At first glance Tekken Tag Tournament 2 feels like a novelty; take the core of Tekken 6 and bung in a tag mechanic so Namco Bandai can laugh all the way to the bank. But this latest trip to the Mishima Zaibatsu is, thankfully, a far more elegant and generous effort than it first appears.
Namco Bandai has pulled out an oldie but a goodie, the 'dream match' that's been working wonders for fighting franchises since the golden days of King of Fighters '98, and used it to create a game that's free of the cloying narratives that have eroded the publisher's recent efforts. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 immediately strikes a positive note by focusing squarely on its iconic fisticuffs, rather than Tekken 6's painfully overwrought and utterly detestable Scenario mode or the laughable Story component of SoulCalibur V. It feels good to see a fighting game focus on what it does best.
But with the fighting taking centre stage, veteran players might feel a bit put off by how familiar it all feels. Tag Tournament 2 inherits much of Tekken 6, though subtle character tweaks make for a more refined experience. Solo play is available but the headline feature is 2v2 tag play, letting you pick any pair from the 49-strong character roster and tinker around with new features like combined moves, throws and two-person combos.
Much of Tekken's appeal is in its apparent simplicity, with the game doing away with flailing power meters and tiered supernatural attacks; it is very much the antithesis to much of Capcom's work. Instead we have fantastical interpretations of martial arts disciplines with an impressively unrealistic physics engine, creating a fighting game where the action is delivered up close and the fighters can bounce into the air after cracking open pavements.
Dig a little deeper and the process becomes far more complex, though jabbing away at the controller like someone is repeatedly delivering electric shocks to your hand is, as ever, always a surprisingly effective tactic. A deep and varied character roster lets you pick and choose from robots, animals and plenty of characters riffing off movie stars, and Tekken 6's robot girl and whassisface pop up to remind us that anybody added past Tekken 3 isn't very good.
The problem, for anyone looking to take the game seriously, is that there's an awful lot of characters you need to become familiar with. Bread-and-butter abilities like launchers and bound attacks aren't shared across movesets, so to get an understanding of each character takes plenty of time and patience. And while a significant time investment is to be expected, Namco could make things far more approachable with the addition of, say, standardised moves.
Education is often where fighting games fall down, but Namco does makes a considerable effort to ease players into Tekken's distinctive and fairly unique requirements for positioning, moves and attacking. The new Fight Lab mode, a five-stage tutorial campaign that effectively teaches you the basics, is also jam-packed with the kind of Eastern humour that is impenetrable (and a little awkward) to your average Western player, and if you're anything like me you'll get through the mode by skipping through all dialogue and cutscenes as fast as you possibly can.
Other additions, such as occasional stage gimmicks and equippable weapons, feel like they've been added in by focus groups and marketing committees, and fail to really add much to the formula. I've never been much of a fan of Namco's renewed focus on player customisation, either, though there's plenty of that here, tied into the game's central economy that slowly tots up as you win fights.
All of those trivial bonuses slip into the background compared to the weight and breadth of the modes on offer, with all of your expectedly standard forays into survival, time trials and team battles. The real star is the game's online suite, however, and Namco has finally come good by delivering solid netcode (locked behind an online pass) that actually seems to work. Time will tell if it can hold up in real world conditions, but I found myself playing comfortably against American players, which felt remarkable in a world where Tekken 6 became a stuttering, wheezing mess as soon as you even considered taking it on the Internet.
Namco has certainly focused on the right things this time around; an excellent training mode, surprisingly decent netcode and a vast array of characters, many of them tweaked nicely from their Tekken 6 incarnations. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is the best home console version of the series to date, though the series' core fundamentals could definitely do with a shake-up by the time Tekken 7 rolls around.
Version Tested: Xbox 360