- Namco has always been ahead of the game in the 3D fighter stakes, owning two of the superlative stallions in the four-horse race - Dead or Alive and Virtua Fighter would be the only two other games that are in the same league.
And although its Soul Calibur series has arguably never hit a duff note (discounting Soul Calibur Legends in the same way you wouldn't consider Death By Degrees part of the Tekken lineage), its longer-running stablemate Tekken can't be afforded the same praise.
The series evolved seamlessly from its debut in 1994 to its seemingly unstoppable high point of Tekken 3, but then things started to go a little off-course with the follow up, Tekken Tag Tournament. Although not a bad game per se, Tag Tournament just wasn't the evolution fans were hoping for, offering up only a few returning characters, better graphics and a poorly implemented tag system.
And then when the fully-fledged sequel was released, it felt unrefined with sporadic environments and unbalanced characters. By this point, many among the 3D fighter hardcore felt that Tekken was no longer capable of reaching the dizzy heights of its heyday and were looking to the likes of Soul Calibur and Virtua Fighter rather than the up-and-coming Tekken 5.
But with Tekken 5's release, it seemed as though Namco had managed to get this careering train firmly back on the rails. Players could now choose whether they wanted boxed-in arenas or those of the infinite horizon variety. The fighting mechanics felt like a real evolution from the bench mark left by Tekken 3, and the game once again felt like a real testing ground for the honed skills of seasoned combatants. Tekken was back.
But was this return to form just a fluke? Would we be seeing a return of late nights around the PlayStation, with fights between Bruce Lee lookalikes, cyborg ninjas, possessed teenagers and grumpy pandas for years to come? With the PS3 release expected later this year, we ventured down to the Trocadero in London to get some hands-on experience with the arcade version of Tekken 6, the first game to run on Namco's new PS3-based arcade board.
When we eventually managed to track down the Tekken 6 cab in the labyrinthine three-floored Trocadero and popped in our first coin, we were, for a second, taken aback by the sheer volume of characters available. With 41 uniquely styled fighters including two unplayable bosses, Tekken 6 rivals many of the recent 2D fighters in terms of variety. And as you would expect, virtually all the Tekken cast make a returning appearance, including series favourites such as Yoshimitsu, Jin Kazama, Ling Xiaoyu and Eddy Gordo.
But as is customary with fighter sequels, a selection of new blood is on offer to anyone looking for a totally fresh fighting experience. The new character that first caught our eye was the gypsyesque Zafina. She has the air of an assassin about her, with a swift attacking style and a reasonable mix-up game. Her only real shortcoming is her lack of power, but that's always been the case with the ladies in Tekken. Comparatively, a far more intriguing new fighter is Bob, even if he isn't quite so easy on the eye.
The story basically goes that he's a professional martial artist who decides to put on a lot of weight in order to beat the larger opponents he was unable to topple in the past. What this plays out like in gaming terms is an initially bulky-looking fighter who has a surprising amount of speed and technicality. You'll know exactly what we mean the first time you go up against him, so consider yourselves warned.
Finishing off this foursome of new playable characters (there's no way that Jack-6 counts as 'new', after all) are Spaniard Miguel - a rough and ready brawler type - and, representing the increasingly obligatory "I can't believe it's not a boy" category, German tomboy Leo, a Hakkyoku-Ken specialist who opts for hard-hitting short range strikes.
Upon a cursory glance of Tekken 6, it'd be easy to assume that little has changed since the previous iteration. Once you sit down and start to give that arcade stick a good waggle, though, the changes quickly become quite apparent. Although Dark Resurrection is considered to be quite a juggle-heavy game, Tekken 6 takes it to a whole new level of bouncy castle madness.
Even in the hands of an intermediate, it's possible to start a bout with a launcher and then proceed to juggle half your opponent's life away with only a moderate degree of effort. And once caught in a juggle combo, it can be virtually impossible to tech roll to safety. Plus, if you're unfortunate enough to be backed into a wall during such an onslaught, you may as well just kiss that round goodbye.
