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Tekken 5

Namco makes a decent fist of it.

It's stating the obvious but games aren't movies, and they're not music. At their best, games are activities that require mastery of performance - rather like sport. At their very best they also reward interpretation - rather like art. The ultimate gaming experiences demand to become part of your lifestyle, holding you to ransom with their boundless rewards. Tekken 5 is a paragon of such virtues, the martial equivalent of Konami's sublime updates of Pro Evolution Soccer.

Iron Fist for sale - some light rust

Since launch last year in the arcades Tekken 5 has been greeted as a return to form. The exaggerated snappiness of moves is back (even jabs land with the power of a 1000V electric shock!), T4's claustrophobic, higgledy-piggledy fighting arenas ousted in favour of broader and flat-as-a-pancake expanses to exploit. New characters Feng, Asuka and Raven showcase the new face of 'Tekken-flava' one-on-one combat - an exhausting directory of individual techniques to absorb, then cherry-pick for personal favourite routines. Rest assured the experts have their work cut out trying to master all of this, but Namco has also remembered that Tekken is famously easy to enjoy even if you elect to play using your elbows. It's as dumbfounding or just plain dumb as your skills and/or attitude will allow - and this is traditionally where Tekken has the edge over its arch-rival Virtua Fighter, but more on that later.

Part four was not entirely disastrous, but clearly a game in transition - a bunch of ideas not fully explored, rather hurriedly handed to the fighting game cognoscenti for evaluation. For the sake of 'realism' Namco introduced a selection of tiny walled-in arenas together with a move designed to switch positions with opponents to corner them or escape being cornered. Great on paper, silly in practice. Fans were also dismayed to find undulating floors worked into the mix, something SEGA experimented with in VF3 but (sensibly) abandoned for VF4.

While Namco didn't quite have its baby thrown back in its face, it did lose the respect of many fans. More worryingly, it lost a lot of ground to Virtua Fighter 4 - particularly in Japanese arcades where SEGA introduced an online network for VF, with scope to customise characters with downloaded accessories and progress through ranks according to matches won or lost.

We guess Namco can count itself lucky that SEGA made a hash of the initial home version of Virtua Fighter 4, its riches buried in a comparatively plain-looking package compared to Namco's well-rehearsed razzle-dazzlement for T4 on PS2. Nonetheless the popular face of 3D fight-'em-ups had been tarnished - making the whole genre seem tired, possibly ruining the party for everyone.

Return of the King (of Iron Fist)

Thankfully undeterred, it's with both strong legs wading in the mainstream that Namco has made its march back to glory. Perhaps the embodiment of everything that is so right about T5 is one of three new characters Raven - who is clearly Wesley Snipes in the same way that Law is Bruce Lee, and Lei is Jackie Chan. More specifically Raven is Wesley as his movie alter ego Blade, meaning that most of his audience (boys and blokes) will know what to expect from him. This is one area that Namco has always been particularly savvy with Tekken, hooking in the average Joe with an obvious point of reference. Sure Blade Trinity was crap, but it's still Blade, he still kicks ass and you'd still like to be him.

Along with Raven there is a fearsome Shaolin Monk named Feng, and Asuka a feisty Japanese schoolgirl. Both are legendary types and Namco show its class bringing them to life. Feng, in keeping with Tekken trad', looks mean with his long hair, scowl and torso all covered in scars. He would deem VF4's Lei-Fei as a light snack. Asuka, thank God, is not your stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl. Instead she's a wisecracking bitch of a bully with the guts to beat anyone. And, she doesn't giggle. Ever.

The trio forms part a 30-strong line-up of unique playable characters (Panda and Eddie Gordo are just costume variations of Kuma and Christie), and they are all hugely rewarding to use. Although the majority are familiar faces, they each have an expanded range of techniques, and have been fine tuned to make match ups a close competition. Balance among fighters in any fighting game is always a crucial part to get right, and in Tekken 5 it's nigh on perfection. And for the sake of ticking all the boxes, players can now customise their favourite characters and achieve rankings ala VF4.

But now we must turn to the not too insignificant positioning of Tekken versus Virtua Fighter within the 3D fighting genre, and beyond that whether fighting games can still be considered an essential everyman experience.

Virtua Virtues, Tekken Taste

If you're lucky, you will be blissfully unaware of the Tekken versus VF bicker-a-thon raging for the past decade and you're better off this way. For one thing, the argument is ridiculous - it should also include Dead or Alive but for the sake of convenience does not. Overall, it should be clear by now that both games are pioneering the genre in different and exciting ways, while of course borrowing certain aspects from each other in the name of good sense.

Currently Tekken 5 is ranked the second most popular videogame in Japanese arcades (source: Famitsu Weekly), whereas VF4 Final Tuned has dropped off the bottom of the table. This is significant because usually 'VF-ers' cite Japanese gamers as godfathers of good taste regarding videogames. So there you have it boys. According to you, Tekken 5 is currently the best 3D fighter out there.

