With the past couple of years dominated by Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat-style 2D fighters, it's nice to see the return of one of the big 3D fighting franchises. That is, unless you're a game reviewer. Then it's time to step into the critical ring.
Picking up the story of SoulCalibur and the Soul Blade seventeen years after the events in SoulCalibur IV (I'm assuming everyone was wiped out by that little green bastard, Yoda), SoulCalibur V features a lovely mix of characters both new and old, a cameo from one of Ubisoft's most popular characters (Rayman? YAY! Oh, Ezio. Nevermind), and deeper character customisation than ever before.
Do these new features add up to big review scores? See for yourself.
However you felt about Soulcalibur IV, you have to give it credit for its own sense of style and identity. I can safely say there was no other fighting game quite like Soulcalibur IV. I can say no such thing about Soulcalibur V. Because there are, in fact, several other fighting games quite like it, most of them recently published by Capcom.
Some of the new gameplay in Soulcalibur V smacks of "make it more like a Capcom game". For instance, your new supermeter can give some attacks a "brave edge", or you can can store up supermeter juice for a powerful "critical edge" attack. As a strictly casual fighting game fan who could never pull off the last Soulcalibur's soulcrushes and soulbreaks and whatnot, I actually approve of this. It's a simple and gratifying alternative, on par with the latest Mortal Kombat's super moves. I can build up my meter and then stroke a pair of quartercircles with a three-button mash to trigger a quick cutscene of my dude doing something fancy. It's not quite as spectacular as what my dudes do in Marvel vs. Capcom, but this game's spectacle is all about the 3D models. Watching their breakway flashy ass-kickings is nearly reward enough. The extra damage from the attack is just gravy.
In peak moments this is swift, balletic combat that's beautiful in full flow, though beginner players (like me) can find themselves immediately flicking from a smooth rhythm to stilted, lumpy weapon swinging. It's a faster game than its predecessors, too, with flurries of attacks springing out of characters despite the overall movement speed feeling similar.
But some of the series' main problems quickly make a return. Soul Calibur (SoulCalibur?) has continually struggled to establish its own enticing title character, instead drafting in gimmicky guest appearances to bolster its ranks. This time round it's the turn of Ubisoft's colossally successful Ezio Auditore to step up, giving the game an iconic cover star to sit alongside the ranks of a refreshed roster that's mostly filled with the descendants and protégés of various mainstay characters. Thankfully, Ezio is easily Namco Bandai's most successful guest star to date, and his careful and considered implementation goes a long way to remove the bitter taste left by Soul Calibur IV's disastrous inclusion of Yoda and Darth Vader.
You have three basic types of attack: horizontal, vertical and kick. Horizontal attacks slash enemies to prevent them sidestepping around you, whereas vertical attacks break an enemy's guard when they crouch. Kicks? They're for kicking people. Whatever your opponent does, there's a counter to it. If you can understand that — and you win a custard cream if you got it first time — there's no reason why you can't become an effective fighting force in Soulcalibur V.
It obviously gets more complex than that, since every fighter has a weapon with a different speed, strength and reach, but you don't have to mash buttons or practise for days to get wins. Speculative inputs quickly become deft strokes, and the training mode could scarcely be clearer. Everything is logical — there's a fluid grace to every fight. Once you learn the simple stuff, much of it becomes intuitive. And no, intuition is not the same as guessing.
Mechanically speaking, SoulCalibur V arguably sees the series hit a level it has always promised but never really attained. It's not without its curious design choices — such as having throw escapes do chip damage, rather than just making them less mash-friendly in their execution — but on the whole, the new engine makes for some absolutely stunning fights oth for players and spectators. Clashes are back, so two similar attacks can bounce off one another and reset the playing field once the sparks have dissipated. Double-tap sidesteps improve the 8-Way Run evasive arsenal, even if a lack of definition (read: something like Virtua Fighter's categorisation of linear, semi-circular and full-circular attacks) sometimes makes it difficult to judge hitboxes in 3D space; even a perfectly timed evade can be stuffed by some of the annoying auto-tracking moves or falsely advertised area attacks, though most linear hits can still be strafed and punished accordingly.
The new fighters won't convince me to move away from my traditional mains (Mitsurugi, Xianghua, and Siegfried, for the record), but they're interesting additions. Fiona has powerful long-range attacks with her orb, and she strikes as fast as anyone in close, but her mid-range game seems weak. Z.W.E.I. is harder to get a handle on; his toolset focuses on summoning a spirit wolf and is unusual to the point that I had a heck of a time coming up with any decent tactics. Ezio seems less overpowered than previous guest characters, lacking an easy-to-execute close range get-away move to get back to his stronger mid-range distance. Patroklos is very reminiscent of Cassandra, with explosive mid-range moves and easy launchers that reward a poking playstyle. Nightmare and Kilik are, of course, still complete cheese.
It's often tough to gauge the netcode for a fighting game on launch day, so we can't guarantee that your online fights will clip along at fluid pace, but the social features, such as the Global Colosseo, add a nice touch. The Colosseo is a lobby set up for local players to hang out and set up matches. If you live in a city where there are organised meetups, it might not be as useful, but in case your local area doesn't have anything in place, it could be useful. For what it's worth, the matchmaking and games we played flowed smoothly and we didn't encounter any lag.
Whether you're an acolyte for whom the soul never stopped burning or someone whose embers glow weakly, SoulCalibur V will satisfy your need to slash, pummel and kick. Pulling in a superstar character from another franchise enriches the offering rather than debasing it and the goofily addictive character creation serves as a driver to continued gameplay. Project Soul's given people loads of reasons pick up their latest effort and even more reasons to stick around. SoulCalibur V's a beautiful weapon, go sharpen your skills and find someone to cut.
Whatever, as long as I can make a kitty girl.