2009 is unquestionably the year of the fighting game. With no less than eight major fighting games arriving on consoles this year, we’ve seen more hyper-combos, barrier-bursts, critical finishers, snapback attacks, juggle combos, and deadlocks than ever before. Among the biggest franchises to see a new iteration this year is the Tekken series. With a massive roster, gorgeous visuals, and tight, balanced gameplay, Tekken 6 is probably the best Tekken arcade experience to date. Once you leave the confines of arcade mode, however, things start to fall apart.
Tekken 6 is actually the eighth game in the series, with Tekken Tag Tournament and Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection breaking up the numbered entries. Despite monumental advances in graphics, sound, and online capabilities, Tekken’s gameplay hasn’t changed much since the first game. The face buttons are mapped to your four limbs, with different combinations of buttons and analog stick motions performing special attacks. Blocking middle attacks can be accomplished by simply standing still, but low and high attacks must be defended by holding back and either up or down. As always, Tekken 6 offers quick fun for button mashers, but those who take the time to truly learn the game’s timing and other nuances will find the deepest Tekken game yet. There are few things in gaming more satisfying or impressive than nailing a 12-hit juggle combo, and even fewer things more frustrating or demoralizing than being the victim of one.
The big changes to the core gameplay are the new "Rage" and “Bound” systems. When a player’s health is low, a red aura surrounds them to indicate they are in Rage mode. Any attacks by a player in Rage mode do extra damage, making for some truly epic finishes to matches. The system is well-balanced, helping make fights more competitive, but not impacting the game enough to make skilled players subject to cheap victories by Rage-assisted button mashers. The Bound system expands on Tekken’s air juggle system by allowing players to smash opponents into the ground during juggles to pop them back up for further juggling. It’s a huge benefit for highly-skilled players, but most casual fighters will hardly notice the addition. There are also newly destructible environments that affect gameplay by opening up new fighting areas and causing extra damage.
With 40 characters available at startup, there’s no shortage of fighting styles to experiment with and master. 35 returning characters are present, representing everyone from Eddie Gordo, to Yoshimitsu, to Christie Montero, to that annoying panda bear, and they’re all faithful to their classic look, feel, and style. Most returning characters feature tweaked or modified versions of their previous movesets, but none have been changed so much that they aren’t recognizable, and, for the most part, the movesets are more robust and interesting than before. The six new characters, from the swarthy, unpolished Miguel, to the mostly robotic Alisa Boskonovitch, to the alluring, snake-like Zafina, feel fresh and unique, and do a great job of broadening the scope of Tekken’s fighting styles. The only questionable additions are Bob, a blatant rip-off of Rufus from Street Fighter IV, and Lars, a spikey-haired, leather-strapped Final Fantasy reject. Bob is rotund, looking almost identical to Rufus, but moves like a cat, surprising opponents with his speed and agility, and Lars is pretty unremarkable, other than looking distinctly out of place in the game. In a series with such unique and distinctive characters, ripping off other series’ characters (and bad ones at that) feels cheap and unnecessary.
Tekken 6’s airtight fighting mechanics aren’t the only thing that will keep fighting fans coming back for more. Pretty much everything you do in the game earns you fight money that can be spent on costume pieces. These items of apparel, of which there are hundreds, ranging from the silly to the scary to the sexy, can then be worn in any match, including online play. Unfortunately, the online component of Tekken 6 is, at the moment, a mess. Frequent, sudden disconnections plague the game, and matches that don’t end abruptly are laggy and slow, regardless of connection quality. Namco Bandai has promised a patch in the near future, but until it arrives and fixes the issues, it’s barely playable. Luckily, the arcade modes are a blast, allowing play against computer AI, a second human player, or downloaded ghost data that simulates online opponents. As is the case with most fighting games, fighting a friend on the couch is easily the best way to play, though between-match load times can be a bit lengthy.
In addition to the standard arcade modes and online suite, Tekken 6 includes a Scenario Campaign, which is essentially a new installation of the Tekken Force mode introduced in Tekken 3. Scenario Campaign starts off by recapping the stories of the first 5 King of Iron Fist tournaments in extremely cool, black and white animation that’s of far higher quality than any of the Tekken Anime. The story is utter nonsense, but the presentation of the recap videos is top-notch. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there. Players are subjected to an awful Streets of Rage-inspired beat‘em up with glitchy targeting, gimped movesets, ill-fitting weapons, Lars, the game’s lone cheeseball character, and a story so long-winded and nonsensical it makes Metal Gear Solid 4’s look like a limerick. This is the fourth iteration of the Tekken Force concept, and it’s probably the worst. It’s not fun, and not worth playing, and not worth trying to fix for the next Tekken game.
Since the beginning of the series, Tekken has always been praised for its visuals. Tekken 6 is no exception. While character models are only incrementally more impressive than those in Tekken 5, the arenas in which they fight are highly-detailed, highly-interactive, and downright gorgeous. Levels like the Tunnel Disaster, with continually exploding cars in the background, and Manji Valley, with snow that realistically reacts to fighters’ bodies, show off the impressive lighting effects and interactivity that Tekken 6 is capable of. Fights sound great as well, with a pleasing, if expected mix of realistic and over-the-top sound effects. Voice-over work errs on the side of cheesy and melodramatic, but fits the tone of the game well.
Tekken 6 doesn’t try to reinvent the fighting game, or even change the Tekken formula too much. It does, however, deliver a gorgeous, extremely solid 3D fighting experience with plenty of customization options. The fact that one of the game’s three main modes, online play, is almost broken, hurts the game’s value quite a bit. The fact that another of the modes is simply terrible doesn’t help much either. Fighting fans without someone in-house to play with will have to settle for sub-par online play and plenty of practice in arcade mode until a patch is released, but it’s still well worth picking up. For those with a friend and a couch, it’s a must-buy.