Manage to escape with just a slither of health left, though, and Tekken 6's new mechanic may just give you the edge needed to claw it back. Titled the Rage system and similar to the POW gauge from Samurai Shodown and the TOP system from Mark of the Wolves, it automatically activates as you near the brink of defeat and significantly increases your offensive damage for the rest of the round. More than once, we were on the verge of suffering a humiliating perfect only for the rage to kick in, with us subsequently hammering out a frenzied game-winning combo.
And almost always to our opponent's disbelief, which made it all the sweeter. This really intensifies the pace of the game where there is no longer such a thing as a guaranteed win as believe us, the new rage system works effectively both ways.
For those that have mastered Dark Resurrection and are expecting success the instant they pop Tekken 6 into their PS3 upon its release, be aware that some of the classic characters have undergone some very dramatic changes. Yoshimitsu, having been in every Tekken game since the series conception, is a poignant example of this.
Remember how one of his biggest advantages was the fact the all his sword attacks were unblockable? Well, it seems Namco have finally listened to all those crybabies who couldn't figure out how to sidestep - all the other characters seem to have invested in armoured sleeves as they can now brush off Yoshi's sword swipes with minimum effort.
It's been a long time since the 10-hitter was of any use in anything but the most casual bouts of Tekken. And to help banish these canned strings further into the realms of redundancy is one of Tekken 6's most interesting features, and something that should give it some extra spice when it inevitably goes online with PS3 - the new item moves. In Dark Resurrection, you were given a degree of character customisation with the accessories you could buy with the currency won in the game.
This allowed you to give a personal touch to your on-screen avatar, but served no purpose beyond being purely aesthetic. Not so in Tekken 6, and now not only are these accessories more numerous but certain items also unlock moves for your character unique to that item. Bryan Fury sporting an intimidating 12-gauge on his back? Looks like he remembered to bring some shells with him for the sixth King of Iron Fist Tournament as he can now use it to extend his juggle combos.
Ling Xiaoyu wearing a rather cute pair of kitty mittens? Don't be fooled into letting your guard down, as if she grabs you with them, she'll batter you to death with a lethal throw manoeuvre. It's always the quiet ones.
After nearly £20 invested at the Trocadero and just a couple of wins under our belt to show for it, it was time to leave the bustling arcade and wait patiently for the PS3 version. At least then our skills could be honed in a practise mode far removed from the merciless arcade cabinets.
Having gone back to play a few games of Virtua Fighter 5 that very evening, it has to be said that Tekken 6 doesn't quite reach the crazy level of detail Sega-AM2 managed with its latest fighter. But when you consider that Tekken 6 has over twice the roster and is faster paced, perhaps this isn't much of a criticism.
Whatever happens in the gaming world this year, 2008 is definitely going to be epic for the 3D fighter, with both Soul Calibur IV and Street Fighter IV imminently to be released in the arcades - Soul Calibur IV is also predicated to have its PS3 port before Tekken 6.
And with even Virtua Fighter 5 R expected to join the fray at some point, it would be impossible to predict which fighter is going to be crowned king. As the second oldest 3D fighter still in this race, the arcade version of Tekken 6 is a good indication that the PS3 release, if supported with a firm online multiplayer and additional content, could be something very special indeed. One thing's for sure - it's certainly a very exciting time to be a beat-'em-up fan.
Sticks at the ready, people...
Building on the strengths of the last game and introducing a few interesting ideas of its own, Tekken 6 is on course to put the series back on the menu for those that have gone on to find meatier brawling elsewhere.
The reliance on juggles will clearly take some learning (and may even put some players off altogether) but we've little doubt that it'll all be tweaked and refined for the console release. And with PS3 owners currently only having an inferior version of VF5 on which to vent their virtual anger in a flurry of feet and fists, that release can't come soon enough.
More screenshots can be seen at the link up top!