Darth Vader and Yoda from Star Wars are playable characters in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of SoulCalibur IV respectively. Having sat down for some serious hands-on with both characters at Ubidays in Paris last week, I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around this fact.
It's just so odd. Darth Vader is a large, lumbering, slow short-range character who feels as if he only has three moves at his disposal and none of those involve him jumping. Yoda on the other hand is tiny, as you'd expect, who needs to jump constantly for his lightning quick lightsaber attacks to be of any use. They are as different to use as the Light and Dark sides of the Force are to wield.
Both characters are mechanically SoulCalibur fighters of course, with horizontal and vertical attacks, kicks and guards. And they move across the 3D plane, weaving in and out for side strikes and dodges, parrying for juggle opportunities. They're both incredibly well detailed (Yoda's face in particular standing out) with authentic lightsaber whirs and voices. But they don't feel like SoulCalibur characters.
A lot of that feeling is down to the Force powers they have at their disposal. A small green Force gauge, displayed underneath the main health bar at the top of the screen, diminishes as you use Force powers, but it's quickly replenished as you attack further. We managed to work out a few moves, mainly triggered by use of both vertical and horizontal attacks. Vader has a Force choke move which lifts his opponents into the air from a distance, as well as a Force fireball and a low hitting Force push. Yoda's Force powers are less aggressive, and mainly focus on a better Force push, which he can use to help with ring outs or, more practically, give him some breathing space when opponents get in his face.
It's odd, and a bit silly. A thought strikes me as I pummel my Namco Bandai representative into the ground. Shouldn't Vader's and Yoda's lightsabers simply burn through the weapons and armour of their opponents? "It's for gameplay purposes," he says. "When you think about it you should die from just one sword slice!" Quite.
Practically, we can see SoulCalibur players enjoying messing about with Yoda and Darth Vader and exploring the new opportunities the Force powers bring but ultimately will focus on the more traditional characters for online and competitive play. While Vader and Yoda have their advantages, (Vader can at first seem extremely overpowered and Yoda, due to his short stature, dodges horizontal attacks) Vader's limited number of attacks and slow, grounded style and Yoda's short range make their appearance in the sixth Soul game akin to a cameo.
The addition of characters from different universes is nothing new for the SoulCalibur series. Soul Calibur 2 saw the addition of Nintendo's Link, Image Comics' Spawn and Tekken's Heihachi Mishima across the GameCube, Xbox and PS2 versions respectively. It felt slightly odd then. It feels doubly odd now. Perhaps we just need a bit of time to wrap our heads around the fact that you'll be able to play as Hilde, a German female knight in shining armour who uses a flag pole and a short sword for weapons, against a tiny green gremlin-like Jedi knight who uses a lightsaber in the hanger bay of a Star Destroyer (the game's new Star Wars themed level, complete with Imperial March music) as Tie Fighters and X-Wings battle each other in the distance.
While the addition of Yoda and Vader will get most attention, it's the new armour breaking system which will be of most interest to fans of the series. Every character has three points of armour, defending high, torso and legs. These three areas are represented by three small bars displayed under the health bar. As attacks are blocked armour slowly wears down until eventually it literally shatters. Once exposed, players will take much more damage when hit in that area. The idea is that it's supposed to discourage players from playing very defensively and blocking excessively.
It doesn't end there. An orb at the end of the HP gauge glows as you wear down your opponent's armour. When you destroy a piece the orb will flash black. If you're timing is good enough, you'll then be able to trigger a Critical Finish by pressing all four buttons as the same time. This move will more than likely kill your opponent immediately and is unblockable.
After we had had our fill of Vader and Yoda we had a play with some of the more traditional players (Mitsurugi, Siegfried, new character Hilde) in more serious matches to get a better idea of the armour destruction. You do find yourself constantly glancing at the armour bars as you fight. SoulCalibur has in recent iterations relied heavily on parrying and, as long as you parry (timed presses of back or forward and block as your opponent strikes) it won't affect your armour. Simply block though, and it will. Players who like to block will find they may have to alter their play style for this one. But, for the most part, both Mitsurugi and Siegfried play extremely similarly to in previous iterations of the series - Siegfried is still a devastating long range character and Mitsurugi is still an awesome all-rounder.
With the game due out very soon, we know there's not much time left for Namco Bandai to make any drastic changes, and thus what we played at Ubidays will be a fair representation of how the final game will turn out. The key point here is that SoulCalibur IV is not a reboot, or a restart, or a re-imagination of the series. It's very SoulCalibur and fans will instantly feel at home. While the armour destruction, critical finishers and the addition of Yoda and Vader as 360 and PS3 exclusive playable characters are welcome additions, neither affect what we know and love about the series, and, as a result, the game will probably win few new fans. But we're most excited about online play, a first for the series. For that very reason SoulCalibur IV is making us foam at the mouth with anticipation. And, if you love the series, you should be too.
SoulCalibur IV is scheduled for release across Europe on August 1 2008 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.