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Tekken care of business

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In 1994, back when Street Fighter II was king of the arcade and Super Nintendo ruled at home, classic gaming outfit Namco released an arcade game that would dethrone them all. Tekken was the first good-looking 3-D fighting game, making 2-D Street Fighter look old and the Super Nintendo, with its simple graphics, obsolete. Only Sony's PlayStation, which came out the following year, could handle Tekken's complexity. Now, more than a decade later, Tekken 5 feels more like a bookend than an evolution.

TEKKEN 5
For PlayStation 2
(Namco; http://tekken5.namco.com)
Like old-school shooters, fighting games have pretty much worn out their welcome thanks to the pure glut of titles in the '90s. The Street Fighter series alone had about a dozen sequels in that decade, not to mention SNK's King of Fighters or Sega's Virtua Fighter series. Taking the whole genre as a gaming cliché, Namco's Tekken 5 does what it can to improve the formula.

For Tekken fans, Tekken 5 will start suitably enough; as any longtime Tekken gamer will tell you, the interweaving plots are more melodramatic telenovela than Shakespeare. The convoluted concepts include mercenary spies, flying devils and killer wrestler robots. It makes a gamer wonder why Namco tries to come up with a context at all. This is, after all, a fighting game.

Luckily, Namco remembers what we came for and keeps the style consistent with that of the previous games. Two players go man-to-man or woman-to-woman in a 3-D square arena, usually battling to win the best two out of three matches. Two buttons punch, two buttons kick, and you press the opposite direction to dodge or block.

If options are the air that fighting games breathe, then Tekken 5 is alive and well. It offers five difficulty levels, almost a dozen different battle modes and 20 immediately playable characters with at least 11 more unlockable ones.

The modes are traditional favorites with few twists. The arcade battle mode is just like the upright model you'd play at your favorite mom-and-pop arcade; you fight the computer in seemingly unlimited matches -- no need to worry about quarters here -- and a second player can jump into the battle at any time. Two nice variations are the battle choice and the ranking system. First, after winning a fight, you can choose from three opponents whom you'd like to battle next, all given a ranking based on their skill level. Second, your own skill level increases during decisive ranking battles against opponents more skilled than you. This, in a sense, becomes your score.

As for the other modes, time attack tests how quickly you can dispatch an enemy, versus battle is a formal one-on-one, and survival mode pushes to see how many opponents you can take out with a single energy bar. In team battle, you and a friend can set up a roster of one to eight warriors to fight; as one gets knocked out, the next one comes in. An interesting practice mode allows you to test your skills on an animated dummy. The game gives pointers and enables you to focus on particular weak areas in your style. In custom fighter mode, you can tailor a warrior's look and fighting style.

As alluded to above, the story battle mode isn't very remarkable. Essentially a linear version of arcade battle, it enables you to learn a character's history via a movie played at the end of the game. The plot is so-so, but the comic-book-style segments and in-game movies are beautiful.

In fact, visuals are what make Tekken 5 shine. The opening sequence, with its robot sentries and C4 bombs (don't ask), literally looks like something from Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden, one of the best-looking titles on the Xbox. Aside from nightmarishly round breasts on every female opponent, everything in Tekken 5 looks real -- even if the story premise is absurd.

A few improvements would make Tekken 5 an even-better title. First, online play would be incredible, especially since its most immediate rival, Dead or Alive 3: Ultimate, was able to achieve this a few months ago on the Xbox. Also, a more interactive environment would add power to the title. Smacking an enemy down onto the ground on the ice level, among animated penguins and such, makes the float crack a little, but you're still battling within this relatively limited space. The wall-to-wall destruction of Dead or Alive and the multilevel fighting of Virtua Fighter make Tekken feel dated. Lastly, the mini-adventure game Tekken: Devil Within is like Death by Degrees Lite. With its game-camera blind spots and limited moves, it shouldn't even have been included.

The best addition to Tekken 5 is actually a mode called arcade history. Available from the outset, arcade history allows you to play Tekken, Tekken 2 (my personal favorite) and Tekken 3 in their original form. The graphics may hurt your eyes, but the inclusion of virtually the whole series on this one disc makes Tekken 5 a must-have for every fan. It's almost as if Namco knows the fighting genre is done for now, and the company is completing the circle itself. (7)

Out of the Xbox
Microsoft looks for the Xbox 2 to top everyone's holiday wish list this winter.

You may want to reconsider making an Xbox purchase if you haven't gotten one yet: Microsoft has officially announced the tentatively titled Xbox 2. The company expects the system to be out in time for the winter-holiday season.

Microsoft hasn't announced anything about the system's power, price or game titles yet -- it's saving those for this May's massive, industry-only Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles -- but it did give some insight into what we can expect. Most of the upgrades apply to Xbox Live, the popular service that allows gamers to play Halo, Madden and other titles online.

A revolutionary feature will be called Marketplace, a sort of iTunes for gamers. They'll be able to search through an online store and buy different items to spice up their games. For instance, when Madden 2007 starts to get boring, Electronic Arts could make an all-star team that you can download, or the new Grand Theft Auto may have a new section of the city available for a price. Maps, vehicles, new episodes and even gamer-created content are promised, but pricing hasn't been addressed.

The Gamer Card will be another Xbox Live addition, though quite a bit simpler. It's a profile that shows other people's gaming skills and interests, making it easier for you to match with competitors and, in the case of Halo 2, kill them.

Finally, Custom Playlists will make it even easier to have your own music in the background of your favorite games. At this point, it was up to the game developer's discretion to add a custom-music option to its game; we were at the mercy of bad techno music and rap-rock Muzak. Now, it will become standard. Microsoft should think about improving the speed of CD dubbing, as well. Playing your favorite music now requires you to copy the CD onto the Xbox hard drive, a process that seems to take an eternity.

It's going to be a while -- at least in gaming time -- until the next Xbox comes, and the smallest production problem may cause months of delay, so don't hold your breath. At the same time, Microsoft hasn't mentioned if the current Xbox games will be playable on the next system à la the PlayStation 2. The nice part is that, no matter what, when that new Xbox 2 comes, the price of the original Xbox will drop.

-- Damon Brown

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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