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Soul Calibur III
Score: 87%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Namco
Developer: Namco
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Fighting

Graphics & Sound:
Soul Calibur III is, like nearly every fighting game sequel, a refinement of a working engine rather than a full-blown overhaul. Things players loved about past games in the series return and are joined by a few new modes that attempt to make the third game even more console (and replay) friendly than Soul Calibur II. And, in large part, Namco was successful, though the success is not without snags.

While the game has been many things to different players, the one thing the Soul Calibur series has never been is ugly. What was one of the real showcase titles for the Dreamcast, and even this generation of systems, once again comes out in a flash of graphical glory that is still unrivaled by most modern 3D fighters. Character models are finely detailed, but it is the small details that really help to make them stand out. All moves have that little bit of added flair, be it a particular flick of a sword or even a stray spark or gleam that make the game something great to see. And, if you have a wide screen, progressive scan capable TV, the game looks even better. Having upgraded TV's halfway through my playtime with the game, I wasn't completely sold on the difference the leap to HD would make, but having done so has made a real believer out of me.

HD set or not, it is all about details, and it is not until you get into the Custom Character mode that you really see how much of an impact they have. The more time you spend in the game's other modes, the more gold you'll win. This gold can then be spent on clothing, weapons and other pieces for use in your own player-created character (who can then be taken into the game). The number of looks you can create is rather deep and will even let you create believable representations of characters from other games or TV shows if you're not feeling particularly creative. However, as great as the custom characters look, they still lack the little details that bring the game's cast to life, so they can feel generic at times. Still, I'm always one for customization in games, so thumbs up to Namco for this addition.

Audio is as well done as the game's look. The same overdramatic announcer and the equally as dramatic orchestral score both return and step right in time with the game's presentation. Then, of course, are the clangs and other battle sounds that ring out with every blow in the game, adding impact to the fights.

The aspect that makes Soul Calibur III much different from past games is that it is the first to not be released into the arcades; its release is exclusive to the PS2. Because of this, there's no proper "Arcade Mode" featured in the game. Instead, the main gameplay mode is a story mode called Tales of Souls. After choosing a character (a number of which are locked at the game's start), you'll venture through a text-based story mode that basically gives you a narrative bridge between matches. At some points, you'll even have the choice between paths, though each path usually just brings you to another fight and another set of unlockable items like weapons and parts for the Custom Character mode.

As neat an idea as Tales of Souls is, the mode isn't as fleshed out as it could be and becomes rather dull a few matches in. The story sequences aren't all that engrossing to begin with, and they're basically the same for every character. In addition, most of the sequences seem very rushed and do little more than shuttle you between short, one-round matches that usually only last a few seconds anyway.

Another added mode is Chronicles of the Sword, which combines the game's fighting engine with a bare-bones RTS. Like Tales of the Sword, Chronicles gives you a text-based story that serves to push you between matches. Here you move a small army of soldiers around a battlefield and, once two opposing characters meet, they enter a battle. For anyone who has played LucasArts' Wrath Unleashed, the mode feels similar, only with a more refined combat system and a little less involved. These matches actually manage to be a little less interesting than those featured in Tales since you're often times playing with generic characters rather than the series stars. This mode also has to contend with load times, which are a sure-fire game killer considering the story's pacing.

Thankfully, these two gameplay types are only a fraction of what Soul Calibur III has to offer. Soul Arena is where the game really becomes more interesting. Here you can spend time perfecting your skills in Practice mode, or take on a series of odd, but fun matches to earn gold and other unlockable items. You can also take part in World Competition, which places you in a series of tournament brackets against AI and human opponents (up to 8 can participate). The only downside to the tournament option is that you can't save your progress mid-bracket, so make sure you have a lot of free time before playing. Also, once you choose a character, you can't change.

Even with the two new modes, which are meant to give the game a little more replay value, its the Quick Match mode that still proves to be the game's most enjoyable area, especially when playing with a friend. It is a shame, then, that there is no online option, which would have really put the game over the top.

A number of difficulty settings are available when going up against the A.I., giving players of all skill levels a challenge. Set to the normal settings, the A.I. offers a formidable challenge, though you'll want to try lower settings if this is your first foray into the series. While button mashing can actually win you a few matches, it will prove to only make the game more frustrating later on since the game is built more on finesse and timing than doling out as much damage as you can. Regardless of difficulty level, there are times where the game does feel a little on the cheap side. It's not that the A.I. pulls off feats that are obviously not right, it's just that sometimes the A.I.'s reaction time is just a little too good. Don't be surprised if an opponent quickly side-steps a move and unleashes a combo just as you're about to deliver the final blow.

Game Mechanics:
Not the least of the Soul Calibur III's list of additions are three new characters, who join a roster of familiar faces from Soul Calibur II, making for a total of 30 fighters to choose from. Each of the new fighters brings a new look and more importantly, new fighting styles to the game's already robust makeup. Tira is the game's newest "cover girl" and is the one fans are probably most used to seeing from ads. While Tira's green, tattered outfit is what draws your initial attention, it is her hoop-like swords and chaotic style that will make sure she has your full attention. Another character is Zasalamel, a robed warrior from Egypt who wields a large scythe. He's not the fastest of fighters, but gives the game another bruiser character, making him a good choice of players who prefer big damage over style. The final addition is Setsuka, a nimble fighter who looks like a Japanese geisha but moves more like Taki, making her almost the exact opposite of what you'll get from Zasalamel.

The three new characters are fine additions to the cast but also have a bit of a "tacked on" feel to them. Their move sets largely feel like rehashes of the already installed fighters so there isn't as much to learn for series veterans, who may be growing tired of the better known fighters. Thankfully, more advanced players have new tricks to learn -- so there's not as stale a feeling.

Like previous games, Soul Calibur III is more of an offensive game rather than a defensive one. Players who sit back and guard a lot usually won't last as long. This isn't to say that blocking doesn't work, but the tactic doesn't fit well with the rest of the game, which lends itself more to speedy, aggressive play. Returning characters also have access to new moves and have evolved ever so slightly. Tactics that worked in Soul Calibur II still work, but can now be augmented.

Once again, Soul Calibur III is more of a refinement than anything else. If you find yourself bored with the series, the third game might not be that "something different" you've been looking for, even with the new characters and other additions. However, if you're in the market for a good, fun fighting game, you really can't do any better.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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