Ever since its popularization on the Dreamcast, SoulCalibur has become known as the ultimate in fighting games. It broke the mold set long ago by combo-intensive, rigid fighters like Mortal Combat and Street Fighter and created a game both easily accessible and incredibly deep. It effectively defeated the button-mashing cliché of the last generation, and SoulCalibur IV does nothing to break this mold. Right from the outset, it's clear that this title is about exquisite balance between characters, well-placed blocking and a fine attention to detail.
The first thing you see when you boot it up (and optionally perform the 2.5 GB install) is that the graphics have gone one step beyond those in SoulCalibur III. The PS3 hasn't dramatically increased the realism of the movements or altered the shape of the characters, but the fine details look fantastic. Cloth convincingly falls across the body with each step, the fuzz on boots and shoulder pads blows subtly in the wind, and light reflects off the surface of wet stone more convincingly than it might in a Pixar movie.
The graphics still have their issues. Arms and legs have a tendency to clip through hard pieces of armor when they're bent in odd directions, and random headgear doesn't seem to work very well with unusual hairstyles and heads, but these are extremely forgivable. When you give almost any body type the opportunity to wear just about every conceivable piece of armor, it would be astounding if there weren't any clipping issues.
Underneath that gorgeous, shiny surface, it's easy to see that the solid SoulCalibur core is still there, holding everything together and keeping the game a joy to play. However, what isn't here is the sheer variety that was present in the franchise's prior iteration. SoulCalibur III received a lot of criticism for its unbalanced Create-a-Soul classes and its semi-RTS single-player campaign, but for all the complaints, you can't say that there wasn't a lot of variety. The last game allowed you to create characters by utilizing dozens of unique move sets that aren't used by any of the main characters. While this made for some bizarre weapons and classes, it also made each created Soul feel truly unique.
SoulCalibur IV's Create-a-Soul is more of a character customization system than it is about character "creation." You're given control over the character's basic body shape, fighting style and equipment, but there are only 28 move sets from which to choose. Each created character moves exactly like his or her fighting style's namesake, so if you create a female character with an ax and shield, she will crawl and skulk like Lizardman, and a male sword and shield user will prance around and pose just like Cassandra or Sophitia. The list of inappropriate combinations goes on and on.
It's pretty clear that these limitations are in place for the sake of balance. With the inclusion of an online mode for the first time in series history, there will be a lot less whining about the unfairness of a created character when they're basically the same as any of the main characters. As a result, SoulCalibur IV remains almost absurdly fair. Certain characters have unique attack traits, including greater or limited range and different speeds, but each character essentially has a fighting chance against every other character, with the possible exception of special guest character "The Apprentice."
There are two kinds of guard — standing and crouching — and each defends from high and low attacks, respectively. In addition, any guard can become a "just guard" or a "guard impact," depending on the timing and direction, and it allows the player to stop the attack and knock down the other player or disable him for a critical moment. From there, you can chain together combos to seize the battle. For the first time in the series, guarding has a darker side; if you take too much damage to a particular area (top, middle or bottom), your armor in that region can be shattered with a powerful attack. While this feels fairly random, it has a tactical impact in battle, as destroyed armor causes an increase in damage to that area, creating a visible weakness and exploitable spot.
Additionally, an opponent who blocks attacks for too long will suffer a broken Soul Gauge, which makes him vulnerable to a Critical Finish. Initiated with the L1 button, the Critical Finish begins a special cinematic that ends with the death of the opposing character. It's an instant KO, and something to be very wary of if you're prone to blocking throughout the entire skirmish.
These new additions are welcome in a series that's all about blocking. It keeps matches from going on forever without ever resorting to a time limit. If you're fighting good players, though, you'll likely never see a Critical Finish, which really feels like a waste of good animation. It's nice that you don't have to constantly worry about it, but it's a feature that feels like it's barely there.
SoulCalibur IV isn't all about the multiplayer versus mode, though. In order to unlock all of the characters, you'll need to at least play a few rounds of Arcade and Story modes, so single-player will account for at least a few hours of your total play time, no matter how much you want to avoid it.
You're presented with three main modes: Arcade, Story and Tower of Souls. Arcade is just what you'd expect, a series of eight increasingly difficult battles. Your only real reward for completing this mode is the chance to unlock the extremely unfair Apprentice and acquire a boatload of gold, which you can then use to buy Create-A-Soul characters and equipment.
In Tower of Souls, the player can choose to ascend or descend a tower. Descent is an endurance test, where you're forced to conserve your health between two characters and get through as many floors as possible. Mastery of tag-team switching is essential here, as you don't get any opportunity to recover health when your fighter is actively battling. You can customize a character to have an increased amount of health or the ability to recover health by hitting the opponent, which can greatly increase your chances of survival.
In the ascent portion of the Tower of Souls mode, you'll be tasked with defeating 22 increasingly difficult challenges that feature multiple battles with up to a dozen opponents at a time. In addition to just completing each of these challenges and getting all the way up to the 50th floor of the tower, you can also unlock equipment by solving riddles and performing required actions at the beginning of each floor. It's a huge challenge for dedicated players, but it'll really help you perfect your skills.
You can also get a fair bit of gold by beating the Story mode, which will also unlock ending cinematics for each character. This is also the only way to unlock the five bonus characters designed by respected Japanese manga artists. Unfortunately, SoulCalibur IV's Story mode is easily the weakest and most poorly written in the series' history. Gone are the branching paths and lengthy text between fights, sacrificed for the sake of speed and simplicity. Each of the 36 possible stories consists of five fights bookended by opening text and a closing cinematic. These fights utilize the new tag-team feature, occasionally granting you a partner character who can switch with in mid-fight. The fights are almost laughably easy in Normal difficulty but surprisingly challenging in Hard, so a difficulty level between these two would have been greatly appreciated.
Finally, you'll find yourself coming back to the multiplayer again, either with your friends on the couch or online. Whether you're fighting to reach the top of the ridiculous ranking system or just having a fun time, you'll be facing a mixed bag of opponents online. You'll be taking on a real, unpredictable human instead of the AI, but you'll also have to put up with a variable amount of input lag, which makes the timing of the game much harder. It varies greatly from match to match, but any input lag at all can be completely game-breaking.
In addition to this issue, you also should know that you can't use quick-matching. Thanks to cataclysmically bad programming, SoulCalibur IV has a tendency of finding matches that are already full, and then boots out players as soon as they're matched. You stand a chance of fighting a real person if you host a match, but even then, you may find yourself waiting around to fight a brief match and then get booted out again. Player matches (unranked) allow you to keep fighting the same person and invite friends, but even that system feels a bit flawed. Despite numerous attempts, I only managed to successfully connect with a friend once.
Even though SoulCalibur IV has a lot of graphical and gameplay polish, it's still nowhere near a perfect game. A stunted Story mode and the completely unfair Apprentice character detract greatly from the single-player experience, and as it is, the online multiplayer is literally broken. Lag is common, and finding a match is pointlessly difficult and tedious. Aside from this, however, SCIV is still the most solid and balanced entry in the series and easily the most gorgeous fighter on the market. It's a must-play for any fighting fan, and maybe it's a victim of hype, but one can't help but feel that there was a lot of squandered potential in this title. It'll keep everyone happy until the inevitable SoulCalibur V.
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