I met the announcement last month about bunging Ezio Auditore into Soul Calibur with my usual level of cynicism: I've never particularly been interested in the addition of guest characters into fighting game franchises, especially because they're usually awful game-breaking additions. Who remembers the fun of fighting Gon from Tekken 3 or, even worse, Yoda from Soul Calibur IV? Exactly.
Still, Namco Bandai wants to prove a point with Ezio in Soul Calibur V - this isn't some gimmicky bonus character. Everyone's favourite Auditore initially comes across as a modern version of Soul Calibur II's Link - the GameCube version's little extra treat, as you'll remember - with an arsenal of weapons implemented nicely into the mix.
Namco is working with the Florentine as he was in Assassin's Creed II, which means he's wearing the uncomplicated white robes with a dapper crimson lining and you won't have to fuss around with a bevy of silly bombs. He's an expectedly close-range fighter, with his lethally quick dual hidden blades the primary weapon.
Like you'd expect from the character, his moves are delivered with a noticeable flourish - leap over someone and trigger a throw and he'll push them to the ground and stab them in the neck. He's a particularly fierce opponent, and excellent on the offensive. He can even perform his quintessential shoulder barge, enabling him to cover ground quickly with a powerful attack.
He is, however, slower than the average character - and Soul Calibur V feels like a much faster game than its predecessor. You'll probably need to use the sword, with its potent sweeping strikes, to effectively zone players and ensure you don't get backed into the corner, and those snappy hidden blades come in very handy for when players get too close.
While the game is making use of a super meter - known in Soul Calibur V as the Critical Edge - this bar seems to fill very slowly, and it's unlikely either player will be able to bust out their most potent move within the first round. While the Critical Edge moves can be devastating, these are also surprisingly easy to dodge and block - you'll want to add them on to the end of pre-existing combos when you know you're guaranteed to hit.
As for Ezio, he drops a smoke bomb and launches a quick attack to trigger his Critical Edge and, if it connects, moves into a string of attacks before launching the opponent into the air and finishing with a headshot from his crossbow.
Ezio's fun, then, and he integrates into the series far more successfully than Yoda and Darth Vader ever did.
There are various other changes in play, too, which culminate to make the game feel more aggressive and slightly less cheap than Soul Calibur has in the past - while it's always going to be impossible to eliminate the series' propensity for button bashing, there's now far fewer three-hit combos mapped to repetitive button presses. Siegfried's basic Zweihander combo no longer finishes with a low third hit that causes a knockdown, for instance.
Will the changes be enough to revive interest in the flagging Soul Calibur franchise? There's more fighting games being made at the moment than there are people who actually play fighting games, but Namco Bandai is clearly putting in some serious thought as to how best revive the series. Soul Calibur V could very well be the fresh start the series needs.
Soul Calibur V will be released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on February 3 2012.