Imagine a game that depicted a living, breathing London - not 1940s London, not post-apocalyptic London, but today's London, with every homeless drunk, ambling pedestrian and dingy side-street intact, every brand name, every overflowing bin. Imagine there was one Pret a Manger outlet for every six residents of the city, and you could walk in and choose from a selection of actual products they sell in real life - if practically every shop and brand in the whole game were a real one, fully endorsed and realistically reconstructed. This is what Yakuza is to Japan, and Tokyo in particular. Kamurocho might be a fictional, sleazy corner of the city, but it might as well be real; everything in it is true to life, even the adverts on the vending machines.
Of course, you run around this eerily accurate facsimile of the real world beating up gangsters who randomly throw down in the streets, often using nearby lampposts and/or motorcycles. This is a video game, after all. Yakuza's realism is all in the detail. It's the world's biggest-budget, most ambitious attempt at grounding a game's fiction in our own, tangible reality; outside of Shenmue there is nothing else that comes close to realising a world so immediately recognisable. Few people would call the Yakuza games realistic - the enjoyably overwrought plot and excessive violence see to that - but their authenticity is beyond compare.
SEGA's unveiling of Ryu ga Gotoku 4 at the Tokyo Game Show last month really focused on that authenticity. The presentation was equal parts footage of the game and behind-the-scenes chats with the various digital actors and voice talent lending credence to the game's characters. There are virtual likenesses of Japanese drama stars Kitaoji Kinya and Maju Ozawa, the female lead, and many other famous names providing voice work. Yakuza 3's half-million sales clearly made an impression on Japan - Yakuza 4 is going to be absolutely huge.
It's clearly built on the same engine as Yakuza 3 in that it looks exactly the same. The motion-captured digital acting is still very impressive, the environments still look eerily real, there are evidently no significant changes to exploration and combat save some wince-worthily violent new finishing moves. But there is one massive, series-defining change - our stern-faced yakuza hero Kiryuu is rolling with a crew now. Ryu ga Gotoku 4 has four playable main characters, their stories (and destinies, proclaims the melodramatic trailer) interwoven over the course of the game.
The unveiling trailer introduces them all separately before showing the three new characters strutting in black-and-white slow motion down a street in the company of Kiryuu, who naturally gets his own awesome slow-pan intro. Yakuza 4 is gearing up to tell a story more complex than ever before. Shun Akiyama is a scrupulous moneylender who was homeless until an explosion at a bank sent millions of yen fluttering down into the streets - we see him scrambling delightedly for the notes, bottle of paper-bagged Suntory whisky left abandoned on the pavement, then reappearing in a smart red suit. He lends his money where he thinks it's right, proclaims the voice-over, but it evidently gets him into trouble. The following scene shows him standing in the rain over a dead body in an alley whilst a stern, older gangster-type advises him to be careful whom he enables with his cash.
A young chap in a purple parka advises him to run, saying the police will force a confession out of him. He's Masayoshi Tanimura, a slightly crooked cop; he's shown betting money in local bars, then accepting bribes from the bar-owners in return for not turning them in for illegal gambling; he evidently has ties with the Chinese community, too. In a combat montage, we see him slapping handcuffs on downed gangsters after kicking them squarely in the balls.
The last character, Taiga Saejima, is introduced with the best, most gruesome cut-scene we've seen in the series. He's a burly, emotionally damaged escaped convict, locked away 25 years ago for massacring 18 rival gangsters in a ramen bar. The game's depiction of this massacre is absolutely brutal - with two handguns in his pockets, two in his jacket, two in his hands and one in his mouth, Taiga strolls into the bar and starts shooting customers whilst others flee in terror or try in vain to wrestle him to the floor - he shoots one assailant in the stomach, another in the face. There's evidently a conspiracy behind this incident that is at the heart of Yakuza 4's story.
Yakuza 3's amazingly annoying Chase Battles are back - they were quick-time fights, essentially, where you had to keep up with someone and follow button prompts to avoid obstacles - as are the in-battle button prompts that unleash back-snapping, head-smashing special moves, which seem even better choreographed than before. There's lots of switching between third-person and close up to emphasise the juicier moments and a trail of blue, as ever, denotes the trajectory of punches and kicks. The other three characters' fighting styles are distinctly different from Kiryuu's - Masayoshi in particular seems far more acrobatic. 4's world, claims the trailer, is much broader, with rooftops and sewers and underground carparks joining the previous games' city streets as a backdrop to the action. The subways and rooftops particularly evoke Japan's strange, angular urban architecture perfectly.
It's the new brand-based, 'play spot' and creepy girl-grooming mini-games that really broaden the offering, though. For the first time, Yakuza 4 has actual pachinko, endorsed by one of Japan's biggest and most ubiquitous pachinko parlours. There's improved karaoke, with a new duet mode and the opportunity to, er, sing with schoolgirls. Fishing's back, and darts, and so is baseball - the trailer shows Taiga hitting baseballs at a billboard to reveal a reclining lady in underwear. All the arcade games - Answer X Answer, the UFO machines - are back in Club SEGA outlets, and there's a Japanese ryoukan (sort of like a spa-based inn) where you can take cabaret girls, enjoy the hot springs and play table tennis in your dressing gowns - the trailer shows a ping-pong ball bouncing balletically in slow-motion off a nearly-exposed bosom.
The trailer also takes a minute or two to expand on the extremely creepy cabaret-girl grooming from Yakuza 3. It's a very sinister subgame where you take a smart-looking career woman off the street and transform her into a made-up hostess doll in a sparkly dress for the entertainment of bar patrons. All the hostesses are voiced now, too - usually by famous Japanese drama stars.
Yakuza 4's only just been announced, but it looks practically finished - it's built on exactly the same architecture as 3, clearly, so all SEGA has had to do is come up with a new story to frame Yakuza 3's iconic brawling, exploration, completion lists, nonsense mini-games and hostess-grooming. Assuming the publisher doesn't change its stance on localising the series for the West, though, most of us will have to enjoy it either via fan translation or in the original Japanese. If we rally the troops to get 3 released, though, there's a much better chance that this will follow.