If you're genuinely puzzling over which of the three games is best for you (Tekken, Virtua Fighter, or DoA) you're advised to just play them. Tekken is heavily attack-oriented, with easily the most spectacular combos of the bunch. Even casual players will find themselves performing wonders, but will of course be humiliated by more advanced players. VF is played evasively, and the most impressive moves require huge amounts of practice to even perform let alone perfect and use in a fight. This is where it gains credibility but continues to exclude anyone but the most dedicated practitioners. Finally Dead or Alive makes the best use of its environments to enhance its dramatic free-flowing battles, with a button dedicated to parrying blows for lots of to- and fro-ing.

Since we're here to talk about Tekken 5, the main thing to consider is how appealing it may or may not be to a wider audience - not just to rank among the best fighting games, but stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of GTA, Gran Turismo, God of War and Pro Evolution Soccer on PS2.

Cream and sugar?

To answer that last question, the reviewer's opinion is that Tekken 5 truly is a great game.

Anyone can pick up a controller and hit on a few techniques to see them through for a while. If you just want to enjoy a few playful rounds with your pals and not take things too seriously Tekken 5 opens up without any effort, and the fights still look spectacular. From there it's up to you how far you take it, the moves list is accessible from the Pause menu so you can practice new moves during a fight with a forgiving friend. Learning Tekken is nowhere near as intimidating as Virtua Fighter, but that's not to say it's not as deep. If you put the hours in, and have the mental capacity to absorb the strategy plus the motor-skills to perfect the levels of dexterity required, timing, distance and so on, Tekken 5 can be pushed to the limits of every animation frame.

Really, if you love your PS2 and want to treat you and your friends to an exceptional solid 18 months or more of entertainment, while at the same time giving endless hours of reward during practice alone, this will do it for you.

And so the fact Tekken 5 comes packed with so many extras feels like gluttony. The now standard 'Theatre Mode' lets you watch all the intro and ending scenes for all the fighters from 'Story Mode' (which is not very much different from the standard 'Arcade Mode', but you get a hint of narrative). It also has some of the promo videos from shows like E3 and Tokyo Game Show for the train spotters.

Most exuberant of all though is the inclusion of Tekken, Tekken 2 Ver.B, and Tekken 3 - all arcade perfect - making the Tekken 5 disc pretty much a Greatest Hits of Tekken. There's also an unlockable arcade version of Starblade - Namco's revolutionary (in 1991) 3D space shooter that influenced Nintendo's Starfox for the Super NES. Whether you're really going to spend much time with these is beside the point, they're terrific extras - better than Big Head Mode!

Better the Devil you know...

It's almost as painful to write about Devil Within, the full-blown Jin Kazama action game included in Tekken 5, as it is to play it. While it's clear this free roaming, puzzle-oriented beat 'em up was no rush job, it is no work of art either. The story-telling is terrible (“Just as he tried leave, all the monitors switched on and showed some sort if ruins”) but for an extra, the action contained is substantial. There's a few hours' worth of punching and kicking and throwing of enemies during Jin's quest. Still, there's something undignified about seeing big JFK (Jin F***ing Kazama) hopping about moving platforms and hitting switches to open doors. It's cool that you can transform him into Devil Jin then use his powers to destroy armies of JACKs and so on, then some weird floating psycho computer and Ogre. But Devil Within takes years off your life it's so boring. Play it only if it's Armageddon outdoors, and someone stole all your other games.

Devil With(er)in aside, everything contained on this PS2 disc is solid gold. This is the best that Tekken has ever played, and in some respects the best any 3D fighter has ever played. There is no better-looking, better-performing game for PS2, nor one that's so easy to pick up and enjoy by anyone, while catering with such eloquence for the most demanding of players.

Namco's decision to exclude online functionality is in line with Sony's lack of respect for such features across the board in this current generation. If Tekken 5 were on Xbox, nada online features would be nonsensical. However it seems Namco believed the priority was to get the core of the game spot on - to squeeze a significantly more powerful graphics engine into the PS2 with all the gameplay elements intact. And has magnificently succeeded in doing so. Besides, fighting games are notoriously hampered even on Xbox Live, and are best played with a pal in the same room. Anyway, it's not like you're sitting there playing Tekken 5 saying, 'it's good but if only it were online.' It's very far from your mind.

Namco has gone all out to present the ultimate Tekken experience for long-term fans while enticing potential newcomers with its sassiest ever line-up of characters. Of course games are constantly evolving, and there will always be new ideas to enrich what's currently on offer. But right now Tekken 5 is as sublime as honest-to-goodness gaming gets.

9 / 10

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Paul Davies