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Giant swords and lightsabers clash with the return of Soulcalibur on PlayStation3 and Xbox 360...
Whether right or wrong, Soulcalibur IV's legacy will be remembered for its continuity-breaking partnership with LucasArts far longer than it will as an engaging and accomplished fighter on the PlayStation3 and Xbox 360.
Available right from the start, Star Wars fans can get their socks off with the choice of Darth Vader or Yoda (depending on format), with the Secret Apprentice popping up later on. Personally, we're still slightly reluctant to accept it (Lord Vader would never twirl his saber in celebration), but with a starring appearance it seems Namco are more than happy to keep the cameos of Soulcalibur 2 still burning.
Marking the series' debut on PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 (before an arcade version is even in view), Soulcalibur IV is in many ways the same formula that fans have adulated over since the series arrival on the Dreamcast way back in 1999. Tremendous warriors from across time (and seemingly space) collide in a clash of oversized weapons and a story of two majestic blades.
Out With The Old...
Despite the obvious similarities, Soulcalibur IV does attempt to introduce a handful of new ideas that defy what's typically expected from a fighter sequel. Although we'd probably sit here moaning about the lack of innovation if Namco had just given us the same old game, we're of the opinion that many of the new features simply feel as though they've been implemented for that exact reason.
The Soul Gauge is the major new addition, changing between blue, green, and red depending on how much you attempt to block or attack during a fight. Bashing away at an opponent until their Soul Gauge is empty allows you to briefly mash the face buttons to unleash a Critical Finish move bringing an end to the fight there and then. Soulcalibur IV also introduces armour grouped into Head, Upper Body, and Lower Body, which can be destroyed under a barrage of attacks or a powerful move.
The idea behind these new features appears to be to deter players from blocking too much and playing defensively (unless of course you like seeing the fighters stripped down to the basics). However, Soulcalibur has never really been noted for it's emphasis on elegant or precise defensive play, it's exaggerated, over-the-top, fighting and that's what makes it so fun, it's not exactly Virtua Fighter or Streetfighter III 3rd Strike! Skilful dodging, parrying, and blocks have never been a primary focus for the series, and as such the opportunity for these new techniques is so restricted that they're barely even noticeable. Ring Outs still reign supreme!
The Soul's Still Burning
Despite the new features, Soulcalibur IV is still Soulcalibur. It's still a relatively lenient fighter when it comes to the controls and timing, meaning it's a game that everybody can enjoy and be reasonably good at instead of just the fanatics. Whether that's a good or bad depends on where you sit with fighters.
Intensifying Soulcalibur's already pretty extreme tempo is the inclusion of instantaneous tag-team switches and no breaks between rounds. Although there's no scope for tag-team moves, the fast tempo suits Soulcalibur and you'll certainly come to rely on it during the Story and Tower of Lost Souls modes.
The character line-up is the biggest we've seen in a Soulcalibur title, mixing past favourites with a handful of new faces (and of course Yoda, Darth and his Secret Apprentice). Such a considerable roster provides plenty of scope for variety amongst the combatants, from the hulking brute Azeroth to the delectable charms of a re-invented Amy. Many of the returning characters have also had a significant overhaul to almost feeling entirely new.
Aside from the customary Arcade mode (strange seeing there's no arcade version at present) and the short Story mode where you fight through a handful of stages to discover the story of each character, Soulcalibur IV introduces an all-new Tower of Lost Souls mode for the majority of its single-player fun.
Fighting through stage after stage while ascending or descending the titular tower, Tower of Lost Souls provides plenty of engaging permutations that spice up the fight, intensify the challenge, and house lots of extras to unlock upon successfully completing the winning conditions (defeat an enemy with a ring out, switch characters twice). The series has made a name for offering creative takes on the staple fighting gameplay, and whilst Tower of the Lost Souls offers plenty of replay value and variety, the offering seems a little tame compared to past examples such as Soulcalibur 3's Chronicles of the Sword and it's a shame there's no attempt to run a concurrent narrative.
Character Creation 2.0
Expanding upon the character creation and customisation options available in the series last outing, Soulcalibur IV takes the bar and knocks it into the heavens like a mighty blow from Astaroth's giant axe. No longer restricted to generic character types, there's a plethora of armour and weapons to adorn your creation with, all of which have an affect on their attributes and fighting style. Skills also play a part, allowing perks such as health regeneration or soul gauge damage, although their use is balanced by their cost on four separate attributes - all of which increase in an RPG manner. If this is the type of thing to tickle your fancy, then you'll probably loose days creating characters from scratch, adjusting every little detail from the pitch of their voice to the size of their muscles, but the attribute advantages also make the feature worthwhile for progress in the Tower of Lost Souls.
Soulcalibur IV is also the first title in the series to offer online play across Playstation Network and Xbox Live. Although it's hard to make a call on the long-term popularity, the few online bouts we engaged in were fun, fast and relatively lag free. Admittedly fighting purists are still never going to be convinced (although purists probably shouldn't be playing Soulcalibur in the first place), but for the countless others the online modes provide extra longevity to a game already bustling with content.
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