Sunday, August 3, 2008

Soul Calibur 4 Review

So, Soul Calibur 4. Let us discuss.

Soul Calibur has been a fixture of mine for years, ever since Soul Calibur 2. It has always held a small spot in my heart, because I'm a huge fighting game fan. But, like Tycho, I prefer when my fighters are situated in the second of dimensions. Fighters are, have been, and always will be at home when holding "away" is the best defense you'll ever need.

Soul Calibur manages to do it right, somehow. I'm pretty sure it's abandoning the entire 'twitch mechanics' that was repeatedly introduced with counter systems like Dead or Alive, and peppered up with weapons adding range, functionality, and all kinds of crazy extra shit. It adds a wonderful amount of balance to a game when you can change a character's range, power, speed, and the like with logic.

I mean, when you pick up Rock or Sigfreid, you know he's going to be stronger and tougher than Talim.

Regardless, Soul Calibur 4 is a pretty great game, so let's get to reviewin'.

Let's not kid ourselves here; it is Soul Calibur. That's a huge part of the review right there. We've hit a point in our gaming lives where a good half of the releases that come out end up starting the review by saying "This is a sequel. If you haven't played the original, go do something horrible to yourself and come out from your Batcave" or some variant thereof.

Here's the scoop for those of you who are just turning in; there's a powerful evil blade called Soul Edge, made by a weaponsmith to be the ultimate weapon. It just so happened to go around sucking out people's souls as well. Lots of people either want it, or want to destroy it. There's also a blade called the Soul Calibur, the antithesis of Soul Edge. People want this or to destroy this too. Thus the game starts.

Characters are varied and awesome. I am especially happy with the changes they made to my favorite characters Rock and Sigfried among them. Rock in the last game was pretty bad, but this time around they gave him lying-down opponent throws, meaning he can usually squeeze out a bit more damage each time he overwhelms you. These sorts of changes are more than welcome and they spread out all over the roster.

But then there's the one small problem: the veterans are the balanced ones. Amy and Rock were pretty lousy last time around, so they got amped up. Amy became less Raphael and more of a swashbuckler, trading in Raphael's precise foil fencing for lots of sweeping maneuvers, twirling, and jumping. But now we have the infamous Guest Characters, hailing from a galaxy far, far away.

First guest character is the Apprentice, from the upcoming Force Unleashed game. And, let me tell you, he is too good. You have been told.

Back in Soul Calibur 2, they gave guest characters to each console. Namco brought out their own guns in the form of Heihachi on the PS2. Todd McFarland guest-designed Necrid and Spawn. Necrid was on all consoles, Spawn was on the Xbox. Nintendo got Link.

The Apprentice is, for lack of a better term, a completely tricked out Spawn. He should be a veteran character and therefore have no problems being balanced, but the similarities end after 'balanced.'

Lots of his attacks combo into Force Levitate, allowing him to air combo. He can summon an unblockable Force Lightning from the ground or a slightly weaker one from the air. He flips in all directions for mindgames. All of his attacks are quick and some have long range. Many of his attacks can Force Throw his lightsaber. He has a bursting shieldbreaker and a Force Pull that stuns you and brings you close range from medium range.

The Apprentice is good. Again, you have been told.

A big part of his balance is that lots of his moves rely on the Force meter, a feature for the Star Wars characters. Attacks that use Force drain the Force bar, and when it is depleted it slowly recharges but puts you into a 'dizzy' state for a moment. With so many attacks and abilities relying on the Force meter, it basically demands that he end up in the dizzy state repeatedly. But this is a small weakness on an amazing character.

Yoda, on the other hand...well, I'll put it this way. When Final Fantasy 7 came out, everyone shit themselves at how great it was. I was a bit more cynical - it seemed like it did everything, but not very well, as though it had been pulled in too many directions at once. Think X-Men 3 of video games. It had some epic and moving moments, but it also had the awful chibi-sized graphics mixed with the taller, darker, mature fighting scenes. It was a huge mixed bag.

