Quarter-circle forward, B, quarter circle back, A. Down-back A+B... Ring Out! Yes, SoulCalibur has returned, and, reassuringly to fans of the series, it still lays down seven Samurai swords worth of stabbity action on all comers to the ultimate beat-em-up crown.
First thing you notice when seeking out the fourth iteration of Namco's Soul franchise of games, which first exploded into the arcades as Soul Blade back in 1995 (God, has it been ten years? I feel so old), is that it's a PS2 exclusive. Nothing strange about that you might say. Well, when you consider SoulCalibur II came out for all three current generation consoles two years ago, it perhaps raises an eyebrow. Just goes to show how heavily Sony value the series, given they were prepared to pay the Japanese beat-em-up masters a royal fee for exclusivity.
Non-PS2 owning gamers will lose out, of course (is there anyone out there who doesn't own a PS2?), as will those who picked up either the GameCube copy (for extra character Link) or the Xbox version (for extra character Spawn) and have braved arthritis in their opposable thumbs readjusting for the clicky Nintendo pad or the behemoth that is the Xbox controller.
But, hey. No harm done. Neither Link nor Spawn return for SCIII (they were useless anyway). In their place are new characters Zasalamel, a crazed scythe-wielding religious zealot type that acts as the mysterious plotter of evil deeds, and Tira, an annoying brat of a girl who sways her hips while brandishing perhaps the most dangerous hula-hoop in videogame history. The whole effect can only be described as mesmerising. Setsuka (say it at 100mph to get the proper Japanese intonation) is an umbrella carrying, kimono-wearing siren of epic proportions. Just don't get too close - that umbrella is not all it seems. Add to that secret character Olcadan (SoulCalibur's version of Tekken's Mokujin (he is a different character every round) and Abyss (the playable end-boss who is really just Zasalamel with ten degrees of evil shoved up his ass) and already there's tonnes of fresh action to be had.
I'm not going to bore you with a summary of the #cough# story in SoulCalibur III, since it's funnier than Ricky Gervais at his best and more ridiculous than Chelsea's wage bill. I'll leave that for you to discover. Nor will I criticise the voice acting and script, which makes a dubbed 70's Hong Kong martial arts flick feel like Lost In Translation (Zasalamel: "I'm surprised that you made it this far. Not bad at all. My dream is about to be realized. You however are not worthy enough to witness this GLORIOUS moment. Leave this place at once! AAARGGGGGHHH"). No. None of that matters in SoulCalibur, indeed, none of that matters in any beat-em-up. Like those of you who, on occasion, buy the odd adult movie: you're not doing it for the story.
So, let's get down to the nitty-gritty (six paragraphs in, I know. Who said NGJ was dead?). Most will head straight for the practice mode to discover what Namco have done to their favourite character in the name of balance. For me, it was Kilik, the manic staff-waving fairy (see his ending) of doom. Yes, some of his moves have been tweaked (see nerfed), including his quarter-circle based stance changes, and his rising attacks, plus his range (Kilik's best attribute) has been fractionally reduced, including low hits. But to compensate Kilik has been given more powerful, but slow, moves. He has certainly lost that crippling linearity to his game (I lost count of the number of times friends of mine would simply use 8-way-run and side-step everything I threw at them in SCII). After an hour or so, I was satisfied I could learn to love the new and improved Kilik, and there is nothing to suggest Kilik's position as a mid-tier character is under threat.
Upon further investigation, it's a similar story for all the main characters. It's a case of small tweaks rather than radical redesign. Favourite sparring partners of mine, evil dead pirate dude Cervantes, gravity-defying sword knight Siegfired and Japanese samurai Mitsurugi, have all undergone similar redesigns. Fans of the series will find that, after a couple of hours practice and a brief exploration of new moves, their favourite characters are still their favourite characters.
Of the new brigade, Tira is the most interesting, if only for the bizarre nature of her weapon. She has a useful combination of low/high hits, which are so quick they are difficult to counter. She's fast, tricky and elusive, but weak. If you fancy a change of scenery, give her a shot. Setsuka has a good range of moves that are fast and powerful. Her secret lies in very fast surprise attacks that can have a bemused opponent on the edge of the arena in a couple of frames. Forget Zasalamel. His limitations can be cruelly exposed by expert players.
