When Namco first introduced SoulCalibur - the sequel to Soul Edge - to arcades in 1998, fighting game fans took notice. They then took that arcade gameplay, tightened things up, polished up the graphics, and released it on the Dreamcast, creating what many consider to be the best 3D fighter of all time. Even the next two sequels couldn't stand up to the DC version of SoulCalibur, despite the addition of gimmicky guest characters and an in-depth create-a-fighter mode respectively. Now Namco Bandai has released SoulCalibur IV on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, perhaps hoping that the extra polish of next-gen graphics, the new create-a-fighter, and the addition of online play will launch it out of the shadow of the original. Failing that, hey look - Star Wars characters!
The question here is, are any of the new challengers enough to take on the toughest opponents of all? Game reviewers ready? Fight!
To get the bad news out of the way first, Namco has done little to refresh or redefine a genre enduring a terminal decline in popularity. Undoubtedly, Soulcalibur IV is very good and has at least one genuinely brilliant new feature. But in terms of the basic fighting gameplay barely anything has changed since the series' last- gen console outings. The formula that has stood Namco in such good stead has been tweaked yet again, but there has been only gradual evolution since the arcade debut of Soul Edge more than 12 years ago.
The best feature of Soulcalibur IV's online play- the ability to use user-created characters in versus battles- also happens to be at the heart of the most prominent portion of this entire Xbox 360 SKU. Namco put together a very robust Character Creation mode for Soulcalibur IV, and did the necessary follow-up to ensure these created characters were a part of as much of the battle action as possible (even in the cut-scene bits). You can either take one of the famous Soulcalibur IP's or some of the newer blood and modify a multitude of items to create a one-off fighter to your specifications.
It isn't the first online fighter (and Virtua Fighter 5 is by no means a slouch), but by my estimation it's the one with the most juice, perhaps ironically because of the elements I like least about it. I scoff at the inclusion of the balance-compromising "Star Wars" characters — they're basically like cereal box prizes amidst, um, high-end, limited edition action figures? — but for every Mitsurugi I've fought online today, there have been six Apprentices and eight Yodas. I can only imagine this trend will continue once people start to unlock the characters designed by the anime artists. I give it 12 hours.
It is without question the best title in the series. The core game modes are solid, the rule changes and moveset tweaks give die-hards some fresh material to learn, the guest fighters - particularly Yoda - prove to be more than a gimmick and the graphics are unrivalled in comparison to other fighters. Best of all, for any changes or new additions, fans and newcomers alike can rest easy in the knowledge that SoulCalibur IV is still the same highly accessible, weapon-based fighting game that it's always been.
Sounds like they added polish to a good thing to create an even better thing. Who'd have thought?