One of game journalism's greatest clichés is recommending a sequel on the basis of 'if you liked the last one you'll like this'. But there are some cases where it really can't be avoided. SoulCalibur IV is one such case.
If you like SoulCalibur you'll like SoulCalibur IV. There, we've said it. And it's true. Namco Bandai has neither drastically damaged or drastically improved the essence of what makes the weapon-heavy fighting game great. You still have two weapon attack buttons - one for horizontal slice, one for vertical slice, a kick button and a guard button. You still have a parry and Guard Impact system that works as well as any fighting game counter system ever conceived. And you still have a roster of characters so varied and balanced that even the most grumpy of gamers is sure to find someone, or some thing, he or she likes.
So, what's the point you might ask? Well, there's the gorgeous HD graphics for one. SoulCalibur IV is the first in the series to appear on a 'next-gen' console (the last game appeared exclusively on the PS2 and arcade in 2005), and the graphical step up would be better described as a triple jump. The game runs effortlessly at 60 frames per second. The characters are the most detailed we've ever seen in a fighting game and the environments, while a tad bland, feature effects that blow anything Tekken, Dead or Alive or Virtua Fighter currently offer out of the virtual water. One arena in particular, on board a pirate ship, features wood that splinters so realistically when characters land heavily that it almost looks real. Almost.
There are the system tweaks, for two. While SCIV feels slightly slower than previous versions, the engine has been largely left alone - you'll find, on the whole, that moves, combos and strategies honed over the last decade work here. The biggest tweak is the new Critical Finish system, designed to discourage players from blocking. The Soul Gauge, a gem displayed next to your health meter, gradually changes colour as attacks are blocked. When it flashes red one more Guard Breaking move will put your opponent into a stun and open a teeny tiny window of opportunity during which a press of all four buttons will trigger the character specific, and spectacular, Critical Finish, which ends the round then and there and leaves your opponent crippled, humiliated and owned.
Don't worry about it being overpowered - it's actually really hard to pull off, so short is the window of opportunity in which you can trigger it. But, by mapping all the face buttons to a shoulder button on the PS3 or Xbox 360 pad you'll make it a whole lot easier, and force turtle-heavy opponents to stick their neck out of their shell. For many SoulCalibur players a critical finish won't be something they'll see very often, especially in multiplayer. For the pros though it might be a different story.
There are the new playable characters for three, and it's here that things take a turn for the barmy. The series is known for its ridiculous pre-match voiceovers, shocking grammar and hilarious story lines, but SCIV takes it to a whole other level. Algol, one of the game's final bosses, and Hilde, an armoured female knight with a spear and short sword, at least make sense, but Darth Vader and Yoda from Star Wars, playable characters in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions respectively, do not.
It's absolutely ridiculous, laugh out loud stuff. Our new previews editor Neon Kelly insisted we let the PS3 version play out its opening cinematic in the hopes of hearing a cheese-tastic song. Alas, no cheese, but it does feature Darth Vader, red lightsaber in hand, having a go at samurai sword-wielding series stalwart Mitsurugi. We couldn't help but giggle.
The first thing we did was take good old Darth for a spin in the story mode. How the development team fit him into the Soul universe was, for us, a question that needed to be answered as soon as possible. Turns out Vader feels a ripple in space and decides to investigate, jumping through a portal into another dimension where two incredibly powerful swords are up for grabs. With these, we learn, he can pop back to his own galaxy and rule all. We wonder if SoulCalibur IV will form part of the official, LucasArts approved Star Wars canon, eh George?
It's silly, of course, and, perhaps inevitably, both Vader and Yoda (and the Secret Apprentice, an unlockable character from upcoming Star Wars game The Force Unleashed) prove to be little more than curios. Vader's way too slow, and while Yoda's so small he can't be thrown, he'll get eaten up by anyone with half an eye on the action.
Of much more value are the female characters' assets. SoulCalibur 4 features the most in your face boobs we've ever seen in a video game, bar perhaps Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. They're certainly the most ridiculous - some of the costumes Ivy, Taki and Sophitia wear are, how shall we put it, on the revealing side. Boobs jiggle and bounce as if they have a life of their own. We swear they stare at us. We can see all that hard work with the Havok physics engine has paid off.
But it's the character customisation, for four, that proves to be the biggest innovation. It's the best we've seen in a fighting game to date. As you might have already seen from the many user-generated videos that are currently doing the rounds on the web, pretty much any popular culture figure, from Super Mario to John Rambo can and has been recreated to a surprisingly realistic level. By using an existing character as a base you can tweak pretty much anything you'd like, from outfit to physique to voice pitch. We tried to make a character that looked like our fearless leader Tom, which we thought was pretty good. He thought it looked more like Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard.
The best bit? You can kit out your custom character, select special abilities (triggered by pressing every button except block) like invisibility or automatic Guard Impact, select weapons and accessories purchased with gold earned by playing through the single-player modes, and take it online. Online play is a first for the series, and long overdue. The games we've played online (on the PS3 version) have been relatively lag free, but it can take way too long for the game to match you with an opponent. It can be quite a drag to have to wait 10 minutes for a two minute game.
Still though, online play is there, and, with a patch, SoulCalibur IV should become one of, if not the, most popular online fighting experience around. The character customisation, which can itself suck up hours of your time, will only fuel the game's popularity as millions hone their skills against real players around the world.
It's a good thing the game has online play, too, because we reckon the single-player modes won't keep your attention for too long. There's the standard story mode, complete with hilarious text, voice acting and cut scenes, arcade mode and practice, and the new Tower of Lost Souls mode, where you face groups of increasingly difficult enemies as you ascend or descend using multiple characters and the new tag system. For us, the only motivation for playing any of the single-player modes was to unlock new characters and earn gold to spend buying bits to customise created characters. For others, however, it might be a different story.
The first hour of play feels wonderfully fresh, what with the new Critical Finishers, character customisation and online play. But after that SoulCalibur IV starts to feel increasingly familiar. In reality, this is a reserved effort from Namco Bandai, and feels almost as if Project Soul has merely dipped its toe in the next-gen water for fear of causing too big a splash. It's gorgeous, and an essential purchase for any fighting game fan who likes aggressive counters and weapon clashes, but it's no fighting game revolution. Looks like we'll have to wait till SoulCalibur V comes out for that.