Jul 24, 2008

As someone who's ­- as the years march on -- become less interested in how utterly hardcore a fighting game can be and more concerned with how a game can move the genre forward, I'm glad to say that Soul Calibur 4 achieves both. Balanced and feature-rich, SC4 improves on the groundwork of core fighting mechanics laid in the series' previous iterations while giving players a virtual fighting sandbox. Returning characters are tweaked so that they still feel familiar yet fresh, with new moves and chains to which you'll find yourself saying, "Wow, [character name] is a badass this time around" over and over again. All of the returning vets -- Mitsurugi, Voldo, Raphael, Taki, and so on -- retain their signature play styles, but each receives worthwhile adjustments. You can even tag-team characters now (SC finally catches up to Dead or Alive and Tekken in this respect), a feature that's long overdue.

Where SC4 really shines, however, is in its character-creation mode. The more you use your custom characters, the more options you unlock -- with a wealth of weapons and armor pieces offering boosts to strength, impact, speed, and more, while certain stat modifiers improve your chances to escape throws or reverse counters. By selecting attributes designed to compensate for your weaknesses or enhance your play tendencies (or both), you can craft the fighting-game character of your dreams, to a degree that games like Fighter Maker don't begin to approach. That you can use these characters in any mode --- and have their appearance reflected in things like cutscenes -- is just an extra layer of detail that you must see to appreciate.

I may be alone in this, but I also really enjoyed the new characters contributed by various Japanese manga artists. As someone with lots of games to play these days, I need something more to keep me coming back. So, if I ever get tired of playing as Taki or Kilik, I can always fire up one of my custom characters...or, for example, Shura, designed by Gantz creator Hiroya Oku. What I'm saying is, beyond the niceties of an updated Soul Calibur, I'm looking for variety -- and, of course, an overall high-quality experience. In those respects, SC4 delivers in spades.

As of this moment, the PS3 version has the technical edge, since it allows you to install to the hard drive for faster loading times -- but with the upcoming Xbox 360 update that allow gamers to similarly install any game they want, it's almost a moot point. The Xbox 360 version's advantage rests with its exclusive guest Star Wars character, Yoda. The PS3 version is saddled with Darth Vader, but Yoda is the better character of the two, as he's sprightly and nimble, as opposed to the slow and lumbering Vader. Their Force powers are good for yanking people in and setting them up for combos (à la Mortal Kombat's Scorpion and his "Get over here!" spear), but the Jedi masters' move sets are pretty bland overall, reeking of missed opportunity. Why, for example, wasn't one of Darth Vader's hold moves an invisible dark side chokehold? Why doesn't Yoda calmly drop an X-wing on your head with his throw move?

The Apprentice (from LucasArts' upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed -- and present in both versions of SC4) is ridiculously annoying to unlock, too, as you must first defeat him during the story mode with either of the Force users. He's an all-blocking, all-dodging, supercombo, jerk-a-thon of a character to beat with either Yoda or Vader (although he's much easier to beat with the standard SC characters)...but once you unlock the cheap bastard, he's sure fun to play.

SC4's new Critical Finish feature might, at first, seem like a cheap addition as well, resting somewhere between Mortal Kombat's fatalities and Guilty Gear's overpowered Overdrive moves -- but in actual practice, it's primarily used to punish players who turtle too much (overzealous blocking makes the Soul Gauge meter deplete, eventually rendering offenders susceptible to the newfangled fatalities). In all of my versus playtime, I rarely saw Critical Finishes, as the very notion of the Soul Gauge turning red enough to invite these supermoves kept my mind on offense -- and blocking to a minimum.

The long-requested online mode is probably SC4's most worthwhile endeavor. Characters level up with successive victories, and leaderboards reflect the most accomplished combatants. You can brawl using standard default attributes -- or, if you're feeling ballsy, you can enter an arena with your turbo-boosted character and see how he/she stacks up against the competition. The online mode could use a quick-rematch option, though; postfight, the game boots you back to the matchup screen, which seems just a little clunky here in 2008. Still, this mode looks like it received a lot of thought, with options to reserve space for friends in four-player battles or invite people on your friends list into a match (in the PS3 version, anyway -- Xbox Live already has that functionality built in).

Only time will tell whether people will accept SC4 into the pantheon of timeless, classic fighting games, but it looks great, plays extremely well, and has countermeasures for nearly any perceived exploit you may stumble across (like unlockable final boss Algol's slow-moving ranged attacks). The create-a-character mode is amazingly deep, allowing you to assemble your own bionic man, while the new manga-designed fighters add plenty of fun new looks and personalities to play. The Tower of Lost Souls mode is a much better attraction than Soul Calibur 3's Chronicles of the Sword, as it ditches that game's real-time-strategy-lite load-a-thon with more straightforward combat challenges (and rewards). Ironically, as complete a package as SC4 is, the recent release of the original Soul Calibur on Xbox Live actually feels faster and more nimble than its newer brother; that doesn't make it a better game, but it's an interesting observation.

So with the classic, new-school, and infinitely customizable character roster at the ready, and with online play fully operational, it's not a stretch to say this might be 2008's best fighting game. Some other hot fighters -- notably Street Fighter IV, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, and Battle Fantasia -- are on the horizon, but considering how fun Soul Calibur 4 is after a month of nonstop play, I think it'd be hard to top what Namco's accomplished with what is unquestionably their best fighting game to date.



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