Jul 29, 2008

Quite a number of gamers have been eagerly anticipating the next installment of the Soulcalibur series, considering the notable quality of past iterations of the franchise. Making its debut on the current generation of platforms, Soulcalibur IV once again offers fantastical, weapons-based combat and an inspired cast of characters, which should be appetizing to fighting game enthusiasts and casual players alike. I was particularly excited to play Soulcalibur IV, especially in light of my fondness for the first Soulcalibur title. I'm pleased to say that this game is an excellent addition to the series -- despite its problems -- and should find a welcome spot in your collection.

Soulcalibur IV is a great game -- especially if you've been following and enjoying the series for the past few years. There are over 30 characters to try out (granted, some of them are clones of each other), several gorgeous stages to battle in and enough special moves to keep you memorizing commands for months. As you might expect, Soulcalibur IV also has a healthy number of modes and unlockables that will keep you thoroughly engaged, along with a new online mode that lets you challenge other Soulcalibur fanatics through the magical power of the Internet.

Soulcalibur IV boasts the standard Arcade and Story modes that will be familiar to fighting game fans. I was actually surprised that virtually every character in the game has a "story" to play through, but I was disappointed that Story mode only lasts about five rounds and you can get through a character in ten minutes or less. There aren't really any cinematics except one towards the end and many of those are repeated. What's there, however, is solid and works to give at least a marginal backdrop to the cast.

The Tower of Lost Souls is the other single-player option that gives you the chance to either ascend or descend the tower, facing challenges along the way. If you ascend the tower, you'll be able to select a "stage" or set of floors to fight through, which usually involve heavily weighted battles where you're pitted against several overpowered opponents. Fulfilling certain conditions rewards you with equipment unlocks for the fairly robust Character Creation mode and allow you to advance further up the tower.

Descending the Tower of Lost Souls is an entirely different matter. You can select two characters at the start (they'll fight tag-team style) and then you stick with those fighters through the entire affair. Each floor brings a new set of enemies that you must defeat and you receive items and goodies after clearing a certain increment of floors, like passing the 5th, 10th and 15th markers. This is only possible because the character you aren't using slowly regains health until they're tagged in, so if you keep one fighter alive long enough, the other can come in with swords blazing.

This mode is a great feature of Soulcalibur IV, though I feel as if it could've been deeper with a more fleshed out contextual narrative and a wider variety of specialty matches. Regardless, having this avenue for unlocking content is nice and will add many more hours to the experience.

A good deal of the unlocking you'll be doing in Soulcalibur IV opens up items to the Character Creation mode. Not only can you customize existing characters, including their equipment, weapons, skills and hair style (you can't change "permanent" features like body build and skin color), you can also create new characters from the ground up, though they'll act as copies of pre-existing fighters when it comes to gameplay. Being able to set up different skills works nicely, because the equipment and weapons you have set dictates how many points you can spend in certain skill categories. Say you have 70 available points in the Special category and 40 points under Impact. You can opt to equip the Auto Grapple Break A skill, which has a high chance of automatically repelling a throw if an opponent gets too close.

Acquiring these skills is governed by your Style Level, which increases as you use a character. If you use Ivy a bunch, for example, her Style Level goes up and gives you access to more skills. And the more you play the game, the more equipment you can unlock, which gives you more options for character customization. Nice.

Soulcalibur IV also has your standard Versus options to consider, which means you can jump into a quick match with either a friend or an AI opponent. I'm always thankful when a fighting game includes this option, as it's nice to get a quick couple of matches without having to start up an entire Arcade game.

The real stinger comes in the form of Soulcalibur IV's online multiplayer, which is a first for the franchise. You can face the competition through Xbox Live and the PSN with ease and participate in either ranked or unranked matches. You can even take customized characters into the online arena, which is appreciated. I played numerous online matches on both the PS3 and 360 and both ran very well, with only a few extremely brief moments of lag. Unfortunately, I can't say for sure how the game will perform once everyone jumps on the network with varying connection speeds, but what I saw handled admirably. Hopefully that will be the universal experience when everyone jumps on board.

