It’s all about the character select screen. With RPGs it’s the magic system and with first-person shooters it’s weapons and killstreaks. But with fighting games, the first point of interest has always been about what faces will fill out the character select screen. Putting pre-order and DLC shenanigans to one side, Tekken Tag Tournament 2 has the biggest character select screen we’ve seen, one that makes you squint, trying to work out where they’ve put Paul. There are 50 characters in total, ranging from the return of Prototype Jack to the likes of Tiger Jackson being pushed beyond a mere palette swap. Characters have also been rebalanced, and while there’s still a noticeable top tier, this time with the Mishimas having knocked Bob and Lars from the summit, there’s a far healthier mid-tier presence, with no weak characters lingering at the bottom. Good news for anyone who persisted with Zafina, Kuma and Yoshimitsu through Tekken 6.
The biggest difference in gameplay is the tag mechanic, which has been a trendy feature in fighting games recently, although it differs here. A big part of the strategy in Street Fighter X Tekken and Marvel vs Capcom 3 is for the player to create situations for safe tagging, thus avoiding being greeted by a huge combo when the fresh player runs into the match. Yet tags in TTT2 are so quick that it actually reverses this, making the attacking player work harder than the defender to take advantage of a desperation tag. The window to hit an incoming player is there, but it’s small enough that situations where you’ll be punished for tagging are the exception rather than the rule.
So if partners can run in and out of the match at will, what’s the point of the tag system? For combos and setups. Some moves allow you to tag out as part of the animation. Likewise, calling your partner in for more damage can extend bound moves. Learning these is key to milking extra damage from combos, which have always been the bread and butter of Tekken’s appeal. You can also get creative, calling in your partner for an attack mid-combo while you set up a stance change or unblockable, something that might normally be impractical in close-quarters combat due to the long startup.
The downside is that calling your partner in for a quick combo extension means they lose all their red life, so you’re forced into deciding whether losing that is worth the extra damage. There are further nuances at play, too. Various combinations of characters have different attributes, depending on whether they ‘get along’ or not. For example, a sidelined Heihachi will enter the damage bonus mode of Rage much faster when Kuma takes damage than he would if, say, it was his hated son Kazuya being beaten up. There are also team-specific animations for tag throws and win poses, encouraging and rewarding further experimentation with new characters.
Katsuhiro Harada has given up on forcing Tekken into a 3D Streets Of Rage template, leaving the single-player appeal in the hands of Arcade, Team Battle, Survival, Ghost Battle and Fight Lab. Arcade is the usual line of opponents standing between you and a ridiculously hard final boss, although Unknown isn’t nearly as infuriating as Jinpachi was in Tekken 5. Team Battle and Survival are nice extras, while Ghost Battle pits you against different ranks of opponents for a chance to win money and items, and to level up your own rank. In Tekken 6, your offline rank was capped at 1st Dan, a bizarre limitation that’s thankfully been removed, meaning there’s no reason to stop playing through Ghost Battles this time around. The main motivations are still to earn money and see what ridiculous customised characters you’ll be fighting against.
Fight Lab could have been the cornerstone of single-player. Rather than force you through a training mode, this mode teaches you the mechanics of the game via a storyline concerning Lee training up Combot. Well, it’s more a scenario than a storyline. Although it teaches you the core mechanics of Tekken – combos, punishing, throw techs, and so on – it ends just after the training wheels come off, taking little more than an hour to get through. Good idea, but one that feels slightly undercooked. That leaves the customisation and online as the main time sinks, particularly as the two overlap given that you’ll create a character with the former to show off in the latter. It helps that Namco Bandai isn’t taking itself the least bit seriously – T-rex heads, police sirens, cake hats and bear shields are some of the ridiculous items available. It’s also pleasing to see that training mode itself is exhaustive. It’s corrected one of the main problems of Tekken 6’s equivalent, where you couldn’t have a command list running alongside your training, and it also has extensive options to record various inputs to practise against. It’s missing the frame data of Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown’s training, which might rankle with the most technical of fighting fans, but otherwise it’s perfect.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is the closest the fighting genre has come to recapturing the spirit of ye olde classic Capcom vs SNK 2, in that this feels aimed directly at the hearts of fans rather than at their wallets. It’s the closest any series has come to a ‘best of’ album, and is a fitting tribute to the legacy of the series thus far.