Reviewed: May 19, 2003
Reviewed by: Mark Smith

Microsoft Games

Studio Gigante

Released: March 18, 2003
Genre: Fighting
Players: 2
ESRB: Mature


Supported Features:

  • Analog Control
  • Vibration
  • Memory Unit
  • Dolby Digital
  • Arcade Stick

  • The Xbox hasnít exactly had the best of luck with fighting games since its release. Now the co-creator of Mortal Kombat has joined forces with Studio Gigante to release Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus and things are finally starting to look up for the Xbox as a valid fighting platform.

    Tao Feng breaks away from the traditional fighting system in several ways creating a fresh gaming experience and a surprisingly tough one as well. Those of you who are used to walking through games like DOA and Tekken will find plenty of surprises lurking behind the surface of Tao Feng. Even the massive and complex games like Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance and the challenging Guilty Gear on the PS2 cower in the radiance of Tao Feng.

    The sheer scope of the game is only hinted at when you browse the selection of 12 unique fighters. Once you learn that each fighter has more than 100 unique moves, throws, and combos to master your knees will get weak and youíll slump to the floor in despair Ė especially if you thought this game was going to be as easy as everything else that has come before it.

    Just working through a single characterís tutorial can take upwards of an hour, and the moves you learn for one character donít necessarily translate to anyone else. This makes it very hard to master multiple characters at the same time. Youíll likely pick your favorite and master him or her before moving on to the next.

    The core fighting engine is one of the best Iíve ever played and features the ability to use objects and even the walls to launch attacks. You can receive limb damage by getting thrown around or blocking incoming attacks Ė more on that later. There is also an exciting Chi variable that comes into play. As you fight your Chi increases and you can use this to heal damaged limbs or launch powerful Chi attacks.

    From the main menu you can pick your character and take them through an extensive tutorial that steps you through their entire library of moves. As you attempt each move your input is shown along the bottom of the screen so you know what you are doing wrong. Much like Mortal Kombat timing is also important. You have to master the rhythm of the button presses and to help you learn this technique you can demo each move and a tone will play as the computer inputs each command. You can now hear the moves and it becomes much easier to master the rhythm of the trickier combos.

    When you are ready to fight you can play the standard Versus mode where you pick your fighter, your opponent and the arena. This is a great way to learn the individual fighters and master the tactics required to beat them in the Quest mode.

    The Quest mode takes you on a six-part journey to recover a sacred treasure. Each character has their own treasure that has been split into six parts and you must face various enemies in certain locations to recover each piece. Each section of the quest gets progressively more challenging as the AI is increased to be much more aggressive. One enjoyable aspect of the quest mode is that you are not obligated to finish a characterís quest before switching to another. If you get stuck during any quest you can simply move on to another character and return to continue the fight another day.

    I must congratulate the designers on a compelling story that serve as the backdrop for the quest. They have done an incredible job of tying all the characters together in an intertwining plot full of deception and betrayal. Where most games rely on flashy cutscenes with little substance, Tao Feng is all substance told through simple narration.

    There is also a Survival mode that lets you fight as many opponents as you can in a single life. You can earn additional health by throwing or knocking your opponent into various hazard areas scattered around the levels.

    The next mode is a Team Battle where one or two players can select 2-6 characters in the order they wish them to fight. These teams then face each other with one life each. When one character is defeated the next one steps in until one team wins.

    The final mode is the Tournament where you can setup 4-8 players that are then randomly paired off to fight. Points are acquired by winning matches and not only do you get points for your match but you also win all the points of the opponent that he or she may have earned prior to your fight.

    All of this sounds like typical fighting game stuff and it really is, but where the game really diverges from the beaten genre path is in the subtle elements seamlessly woven into the gameplay and fighting engine. The first major change is that each fight is un-timed and only one round, although this is deceptive. What really happens is that each character can get knocked down three times per fight, so essentially you still have a three round fight but now itís more of a race to see who can damage the other person faster.

    You start each round with a green health meter and when that is depleted there is a short cinematic that shows you getting back up along with appropriate facial and body lacerations and bruises along with torn clothing. You now have a yellow health meter. When that is gone another short movie plays and your meter goes red. When this is gone so are you.

    While this may seem like a superficial change over the traditional ďbest of threeĒ modes of other fighters keep in mind that the other player does not get any health back, so you are coming back fresh against whatever damage you have already inflicted on your enemy.

    The lack of a timer for the fights also means you actually need to ďdefeatĒ your opponent, not just damage them then run away for 40 seconds. Fights are also now much longer. Other games that featured 45-60 second rounds were locked into a maximum time based on how many rounds you had to fight. In Tao Feng the fights can (and will) last upwards of 7-10 minutes.

    Your attack arsenal is vast creating the potential for unlimited tactics. You can do a flurry of fast and less damaging attacks or wait for the slow and punishing attacks that drain the opponentís health bar. You can now look for objects like poles and trees and swing on them to launch into your enemy. If your back is to a wall you can execute a wall kick that sends you flying headfirst into your opponent. Itís not exactly the Matrix but itís still pretty cool and hard to defend against.

    As you fight you earn valuable Chi Ė mystical energy that can be channeled into one of three deadly attacks per character or used to heal limb damage. Knowing when to use this for healing or when to attack is a crucial strategic decision that only experience can give. Chi attacks are really fun and often very deadly, but they are also easily blocked by even the simplest of counter attacks and then you lose all your Chi and have to start over.

