Is Tekken changing? That was the question we asked ourselves as we watched a Namco-Bandai honcho playing around with Alisa Boskonovitch, the latest débutant in the long-running fighting series. Alisa is a sexed-up cyborg who likes to wear stockings. She has robot wings that let her fly. She can also throw fireball-like projectiles - initially we thought that these were coming out of her tits, although now we're pretty sure they come from her arms.
The Tekken games have always had their fair share of eccentric characters, but Alisa still seems like a strong indicator of how the series has evolved over the years. Aside from Yoshimitsu the robo-samurai and Kuma the bear, the original Tekken featured a relatively sober cast that weren't that far removed from the line-up of Virtua Fighter. Since then we've seen the introduction of boxing kangaroos, fighting gods and two-foot-tall dinosaurs. Meanwhile the game's backstory has grown into an epic tale of demonic possession, military corporate takeovers and the world's most dysfunctional kung-fu family. Now it even seems that Jin, the all-round good guy of the show, has taken to starting international wars.
This epic growth is reflected in Tekken 6's character roster, offering a dizzying choice of 42 fighters to master. Eight of these are faces new, including two fighters who were only added in the Bloodline Rebellion expansion to the original arcade release, which is the version we were shown. We've yet to try any of the fresh blood for ourselves, but they look to be a fairly eclectic bunch: Miguel is a Spaniard who fights using a style of his own, rather than a specific martial art, while NANCY-MI847J is an enormous three-legged robot who was built as an advanced follow-up to the JACK series. There's also a German character called Leo who is supposed to be equally accessible to beginners and advanced players alike. We're not sure about that, but they're certainly very androgynous - the Namco developer told us the company is still unsure if it's a man or a woman. Poor Leo! Public toilets must be a complete nightmare.
At first glance, the actual one-on-one combat looks to be the same as ever. The biggest single change appears to be the introduction of the Rage system, which sees a player's health bar turn red once it drops below a certain level. From this point on the fighter gains a small damage bonus to all their attacks, so it's easier to make a come-back if your opponent fails to finish you off. There also now appears to be an even stronger emphasis on juggling - knocking your opponent off their feet and hitting them in mid-air. New "bounce" moves allow you to slam fighters off the ground and back into a combo - and your rival will now be unable to escape by using a tech-roll. We've already seen one video of a skilled Feng player dominating a match using these techniques; if that's anything to go by, the change will allow experts to serve up longer, unavoidable combos.
More controversial still is the introduction of customisable items for each character, an innovation only possible because fighters and their clothing are now rendered as separate models. Changeable outfits are nothing new to the fighting genre, but Tekken 6's accessories allow players to use new special moves. Some characters have access to guns that can be fired (surely a bit of a cheat in a martial arts tournament), while other possibilities include a row of ducks who follow you around, and a magic wand that changes your opponent's head.
It all sounds rather amusing, but there's no doubt that some people will be worried about the inclusion of these silly options. There's more than a touch of Dead or Alive to these daft cosmetics, and a few Tekken veterans won't be pleased about this. Still, we shouldn't be too critical until we've played the game for ourselves. What is already clear is that Tekken 6 will look pretty snazzy. One stage we were shown saw players duking it out on what appeared to be a large balcony on the side of a mountain, with fighter jets periodically screaming past the action. Another was set in the lush forest where Yoshimitsu hangs out with his bandit buddies. The backdrops we saw were packed with detail, and we're told that each scene will change from day to night during drawn-out battles. Several stages will also allow users to smash the other fighter down through the floor and onto another background - another first for the Tekken series that seems reminiscent of more extreme titles like Mortal Kombat and DOA.
Still, we're sure that Tekken 6 hasn't quite turned into Battle Arena Toshinden. Even if the usable accessories do prove to be a bad choice, we're fairly confident that they won't be very intrusive - and the "slick n' crunchy" style looks to be classic Iron Fist fare. There are only so many judgements one can make about a fighting title without actually having played it, but after a brief 20 minutes in front of the game, we're dead keen to get our hands on a console version - robot nymphos and all.
Tekken 6 will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 in the autumn.