For a regular fan of the series, Tekken 6 felt like a step back for the franchise, a letdown with too little in the way of innovation, a quirky, often frustrating online experience (not to mention the slow and terrible grind of the new story/campaign mode). That game's many flaws overshadowed the main innovation in this entry, specifically the "netsu"/Rage mode which would kick off a burst of extra strength when a player's health was chipped down too low, along with the bound system which would give players in mid combo a chance to bounce their opponent for some extra time in the air.
Thanks to the improvements in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (including somewhat more stable netcode and pared away extraneous features), longtime fans can now see the evolution of the series since 2002's Tekken 4 over a decade ago. Thanks in part of the new Fight Lab mode which makes all of these changes more transparent, thanks to a step by step breakdown of this fighter's core mechanics along with the timing to pull them off. If it doesn't feel like the great leap forward of Tekken 5, Tekken Tag Tournament 2 at least illustrates how far the series has come since then.
If it's not clear from the title, Tekken's back to it's 2v2 fighting setup--with a few twists. In the game's Arcade and online multiplayer modes, you can now choose 1v2 and 1v1 matches along with Pair Play with 2v2 matches allowing you and up to 3 other friends to control each of the brawlers onscreen. The new setup allows for a deeper level of customization of the fighting experience instead of simply duplicating the first Tag game with more fighters.
That extends to the fights themselves which brings back Tag Throws from the first game as well as the punishing Tag Assault where, similar to Assists in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, you can bring out your tag partner to deal some extra damage after the high bound attack with the added twist of having full control over the second player while they're onscreen. This has the benefit of extending out combos to an almost ridiculous degree in the hands of a skilled player (or simply using one of the more dial-a-combo friendly characters in the lineup). Or, if you're on the receiving end of a beatdown, the Tekken Crash attack will allow you to escape a combination while you're on the ground and in Rage mode with an assist from your partner.
The modified mechanics are joined by new stages, some including destructible floors and balconies for a little extra damage, another holdover from 6 that seems to shine a little more here. It's unfortunate that many of the levels don't look all that much better in terms of detail or background action as those in Tekken 5 (the same goes for many of the character models) but the game is by no means ugly--just not as good-looking as some of its higher-detail contemporaries.
The overarching aim of this new Tekken is to give players a sense of having a persistent experience with the fighter. That ongoing rankings and win/loss ratios for every character you play in the game in its offline Arcade mode and the same for the online multiplayer. In conjunction with the Fight Lab mode, everything seems geared toward telling you how you're doing in the game down to the most granular level.
Fight Lab puts you in control of a Combot training robot in the laboratory of flamboyant businessman and Mishima Zaibatsu rival Violet. The story that wraps around this mode is cute as well as the training dummies that are thrown at your mechanical fighter in this mode. But it never obscures the importance of learning the basics and new mechanics of Tag Tournament 2 and by the time you're finished with this fairly brief mode, you'll have a strong understanding of the game. In fact, one of the virtues of the lab is how friendly it mike feel to new players, breaking down timing, one of the most important facets of any fighting game that it often takes weeks of play to get a hang of.
Besides the Fight Lab, there's also an Arcade mode with a collection of new endings for each character (I do hate that you can only unlock the ending for the first player in your pair), but there's an incredible diversity here, even based on the handful that I've unlocked so far that see the Tekken Team getting outside of the usual ridiculous or hard-to-parse endings of some previous entries (or worse, the ones simply featuring text over a piece of art), although you'll have to get through the devastating end boss combinations of Ogre, Jun, and a revamped Unknown. Survival and Time Attack modes make their return along with character customization which includes single-use weapons for the roster of characters. While you're not going to get the deep level of customization found in Soul Calibur V, there's still plenty here to make your leather daddy Forrest Law or office lady Asuka if you're so inclined.
I haven't even gotten to the online multiplayer, but that's because I haven't had a ton of time to mess around with it since getting my review copy. Now that a larger player base is available online, I can get into it in earnest, but most matches I've played so far have avoided the most egregious network problems of the last installment and you can stage off boredom while waiting or a match in a training arena where you can bone up on your characters' moves.
At this point, I'd love to tell you all about the World Tekken Federation page, but none of the features are connected as of this writing, and what's especially annoying is that I actually had to hunt down the URL for the site (it's not public facing anywhere in the game or manual). The site is live (you can find it here), but all of the key features like being able to set up a player card to view your progress as well as setting up teams are currently disabled for this free service.
Some noticeable technical issues also mar tge overall experience, specifically audio interruptions during offline fights along with overall muted audio. I also experienced a couple of moments of offline (!) lag during Arcade mode, which I'm hoping will be patched out.
That aside, there's more than enough to keep you occupied until Namco Bandai turns on the lights with WTF. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is right now the best way to sample the series for regular fans or players looking to jump in for the first time. Again, 6 had me worried about the state of the series, but Tag 2 has proven that there are so many leaps and bounds in its evolution, that as a regular player I owe it to myself to stick with it and explore all the ways it's grown over the years.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is available for the Xbox 360 and PS3 now.
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