That's right kiddos, the King of Iron Fist Tournament is back. You didn't think Street Fighter IV would have it all its own way, did you? Of course not. With 2009 destined to go down as the year the fighting game fought back, with the release of, by my count, no less than four stone wall classics, perhaps it was fate that the Mishimas, the definition of a dysfunctional family, would start pummelling the crap out of each other on home consoles once again. Never a family to turn down a scrap, Tekken 6 preview code promptly popped through our letterbox, and we've been button mashing our way through it ever since.
So, what's new? The answer is, not a lot. Those still pumping hours into the PSN-exclusive, online-enabled Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection will no doubt seamlessly transfer over to Tekken 6. As a straight up one-on-one fighting game (that's not all Tekken 6 is, by the way - more on that later), it feels, moves and smacks you in the balls just as before. It's all about quick reactions - dashing in and out of the 3D plane, side stepping, poking, juggling and hitting your hapless opponent while they're on the floor over and over again - until their health bar is nothing but... an empty health bar. It's about King's bone-crunching multi-string throws. It's about Law's somersault kicks. It's about Paul's punches. It's about the Mishimas' spiky hair. Namco Bandai hasn't rewritten the underlying 3D fighting game system that's served the series so superbly over the last decade or so. What it's done is made improvements where improvements needed to be made and added a few new bells and whistles.
Which are, in no particular order, eight new characters (two non-playable bosses), loads of lovely-looking new stages, a new Rage system and... wait for it... a co-op campaign.
The new characters are, how shall I put this, an eclectic bunch. Ah, what the hell - they're downright barmy. Leo's a German woman. No, he's a bloke. No, he's a woman... er... I can't quite work out what she/he is. Miguel is a Spaniard Matador. SF4 fans will say Bob's a Rufus rip-off, although the truth is his huge belly was bouncing around Japanese arcades long before SF4 turned up. Zafina is an Eva Green look-a-like, and is just about the sexiest fighting game character ever created. Her moves are spider-like, triggered from various bone-bending stances. Alisa is a robot girl, the creation of long-running Tekken boffin Doctor Boskonovitvh. Pick her and you'll no doubt end up being called a cheap git - she can tear her head off and use it as a bomb, AND sprout chainsaws from her arms. Bringing up the rear is Lars, the emo, an amnesia sufferer who stars in the co-op campaign. His cape and spiky hair are classic Tekken (he's actually really good, and could end up being top tier).
Sitting alongside the new characters is almost every character ever to appear in a Tekken game. The playable list is gargantuan, so much so that it's almost impossible to see who's who in the character select screen. On the upside, everyone should have someone they can use, whether it's the powerful Paul, the Bruce Lee rip-off Law or the Jackie Chan wannabe Lei. Me? I'm a Xiaoyu man, although given she's a schoolgirl I'm not sure that's something I want to admit in public.
Without arenas, however, characters are meaningless. Luckily, Tekken 6 has got some great-looking ones. There's one set in the middle of a tomato festival - the floor is completely covered in a red slime. There's a lovely-looking ballroom stage with a brass band playing in the background. In every arena there's always loads going on, whether there are onlookers baying for blood, helicopters flying above a rain-drenched skyscraper rooftop or aeroplanes smashing into concrete. It's almost enough to make you gawp at the background and not at your opponent's shoulders.
The biggest gameplay change is the addition of "Rage". Basically it gives you more power when you're nearly dead. You'll notice it because you start glowing red and your health bar flickers. Console gamers might reckon it's a nod to SF4's Revenge system, but the truth is Tekken 6 turned up first. It's impossible, at this stage, to gauge the impact the system and the new characters will have on balance. Time will tell, as it does with all new fighting games. You'd like to think, however, that Tekken 6 has got a good chance of releasing with one of the most balanced rosters ever seen, given the game made its first appearance in Japanese arcades in 2007, and this home console version is based on Bloodlines Rebellion, the Tekken 6 update released in Japanese arcades in December last year.
Less is known about the net code, perhaps even more crucial to the success of a home console fighting game. Again, we'll have to wait and see, although I have high hopes given Dark Resurrection's net code was solid. I'll be keeping a close eye, since I'll spend most of my time with the game ranking up online. Like in T5:DR, you can gradually fight your way up the ladder offline, if that's your thing. It's a slow, brutal process, but then so it should be. Well, it's slow if you're crap. If you're like me, it won't be a slow process at all.
Bar that, it's pretty much as you were as far as the one-on-one fighting goes. Tekken 6 is, as in the last few versions of the game, heavy on customisation. As you play, whether it's offline or online, you unlock new, ridiculous gear which you can then use to make a mockery of everything that's good in this world. That's right - I've never seen the appeal of dressing fighting game characters up like confused, cross-dressing pandas, but I know some people like doing it. Some even buy fighting games for customisation. Each to their own.
Scenario Campaign is Tekken 6's campaign mode. It's similar to Tekken Force mode from Tekken 3, except with guns, yes, guns, and online co-op. As with Tekken Force, the moves are triggered using the same commands used in the one-on-one arena. Fighters only move in eight directions, the camera is schizophrenic and the auto-targeting system makes you want to tear your hair out. But, and this is a big but, you can play it co-operatively online. At the end of the day, Scenario Campaign is one hell of an extra mode and much more than we're used to in the genre.
Story and plot's never really been the point with fighting games, and, to be honest, I couldn't care less which Mishima is currently having a paddy or what spiky-haired emo has amnesia, but you have to admire the effort Namco Bandai's put into it with Tekken 6. The Scenario Campaign begins with a brilliantly animated recounting of all the key moments from the very first Tekken right up to Tekken 6. The Scenario Campaign mode itself is packed full of silly MGS4-style in-game cutscenes, typically dramatic Japanese voice acting, and, of course, meek Japanese schoolgirl-sounding skirt-wearing, boob-bouncing females. It's not for me, but for those who spend hours fussing over Tekken cannon, it'll be heaven.
While the release of Tekken 6 is unlikely to knock lapsed Tekken fans out of their fighting game stupor in quite the volume SF4 did so for lapsed SF fans, there will be some who see Tekken 6 as their opportunity to dust off those 10-hit combos and relearn those multi-string throws. The last Tekken game they played may well have been Tekken 2, or Tekken 3, or the divisive PS2 launch title Tekken Tag Tournament (which included the superb mini-game Tekken Bowl). In this sense, Tekken 6 looks hugely promising. Whether hardcore fans will be just as pleased, however, will be the real litmus test.
Tekken 6 is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 30.