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Soul Calibur IV
Graphics: 9
Gameplay: 8.7
Sound: 8.4
Control: 8.9
Replay Value: 9
Rating: 8.8

The original Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast enjoyed immense critical acclaim and remains one of the best launch titles for any video game system in history. Subsequent installments also delivered the goods in spades, although most fans of the franchise will say the original is still the best. Enter this new generation’s first SC entry, in an effort to take the crown as the best Calibur experience ever, with a very competent Project Soul development team behind the production. It’ll certainly be the prettiest – that’s mostly a given – and it should be a top-notch fighter in all respects, but does it rank as the best of the franchise? Well…we can’t answer that, as comparing titles across two distant generations doesn’t seem fair, but we will say this: Soul Calibur IV is extraordinarily fun and entertaining, and while it just misses maximum elite status, we still believe it’s a must-have for any avid gamer. As even better news, we can also say it’s not a requirement to be a hardcore fighting fan; this one is accessible to all, and that’s both a big bonus and a slight drawback.

First of all, this really is one of the most visually accomplished titles of the generation so far. However, there is a bit of an unsettling contrast between the brilliant, beautifully lined character design and the less impressive and somewhat erratic backdrops. The arenas are great, but given the superiority of the character models, many of the settings pale in direct comparison. But hey, you won’t be spending a lot of time staring at the background, right? And besides, the CGI is of the highest quality, and with the ridiculously robust character customization process, the graphics are given numerous and frequent opportunities to shine. It was difficult to find much in the way of visual hitches or glitches, although we were able to spot a few very minor issues during potential “Ring Outs” when characters flirted with disaster along the edge. Other than that, there’s very little to complain about. These really are some of the finest character models you’ll ever see, and being able to destroy armor (discussed below) adds even more flair. For the most part, SCIV is very, very pretty.  Too bad it's only available in 720p HD.

The sound isn’t quite as polished, though, as too many of the soundtracks sound virtually identical and the English voiceover cast is merely average. The sound effects save the day in about every possible way, though, as they’re unbelievably clear and crisp. Given the fact that characters land blows with everything from their feet to the weapons they hold, the developers do a fantastic job of making everything spot-on and very much in your face. Everything is greatly exaggerated, of course, but then again, that’s exactly the point of this series: it’s all exaggerated, from the outrageous combat maneuvers to the gigantic breasts that always seem to have lives of their own. And we’re not saying the soundtrack is bad, either; we’re merely saying that with all the music tracks included, at least some of them could've sounded a tad different. We’d often look at the bottom of the screen to see the name of the track, and then say, “…sounds the same as the last one.” But really, while we can’t overlook it, it’s not a crippling negative, and the sound effects are just so good.

As with anything else, it all comes down to the gameplay, especially in the fighting genre. Without this, no other facet of a game’s presentation matters, and luckily, SC has always excelled in this area. Thing is, none of these titles have ever been straightforward and generic; they’ve all looked to add depth and freshness to a category of gaming that can always use a little originality. The most obvious unique aspect (although it’s not so unique, anymore) is the addition of weapons, which has always been the trademark feature of the franchise. But it doesn’t end there, as Namco has continually worked to provide us with more; special missions, challenges, combat with vastly different goals, very distinct fighters, etc. They do it again with Soul Calibur IV, as all of that has returned, and this time, they enhance the depth by tossing in inherent character skills, destructible equipment, and completely customizable fighters with a fully fleshed out upgrade system. And oh yeah, there’s just an obscene amount of moves to learn and master.

As far as the basics are concerned, we first noticed something we didn’t expect: there seems to be a slight response delay when pressing an attack button, which makes the game feel more realistic, like a Tekken or Virtua Fighter. We can’t be sure, but we’re almost certain we recall instant responsiveness in the original SC, which means that despite the over-exaggeration, perhaps Namco sought to include a bit more in the way of battle authenticity…? In other words, it’s not like the ol’ Mortal Kombats, where you’d literally have to be pressing the next button in a combo about a nanosecond after inputting the first attack command. No, while the speed of SCIV is great, there is plenty of room for a dash of physical realism, and that should satisfy fighting fans everywhere. For the rest of you who simply want a fun game to play, you’ll revel in the pick-up-and-play foundation this game rests upon; like it or not, button mashing will often net you victory in the Normal difficulty mode. Now, here’s where the game drops below elite level, because while you are encouraged to learn more moves and practice, another incentive makes things all too easy.

