Thankfully, completing the Arcade ladder and repeatedly playing Ghost Battles allows you to unlock the trademark Tekken character ending animations, which range from spectacular fight scenes and touching personal stories to perverted peeping tom skits and other scenes of quirky Japanese humor. The visual styles show a lot of variety as well. Most endings are CG, but some are presented like animated comic books, others like moving oil paintings. All told, just unlocking the ending videos should eat up tens of hours, and they’re rewarding enough to make the investment of time, sweat and blood worth it.
All fights across the various modes contribute to your overall ranking and money pool. As you rise up the ranks, you’ll unlock new customization gear and the cash needed to purchase it. While the interface could be tidier – why can’t I buy and equip new costume pieces from the same menu? – it’s fun to dress your favorite fighter up in, say, an armored knight’s breastplate and a skimpy pair of Speedos, stick a bubble blower in his hair and arm him with a hunk of meat on a bone as a functional weapon. Even if you don’t intend to show off your tricked out avatar online, unlocking new costumes is highly addictive (and a form of comedic relief).
As one would expect from any modern fighting game, Tag 2 is at its best online. You can play in individual ranked matches or player matches in lobbies of up to six players, and the usual accessory features like leaderboards and a replay theater are supported. Registering on World Tekken Federation also allows you to join/create teams, which are basically the equivalent to online clans in FPS titles. Most importantly of all, online performance has been outstanding so far (at least it has been over Xbox Live). Our review copy showed up a couple days prior to last week’s launch, but I purposely avoided playing online pre-release so I could make a fair assessment of performance once the servers were public and packed with players. Since launch, I haven’t been disconnected a single time, nor have I encountered any lag, a crucial victory for any fighting game, because even the slightest bit of latency can taint the outcome of a match.
The only thing missing is an instant rematch option during ranked play. Once you finish a fight, you’re kicked back to the waiting room until a new match is found. Luckily the waiting room is a free-training arena in which you can practice your moves against Mokujin while the matchmaking system finds another fight. A new match is usually found within a minute or so, so it’s not a huge deal, but it still would be nice to at least have the option to immediately challenge an opponent to a rematch. (I should also note that an online pass is required for online play. An online pass voucher is included with brand new retail copies, but will need to be purchased if you buy the game used.)
Other minor UI oversights like this can be found throughout the game. As I noted earlier, the character customization menus are a bit messy. The shop is separate from the equipment screen, so you first have to buy gear, then you exit the shop, and then you go to the customize screen to search through the menus to find what you just bought. This process could have been streamlined with the simple option to equip an item as soon as it’s been purchased, if you so choose. Another bone-headed “Game Design 101” snafu is the inability to cancel choices during the character selection menu. If you accidentally choose a fighter you didn’t intend to or you change your mind, you can’t simply press a button to cancel the selection. Oh no, that would be too easy. Instead you have to quit back to the main menu to choose the mode all over again, before returning to the character select. Thankfully the menus load quickly so you’re back where you want to be in short order, but that doesn’t make the unnecessary hassle of it all a forgivable offense.
Tag Tournament 2 is dedicated to the Tekken purists who live for mastering their favorite characters’ move sets and honing their craft for online competition and tournament play. Every mode and every new feature seems built towards that end, with the payoff of unlocking the different character endings and purchasing wacky fighter costumes being the only real long-term draws for the average fighting game fan who doesn’t take online competition seriously or have a bias towards any particular franchise. The Fight Lab attempts to kill two birds with one stone as a tutorial and story mode all in one, but it really doesn’t nail either aspect, making the absence of usual Tekken side attractions — bowling, volleyball, beat-‘em-up campaigns, etc. — painfully obvious.
As disappointingly light on bonus modes as the game is, though, it’s hard to argue that Tekken Tag Tournament 2 isn’t the purist, most well balanced franchise edition since the old days–when you could only participate in the King of Iron Fist Tournament in the arcades or on a PlayStation console–as well as one of the more robust all-around fighting experiences currently available. In fact, one could argue that Tekken has never been better than this – I would certainly argue that it’s by far the best Tekken game I’ve played since the first Tag Tournament. That’s no small accomplishment for a series as old and broadly respected as Tekken.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2 may not push any boundaries or pull out nearly as many of the quirky tricks the series is often known for, but strictly as a fighting game it’s as strong and as deep a genre contender as it has been in a long time. Yep, Tekken is back on its game, folks!
+ Huge roster of fighters with worthwhile story endings to unlock
+ Smooth online performance and quick matchmaking
+ Gameplay remains accessible yet incredibly deep and tournament-ready at the highest level
+ Silly customization system becomes supremely addictive
– No mini-games or Tekken Force/Scenario Campaign-style story mode
– Still not fond of bound attacks, rage, and walled arenas
– New features won’t necessarily attract anyone but existing fans
– A few too many basic UI design flaws
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3 and coming to Wii U as a launch title
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: 9/11/2012
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-6 (1-4 offline, 2-6 online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher