Sitting down to my first round of Tekken in over a year, I'm a little concerned. As a fan of the series since Tekken 3, I've always been a solid Law or Yoshimitsu player, with both characters' 10-hit combo strings hardwired into my brain. But with my opponent sat next to me, a look of serene assurance across his face, it occurs to me that this year's Street Fighter IV addiction may have dulled my 3D fighter fundamentals. I needn't have worried. After a shaky start and some mild profanity, the Jeet Kune Do chef scraps a round-three victory with a well-timed one-inch punch. Yep, this is going to be an all-nighter for sure.
The preview code Namco's provided is, with the exception of online play, more or less complete, and a quick trawl through the menus reveals the usual offline modes including arcade, versus, team battle, time attack, survival, gallery and practice - but it's really staggering to see the choice the sixth King of Iron Fist Tournament character-select screen offers. There are 41 fighters to choose from, and although that's not taking into consideration a slight overlap (Mokujin, Kuma and Panda), it's still very impressive for a 3D brawler. With the exception of Jinpachi Mishima, everyone from Tekken 5 and Dark Resurrection has made it into Tekken 6. Although if I'm being really finicky, Jack-5 has been upgraded to Jack-6.
Many are familiar - significantly tweaked yet recognisable from Tekken 5 - but with that many combatants it's not too surprising to discover Tekken 6 introduces players to new blood in the shape of two guys and two girls. The most intriguing new fighter is the bulky Bob. He's a martial arts genius who always lost to larger opponents and so, as fits with the traditional Tekken logic, decided the best way to overcome this was to become the largest fighter around. Bob looks like a flabby beefcake, but he's surprisingly nimble, and more than once an AI Bob catches me off-guard with his swift gut-barge counter.
The other new man in Tekken 6 is Spaniard Miguel. Unlike Bob, Miguel is a rough and ready fighter with the predictable hint of a matador about him. In gameplay terms his style isn't particularly flamboyant, relying on solid one-two hit power mixed with average speed, and he also has the 'savage' stance and a deceptive taunt move which ends with an unblockable sucker punch. Far easier on the eye are tomboy Leo and tribal assassin Zafina. Leo is a Bajiquan practitioner who can dish out some nasty knee and elbow strikes, whereas Zafina is schooled in Kalarippayattu, with stances called tarantula, scarecrow and praying mantis. "Seductively unnerving", it says in my notes.
The consensus is that Tekken is less hardcore than the likes of Virtua Fighter, but all this really reflects is the superhuman demands Virtua Fighter makes on your reflexes; Tekken 6 is no button-masher, whatever anyone says. You can cheese it up with Eddie Gordo all day, but any player worth their salt will use the side-step, throw and counter systems to bring mash-happy shenanigans to an abrupt end. Advanced play focuses on mind-games and anticipating your opponent's attacks. Virtua Fighter 5 is certainly more technical, but Tekken 6 has depth whilst offering more accessibility and choice.
The most notable way in which Namco's achieved this is with the new Rage and Bound systems. The Rage concept will be familiar to fans of Samurai Shodown and to a lesser extent Street Fighter IV; once a player is on the verge of defeat - around five per cent health - they'll automatically go into a Rage state where they deal more damage. In my experience Rage rarely changes the outcome, because even a basic combo will often KO an opponent before activation - but fluky Rage comebacks are still possible.
The significance of the Bound system is far harder to judge in a short space of time, as it's intended more for high-level play. In Tekken 5 a player's best strategy was often to launch the opponent into the air, and dish out the most impressive juggle combo they could muster before their opponent touched down and rolled to safety. But in Tekken 6, certain moves have Bound properties, which allow the player to bounce their opponent off the ground in order to continue a combo yet further. The Tekken arcade scene has already developed some brutal Bound combos, and once Tekken goes online, the bar can only be raised.
There's also a new campaign mode, which starts off promisingly, despite the portents of Death by Degrees and other past aberrations, with five short videos, each detailing the story of the main series in a black-and-white calligraphic style. Players are then introduced to new characters Lars Alexandersson and Alisa Bosconovitch, who both featured in the Bloodline Rebellion arcade update. Lars is supposedly the bastard child of Heihachi and works for Jin, whereas Alisa is an android created by series crackpot Dr. Bosconovitch. "3D Streets of Rage with Tekken characters, done on a budget" is perhaps the best way to describe it, although it's nice to see the full fighting engine in place rather than a half-measure.
The campaign aside, Tekken 6 is shaping up to be something special. So far we've only brushed the surface of the offline modes, with the mysteries of Item Moves, Bound Combos, Character Customisation, Ghost Data and Multi-tiered Arenas still to be fully explored. Where Namco can't afford to be complacent is with the netcode: things have really moved on since SoulCalibur IV, and the developer needs to be aiming for Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue levels of lag-reduction. Otherwise, everything is in place, and the sixth King of Iron Fist Tournament is finally ready to declare war on Europe.
Tekken 6 is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 30th October.