It’s SoulCalibur just without a Soul...
I remember playing the old SoulCalibur games religiously; I was hooked on the first one (it was one of the only games I had on my Dreamcast at the time) and that led me into buying the second on the day it came out. After that SoulCalibur III was a huge disappointment to me for many reasons, not limited to the game breaking bug that wiped your save progress. It was poorly balanced and had lost nearly everything that had made the previous SoulCalibur games so great. With that in mind, the announcement of SoulCalibur IV was met by me with cautious optimism. On the one hand, I loved the first two and Namco-Bandai surely listened to the complaints about SoulCalibur III. On the other, maybe they just flat out ignored people’s complaints and would continue down the path of making it like the third one or even worse, introducing Star Wars characters or something. But I assured myself that they weren’t that stupid... Huh?
First, I’ll start off with the good – they’ve fixed the game in many respects! I can actually enjoy playing the “Story” and “Arcade” modes on this game without much annoyance, ala SoulCalibur III, plus the working character save system leads to peaceful nights of not tearing my hair out after slaving away on unlocking everything only to get corrupt data. Besides this, the exploit allowing a player to cancel the animation of their move after performing it (leading to a much faster ability to kick my ass) has so far not been found in this one. Awesome. There’s nothing I hated more than one of my bastard friends abusing the feature during throws and complicated moves to regain an edge in the fight. In other words, balance is restored and the game is once again fair (to a certain degree). Added to this, the new character Hilde doesn't disrupt the game's balance at all, which is often a complaint from the hardcore when new characters are introduced.
Like classic SoulCalibur games, the fighting is not too technical that performing combos is the only way to achieve success, whilst letting the better players who take time to learn the game benefit from the added moveset. When you have friends around and you’re all playing, you won’t be “that guy” just for learning the moves – you will, at times, lose. And for once that’s great, as it turns SoulCalibur IV into a social fighting game that isn’t possible on other games where skill and technical ability will lead to your ultimate victory over friends who never want to play against you again.
Besides the technical aspects of SoulCalibur IV being finely balanced, Namco-Bandai also changed the pace of the game for the better. The biggest contributor to this is the “Soul Gauge”. The jist is that if you block too much (often to the other player’s annoyance), your “Soul Gauge” will turn red meaning your opponent has a quick chance to use an instant killing “Critical Hit”. This fear of being caught in a “Critical Hit” leads to faster paced, more offensive games which suits the weapon-wielding nature of the SoulCalibur series perfectly, whilst at the same time not making the “Critical Hit” an easy move to pull off. Due to the pace of the fighting, it’s a rare occurrence to actually perform one and when it is performed the person oftentimes deserved it.
A cool new addition to SoulCalibur IV is the “Tower of Lost Souls” single player mode, where you can ascend and descend a tower in order to acquire new abilities and costume pieces for character creation mode whilst battling in unique circumstances against progressively tougher enemies. Personally, I prefer the “Mission Mode” and “Weapon Master Mode” from SoulCalibur and SoulCalibur II respectively, but it’s a fun single player mode that will eventually lead to the most offline play time the game has to offer.
On the visual and audio front, SoulCalibur IV doesn’t disappoint. This truly does feel like a next-generation version of the series from the eye candy perspective, which makes playing the previous games feel like a chore for those with a HDTV and a high quality audio setup. From a technical standpoint loading times are acceptable (on the 360 version, I have no idea about the PS3 version) and framerate is solid at all times. And like many other fighting games in this generation, Namco-Bandai have added an online play component to the game and, unlike many others that have failed before it, SoulCalibur IV’s stands up pretty decently, but is not without its flaws.
As I said above, the online mode of SoulCalibur IV is a mixed bag. To start off with the good points, online play is robust and whilst isn’t lag free, is better than Dead or Alive 4’s laggy online play which, when it isn’t unplayable is pretty damn bad. On the flip side, SoulCalibur IV’s online play is playable. Whilst not perfect, when a lag spike is experienced instead of grinding to a near halt SoulCalibur IV pauses the game until network conditions allow for a streamlined experience again, normally after a few seconds. It may be disjointed, but at least it’s fair. And now time for the bad points of online; microtransaction rape.
SoulCalibur IV’s online features have allowed Namco to rape the wallets of those wanting more out of their game, when at launch charging 200MSP ($2.50, £1.70, €2.33) for content locked on the disc (yes, the same disc we just paid $60/£40/€65 for) and 1200MSP ($14.99/£10.20/€13.96) for music content from previous games! This certainly doesn’t feel like worthwhile content for the game, and instead is just stuff they held back in order to sell to us. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall that being the intention of microtransactions.
Another bad feature is the lack of a hugely compelling single player mode in SoulCalibur IV. Sure, the “Tower of Lost Souls” is a nice mode, but ultimately feels like a short change deal when compared to the robust offline modes the other three games (yes, even SoulCalibur III) offered. In fact, the single player modes are so lacking that if it weren’t for online play, SoulCalibur IV would be a largely incomplete game by many standards. But that’s okay, if I get bored of single player modes I can take the game online and play more challenging human opponents than any CPU player could introduce to me so ultimately it’s not a deal breaker, but something they need to sort out in time for SoulCalibur V. What is a deal breaker, however, is SoulCalibur IV’s console exclusive bonus characters; Yoda, Darth Vader and The Apprentice.
Every time I see them in the game I ask, “How could you do this to us, Namco? Why?!” And I only ever get one answer; money. I honestly see no need to introduce these characters into the game. I know some people got upset with the fiction of introducing Star Wars characters into SoulCalibur, but I could probably list few things I care less about than the plot of a fighting game. My gripe is more to do with the fact that they just don’t plainly belong in an ancient setting for starters (this is of course irrespective of the plot), and secondly that they’re game-breaking menaces that ruin the game for those of us who want to play it properly.
I can’t pass a judgement on Darth Vader because I admittedly haven’t played it on PS3, but Yoda has a huge advantage against players as the only attacks that can really hit him are low ones (meaning at least a third of any one character’s moves are totally ineffective against him), and The Apprentice has some of the strongest moves in the game, some of the fastest moves in the game and some of the longest ranged in the game. He literally has no flaws, and can shoot bolts of lightning at you to boot! When I see someone playing one of the Star Wars characters online, I quit the game to avoid fighting against them, and I hope everyone else does too.
The Star Wars characters are a testament to everything that’s wrong with SoulCalibur IV; the development team take one step forward and two steps back. For starters, they seemingly take away single player content by replacing it with online functionality. Then they bust their balls in getting a strong online mode going, and ruin it by tainting the online functions with overpriced trinkets from the marketplace. And finally they restore balance and fairness to the game’s huge cast of characters (previously damaged in SoulCalibur III), only to wreck it with a George Lucas shitfest of overpowered and ill-conceived Star Wars characters that don’t belong from a gameplay, fiction or setting perspective.
Personally the game’s flaws are too much to ignore, and for that I’m docking it a star. But if you’re prepared to overlook the flaws in favour of what’s good about this game, then the price of entry should be worth it. Ultimately though, whilst this isn’t by any means the worst game I’ve bought in 2008, it most certainly is the purchase I regret the most.
Completion: Played online and offline. Finished story with nearly every character. Completed arcade mode. Played “Towers of Lost Souls” mode. Played on Xbox 360 only.