Soul Calibur Episode IV
Yes, that's a Star Wars reference. If you buy the game, expect to see more. The Star Wars character promoted above the title on the box is in the opening FMV, in the concept art and comes with another Star Wars character, who in turn comes with a promotional video for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. But do they really impact the game? No. The only way you'll fight Yoda in single player is if you fight with the Apprentice(the aforementioned Star Wars character) and the apprentice himself only makes an appearence at the seventh stage of the Arcade mode. You could argue that he makes a significant impact because he is there alway, but he doesn't really show up anywhere else.
Now that we've gotten the Star Wars thing out of the way, let's get on with the fighting. The fighting is excellent... in the sense that Soul Calibur III was excellent. There's little to separate Soulcalibur IV from Soulcalibur III, other than the inclusion of Hilde, the new character. Yes, that's it. Besides the final boss, Algol, the only new character in the game is Hilde. For you SC geeks, Amy was technically in SCIII and therefore not a new character. The game revolves as always around weapon fighting, precise timing and strategic hits. There's much variety to the characters and all the characters have unique moves, with the exception of the custom characters.
The story is not very interresting at all, here's the gist of it. The God King Algol has risen after killing his own son and seeks to conquer the world. That's pretty much it. You could just as easilly put this line at the end of the individual character's story from Soul Calibur III as the characters respond to the new threat the same way they responded in that game. Besides Algol, Nightmare and Siegfried have at it again as they did in SCIII and sometimes they take the role of the final boss in story mode. The endings themselves are pretty bland. Evil swords, corruption and redemption, at least two of the three are in every ending, in some form.
The graphics are what you'd expect from Soulcalibur at this point, the game runs in 60 fps and looks superb. This game simply looks better than any other fighting game out there. It's such a shame then that some of the characters suffer from the design direction. Nightmare looks like he was designed by a 10 year old, Astaroth looks like he's wearing a Daedric Armor from Oblivion(I don't believe they make it that size) and Ivy... where to begin. I'd complain about her outfit, but she's not really wearing one. Strippers wouldn't wear what she's wearing. I was so uncomfortable the first time I played her, I had to make an alternate costume with actual clothing. Aside from these, most characters have one or two features too many.
The sound is good enough. It sounds a lot like previous entries in the series, but it doesn't really harm the game. The voice acting is where the game falls apart a little. The english voice acting isn't very good. It's not spoken believebly and the translation isn't exactly spot on. The japanese voice acting at least sound convincing, though I don't really speak japanese.
The game modes is where you'll notice the most change from the last couple of games. First of all, there's a story mode and an arcade mode. The story mode was briefly touched on when I talked about story, but it's 5 stages, usually with more than one enemy on each stage. The arcade mode is 8 stages, with only one opponent per stage. If story and arcade isn't your cup of tea, the final single player mode is Tower of Lost Souls. The tower pits you against varying number of opponents over 60 stages, or "floors", in ascend, or in a survival mode should you choose descend. The 60 floors of ascend scales pretty well, going from very easy to tearing my hair out hard. You cannot choose individual floors however, only a series of floors. These usually make you fight on 2-3 different stages against several opponents on each stage. The second to last series of floors are particularly hard.
The remaining modes are training and multiplayer modes. The training mode is the same as it was in Soulcalibur IV, for good reason. The mode needed no improvement. The multiplayer modes split into classic versus and online versus. In each mode, you can choose either standard or special. Standard is a fight where both character have "equal" strength, defense and health. There's no advantage given to either player and the weapon chosen is irrelevant as far as stat bonuses go. In special mode, all bonuses given to the character through their weapon and their accessories apply, which makes for some interresting gameplay, but usually ends up with the character with the most powerful equipment win. Online modes also suffer from lag, which makes it difficult to use guard impacts, a staple form of defense in the series that knocks back the opponent and allows for counter attacks, but require precise timing. The lag can sometimes be so severe that the opponent gain a clear advantage by furiously tapping the buttons. The lag is rarelly so severe that it distracts you from the fun of the game, but the initial shock may lead to many lost games.
Finally, I'd like to talk about the character customization. It's a lot like in Soulcalibur III, where you can buy several pieces of clothing, apply one piece to each part of the body and make a character, who play and behave the same as the in game characters, but look and talk completely different. That basic concept is the same in Soul Calibur IV, but an interresting element has been added; attributes and skills. In past games, these would be related to the weapon in there's still some truth in that. The weapons have different statistics and some even have skills. However, the character get attribute and skill ratings from his accessories as well, which in turn can be used to assign new skills to the weapon he's wielding. For example, you need a power rating of 100 and a gauge rating of 40 to get Shave damage A, which causes damage even if the opponent guards. You can have 4 skills at any one time.
In short, if you can look past the Star Wars element and the design direction, this is an excellent 3D fighting game.
Note: I'm aware that I randomly spelled Soul Calibur Soulcalibur and vice versa, mostly because it seems Namco randomly spells it differently based on the design of the title.