Fight amongst yourselves.
Dateline: March 1, Delta House, Faber University
Police who entered a University housing facility late last night discovered a grisly scene. Strewn among discarded beer bottles, empty cellophane food containers and video game controllers, officers found the bodies of several university students in various stages of muscular atrophy. "Unbelievable," said Officer Krupke, "I haven't seen such carnage, virtual carnage at least, since the spring of 1998. They're alive, I guess, but after several days on nonstop digital ass-whopping, they might never fully recover." Demonstrating, Krupke snapped his fingers in front of one student's unresponsive face. Without blinking, the student muttered, "half-crescent kick to ultimate tackle to ankle biter dragon fury punch."
"See," Krupke concluded, "complete nonsense."
The culprit is the recent release of Tekken 5, a game sure to reduce the most well-adjusted college households to similar scenes of single-minded competition and bloodthirstiness. "I'm thirsty," cried one student from the Delta House's television room, "not just for blood, but for water. . .beer. . .anything." Further investigation revealed that the starving student was the undefeated champion - unwilling to give up his spot for anything, even basic sustenance. "Man can't live on knock-outs and perfect victories alone," the student bitterly replied to suggestions that he relinquish his seat.
The phenomenon truly began in 1998, when Namco redefined the fighting game with Tekken 3, which sent waves of video game malevolence through our country's institutions of higher education. Whereas safety officials were prepared for the Tekken 4 scare in 2002, that game's developments " specifically, multi-layered arenas and excessive attention paid to pinning opponents against walls - did not set off a similar epidemic. By stripping these non-starters while updating the graphics and music, Tekken 5 recreates a more graceful and visually impressive experience of the third installment. Although it hardly revolutionizes the fighting genre, it will almost certainly leave scenes of domestic disaster in its wake.
In many ways, Tekken 5 is an amplification of all that is addictive about the Tekken series. Back are all of the familiar characters, plus some that you might have forgotten about, as well as a few new ones. With the addition of Asuka, a Yakuza-type fighter, Feng, a Kenpo fighter, and a Wesley Snipes look-a-like named Raven, Tekken 5 provides a full palate of over 25 fighters. Each has his or her or its own developed story, various costumes, and most importantly, a distinctive moves list.
What has always set Tekken apart from other fighting games is the way each fighter has a completely different feel. One character might privilege a quick directional tap conjoined with a quick D-pad button, while another fighter concentrates on directional sweeps, and yet another focuses on pushing certain button combinations simultaneously. Given that neither the shoulder buttons nor the analog sticks are used, the game's success in creating 25 entirely different fighting styles is astounding.
The fighters are also remarkably balanced despite their wide differences. In head-to-head gameplay, Tekken has always favored specific knowledge of a certain character over a more general knowledge of universal moves. This allows each player (ie. roommate) to cultivate their own expertise with a single unstoppable character.
In Story mode, each character's tale is introduced through the use of some CGI and anime stills. After beating a handful of successively challenging fights, the character wins the tournament and receives the obligatory CGI ending. While this might be ho-hum in other variations, the writing is surprisingly decent and most endings show a clever tongue-in-cheek humor. Marshall Law's ending might be the best of the bunch, riffing on Charlie Chaplin style physical humor complete with a ragtime piano piece.
Arcade mode is reminiscent of Virtua Fighter 4's popular Kumite mode. Here, you fight an endless succession of CPU opponents modeled on the experience of playing actual humans. Winning increases your rank and earns you money for various costume variations. The screen name of each virtual opponent even appears in the corner, as if the game were played online.
But the game cannot be played online, an unfortunate oversight. While the computer A.I. is good, even tricky, the inability to play online means that, unless you live in Delta House, you will find very little in the way of meaningful competition. In a game with a fairly steep learning curve, occasional players will be cannon kick fodder for experts.
Unfortunately, due to a reduced Practice mode, becoming such an expert might be more difficult than before. While Tekken 4 had a decent training mode with on-screen button prompts and a dialog box to let you know whether it was a dragon fist or an iron punch you were throwing, Tekken 5 removes the training mode and on-screen record of which moves you actually perform. This means that new players will frequently have to toggle from the Practice screen to the Start menu, and then to the command list, and then possibly to the "training dummy" demonstration before they can learn a single new move. Figuring out how to enable the training dummies to throw punches and kicks is a task in and of itself, almost guaranteeing that beginning players put in serious time before they can challenge veterans.
The meatiest part of the game remains the Vs. and Team Vs. modes, in which players reduce one another to obscenity-spouting shadows of their former selves. Although the game heavily favors experienced players, the simple control scheme and long list of moves means that button-mashing novices will still perform surprisingly well. A flurry of button mashing will sometimes yield the most satisfyingly destructive moves.
Whether planned or unexpected, all moves are fluid and look quite slick due to vastly improved character models. Each character's textures and contours are remarkably rendered, and some appear to have gone through the wringer; both Marshall Law and Paul Phoenix, for example, have a crack-addict look to them, which one might expect after years of severe physical abuse.
Graphically and aurally, Tekken 5 makes Tekken 4 look like an ugly cousin without an "inside voice." The backgrounds are imaginative and beautiful and the music is less intrusive than the techno-arcade fare that the series has been saddled with in the past. Two backgrounds in particular deserve mention. One is a moonlit field of white blossoms without walls. The grass and blossoms billow and float around the fighters, and add a kind of Hero choreography to the mayhem. The other magnificent background is a post-apocalyptic urban cage thing, where onlookers chant and stomp with a hip-hop cadence. Two men enter, one man leaves!
Tekken 5 is packed with extra features, including another third-person action adventure of the Tekken Force lineage called Tekken: Devil Within. It's better than Tekken Force but worse than the mediocre Death By Degrees, and probably will only be played once or twice before players jump back to the Vs. mode. Also bundled into the package are full arcade versions of Tekken, Tekken 2, and Tekken 3, all of which are good for nostalgia value and help chart just how far Tekken has come in perfecting the ancient art of stomping on faces. That's a lot of game.
It's not, however, a lot of new game. Tekken 5 is a hefty package, but doesn't offer much in terms of original gameplay or modes. It's a celebration of all things Tekken rather than a brave new step for the series.
Despite intimidating graphics and the inclusion of the three arcade iterations, leading epidemiologists predict that the Tekken 5 pandemic will be containable. Said one expert, "At this stage, the lack of online playability severely limits the possible contamination areas. It will be a scary day when the phenomenon goes airborne, I mean, online."
We couldn't agree more.