The other incentive revolves around the character upgrade system. In our estimation, it’s far too lenient; it takes almost no time at all to enhance a character to the point where even Hard difficulty might not be too tough, and that’s a major downfall. Thing is, you can either learn the majority of your favorite character’s moves to tackle either Hard Story mode or the Tower of Lost Souls, or…you can simple buy some kick-ass upgrades. Playing through Normal Story mode poses little challenge, regardless of which character you choose, and one play-through will net you enough Gold to pick up the Soul Calibur special weapon for that fighter. We don’t even know what the point of the other weapons are when you can do this, but whatever. And that’s not all; you can add all kinds of equipment and even use other points to purchase new skills to assist you in combat. Like the equipment and cosmetic alterations, there are plenty of skills to choose from as well; you can up your counter ability, resist Ring Outs, and even drain a little damage from opponents when blocking. All sorts of options.

And it’s all just too easy to get. That’s the problem. If it required more in the way of effort or strategy to land such awesome upgrades, the depth wouldn’t feel quite so lame. As another complaint that’s related to this, Namco decided to feature missions where your character will have to face two, three, or even four opponents without any chance to rest. On the surface, wouldn’t this seem difficult? It’s not, and it’s because that on the default difficulty, those opponents appear to be sleepwalking through every match. Of course, we understand the reason for this; if each foe presented an equally formidable challenge, it’d be absurdly unfair to ask us to beat them all without a chance to regenerate. But while this does add some freshness, we would’ve preferred more in the way of straight-up one-on-one fights. There are several boss encounters that are one-on-one, but even those are pretty darn easy, and they’re even easier if you’re a veteran of the genre. That aforementioned pick-up-and-play accessibility is something we see a lot more of in this generation where there are more casual gamers than ever…but Namco took it too far, and hardcore gamers may be disappointed.

But with all that out of the way, there’s no denying that Soul Calibur IV is an absolute blast to play. The controls are nearly perfect, and being able to destroy your opponent’s equipment to the point where you’ve got a “Soul Crush” situation represents never-ending entertainment. See, if you target one particular part of your opponent’s body, you will eventually destroy the armor that protects that part, and if you bring ‘em down enough, you can execute a “Critical Finish.” It’s like an unstoppable Fatality or finishing move of sorts, where the battle ends with a colossally flashy finish. Of course, you have to be careful about losing your equipment as well, even though the game isn’t tough enough to make it a primary concern. It’s still fun to smash Sophitia down to her skivvies, though…she’s not wearing much under there, you know! Anyway, stringing together combos, experimenting with the vast plethora of moves, fooling around with all sorts of exotic characters, and customizing and upgrading to your heart’s content; it all translates to one thing: fun.

During our analysis, we critics often forget that this is the ultimate goal of any game. We can be as anal as we want (it’s part of the job, actually), but at the end of the day, we have to decide if we had fun, and if most other gamers out there will have fun. Well, there’s no doubt about it in SCIV’s case: you will be entertained. It’s too bad that the online competition really isn’t free of flaws or kinks, and many of the hardcore will feel betrayed at the ease of both the Normal and Hard Story modes, but you’ll forgive it all when you’re smiling. The addition of the Tower of Lost Souls, where you must try to Ascend or Descend as far as you can with two characters, makes for a significant challenge, but there’s not much incentive to attack that mode. Obviously, though, you’ll want to play this game with a friend – Versus is still one of the main attractions for any fighter – and you won’t be disappointed with that. We did have a little difficulty adjusting to the responsiveness, but that could just be a remnant of the past that we haven’t managed to eradicate from our brains.

In the end, Soul Calibur IV is a great title to have in your collection, and as we said before, you really don't need to be a fighting expert. In fact, if you are, you might be disappointed in the lack of a challenge. But that's what Versus is for, and there's more than enough in the way of customization and upgrading options to satisfy you for an extended period of time. Yeah, most of the character stories are silly and even convoluted, and the English voice cast isn't very good, but the game itself is just packed to the brim with entertainment value. You can pick on any number of relatively significant drawbacks - like the ease of play and the depth falling short as a result - but there's no denying the fun factor. Equipment shatters, impacts are loud and satisfying, the number of moves is mind-boggling, and you can create just about anything in the Character Creation section. All good things, and they come together to make SCIV ceaselessly grin-inducing.

Lastly, we weren't kidding at all when we said the breasts have lives of their own in this game. They're big and ultra-bouncy...and that's all we have to say about it.

8/2/2008   Ben Dutka