Soulcalibur IV is one of the few high-profile fighting games built from the ground up for current-gen consoles, and as such it's a pretty significant release. Sadly, though, while the graphics have been improved and the combat has been relatively untouched, the game as a whole is hurt by unneeded or unpolished additions.
Speaking strictly about the combat engine and the stock characters, Soulcalibur IV is at best an incremental improvement on Soulcalibur III. Combat largely feels the same, though the addition of equipment destruction and critical finishes does present some new opportunities. The former adds more than just a nice graphical effect, as it gives combat a nice technical dimension by allowing players to hone in on certain spots and deal extra damage.
The latter, which is a powerful one-shot-kill finishing attack that can only be activated after breaking an opponent's guard, rarely occurs in normal combat, but does prevent players from turtling indefinitely. Neither addition is revolutionary, but both are welcome.
The mandatory equipment for my character made me abandon her almost immediately.
The character roster is expansive, encompassing players from all three previous games along with some new ones. Hilde is the standout addition, as she offers a great mix of ranged and close-quarters combat for skilled players. However, the bonus characters will likely wind up being soft-banned among those who play fair and exploited by those who don't.
While the anime guest characters are for the most part okay, if rather lifeless, the Star Wars cameos are an absolute joke. Darth Vader, the PS3 version pack-in, is by far the most balanced of them all, playing a bit like a short-bladed Siegfried with slightly more speed but slightly less power. But even he, with his ranged Force moves, doesn't mesh well with the other characters. As for Yoda and the Apprentice, imbalance is the name of the game. Yoda cannot be grabbed at all or hit with most high attacks and the Apprentice can shoot lightning. That should say all that needs to be said.
The game's character creation system is one of the biggest new additions, but sadly the whole thing falls flat on its face. First, created characters are effectively useless from the get-go. Players will need to spend quite a bit of time offline grinding their character up and unlocking better gear before they're ready to tackle the online mode. Created characters start off relatively weak, and need to be improved significantly before they can stand beside even stock normal characters online. This proved to be a little disappointing, as I quickly abandoned my custom character for a stock Hilde.
You're rewarded for and basically forced into equipping your character with a bunch of goofy items just to make it viable. Equipment has crucial stats, and opting to leave out a silly hat or a stupid monocle will actually weaken your character. Given that there's no way to create a "stock" custom character free from the limitations of this stat and experience system, the character creation system fails miserably by preventing you from creating the character you actually want to create.
The other big addition, online play, is also lacking. You've already heard my thoughts on it in detail but it bears repeating that the entire section of the game lacks polish. Everything from the interface itself to actual online connectivity is far from excellent, which is disappointing considering the "caliber" of this release. Hopefully a post-release patch can suss out some of these issues.
During my play time with Soulcalibur IV, I was seriously considering a retraction of my Soulcalibur piece which suggested you wait for this rather than pick up the Xbox Live Arcade port of the original. At its core, Soulcalibur IV is a solid fighter and a worthy upgrade for the old series on the current consoles. If you can ignore the new additions and the over-the-top art direction, you'll find yourself with a solid, high-definition Soulcalibur. There are some good single player modes beyond the simple arcade mode to enjoy, including the excellent Tower mode, as well as the expected goodness of local versus multiplayer.
But all the glitz and glamor, all the extras and needless distractions, that Namco-Bandai decided to pack in weigh the game down. What could have been a perfectly tight product is instead a gaudy mess, full of unnecessary and unfulfilling additions. Like Dead or Alive, Soulcalibur IV at times feels as though the scantily-clad women, whose clothes are easily shredded in battle to reveal little more than a piece of cloth, take a front-seat to the action all too often.
I'm going back to Soulcalibur.
Developer and Publisher: Namco-Bandai
Platform: PS3, 360
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