As far as graphics go, those concerned that SCIII on the PlayStation 2 would look worse than SCII on the Xbox or GameCube can relax. I'm not saying the graphics are better, but they are still beautiful. Battle arenas are imaginative and captivating (Tira's stage, where the fight takes place on a raft that slowly meanders its way down a city canal is a case in point) but not a spot on Tekken 5's. The characters are animated with love and care, as you would expect from Namco, but there's nothing to suggest the team have wrenched more out of the PS2 this time around. At 60fps, it perhaps finishes second only to Tekken 5 in the looks category of PlayStation 2 beat-um-ups.
SCIII is a marked improvement over SCII, but is not revolutionary in any way, either in terms of the series or the genre. There are also some gaping holes in the design. The Tales of Souls (story mode) is puzzling. There is no difficulty setting at all, and fighting the mood swinging AI is an exercise in controlled breathing. One minute you'll get a perfect against Siegfried, the next round, you'll have pissed him off so much that he'll own your ass. The next round, you'll perfect him again.
Unlocking characters involves clocking the game repeatedly; often using characters you are rubbish with. Traditionally, gamers would put it on easy, single round matches and work their way through. Now that's impossible. SoulCalibur has always been a favourite of casual gamers because button bashing can reap such good results, but the story mode might prove a turn off for some.
Add to that the ridiculous command input prompts during cut scenes (press right and K to avoid a cage falling on your head, or just press right to side step a giant rolling cog) which becomes so annoying after about the third time you feel like gouging your eyes out with a spoon. I kid you not; SCIII's cut scenes are the stuff of nightmares. I've often felt suicidal waiting for Zasalamel to push that damn cog at me for the hundredth time, frantically bashing START while screaming FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY CAN'T I SKIP THIS!!
And breathe. Other modes Namco have added to the single player 'experience' include Arena battles, which are vaguely amusing mission specific fights. Also lumped in the mix is a pointless real-time strategy game that is about as compelling as an elbow to the kidney. Character creation is interesting for a while, but, ultimately, is only fun if you enjoy dressing up dolls (what, you don't?). You pick a profession, for example monk, thief, dancer, knight etc and kit it out in apparel and weapons you unlock as you progress.
Ahhh, unlockable extra stuff. I've never seen so much stuff to unlock in a single game before. There's about a million weapons to find, thousands of facial expressions, hair colours, socks, wallets, rings, glasses, After Eights, monocles, toilet roll. Some of these may or may not be in the actual game. I don't know. I haven't unlocked everything.
It's all pointless of course. Beat-em-ups are not single-player games, I don't care how much you pump into the experience. And SoulCalibur is no exception. I probably wouldn't buy it if I didn't have friends to play against. "Fear not!" I hear the hermits cry. "Although I have no real friends, I can always play online and hone my skills against real fighters from around the world." Oh dear. You haven't heard have you.
Namco have inexplicably avoided putting in an online mode for SCIII. Yes, that's right. I said inexplicably. INEXPLICABLE I SAY! I remember back in March last year, when SCIII's producer, Hiroaki Yotoriyama tried to justify it by saying that: "At the current time, the online infrastructure is extremely different between countries, and there's people that can't enjoy network gaming. We've decided to concentrate on improving the [game's offline content] and its characters so that people all over the world will be able to have fun." Back then I though, ahh crap. Having played the game for a week solid, I still think, ahh crap. Namco have made the single-player mode about as fun as pulling teeth. Cramming the disc with a million different eyebrows and a rubbish real-time strategy game that isn't fit for a Spectrum doesn't make up for it, Mr Yotoriyama. Fun for people all over the world? My arse.
So, when not fighting against friends at your place or theirs, the only thing to do in SCIII is practice. Slap the AI on extremely hard and practice until your eyes bleed. Then, when the doorbell rings, batter your opponent into submission with your uber-skills of doom. That's about as good as it gets. If you haven't got any friends, I wouldn't recommend you buy SCIII. But, saying that, if you haven't got any friends, I probably wouldn't talk to you anyway.