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Soul Calibur IV
Score: 94%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Fighting/ Arcade/ Action

Graphics & Sound:
The long anticipated return of one of the greatest fighting game franchises has finally come true. Soul Calibur IV has finally arrived and it aims to impress. Hours will be spent refining gameplay styles, and many more will be spent acquiring new gear. The latest in the long-running series is its next-gen debut and the visuals aren't the only things that have been given an extra coat of polish.

The first thing that pops about Soul Calibur IV is how gorgeous it is. The bright, vibrant colors and fluid animations bring a much needed breath of fresh air to the dark grays and browns in the new world of gaming. Every character model has been updated with much better textures, fabrics, and armor sets. One of the many new features on this outing is that now everyone's armor deteriorates and breaks apart over time to add more realism and strategic depth to the game. It all happens in real time as well, with individual pieces falling off corresponding to where the attack came from. Along with the characters, the stages and backgrounds also earned a new level of quality with their interactivity and appeal. Each stage has its own unique personality and visual design choices that make it fun to see and play every time. While it is clear that Namco/Bandai spent plenty of time on making their game look good, they also dedicated that same devotion to making it sound good too.

The sound and audio in Soul Calibur IV is done very well with each stage receiving its own theme. Veterans of the franchise will recognize many of the songs and pieces, but there are a few new songs to mix things up a bit. The ending music and themes for each character are also performed nicely with each piece fitting with every character's personality. All of the songs are instrumental pieces that add to the world in new ways and find a way to get stuck in your head for many days afterward.

The basic premise for Soul Calibur IV is a little ridiculous, but every game in the series has been and it is nice to see it embrace it so fully. Taking place somewhere around the 1500's, Soul Calibur IV is a tale of two magical swords that wield absolute power. One serves the justice of the good, while the other drains life and corrupts for evil. Fighters from all over the world (and a few from a galaxy far, far away) travel and fight to put an end to the curse of the two swords. Soul Calibur IV is a full 3-D weapon-based fighter. That means that each character has a unique weapon along with a corresponding fighting style. Most of the fun comes from discovering new moves and skills to destroy the opponent.

The basic gameplay modes include a Story, Arcade, and Training mode for single player and two different versus modes for multiplayer action. The Story mode is a little on the short side with only five matches for every story. But with more than twenty characters, there is plenty to sink into. The Arcade mode is the most traditional mode and like the namesake implies, it plays just like it would at the arcade. There are seven regular stages and the final boss stage to make it feel like it used to. This is also the first time that Soul Calibur has taken its action online, and it is really impressive for a first attempt.

The online play is overall very pleasant, but there are times where connection issues make the game unplayable. Different characters require different timing and internet lag sometimes intrudes and costs the match. When it works, it works wonderfully. They even allow the new characters and custom characters to be taken online which makes fooling around with joke characters even more fun.

Soul Calibur is also known for including guest characters from time to time in their games and Soul Calibur IV introduces a few Star Wars characters to a proper fighting game. The PlayStation 3 received Darth Vader and his Apprentice as the guest characters, while the Xbox 360 got Yoda (Don't worry too much; there is still room for DLC) and Vader's Apprentice. While the guest characters don't break any balance issues, the fact that they can use force powers seems a little unfair at first. Other than those two, there are surprisingly few additions to the cast. Hildegard and Algol are the only two real additions to the cast, but everyone else has had some tinkering to make them feel new and fresh all over again. There are also five new "Special" characters that were designed by some prominent anime artists, but they are just palette swaps for other stable characters. The stories that were created for each Special character actually fit better in the universe than some of the other mainstays, which seems a tad odd. But all in all, there are around nine new characters to look at and play around with in Soul Calibur IV. The custom character creator also returns and allows for more depth than ever to make a warrior that is catered to how you fight.

The largest difficulty curve in Soul Calibur IV comes with the new addition to the gameplay. There is a new meter by the health bar called the "Soul Gauge" and it fills up or empties out based on your performance. It fills up and turns blue if you are playing offensively and playing well, and turns red and becomes empty if you guard too much or play it too safe. The dangers of a flashing red Soul Gauge means that the opponent can now perform a Critical Finish for a one hit kill. Adjusting to the new feature adds a little spice and it spruces up the game a bit and gives newcomers a potential advantage. However, I have found that it is more difficult to actually pull off a Critical Finish in a real match than many might think. It does not break the balance of the game at all, but instead adds tension when one player may be getting backed into a corner.

Game Mechanics:
The control scheme and button layout hasn't changed much since previous games in the Soul Calibur universe. The (X) button guards against attacks. The (Square) and (Triangle) buttons perform horizontal and vertical attacks respectively, while (O) is reserved for kicks. All of the tools for success are on the face buttons, while all of the shoulder buttons are just bound to simultaneous button presses. For example, the (L1) button is the same as pressing all four face buttons and coincidentally executes a Critical Finish. The only appreciable difference is that they changed some of the move commands around now.

For example, Ivy is one of the more drastic changes and players will basically have to re-learn her moves in order to get back in the swing of things. Some of the minor changes include shifting Voldo and Mitsurugi's stances to Vertical + Kick instead of Horizontal + Vertical. Not really much of change at all, but for some people, that can ruin the flow of a match.

Overall, Soul Calibur IV is an excellent title with loads of new features and the highest level of polish most fighting games have ever received. The smooth online play and deep character creator make this a must have for the pugilistic enthusiast, but it also wins points with its accessibility to newcomers. While it may not appeal to everyone, it definitely has enough under the hood to not disappoint those who want to take a peek.

-HanChi, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Hanchey

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