Namco Bandai had the first press playable build of Soul Calibur IV on hand at their CES event tonight, giving us a hands-on look at the next game in the now thirteen year old franchise. While the build looked extremely early, featuring only three playable fighters and barebones in content, it provided us with a good look at how Soul Calibur IV looks and plays in person. While increases in the Soul series have generally met with graphical upgrades, the fourth in the series may have seen the biggest jump in graphical fidelity, bringing with it self-casting shadows, subtle bloom lighting, beautiful environments and gorgeous models, all running at a reliable 60 frames per second.
Graphics aside, how does it play? Like a Soul Calibur should. The developer has decided, wisely, not to fix a game that's not broken.
As with many fighting game sequels, Soul Calibur IV is not only prettier, it's faster than its predecessor. Moves are lightning quick in the build we played, but the game's speed, not obscenely fast, may still be in the tweaking stages. The game's director asked us, after a lengthy gameplay session, how we felt about Soul Calibur IV's speed implying that it was up for discussion.
The demo we played featured only three playable characters, Mitsurugi, Taki and Cassandra. The trio were in their trademark outfits, with no option to play with a secondary (or tertiary) costume, so we didn't get eyes on with any unreleased looks for the returning fighters. In person though, everyone we did get a look at though was quite easy on the eyes. Sure, Taki's boobs flopped about ridiculously with the slightest breeze it seemed, but that's not necessarily a complaint.
Graphically, Soulcalibur IV does a few new things. The team has added a respectable amount of bloom lighting, rendering nice bright sunlight to Cassandra's oversaturated stage and bringing a nice glint to Mitsurugi's blade. Characters cast realistic shadows on stage floors, with foliage on the two levels we got a look at dropping believable, organic shade on the combatants.
Outside of the Greek stage, which may be Cassandra's or Sophitia's, the only other arena was more tropical in nature, a lush oasis with hippos and flamingos bathing in the background. Some elements of the background looked to be 2D textures, but this was only noticeable when one wasn't playing the game and many graphical nitpickers may not notice.
Some of the movesets have changed from Soul Calibur III, most noticeably Cassandra's. She played faster and with a more aggressive set of attacks than before, with a couple of new kicks we certainly didn't recognize. Honestly, though, I'm more of an Ivy and Yoshimitsu player, so don't consider me the authority on movesets for the available souls.
Unfortunately, there were many game improvements we would have liked to play but couldn't. Online play wasn't available, nor was the new gauge that allows for "finishing moves" that can end a fight without a ring out, expired time limit or win by health gauge. We also didn't get to preview the custom character creation tool. We were especially intrigued in it by the Soul Calibur IV team's decision to allow costume choices to affect how your character fights (read: heavy armor choices can make for a slower character).
Speaking of ring outs, they did feel a bit more challenging to pull off. In one match against Siliconera's Spencer Yip, a pair of what seemed like assured ring outs turned into a loss for me and a win my still in-bounds rival.
The build we played was nowhere near finished, as it was missing voiceovers, plenty of characters and the odd animation, but it seems that everyone came away pleased. We're definitely looking forward to playing a more complete Soul Calibur IV, as it appears from a few hours of gameplay that the Project Soul team has built a purchase-worthy set of new features on top of a solid foundation.