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Soul Calibur IV


Ah, Soul Calibur. Namco's franchise became one of my favorite fighting games ever since I first played Soul Edge (or Soul Blade depending on how you played it). When the title originally came out in the arcade I was blown away and when it was released on the original PlayStation it was the reason I bought the system. Coming from the world of Street Fighter getting into the shoes of Calibur's characters was foreign, unique, and extremely satisfying.

The series was revamped some time later and was released as Soul Calibur which proved to be a much tighter effort all around. In the arcade and on the Dreamcast it was arguably one of the best looking games; fighting or not, for its time. High quality character renders, beautiful backgrounds, and a rock-solid combat engine all came together to make a very addictive and fun fighting game. The direct follow-up offered more of the same with some improvements and it is regarded as the highest point of the franchise. That's when the third installment happened and for whatever reason it just wasn't as good. Thankfully the fourth release for the franchise brings the series back to its glory days...almost.

Soul Calibur IV has been hyped about for quite some time considering it was the series first step onto current generation consoles. With the graphical and processing powers of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hopes were high that this latest installment would be better than the previous one. As information about the game was released it began to appear as though the series had jumped the shark (or nuked the fridge; take your pick). Yoda and Darth Vader were being put into the game and the Apprentice was thrown in as well. Gameplay wise none of the characters really makes or breaks the game and as far as the story is concerned most of the plots never made much sense anyways. So I guess you can say that in the end throwing some Star Wars people into the mix doesn't really change a whole lot.

Do you care about the story? No? Me neither really. All you need to know about Soul Calibur IV is that some guy named Algol is there and Soul Edge and Soul Calibur are fighting each other between Nightmare and Siegfried...or something. The plot is convoluted to say the least and each of the individual stories are just as silly and overdone. Skip the cut scenes and tale of each character and get to the fighting already; it's what you're here for after all.

Gameplay


Considering Soul Calibur is one of the highest regarded fighting franchises on the market the experience all comes down to the combat engine. Soul Calibur IV tweaks a few things but for the most part everything is like you remembered. There are 8-way run, high, medium, and low attacks, kicks, throws, combos, and ring outs. The Guard Impact system has been tightened up a bit as well and you'll notice a slight difference with the way you block and defend attacks. Keep the system solid is definitely key but with each installment of a fighting series you have to introduce something new to liven things up a tad. Soul Calibur IV attempts to do just that with something known as a Critical Finish.

While it's a nice idea in concept, the Critical Finish is impractical in an actual battle and it's a rarity to pull off. Basically what needs to happen to set this up is that your opponent bust block like a turtle. As you hit their guard their Soul Gauge will deplete and begin flashing red; that's the signal that you're close. If you keep attack and if they're stupid enough to keep blocking the health bar will shatter. If and when that happens you must press A, B, K, and G all at the same time (if you press any other button it will cancel the whole thing). What happens next is a lame looking cut scene and instant death for your opponent. There are simply way too many variables to pull it off consistently and efficiently but it does encourage people to figure out other ways to play rather than blocking all the time.

Ok, so the fighting system is solid; what's next? Well, the character roster and balance between the fighters should be put on the table. Every fighting game is made or broken by the way its characters balance out and Soul Calibur has always been a series with diverse styles and a refined equilibrium between them. Sure every once in a while a character comes along that's broken in some ways but there're many ways around everything. In Soul Calibur IV for instance, Yoda can't be thrown by anyone but the flipside is that he has terrible moves and is a glutton for punishment. On the other hand other new characters are pretty good such as Hilde, Amy, and yes, even the Apprentice. Old favorites also return with familiar moves though some changes are afoot especially if you fancied yourself an Ivy player (she's much harder to use now). Overall the character roster is large and properly balanced out and there are plenty of fighting styles to choose from.

Along those lines Soul Calibur IV offers an extremely robust character creation system. You start by picking gender and a "Soul" which is basically a weapon style and from there the options really open up. Equipment can be purchased with Gold acquired during single player or ranked matches and from there you can tweak colors and the like. The nice part is that you can show your creation to the world online and there are millions of possibilities for characters. If you've never seen Spider-Man versus Papa Smurf before then, well, you probably will at some point. Unfortunately a glaring omission with this mode is the fact that you can't customize the Jedi class so those of you who wanted to make Obi Wan or Mace Windu just won't be able to.

Once you've tinkered with the fighting system and you've built up your custom characters you're ready to play some of the game's modes. For single player options there is the expected Story Mode where you go through each characters tale and Arcade Mode where you simply beat up on the CPU. Included in this installment of Soul Calibur is something called the Tower of Souls which is an escalating challenge of sixty floors that can be ascended or descended. You can unlock equipment in the Tower and you'll net some cash as well.

The biggest improvement that makes Soul Calibur IV as enjoyable as it is would be the online multiplayer. Sure there's local versus modes as well but being able to go online and fight people from around the world. Admittedly going through the Ranked Matches is a chore because you'll come across people who just spam one button and mash but the Player Matches are much more enjoyable with a Tournament-like set up and party atmosphere. Lag is more or less non-existent and for the most part you can expect play to be very stable. There are a few points where the connection slows down but these occurrences are thankfully rare.

If you found yourself disappointed with Soul Calibur III then you'll be pleased to know that IV is much better all around. The combat system is sharper, the character customization options are amazing, the online play is everything you'd hope it would be, and the experience is incredibly addictive once again. If you own a 360 and you love fighting games whether you're a fan of the franchise or not, you must get this game. It's simply the most polished fighting game on the console and it shouldn’t be missed.

Achievements


The achievements in Soul Calibur IV are varied with some being very simple to get while others take a ridiculous amount of time. For instance you'll get an achievement simply for sitting through the whole opening movie but in order to polish off those 1,000 points you'll have to conquer the Tower of Souls and amass roughly 3,000,000 gold in order to buy all of the equipment offered in the game. The set up offers something for average gamers and hardcore with a nice variety in between.

Graphics


Much like the first Soul Calibur, Soul Calibur IV sets a graphical standard for the fighting genre. The character models are all rendered beautifully with some great attention to detail and the animations are equally as impressive. The environments are gorgeous with some fine textures and incredible designs as well. Some of them feature a high level of interactivity which is another plus so expect to see walls break down and parts of the stage move around you. Probably the biggest addition this title offers is the equipment breakage which looks awesome every single time it happens. Chipping away at your opponent's armor is very satisfying and it offers a nice visual impact.

Audio


The sound quality for Soul Calibur IV is equally as impressive and diverse as the graphical offering. The soundtrack plays a big part with orchestral scores chiming away dramatically and the sound effects of clanging weapons equally as pervasive. The voice acting is back as well though characters have too few sayings to really offer some variety and of course the announcer says ridiculous things as always. All around this is a fantastic sounding game and it's on par with the rest of the franchise.

Conclusion


Despite the inclusion of Star Wars characters, change of some character moves, and Critical Finishes, Soul Calibur IV is a throwback to the first two entries in the series. It's a solid production all around with some addictive gameplay and diverse fighting styles to tinker with. The addition of online play is key to the success of this title and it creates an unlimited arcade experience right from your sofa. This is what the series needed in my opinion and once again Namco proves why its Soul is one of the best in the fighting business. Included this time around are finishing moves known as Critical Finishes which are more trouble than they are worth unfortunately. Also the impact system feels slightly more honed and each character has equipment that will break pending incoming damage. All in all the structure of the fighting engine is strong, if not stronger than it was, and the series once again lands on top in a King of the Hill match against its competitors.