Tekken is a fighting series that involves men, women and pandas punching each other in the face. This is the way it's always been, and this is the way it always shall be. Okay, so Tekken 6 offers a larger cast of characters than we've ever seen before - a roll call of 40 fighters, including a kangaroo, several robots and a German of indiscriminate gender - but the core principle remains the same: whether you're delivering a 10 hit combo, juggling your opponent or just mashing the buttons like a crazed ape, you're smacking the other person until they can't get up any more.
Fair enough, this is rule of thumb for all beat-em-ups. Naturally, if Tekken had turned into a real-time strategy game then we'd all be a bit surprised, but there's no question that the core gameplay of Tekken 6 seems a bit familiar. The first time I was shown this game, at the end of last year, I asked myself whether the series was changing. Back then Namco-Bandai seemed keen to focus on the character customisation, on allowing the player to prance around in a silly outfit with an entourage of fluffy ducklings. Now, having played the game for myself, I've swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. Now I'm asking myself if this is just the same old Tekken, spruced up with some admittedly lovely HD visuals.
Before I go any further, let's get one things straight: I absolutely love that "same old" Tekken. As a former owner of the original PlayStation, I spent years of my life in the company of Tekken 1, 2 and 3 - particularly the latter. I couldn't get enough of Tekken Tag on the PS2, and indeed I'll happily admit to preferring the brand to Virtua Fighter, despite the latter's excellent reputation. In short, I'm not going to be shedding too many tears if Tekken 6 decides to be a small step, rather than a giant leap for the series.
Besides, it's already obvious that the new game (well, new to home consoles) will boast plenty of eye candy. The fists fly at a butter-like 60fps, and there's an optional blurring effect that makes everything look extra smooth. It's clear that the stage designers have had fun showing off, too. Last time around my attention was caught by a level in which players scrap on an outdoor balcony while jet fighters scream past in the background; this time my favourite levels were a field full of sheep and a bizarre festival where everyone was pelting each other with ripe tomatoes. Fair enough, neither setting had a massive bearing on the actual fighting taking place (although hilariously the sheep bounce when you bump into them), but they undoubtedly added a lot of colour and character to proceedings.
Furthermore, the design of certain other levels will have an impact on the way bouts play out. Tekken 6 has taken a leaf out of the book marked Dead or Alive, in the sense that many arenas have multiple levels to them. In the aforementioned jet fighter stage, for example, you can smash through the floor of the balcony to a room below. The area in which the fighters start is relatively open, but once you drop down you'll find the conditions to be a lot more cramped - increasing the potential for combos which smash your opponent into a wall and then back into your awaiting fist/knee/panda gob. This kind of tactical consideration will probably only be really important to players paddling in the deep end of the skill pool, but it's a nice addition all the same.
Aside from the backdrops, the rest of Tekken 6 is also looking fairly easy on the eye. You'd think it might be hard for a game to feature 42 characters without repeating a few ideas, but as it happens the roster features an impressive variety of bone-breaking oddballs, comprising all your old favourites and quite a few fresh faces. Robo-ninja Yoshimitsu looks particularly bonkers this time around, sporting one costume where he appears to have the wheel of a ship bolted onto his back. Lars Alexandersson appeared to be the most popular of the new additions at Namco's recent showcase. He's a cocky-looking young chap who wears a big cape and who seems to favour spinning and sliding kick attacks (I'm no martial arts expert, so I'm afraid I can't be more technical than that).
Personally, I was more interested in Zafina, a gypsy-like character who uses a strange attack stance where she crawls about on all fours, and Alisa Boskonovitch - a feminine android who's presumably related to Doctor Boskonovitch. One nice thing about Tekken is that it's relatively easy to work out moves, since each face button corresponds to one of your four limbs. With a bit of fiddling, I worked out a way to activate a set of chainsaws mounted on Alisa's arms - allowing me to dash forward on jet-like wings to carve up my opponent.
In gameplay terms, Tekken 6 seems to be occupying the series' normal middle-ground between arcade fluidity and a more grounded, sim-like demand for strategy. It's still fairly easy to get into, and battles tend to move at a fair old pace, but there's always a sense that there's plenty of tactical depth of offer if you're fully in-tune with the way your character fights - though clearly this isn't too easy to measure during a relatively brief playtest. The biggest new addition to the action is something called Rage Mode - essentially a boost that kicks in when a player's energy bar is almost empty. As soon as your bar drops to a certain level, perhaps the last 10 per cent, it will start to glow red and all your attacks will cause more damage. This may sound like a relatively minor feature, but I was surprised by the difference it brought to a close VS match. Rage Mode allows a good fighter to turn things around just as they're on the brink of defeat, so you've got to be a bit more careful when you're trying to finish someone off. If you try to just rushdown your opponent, their counter-attack may make you think twice.
In addition to the core tournament mode, Namco-Bandai has also been keen to show off Tekken 6's campaign mode - a scrolling beat-em-up that has clearly descended from Tekken Force and other similar bonuses in previous titles. It certainly looks more like a fully-fledged game than ever before, with multiple stages and a Final Fight-style map screen that pops up between levels, but at the moment there's something about it that feels a bit lightweight. While there's always fun to be had in using Kazuya to plough through a crowd of moronic goons, most of your opponents seem to be little more than fodder for your fists. There are now weapons and items for you to pick up and use, including an enormous chain gun, but these seem to underline the key emphasis of the combat: the threat comes from the sheer number of your enemies, rather than from their ability to kick your ass.
On the upside, the entire campaign mode can be played with a chum, off or online, and if you happen to be lonely you can always get the AI to help you out. Working through the campaign will unlock new items and costumes for accessorising your characters in the main game, but personally I'll need a bit more time with the mode before I decide if it's something that I'd really want to do. For me, the core appeal of a fighting game lies with the bread-and-butter scrapping, and while there's no denying that Namco-Bandai has put more effort into this campaign than in previous scrolling Tekken modes, I'm still not convinced that it's anything more than a sideshow to the main attraction.
All the same, the main attraction itself should be well worth a look. There are so many characters in Tekken 6 that most people are bound to find one they click with, and if you've ever been a fan of the franchise then you're pretty much guaranteed to enjoy the action this time around. The game looks amazing, but what remains to be seen is whether Namco-Bandai has been a little too relaxed in its efforts to innovate the long-running brand. We're certainly keen to find out for ourselves, so stay tuned for further impressions later in the year.
TEKKEN 6 is scheduled for release in Europe this autumn for the Xbox 360 and PS3.