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Tekken 5 is the latest entry in the more than 10-year veteran fighting game series. This time around publisher Namco is touting the new graphics engine as a main feature. This new engine is more than a back of the box check mark, though; it truly delivers. Other highlights of Tekken 5 include lush cinematics, three brand new characters, all new in-game animations, a story mode, all-new environments and unlockable bonus accessories for all characters. Fighting games are a mainstay of any console generation and as the likely final installment of the Tekken series on the PlayStation 2, Tekken 5 is an excellent conclusion. Naturally, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on the animation and visual effects.
The cinematics are top-notch, satisfying in almost every way. Characters are highly detailed, beautifully lit and hand animated to near perfection. There doesn't appear to be any MoCap, a very good thing in my book. The cinematics utilize many modern rendering techniques to create believable muscles, sweat and hair/fur. Opening cinematics have a tradition of being a treat in fighting games and the cartoonish nature of Tekken's over the top brag-fests is exactly the adrenaline pumping exercise suited to getting into this universe. After the opening cinematic you're bound to be either scared away or ready to kick some butt. Lighting, environments and vfx are all plentiful and just as richly detailed as the characters themselves. Motion blur is everywhere to wonderful effect. If you've seen the Final Fantasy movie, that's about the level the Tekken 5 cinematics hit. We're not talking Pixar or Blue Sky level of quality, but very close.
In fact, the new engine does the impossible: Tekken 5 is the best looking PS2 game ever released. There are Xbox games that don't look this good. The game features full-screen anti-aliasing, a true rarity in PS2 development. Most textures appear to be of much higher resolution than previous PS2 titles, some allowing the camera in for quite close scrutiny.
The classic characters are all present, newly modeled, textured and animated. Three new characters round out the crew. All characters are customizable once you finish certain challenges. Playing through multiple times unlocks various accessories such as glasses, outfits and hats. This feature is fun, but I would have preferred they spend the extra time on additional animations. It is clear that these characters received significant attention, especially the characters' textures and facial animation. On the PS2, texture memory is at a premium, so faces generally use higher resolution textures than characters bodies. This works well for Tekken 5 and is especially pleasing when the in game characters partake in a bit of trash talk. The facial animation is quite well done in these parts.
The in-game animation is both fluid and fast. This doesn't mean Namco has cut any corners. They polish their animations nearly as much as they do the rest of the game. Characters move in accordance with their appearance: big guys are a bit slower, little folks are fast, fast, fast! Flowing clothing and hair is present on many characters. Each character has appropriate victory movies, which usually string together a few moves. These range from entertaining to silly. Still, when combined with the often cheesy quotations, they add to the overall charm of the game.
My only complaint in regard to the animation is the repetition. Animations get repurposed so often that it becomes obvious and distracting. The restrictions of modern game development make some animation sharing a necessity, but some are repeated due to gameplay, and these deserve special attention. The most obvious example is the death animation. Each character plays an arched back, cringe inducing animation every single time they are defeated. That's right, no variety. In some games the death animations are as much of a highlight as the special move animations. When you're defeated, it's all the more painful to have to suffer through this same sequence over and over again.
The environments are gorgeous, begging for much more interaction than is possible. Each previous Tekken title has done so much more with the environments. In the last game, Tekken Tag Tournament, fighters could destroy the arena, break through to new levels and even use walls to lock in an opponent to more easily pummel them. While the environments are certainly the best looking in the series, Tekken 5 does away with almost all of this interaction and destructibility. You can still occasionally manage to get an opponent stuck to a wall, but it's hardly predictable enough to be used as a strategy. When characters smash the ground the real pain begins. Instead of breaking apart realistically, the same few chunks burst from the ground and then sort of dissolve right back into the ground. I can't imagine how this made it into the final game, as it looks atrocious. Even no breaking ground at all or chunks fading out of existence would look better. This happens so often in the game that is more than an annoyance. If you can get over this flaw, the rest of the environments are pure eye candy. The variety and polish of these areas make watching Tekken 5 almost as enjoyable as playing it.
The bling factor is high when characters perform special moves. Explosions, lightning and energy effects are all top notch. There is rarely any slowdown when playing Tekken 5, but when the replays are shown some of the effects lose their luster. Fire effects in particular are little more than sprites. This is acceptable during the super fast fight, but when they're slowed down they look out of place when drawn side by side with some of the flashier glow effects the PS2 does so well. The effects truly show their power when a boss battle begins. Bosses generally have lots of sparkly particle effects to display. The PS2 really handles this well, drawing multiple particle streams simultaneously. With such a premium on texture memory, developers often overdo these effects. Not so in Tekken 5. Particles are used often, but also tastefully.
One portion of Tekken 5 that needs more polish is the UI. The menu screens are lackluster, appearing almost as an afterthought. Character selection should be a highlight of a fighting game, not the mundane chore it is here. Before a new character goes into battle players want to see why that character is so cool. Instead, Tekken 5 uses a combination of wannabe comic book drawings and poorly written text to introduce characters. I know they want us to work for the awesome ending cinematics, but a taste at the beginning would entice us all the more.
The UI did offer one excellent surprise via a configuration screen. Late in my gameplay session, I discovered the holy grail of modern gaming deep in the menus. Tekken 5 is one of a handful of PS2 games that supports 16:9 widescreen progressive scan display. As soon as I selected this mode, I was nearly blinded by a powerful white light. Clouds parted, doves flew and a soft angelic chorus gently rang out. For gamers, widescreen progressive scan mode is heaven. Take all of the visual quality I mentioned earlier in this review and double it. If you've got the hardware, the progressive scan mode is reason enough to buy Tekken 5, even if the UI is less than stellar.
Overall, I'm very impressed with Tekken 5. Despite its few flaws, I recommend it to fans of the series, fighting game fanatics, animators, effects artists or even newbies. This game is a bargain, considering that the single disc contains not only Tekken 5, but also arcade perfect versions of Tekken 1 through 3, an action adventure side game called Devil Within and numerous bonus cinematics. The most interesting part of the package to our readers is undoubtedly the cinematics. If you're willing to work for them, by beating the game several times over, you'll be duly rewarded with a brand new cinematic for each character, all of which add up to a sometimes surprisingly humorous story.
Fred Galpern is currently the art manager for Blue Fang Games in Waltham, MA. Since entering the video game field over six years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career as a comic book creator and also has professional graphic design experience. He has created characters and developed stories for numerous children's television series. Galpern has satisfied his long-standing interest in education by teaching at several New England colleges. He is currently an adjunct instructor at Bristol Community College, where he co-created the associates degree gaming curriculum.