Fighting games are prom. Seriously, think about it.
All the parties involved get gussied up in their best finery and enter a space that lets them reconcile grudges and/or crushes with as much flair as possible.
So the best thing, I've found, is to start with the dance that you know how to do. My main in Tekken is Lei Wulong, a fluid s.o.b. if there ever was one. His low-to-high Rave Spin leads to a knockdown, just like always. Good. Stutter into a Lift-Up Cannon that kicks at enemy shins and ends in a launcher. Follow it up with low punches. Wait. Is that something new there? Hallelujah, a new pose that leads to new attacks. More unpredictability; more things to learn. New steps to the dance. Looks like you might get lucky during prom after all.
Those moments of discovery provide the best kind of pleasure to be found in a new installment of a fighting game series: when new strategies and possibilities suddenly reveal themselves. I found a lot of those when putting my favorite character through his paces. There are other fighting game sequel pleasures too, like the return of old favorites, or the debut of new characters or design evolutions.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2 has all these things, and best of all, it arrays them in a way that will please longtime fans and newbies alike. Stages from past Tekken games appear in TTT2, seemingly forgotten fighters make their returns. But it's the action—lightning-quick and full of sly misdirection—that makes Tag 2 so fun. The story details never really matter—some parent is dead/angry/demonic, a fighting tourney is held, yadda yadda yadda. It's the simmering tensions that matter, and how they get resolved. Which, of course, is with kicks to the face.
I've spent most of my time with Tekken Tag Tournament 2 brawling it out in online matches. After all, AI opponents are no substitute for human ones, especially when it comes to seeing how the new features play out in their nastiest ways. My pre-launch matches saw me get hammered with lots of Tag Assault attacks, the feature that lets both partners of a team pound on a hapless fighter.
Skilled usage of Tag Assaults can chop off huge chunks of player health but, like most tactics in the fighting genre, they feel great when you're able to pull them off. Another tandem-specific feature called Tag Crash allows a partner character swoop in with an attack so that a downed buddy can bolt offstage to saftety. However, the saving move depletes the health stores that would have otherwise built back up. It's a tempting bit of risk/reward balance that can backfire on players if used poorly.
Online service for TTT2 feels good so far. In the nearly three dozen matches I've played before the game hits retail, only two have slowed down so badly that the game became unplayable. It's a promising sign but not a trustworthy indicator of what the experience will be when the masses actually get their hands on the game. Even with the settings at their most open, I did have to wait a couple of minutes for matches to be found. Again, that will likely change once a larger number of players gets the game. One small touch made the waiting bearable, though: players will be able to play against an idle Mokujin practice dummy while their antagonists are being found. As in Soul Calibur V, players will also be able to save replays of matches in the cloud for later viewing.
The frenzy of an online match can be such that you forget to swap out to another character. Or, when you're throwing down against a good enough player, they may never give you the respite to call in back-up. Most players' brains already work in a frenzied staccato tempo when engaged in fighting games but the joy of TTT2 is how that gets amplified by the symbiotic tag-team partnerships. Nailing a Tag Throw or a tricky Tag Assault grants a broader feel of mastery. And winning out against tactics designing to nullify tag strategies—like Unknown's bounce-back that sends the current fighter off-screen, mentioned in my preview—is a more slippery but satisfying feat.
The World Tekken Federation—a web platform that tracks stats and player data like Call of Duty Elite—hasn't launched yet, so I can't say how useful or impressive it is. The same goes for the Teams online feature, which promises to let players form clan-like organizations. These features weren't live at the time of writing and I'll update this review with impressions once they are.
The Offline modes mostly consist of old stand-bys—Survival, Team Battle and Time Attack—that play as they have before. Pair Play mode—which is offline only—opens up the competition to as many as four human players with each controlling a character. This adds a party-game feel to the proceedings as you'll need to co-ordinate tags with your partner to emerge victorious.
Ghost Battle also shows up again and doles out data-captured opponents for you to rank up against. This mode hands out occasional rewards after some matches and the urge to earn more rank, money or unlockables will keep you playing long after you might have vowed to stop.
One other element of TTT2 feels hard to stop, too. The customization mechanics in Tag 2 represent a significant shift upward for the dev team. Yes, you're still getting oodles of hats, tops and below-the-waist options to outfit your character in. But, for the first time, some of these items can be deployed in Tag combat as well. These items rest on your upper or lower body and require special inputs to execute. So I can strap on a handgun and squeeze off a few rounds at an attacking martial arts master. Or, a more traditional weapon like a sword or spear can be whipped out to painful effect. Some of the items result in gag moves with minimal damage. Nevertheless, the ability to buy a weapon and use it with a tag-team of characters is a serious shift in a series that's mostly been about empty-hand fighting mastery.
As great as the customization is, it's cramped by some terrible menus and UI design. If I go in to buy a new haircut for Panda, it seems nonsensical that I would have to back out two steps, enter the equip menu and re-locate the thing I just bought and press a button again to equip it. Way too many clicks to get to and implement what I want.
The questionable user interface design is all over the place. If you accidentally choose a character you don't want, there's no fast way to cancel that choice. You'll need to back out all the way the main menu. The terrible navigation pops up in online modes, too. Why no quick rematch option that keeps you in a current session? Why back out two steps only to fight the same guy again? None of this breaks the game but it sure makes it feel stupid.
Still, seeing those amazing customization combinations online serves as a driver for further commitment. You want to be the player sporting a giant wizard's cap and butterfly wings? Punch your way to the appropriate amount of cash. Whether you're getting your butt handed to you or dishing out the pain, you're going to want to look like no one else when you're doing it.
Like a prom, you spend most of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 dancing around and with people you already know. If you hate them already, you probably won't find reason to like them here. And the few new faces—like the annoyingly chipper German wunderkind Leo—barely register in any meaningful way. The rhythms of Tekken combat aren't as fast as those in its medieval, weapons-centric cousin Soul Calibur. And, while very different, the new item attacks don't feel like blasphemy. Tekken Tag 2 continues the series' tradition in that it rewards deep study and rapid prototyping of strategy. It's still cunning and instinct—built on hours of digging deep into hundred-count movesets—that are going to win the day in Tekken Tag Tournament 2. This game unapologetically offers up tons of fan service and is simultaneously an excellent showcase for the series' core appeal and a good reminder of why you might already love it.
Note: This review will be updated with further impressions of Tekken Tag Tournament 2's online services.