Back in 1999, the original SoulCalibur was the reason numerous gamers purchased the Sega Dreamcast. I spent a lot of time with SoulCalibur. I even spent a month playing the classic weapon oriented fighter just before Namco Bandai’s SoulCalibur IV arrived. The sequels debuted during the waning years of the fighting genre and thus I merely dabbled into them. Fortunately, those dark days are coming to an end and fighting games are making a triumphant return this year. SoulCalibur IV is amongst the first out of the gate, but would the fourth installment of this revered 3D fighter make a lasting impression? Or will it be more of the same? We know online support is included, but does it work? Simple answer: Yes, it’s all that and a bit more.
The most important aspect of a fighting game isn’t the single player campaign; no matter how strong or robust it is, it will never replace the experience of duking it out with live opponent. Since we were trying to focus on the player experience first, we spent a, thankfully short, hour unlocking the entire SoulCalibur cast. One of the first noticeable changes from the original SoulCalibur, was the game speed; it is noticeably slower. It may have been slowed down since the second SoulCalibur, but since I didn’t own the subsequent sequels, this took a bit of getting used to. Don’t be mistaken, the game is still fast paced, however, now most attacks aren’t just blurs of metal and sparks now. Hopefully now you will be able to take advantage of the more forgiving guard impacting window and punish your foes.
The online battles are definitely a hit or miss. You can create an unranked room where you and your posse can enjoy an arcade styled “winner stays on” mode or if you wish to take on the world rankings, one-on-one ranked matchmaking is available. There are several avenues of finding opponents to duel with including “quick play” matchmaking and manual server browsing. Frustratingly, both will often yield to “full game room” messages as hundreds of other players are vying for that five bar rated room. Despite the five bar rating, these matches are not without their lag spikes. I have participated in smooth running games, but I consider myself fortunate in those cases. I wouldn’t rely on the online play as my only means of fighting live opponents – it’s just not that stable as of yet.
And ‘yet’ is the keyword. Thanks to the magic of internet ready consoles, you can bet the farm that there will be downloadable updates and content for SoulCalibur IV. In fact, at the time of writing, two updates and two content packs have made their way to users worldwide. Unfortunately, in typical Namco Bandai fashion, the downloadable content currently available are merely ‘keys’ which unlock content already buried on the game’s disc. Who knows what other content is buried in there, but one thing’s for sure: there will be a lot more to unlock/download. I am also certain that one day I will get to the opportunity to unlock Yoda who’s most likely on the disc already.
With regards to the new additions, they include The Apprentice from the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Darth Vader, Hilde and Algol — they’re all fine additions. After spending time with each, they’re definitely aren’t mere clones of the existing SoulCalibur roster. Within my comprehension of SoulCalibur IV and the level of competition I usually encounter, I have yet to find any of these characters to be “cheap” or underperformers. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that both Vader and his Apprentice were able to perform a large number of Star Wars moves including lightsaber throwing, Force lightning and even Force chokes.
While we’re on the subject of new moves, aside from tweaks and rearrangement of moves for each character, fighters are now able to destroy each other’s armor. It’s not as spectacular as I would have hoped, but it’s still a nice detail. On top of breakable armor, every character has a “Critical Finish” which is triggered by mashing all four face buttons just after the opponent’s Soul Gauge is broken. Even though Critical Finishes instantly kills the opponent via a silly cutscene, it rarely happens in a real game. Only the extremely defensive players will succumb to the necessary Soul Gauge break.