    Another new innovation is limb damage. This is caused by excessive blocking or by getting thrown around the level into objects like video games, crates, glass display cases, statues, or anything else you can bounce off of or crash through. When your limbs are damaged you can only inflict 50% normal damage with that attack - either legs for kicking or arms for punching. Not only does this create some intense decisions when it comes to using your Chi, it also creates a balance of gameplay that keeps everyone aggressive. You just can't sit back and block all day or you will end up a quivering mass of broken and useless flesh unable to fight or defend yourself.

    The environments are large; not as large as DOA; there are no multiple tiers and you canít send opponents crashing through windows to rejoin the fight in a new area, but everything in these highly detailed levels is interactive, not so much in that you can use objects, but you can certainly toss your opponent into just about anything and it will break and cause additional damage.

    Control is slick and intuitive and you can master the basics in minutes, but mastering the massive selection of kicks, punches, combos, throws, and Chi attacks will take days. Simple commands are easy to pull off but the more complex combos require an almost musical talent to get the proper rhythm down. Blocking and counters are just as intuitive and experienced gamers will slip right into the control scheme.

    There is a great balance of power for all the characters. There is no one character that rules over the rest. Exile is huge and can crush you in three or four good hits but his speed is such that anyone else can pummel him into the ground long before he can get that many strikes in. Fiery Phoenix is agile and lightning fast, so he can deliver tremendous amounts of hits but none are particularly deadly.

    Tao Feng relies on player skill rather than inherent character abilities and stats. This is particularly evident in the single player Quest mode where the AI steps up as you advance through the various six challenges. Master Sage may go down like a school girl in the early levels, but if you face him on level six youíll be the one wearing the pleated skirt and knee high stockings.

    Now comes my BIG COMPLAINT (and you know itís big when I use capital letters). Just like any other fighting game the combat system is based on the direction you are facing which is perfectly fine in most games, even the newer 3D ones, but what is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE (thereís those caps again) is when the game engine flips (not spins) the camera angle 180-degrees right in the middle of your 8-move combo or your block effectively ruining it. Sometimes the flip is so transparent you arenít even aware of what has happened until Iron Monk is handing you your ass on a silver platter. This is a severe problem with the game that consistently screws with you even after you are aware of it, and Iíve deducted an entire point from the gameplay score because of it.

    Tao Feng looks stunning from the gorgeous level architecture to the creative character designs that have the fighters looking more like prospective X-Men than martial arts experts. Each fighter is meticulously modeled with thousands of polygons and detailed with brilliant textures. Clothing, faces, tattoos, and real-time body damage is all perfectly represented.

    As previously mentioned, the levels are huge and full of interactive objects that can be destroyed as each warrior is thrown about the area. Real-time lighting, shadows, colorful special effects and a complex particle system round out an amazing visual escapade.

    Some of this detail comes at a price, but oddly enough the few occurrences where the framerate dipped seemed to be tied to certain characters; mainly Exile and Iron Monk although Wulong Goth slowed his battles down a bit as well. Individually, these characters wonít hurt the game but if you ever get them fighting each other things can come to a crawl. Of course the level of slowdown is also based on the complexity and size of the level you happen to be fighting in.

    The music in Tao Feng is pretty cool featuring an authentic mix of Chinese instrumental mixed with some techno beats that fit the theme of the game. It changes just enough that you never really get tired of hearing it and it mixes into the background so the sound effects and speech take priority.

    Sound effects are excellent but not as violent as I was hoping for. After seeing the TV spots and hearing those bones crunching as the skeleton is crushed I was anticipating the same in the game. Even so, the effects are quite nice and varied and the designers have used an excellent Dolby 5.1 mix to put you in the various environments complete with echoes and true 3D spatial awareness.

    Most surprising of all was the quality of the voice acting and the sheer amount of voice work included in Tao Feng. Master Sage and Wulong Goth (depending on which side you are playing) tell the background story through pre-battle narrations (72 in all) that vary in length but are always excellent in content and quality. The rest of the cast is limited to a pair of taunts each that are humorous but grow repetitive after extended periods of gameplay. But then again, nobody is forcing you to use them.

    Fighting games are traditionally an endless gameplay experience but since this has a story mode there is a defined ending that can be measured even though your gameplay wonít stop when the quest is completed. A typical quest can take anywhere from 45-90 minutes per character depending on how quick you can master the controls. Expect 15-20 hours to finish the quest. This may seem short, but considering I walked through Tekken 4 and DOA3 in under 3-hours each, I found this quite refreshing.

    What I did not enjoy was the weak reward for my patience and fighting skills. For your efforts you are rewarded with a cheesy cutscene and a new character that is essentially worthless. He canít do any grab moves and he doesnít even have Chi attacks. I guess the satisfaction of completing the quest will have to be your own reward.

    Tao Feng is not for the casual gamer. You will need to have undying patience and Jet Li reflexes to master the almost musical combo system. Once you find your rhythm you will be finessing your controller like a concert pianist.

    The story is interesting Ė a first for a fighting game, and the drop dead gorgeous visuals will have you admiring the scenery as you find yourself getting tossed around the levels. Character balance is flawless and the complex library of moves for each character will have you coming back to Tao Feng for months to come.

    This is the single best fighting game for your Xbox and definitely makes the top-5 list of best fighters of all time. The innovations that have been implemented in this title will certainly become the rules by which all future fighters will be judged.