Great fighting marred by horrible user interface and game modes
Soul Calibur III is one of the most frustrating gaming experiences in recent memory. On one hand, the core fighting is still great, the graphics are simply amazing, and the character customization options are very robust. However, the user interface is abysmal and inconsistent, the gam modes actually get in the way of putting you in combat, there's no online play, and the sound is uneven. That Namco can screw up a proven formula this badly is infuriating and totally inexcusable.
Being Soul Calibur, you'll expect the core fighting to be excellent, and it is. The returning cast of characters pick up the obligatory few new moves, and the three new characters really fit in well. I've found some characters are better balanced, so I've had to pick up some new characters to beat my friends. It's a nice touch that I can't dominate with Mitsurugi anymore. There is the creepy feeling that the fighting is starting to get stale, but Namco did do enough to freshen up the battles a little bit without revamping the entire fighting system (a lesson they learned from the lukewarm response to Tekken 4).
The graphics are great, as always. The stages and background are absolutely gorgeous, the animation is top notch, and most of the characters look awesome, like Sigfried, Setsuka, and Zasalamel. However, some of the Soul Calibur crew, like Tira, look a little cartoony, while other characters' faces look like porcelain dolls. The character customization is very robust. There are a ton of hairstyles, face styles, clothing, armor, and accessories that you can put on your character. And if you don't like the color of the gear you have, you can change it to pretty much any color under the rainbow; it's really slick how you can change so many aspects of your character. There are a number of fighting styles that you can choose from, which keep the characters fresh. My only complaint is that you have to pick the fighting style of your character up front (big sword, knives, hands and feet, etc.) and can't change it once you create the character.
The user interface is absolutely horrible. The autosave doesn't save at enough points, and too often you'll back out of a screen and lose your changes. If I want to autosave, don't ask me about saving; just do it. The menus are also horrible. I have to wade through menus to get where I want, and wind up in the wrong mode. An example is the Chronicle of Swords mode. If I accidentally choose it instead of Tales of Souls, I have to either go into the game, select my sortie, and start the tale before being able to back out or reset my PS2. When I go into Chronicle of the Swords, the default selection is "New Game" instead of "Load Game". Again, I have to go into the game, go through setting up characters, and then back out. This smacks of a) being rushed, and b) not getting any game testers to play around with the finished menus.
This is a fighting game, not an RPG. The Soul Calibur series' biggest weakness was it's bloated, pretentious, and often stupid plot. Yet again, the whole attempt at being epic falls flat. Fight introductions have voiceovers that say things like "This is an endless tale of souls and swords". This "epicness" is forced and simply not very good. With SC3, they seriously take their time in getting to the fighting. Each fight is generally one round (one round!?), so the "Now Loading" screen gets more time on my TV than an actual fight does. The cutscenes go for a Resident Evil 4 feel and require you to press a button to avoid a trap that will damage you before the next fight. That's an interesting idea, except that you see the same cutscene every time you play the game. It gets really repetitive to dodge the same thing every time, and since they're interactive, you can't skip them. This is a fighting game, not a strategy game. Chronicles of the Sword simply does not need to exist. It could make for a decent minigame, but it's basically half of the single player portion of SC3. Though you do get to use a custom character, the battles are repetitive and the strategy aspects of the game are a joke. There's nothing glaringly wrong with Chronicles of the Sword, but it just feels unnecessary. You'll only play it to unlock gold and items for my custom characters. However, if the player needs incentive to play a game mode, beyond simply enjoying it, it shouldn't exist.
Because this is a PS2 only game, Namco got away with not including online play. It seems fishy that they didn't put this game on the Xbox; maybe its because Microsoft wouldn't let Namco get away without having Xbox Live support? Obviously the PS2 won't force online play, as it's never been a core strategy of the system. But this will be the last time Namco can use a "get out of online play" card. This is very upsetting because online play is just expected these days, while it wasn't when SC2 game out.
The sound is a mixed bag. A lot of the sword swings sound ok, but a lot of them sound off. The clanging of swords sounds more like there's a factory banging away in the background, rather than what you'd expect weapons to sound like. Zasalamel's scythe and Siegfried's Zweihander were most indicative of that problem. The voice acting, as always, is really bad. They should've had the characters speak their native languages, rather than English. "Hadoken" will always sound cool, while someone yelling "Futile Effort" sounds stupid. Personally, I'd like to have heard Zasalamel speaking in Arabic, Siegfried speak in German, and Voldo...well Voldo probably can stay as he is.