In preparation for this review, I decided to get a little refresher and play through the last real Soul Calibur, Soul Calibur II. Before you flame me, just try to remember how bad Soul Calibur III was. If you can't remember it, your brain has just done you a huge favor and repressed a series horrible memories.
Ten minutes after I turned on my 360, I was sitting on my couch looking at the credits. I found myself thinking that either the game got much shorter, or I was just getting a lot better, and trust me, I sure as hell was not getting any better. After several more playthroughs, I was back in peak form and ready to take whatever that demented sword wielding universe was going to throw at me.
From the first strike, Soul Calibur IV feels like something familiar, but with an added layer of depth that hasn't been present before. The first few matches are like getting back on a bike. At first things are a bit wobbly and unstable, but eventually you get the controls under your fingers.
Amazingly, the transition between the Soul Calibur II and the newest version is fairly smooth. It feels almost like a natural iteration on an already refined control scheme. Fortunately, this is a control scheme that has a fairly low barrier to entry. Any player will be able to pick up the controller and feel like a badass, while at the same time the experienced players will be satisfied with the depth and precision.
As a side note, this game, like all fighting games, should be bundled with an arcade stick. The experience is greatly diminished if a gamepad is used. A controller sacrifices precision in favor of a compact size. This normally leads the player's to fingers being tied into knots that would make a Cirque du Soleil contortionist cringe. As a basic recommendation, Hori makes a solid arcade stick for both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Soul Calibur IV is a game that is infinitely more enjoyable and replayable if it is played using the traditional arcade controls.
Many of the staple characters of the Soul Calibur series make a successful return to the consoles, along with the addition of several new fighters and the currently console specific feature character. The feature character on Playstation 3 version is Darth Vader and the Xbox 360 version's is Yoda. Public consensus is that these characters will be available via Downloadable content at some point, but when interviewed, the developers said they had nothing to announce at this time. Also, as mentioned in the preview, the Apprentice from the upcoming game The Force Unleashed, is also playable.
When fighting with an assortment of different characters, similar move sets seem to become evident. Sometimes it even seems as if moves are recycled altogether, but everything happens so fast it is hard to tell for sure. One new move that is available for every character is a revamped Critical Finish. These seem to have little influence on a match, because the requirements for the move are very difficult to attain. Overall, each fighter has a very detailed, polished an refined look, that animates in a way that would bring a tear to the eye of any Pixar employee.
The online multiplayer is a seamless experience as long as there is a good ping rate. Most matches seem like a slightly slower version of the single player experience, which is something that fighting games have traditionally struggled with over Xbox LIVE. Interestingly enough, unlike most games that slow down even more if lag is encountered, Soul Calibur IV instead comes a complete stop until there is a persistent connection again. This is a commendable approach that keeps the experience consistent for all players involved.
There are three single player modes that are available. The arcade mode is the standard best out of three deathmatch, that has been a staple of the franchise since its inception. Many players will use this as an area to become familiar with a new character.
Story mode is a series of matches that pits the player against overwhelming odds. Most matches are at least a one vs. three affair, sometimes even going as high as one vs. four. A name like story mode is a bit of an overstatement, because it is essentially the same plot for every character, with just a different final cutscene, upon successful completion of the mode.
The third mode is called "Tower of the Lost Souls." It is very similar to story mode, where you will face a series of enemies that will have a significant numbers advantage over you. The goal of this mode is to clear each floor of resistance, so that your character can climb to the next floor. You can both ascend and descend the tower, in an effort to level up your character.
Leveling up your character has a direct effect on the character creation mode. Here you can create the most some of the most diversely odd characters ever conceived. It is actually amazing the amount of detail you have at your disposal, with a level of complexity that will satisfy even the most hardcore character designers.
There is not much else I can say about this game without starting to get anxious to play again. This is a game that truly sets the bar for fighting games in the new console generation. I do not say this often, but this is a game that everyone should own. Soul Calibur IV is a game that is truly a crowd pleaser, that will be an active part of your gaming collection for years to come.