Soulcalibur IV has a lot going for it. It looks great, for one. It plays pretty well, for another. But at the same time, most aspects of the game totally turn me off. Whether it's the "story" mode that consists of bad endings and weak opening text, or the way the item statistics always seem to conspire to make your characters look ugly when you customize them, every positive moment I had with the game seemed like it was immediately countered by something that made me just want to stop playing it entirely. If all you're looking for is fighting in the Soulcalibur style, you'll be satisfied. But the complete package feels a little weird.
The fighting sticks to what you'd expect from the series, even if you're like me and haven't really followed the series terribly closely since it was on the Dreamcast. It's a weapon-based game that, for the most part, focuses on clashing weapons, rather than supernatural attacks. This makes the game flow at a different pace than most other 3D fighting games, as Soulcalibur puts a greater emphasis on parrying and countering incoming attacks to create openings. Since the different fighters all bring different stuff to the battle, this gives everyone a different speed or range that you have to constantly consider while playing. On its own, it's pretty good. Enhancements to the series this time around include the critical finish, a fight-ending move that can only be performed under very specific circumstances.
The roster in Soulcalibur IV is already pretty deep, with over 30 characters to choose from. But Namco Bandai decided to revive with the whole "guest character" concept from Soulcalibur II. So the 360 version gets Yoda, the PS3 version gets Darth Vader, and both games get The Apprentice, who will be the main character in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed later this year. Much like Heihachi, Link, and Spawn before them, the characters aren't a great fit with rest of the SC lineup. Everyone's going to have his or her own opinion on this stuff, and here's mine: the inclusion of a bunch of gimmicky Star Wars characters cheapens the entire game and comes across as a desperate attempt to get people excited about a game they would otherwise skip. Of course, the fact that you can't even have Yoda battle Darth Vader means that even this attempt at spiking interest in the series comes off as half-assed. Yoda's height makes him especially lame--he's effectively the Gon or Dr. Bosconovitch of the Soulcalibur universe.
Like previous games in the series, you can create custom characters or edit the outfits of existing fighters. The custom characters need to be assigned to an entire moveset, though, and the weapon comes with the moveset. So underneath the pirate hat and pigtails, you're still just making a different-looking Siegfried or Taki. The way you customize your character effects that character's stats in certain modes, also. This has the side effect of making pretty ugly-looking characters in an attempt to get the stats you're looking for.
The stats and abilities you can slap on your created characters can make them pretty interesting. You may have to sacrifice a large amount of your offensive or defensive potential to get some of the higher-level abilities, though. You can find varying levels of many abilities, like Nullify Ring Out, which makes it tough to get knocked out of the ring, or Venom Fang, which poisons your opponent when you hit and drains life until they hit you back.
Online, you can get into a match that either uses the different equipment stats or a standard fight that ignores them. It seems to work just fine most of the time, and the only real issue I could see there is that the game doesn't seem like it's taking your online statistics into account when matching you up. I kept getting into fights with players with much higher rankings than mine, which might be frustrating if you're hoping to find evenly matched opposition.
The characters look terrific from a technical perspective. The models are nicely detailed and the animation looks great. A lot of the characters feel a liitle over-accessorized, and being able to slap on all kinds of weird hats and pauldrons in the edit mode doesn't really help. You can strip them down a bit, but considering that Ivy already looks sort of weird with her freakishly large and barely covered boobs, maybe it's best to just leave them as-is.
Overall, it's sort of hard to recommend Soulcalibur IV to anyone who isn't already a big fan of the series. It felt like everything I liked about the game (the actual fighting) was countered by something else (the meaningless story mode, equipment stats, Ivy's creepy-looking boobs) that made me want to take the disc out and put it away forever.