Round 4 is a draw.
The fighting game genre seems to have passed its prime. The craze of Street Fighter games and their clones has calmed to a murmur. Even the multitude of 3D fighters like Virtua Fighter, Tekken, Bloody Roar, Dead or Alive and a few others have left many of us pining for something new. Now two titles, Virtua Fighter 4 and Tekken 4, vie for control over the consumer's ever-waning interest in this once proud genre.
While it was very fun, VF4 stopped short of true innovation. The result is a game that affectionately plucks the heartstrings of its diehard fan base by adding a few new goodies.
However, those looking for something new in their fighting game experience might as well be waiting for the Second Coming, as Tekken 4 suffers from the exact same problems with of a few of its own thrown in for good measure. Again, the veterans will be the few to appreciate the game's minor but savory refinements. Plus, Tekken Force makes a return and finally we see a full replay feature.
But before I start on the sweet creamy center, let's bite into the flaky cookie crust, which is ever-so flaky.
Supposedly, the martial art community holds a totally arbitrary event known as the King of Iron Fist Tournament, and this is the 4th in the series. Twenty fighters (and apparently robots and panda bears) from all over the world meet to compare bench-press achievements and see who has the skull most resistant to severe pummeling. Each character has his/her own lame-ass story for why they're there, which has zero representation during gameplay. The ending cinema sequences are longer than they have ever been and yet still manage to be short and make little sense.
With the absence of the tag feature found in Tekken Tag, the game plays like your garden-variety fighter with the new ability to walk in an arc around your opponent, either left or right. This helps a great deal when a sidestep just isn't enough.
The major difference in fighting systems between VF and Tekken is VF's Punch, Kick, Guard button style vs. Tekken utilizing a button for each limb and requiring the player to press Back to block. VF4 made a good breakthrough with many more moves and combinations than in previous versions. Yet still, a button for each limb gives the player more ability to "freestyle" and come up with their own combinations and ways of linking combos together.
Tekken 4 builds nicely on this play system, providing convenient and slick transitions between new and old moves (some of which have been rehashed thrice over since Tekken 1.) Say, for instance, an overhand punch may have previously left you momentarily open before you could pull your next attack. Now, the game sports slick in-between transitional moves to retaliate with just when you might think you were exposed and susceptible to counter-attack. So an upper-cut or low sweep may follow that descending overhand punch.
This speeds up gameplay, prevents easy "juggling" and can stop combos dead in their tracks. Toss in the existing counter-attacks and the new humiliating counter-counter-attacks and you can see how veterans might get excited about Tekken 4.
Also new to the game are destructible obstacles and enclosed arenas complete with walls to become pinned against. Both add a sense of realism not found in previous versions, but some of the enclosed arenas are crummy, such as the sucky industrial laboratory. It's too small and has the most annoying echo. Not to mention, it's easy to get pinned against the wall and hammered with a series of crushing combos.
There is a simple move each character can perform to move their opponent in a variety of different directions, one of which is switching positions, thereby placing their assailant against the wall and returning the punishment.
One of the game's less notable additions comes in the form of 2 1/2 new characters. Enter Steve Fox, British Middleweight boxing champion - no kicks, but a lot of impressive punches with a cool bob 'n weave style that would make Sugar Ray proud. Next is Marduk, an 8-foot Vale Tudo fighter who specializes in bone breaking maneuvers and submission holds. Last is Christie Monteiro, a student of Eddy Goro and famous for her balletic Capoeira. However, most of her moves are rehashed Eddy attacks.
Then there's Jin, who isn't really new, but he has unlearned the Mishima style of boxing and is now the only recurring character with a completely new set of moves. Great for new players, but a sharp thorn to those who spent many nights honing their Kazama skills.
Incidentally, there are several modes, all roughly familiar, in which to cultivate your preferred character's style. Survival, Arcade, Story, Practice, Time Attack, Team Battle and the Final Fight inspired Tekken Force. All of these should be pretty self explanatory, but Practice and Tekken Force deserve some elaboration.
Practice is essentially the same as always - take a character in and you can watch and/or attempt said character's moves, throws and combination. You may also set the CPU controlled character to attack, crouch, counterattack, block, etc. Moreover, you can now save combos to file and replay them just in case you pulled a stellar "custom" combo and want to remember how to pull it off again later.
Tekken Force is a refreshing single player break from the 1-on-1 norm. Pick a character and traverse through a series of levels devoid of any real story. In the vein of the classic Kung Fu or Fighting Force, you are thrown waves of enemies that are ever increasing in difficulty as you progress through industrial type environments. You have each character's full compliment of moves at your disposal, which makes for some pretty cool sequences. Plus, the camera problems that plagued the last Tekken Force have been addressed with improved angles, and enemies no-longer smack you around from off-screen.
I haven't mentioned much about the aesthetics, because they're just barely next generation. Sure, edges are rounder and smoother than the PSX versions or Tekken Tag and there are definitely more colors on-screen, but the textures don't impress at all. I expected more detail for the full-fledged sequel to Tekken 3 on the PS2. At least you are given a cool option to save entire matches to watch as replays (even if the match is set for 5 rounds!)
But despite the game's improvements and refining, you're still fighting 1-on-1 in a confined, pseudo-3D environment with rehashed moves. I love the Tekken series and it easily has the better-looking fight scenes of the two remaining heavyweights in the genre with its counter-counters and slick transitions. But Namco has played it safe with Tekken 4, only refining what they have previously done well and taking absolutely no real chances on innovation. It is fun for the converted, but the congregation isn't getting much bigger.