Much in that way, Yoda seems to have everything you could need on paper but in execution it can be awkward, clumsy, and embarrasing. Like a threesome.

And now you can all think of Yoda orgies.

Yoda's 8-way run makes him leap, and from there he can do an attack. While attacking, he can burn up Force to leap again and make a new attack. This can go on as long as he has Force to consume. Add to the fact that some attacks totally whiff over him, he's incapable of being grabbed, he can use the Force to make a GI-field around himself, and most of his flips completely dodge all low attacks and you'd think he'd be an all-star character.

Problem is most of his attacks are slow as hell and easily telegraph themselves. If you see Yoda flip in the air, he's probably not trying to dodge, so block for a moment. However if you avoid spamming the flips you can mix it up quite a bit before unleashing, problem is getting close to the opponent is difficult when your range sucks and your run makes you flip forward. And, you know, stubby legs.

Where was I? Oh, right.

Aside from that, Soul Calibur 4 is a kick and a half. The engine itself is nicely polished and everything looks great and plays amazing. Which reminds me.

On principle, I don't play fighting games online. Halo's twitch mechanics are constructed in a way you don't have to have perfect lag, as it can handshake the effect quick enough that when you know you killed someone, you know it. Fighting games are not this way. Guilty Gear is not this way. Nor is Street Fighter or Soul Calibur or Smash Bros. It just can't be. I will always have less than stellar performance and, for that reason, I just can't play fighting games online. I will eternally curse at the ever-present lag and feel horrible at my unchivalrous spamming of a 'safe' move to combat the lag.

My own honor gets in the way of me winning, yes. I would make a good samurai if it wasn't for my laziness.

However, Soul Calibur gets it damn near. When I played it online, it was only fractions of a second off. I've seen few fighters that get it that accurate.

The one thing that I seem to be alone with is the game's one-player modes. This is a strange one.

See since Soul Calibur 2, as far as I know, the game has always forced you to crawl through an agonizing single-player mode that was, for lack of a better term, 'thrown together'. Chronicles of the Sword has been a pain every time I played it, both 2 and 3. Worst thing was I just wanted to unlock the characters, then I can worry about getting everything like costumes and, later, character armor. But instead I was forced to play through this thing every time I wanted to just get Cervantes.

And Story mode is like the Star Fox of plot single players - every time it tries to take itself seriously the world just stops paying attention. You were given branching pathways and interactive cutscenes in Soul Calibur 3...

...when actually it was only given to you if they felt like it. The branching pathways didn't actually alter my fate or change what I saw or who I fought to the point where it mattered. It was just another Fight Followed by Fight. Guilty Gear handled it the best - cutscenes with interesting dialog and stuff that actually mattered. You actually learned the plot and the characters to a degree. Branching storylines changed things and mattered. To this day I've yet to see a story mode as effective as Guilty Gear's.

So now that you've been caught up, here's what Soul Calibur 4 does: Story Mode is an intro, five fights under different circumstances for each character, and an ending for that character. Instead of dealing with all that shit, you just get this. And it works because they're not shoving gimmicks on us. While I'm not praising it for sucking, I'm just saying the alternative is much worse.

Instead of Chronicles of the Sword, you can just take whichever character you like - even your custom characters - and throw them into the Tower of Souls. Remember how most games had challenges that were totally impossible that unlocked cool shit? Well, that's what this is. And it's great. Instead of a super-long single play campaign with tacked-on RTS elements, you get to fight a few matches one-after-another with tag-team style mechanics, including your custom character and all his bonuses and special items.

My one problem with it? Fighting in it gives you gold, but doesn't unlock items. Instead you have to do challenges that are ambiguous and nonsensical. Minor complaint, though, it's a great way to enforce playing the game through trial-and-error. The way fighting games should be.

Plus you can just play through arcade twice or three times and buy all the characters. Simplicity.

Character creation is amazing, but I have yet to delve into it.

All in all, totally great. Get a copy.

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