So now with the general stuff out of the way, we can discuss some specifics. I think everyone is wondering how Darth Vader and Yoda compare. In case you're new to the party, let me fill you in: the PS3 version of Soulcalibur IV features special guest character Darth Vader, while the 360 version gets the lovable, huggable Yoda. Both versions, however, get the Apprentice, the main character from the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

The real issue at hand is that Darth Vader feels like the only balanced character out of the three. Although the Apprentice isn't radically overpowered, some of his moves feel a bit on the absurd side. Plus, he can levitate and shoot lighting. That's tough to deal with. Yoda, on the other hand, is broken. As I feared since the first moment he was announced, Yoda's height makes him an almost ridiculous addition to the ensemble and he's quite possibly the worst thing to happen to Soulcalibur IV. Don't misunderstand: he's fun enough to play as but he's powerful, agile and, because he's so small, a surprising number of attacks go clear over his head. Furthermore, he can't be grabbed. Ever. He's completely immune to it -- even Yoda can't grab Yoda. This is a clear indication that Yoda's just there for kicks and shouldn't be taken seriously as a competitive character. He simply doesn't mesh well with the rest of the cast.

Vader, however, works just fine. He has a few fancy moves here and there but matches with and against him still felt balanced. Even though Yoda is an "inferior" character, 360 owners shouldn't be discouraged. He's just one character out of a collection of more than 30 fighters, so the experience doesn't suffer because of him. If anything, you can just elect to ignore him on the character select screen.

When it comes down to the actual combat, Soulcalibur IV feels great. Controls are extremely responsive and there's a lot of potential for mastery, considering the daunting number of moves at your disposal. Armor destruction and Critical Finishers are also great new aspects to the game. If your opponent blocks too much, there's a chance you can destroy a piece of their armor (one piece for the head, upper body and lower body) which then makes them susceptible to Critical Finishers. If you can wear down their Soul Gauge enough (a colored sphere that turns red as too many blocks are used), you can pull off a Finisher which inflicts incredible amounts of damage and looks really slick in the process. There are a lot of fantastic slow-motion moments during these finishers that need to be seen -- their style is without question.

Although some have worried that this system would be a punishment for players who actively incorporate blocking into their common techniques, it really isn't an issue. You'll only find yourself in trouble if all you do is block the entire round, which means you're in serious trouble anyway. This dynamic isn't set up as a punishment but rather adds a system to make sure that players are at least attempting to balance both offensive and defensive strategies. And the unrelenting power of Critical Finishers won't be seen often during normal matches because it's very rare that you'll fulfill all the required conditions for move execution.

Hardcore enthusiasts of the series don't need to worry, though. Fan favorites like Kilik, Taki, Voldo and Ivy return in Soulcalibur IV and play just like they always have. Although a lot of great additions have been made to Soulcalibur, the older characters still feel exactly like they should and will feel extremely familiar in the hands of series veterans.

One other note about characters: Hilde is awesome. Her design is fantastic, considering the incredible detail in her armor and the regal style of her wielding both a short sword and a lance. The personality of her character, mixed with her flashy yet effective move set, make her one of my favorite characters out of the whole ensemble. Even after considering all the unlockable characters, I still have to go with Hilde.

And while there's plenty of content to unlock, there could have been more, especially in terms of the game's beautiful illustrations. And while the included game types are great, I was also expecting Soulcalibur IV to have more modes.

Another peculiar issue I came across isn't a constant problem, but it's still troubling. After you throw an AI opponent, they seem to briefly enter an orientation state where they get their bearings before coming at you again. If you have sharp timing, you can run up and throw them yet again, and continue this until they're dead. I've cleared entire single-player campaigns just by throwing my enemies. This isn't always an issue -- harder AI opponents won't be so gullible and certain battles sport opponents equipped with the Auto Grapple Break S skill, making them immune to throws. I'm just surprised that certain matches could be so easily won. Then again, this won't bother you if you're only concern is winning...

My last problem with Soulcalibur IV is a significant one, but one that can be briefly stated. Sometimes, button mashing can get people a long way in this game. Moves are just way too easy to pull off and timing is often irrelevant as certain characters can string moves together as smoothly as water (take Maxi, for example). I suppose this makes the overall experience accessible to beginners, but it can be discouraging for hardcore fighting game fans. This isn't always the case, of course, but when some of the most powerful moves can be executed just by pushing two face buttons at the same time, there's going to be plenty of mashing going down.

Closing Comments
Despite the aforementioned concerns, Soulcalibur IV is a lot of fun and I highly recommend it, especially -- as I said before -- to fans of the series. The game runs well, looks beautiful, sports great music and obviously has enjoyable combat. The PS3 and 360 versions are just about identical (barring the differing guest characters), though I felt that the optional install on the PS3 made things feel even quicker and more polished. In the end, both are worthy members of a long- standing series and you won't be disappointed with the purchase.

Now get that soul burning!

Rating: 8.7/10


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