Medical experts agree that a well-conditioned man who eats right and engages in regular exercise can retain the majority of his physical abilities well into his sixties. Among the current contenders for the 3D fighting game crown, nearly every game is a kind of proof that this statement is true. Generally, the fighting genre has been suffering from a malaise of small innovation and unwillingness to change proven formulas. In turn, this has caused a slump in the number of games being released and a dwindling interest in what was once a hot and exciting genre. Less interest leads to fewer risks being taken, and the cycle continues. The industry and fans alike seem to be waiting for the "next big thing" to kickstart the craze again, but by being cautious and reserved, Tekken 4 eliminates the possibility and resigns itself to being "a little better". Don't get me wrong- Tekken is a great series that has a lot going for it, but small steps like this arent going to get anybody anywhere.
Namco's current design philosophy has molded Tekken 4 into a smaller, more compact experience than the previous game, Tekken Tag Tournament. The games core engine is relatively untouched although there's been some general re-balancing between characters and some tweaking with the timing. The control scheme has been left unchanged; each button on the face of the Dual Shock 2 controls a separate limb (the Square button is Left Punch, X is Left Kick, etc…), and holding back on the crosskey blocks. For good or ill, the other cornerstone of the games structure – "juggling"- is still quite prevalent. (For those who don't know, this is when an enemy is hit into the air and then prevented from defending themselves with moves that "juggle" them around.) Fans familiar with previous Tekken's will instantly feel at home.
Looking at gameplay elements new to the series, movement in the environment is the first thing to come to mind. Tekken 4 now incorporates the use of walls and breakable objects in arenas that no longer stretch into infinity. Opponents can be smashed into and bounced off of barriers, and players trapped in corners will come to a rapid and painful end. To complement this, the developers have added a "Position Change" maneuver that lets you can grab the opponent and trade places with them, moving you away from the wall and them into it. Finally, characters can now freely move around the squared circles, no longer limited to being face-to-face on a 2D plane. While I like all of these modifications and certainly took advantage of them if the opportunity presented itself, they didn't lead to significant shifts in play tactics or positioning. Even with all of these features, the game feels much like it did in the past.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Im glad to see Namco give greater attention to the characters motivations in Story mode. Tekken has always had a deep history for its characters available online or in magazines, but has never integrated it into the game except for some puzzling CG endings. Finally, a more complete personality profile for every entrant is given by combining hand-drawn art with good-looking CG sequences. Also worth noting are the voice samples (though some are nauseatingly bad) done in the characters native languages. Paul speaks English, Kazuya speaks Japanese, and Kuma growls. (Hes a bear.) These things might be considered extraneous fluff, but it does increase the appeal of going through the game at least once with each character.
While those things are nice, the meatiest new additions to Tekken 4 are the fresh characters. My picks aren't the three advertised on the cover, though. Brazilian vixen Christie Monteiro is little more than a minor reworking of fan favorite, Eddy Gordo, so there wasn't much to savor there. The first person I see as really being new is Jin Kazama. Hes been in previous Tekken's, but his move list has received such a drastic makeover that he is a "new" character for all intents and purposes. Besides Jin, the disc features quick boxer Steve Fox and monstrously huge Vale Tudo behemoth, Craig Marduk.
These two are both great additions, being almost polar opposites of each other. Fox is a strict boxer, having no kicks. To make up for it, he possesses fancy footwork that allows him to land unpredictable blows after weaving and ducking around incoming attacks. He lacks the power of other characters, but his quicksilver footwork makes him deadly to underestimate. Marduk on the other hand, is a hulking brute who employs grappling, throws and pure muscle. Quite similar to real-life WCW wrestling champion Goldberg (even having some of his real-life trademark moves), he wields frighteningly direct attacks but specializes in tackles and mounting opponents to deliver some ground-based hurt.
While the fresh fighters bring welcome energy and spark, the general paucity of the overall lineup gives the game a claustrophobic feeling. For example, Tekken 4 has 23 characters total, but five of them are merely duplicates with different "skins" to alter their appearance. With this taken into account, this means there are only 18 truly distinct fighters. By comparison, Tekken Tag offered nearly twice the number of characters and also included a choice between standard one-on-one or Tag battling. I find it ironic that Tekken Tag was panned as "just more of the same" at its release. Its clearly a fatter package than Tekken 4, which makes it hard to get excited over a newer game that offers less.
Another missed element beside the large cast are the trademark extras and goodies Namco used to be famous for. The time and effort they put into jazzing up their games earned major brownie points with fans, but they were either very rushed or simply lazy this time. Some work obviously went into the storytelling, but the only real "extra" offered is Force mode that it isn't worth the time it takes to play. Not only is it an inferior rehash from Tekken 3, its just plain boring. Completing this "adventure" is a bore and a chore, with the only reward being access to a new stage. Forgive me if I don't exactly fall down on the ground and writhe in ecstasy.
Finally (and this may be a shallow nitpick) I think Tekken 4 doesn't really look all that much better than Tekken Tag. The character models are more detailed and the facial expressions are great, but Namco went overboard with gaudy reflection effects on the surfaces of the water and some clothing. Not only that, their current hair technique is truly terrible. Instead of flowing and looking reasonably normal, long hair on characters like King or Marduk appears to be made of large "chunks" of texture that sway in pieces. It's quite distracting.
In the big scheme of things, Tekken 4 is a solid game that unquestionably contains deep sets of moves, a wide variety of fighting styles, and an inherent amount of fun- it just doesn't amount to being the "next step" the series and the genre needs. In the end, its just another installment that's already been outdone by its predecessor in a number of ways. A bolder perspective is a must for future sequels, and seeing the developers abandon their addiction to annoying juggles would be a dream come true. I doubt many players who enjoy Tekken will regret buying the game, but its hard to shake the feeling that there should have been more to it. Tekken 4 doesn't really satisfy the way a good sequel should.