Discussion Review: Soulcalibur IV

SC4_PS3 Pack with rating.jpg SC4_X360 Pack with rating.jpg

Matt: Soulcalibur IV has been lusted after by fans for a while now. What’s it been, like three years since the last Soulcalibur came out (not including Soulcalibur Legends)? I can’t recall when exactly Soulcalibur III released, but it seems like it’s been a long while. Finally, though, the wait is over and SCIV has graced the PS3 and Xbox 360 with its stunning graphics, intense weapon-based combat and, for the first time in series history, online play. Is all that enough to make it another Soulcalibur classic? Let us discuss…

To be perfectly honest, after having spent hour upon hour with both versions over the past two weekends I’m left feeling a wide range of emotions, from utter disappointment to jaw-dropping awe. For now I suppose I’ll start with the disappointing stuff first and get to the highlights later.

To begin with, what’s with the whole Star Wars tie-in? I didn’t understand it when Namco made the announcement that Vader, Yoda and the Apprentice were being added as guest characters, and now having played and gone up against all three characters I’m even more baffled by their inclusion. Vader and the Apprentice are decent I guess — they at least seem somewhat balanced with the existing characters — but Yoda is awful. Since he is so small he throws off the entire balance of the game. As far as I can tell he is completely invulnerable to throws and seems damn near impossible to hit with anything but low attacks. Playing with him is even worse, too. Most of his high attacks involve him leaping into the air, and I often found myself falling out of the ring by accident because of the aerial nature of his attacks. What’s the deal Namco? Why couldn’t we get guest characters like Kratos, Nariko, Ryu, etc? They would’ve actually meshed nicely with the existing characters and been more recognizable exclusives for each platform.

Ultimately, the Star Wars characters aren’t that big of a deal because you can pretty much avoid them if you want and there are tons and tons of other fighters to choose from (after the initial novelty wore off, not many players seem to use them either). Therefore my main disappointment has to be the game’s poor selection of play modes. If you ask me, SCIV has the worst lineup of single-player modes in the entire series. Whether it’s the Story, Arcade or Tower of Lost Souls mode, all’s you do is compete in a series of fights until you reach the end. There really isn’t much that differentiates one from the other. Plus, the “stories” in the story mode are incredibly weak, most of them consisting of recycled cut scenes and endings that don’t provide any sense of accomplishment.

Zach: Soulcalibur III came out back in the fall of 2005. Obviously this was a horrible time as almost everyone’s attention was focused on the release of the Xbox 360. Soulcalibur III sort of came and went without anyone ever really noticing. I noticed of course, and picked it up on release day only to be disappointed as it was not up to the same quality as my favorite fighter to date, Soulcalibur II.

That being said, I was happy when I heard about Soulcalibur IV and the new features it was bringing to the franchise. I mean, online play! Finally! The only thing I wasn’t looking forward to was having to deal with the Star Wars characters. I mean really, this game takes place hundreds of years ago and here comes this alien cyborg with a laser sword and magic powers. How does that even a match up? Fortunately the extra Star Wars characters are fairly weak when compared to what the other standard characters bring to the table, as you touched on with Yoda’s drawbacks.

I agree that the single player mode in Soulcalibur IV is weak. I’ve played every Soulcalibur (see not Soul Edge) since the Dreamcast and this is definitely the worst in engaging players. I loved the previous iteration’s campaign mode which pitted you on a quest for the sword, and gave you various obstacles to overcome. For example, on some levels you would be poisoned and have to defeat all of the opponents while your health slowly drained. In others, walls were electrified, or even the ground was made super springy, making moves that bounce a character off the ground end up shooting them high into the air.

Unfortunately these fun single player modes were removed. But in retrospect, the reasoning might have been to place the focus more on the multiplayer mode. I remember playing the previous Soulcaliburs for hours trying to unlock all of the players, however in Soulcalibur IV you can unlock everyone in a matter of an hour by playing through the arcade mode as Darth Vader/Yoda, then through the easy story mode with five particular characters. You’ll then have enough cash to purchase the rest of the locked characters. The only logical reason I can see for this is that Namco wanted you to unlock everyone and get online as quickly as possible.

Matt: I kinda see what you’re saying about the design shifting the focus towards the multiplayer modes, but I don’t know, I still think Namco Bandai phoned it in on the single-player content. I love being able to do battle online, but I’d still like a comprehensive story mode that’s at least worth playing. I’ve played through a few stories on each platform and that’s all I care to do. The stories just aren’t worth fighting for, even when they only take like 10 minutes to run through.

How about the new Soul Crush and Critical Finish mechanics? Those jiving with you at all? You being a pretty avid fan of the series, I’m very interested to see what you think of these. Personally, I think they are cool in theory, but in reality I don’t see that they add all that much. In fact, I’ve hardly even noticed their existence. In all the hours I’ve played I think I’ve only performed like two finishing moves and had maybe one landed on me. The way your fighter’s armor breaks and becomes susceptible to increased damage at his or her weakened body parts adds a thin layer of extra strategy I guess, but more often than not it seems to be more of a visual effect than something truly game-effecting.

Zach: I think the Soul Crush and Critical Finish mechanics are nice, but not utilized enough. In all of the online matches I’ve participated in, both watching and playing, I’ve only seen a Soul Crush followed by a Critical Finish once. I think Namco put this in the game to turn it into more of an offensive focus, as continuous blocking lowers your Soul Gauge and opens you up to a Soul Crush. Again, I see this as Namco giving the series more of a push towards multiplayer as more offense means quicker matches and more people playing one another.

I do have some beef with the online portion of Soulcalibur IV, though. First, you can only play against someone that has a flawless (five bar) connection with your console. Anything less than that introduces so much lag that pulling off moves such as Guard Impacts or parrying a blow is nigh impossible. And don’t even think about breaking a throw. The only way that will occur is if you happen to be starting to launch an attack that includes the same button that your opponent used to start the throw. Lag can even be a factor against opponents with perfect connections on occasion. All’s it takes is the slightest hiccup in the connection between the two of you and you’re in for some wonky combat.

I think the character customization is vastly improved over the last game, though. You can create just about any character you can imagine, especially if you’re creative. For example, I somehow unlocked a whole “kitty” theme of armor, including puffy gloves and shoes. My wife helped me color coordinate them into a pink and green motif, and then I went online with my new character. The first person just laughed at me, until I swiftly defeated him 3-0. As a matter of fact, one of my first games online was against a girl in a bikini that fought against me using a surf board with a handle on one end. Honestly, the possibilities are endless with the character creation, and with new outfits being uploaded online by Namco it can just get better from here on out.

Matt: Wow, you’ve had that much of an issue with lag online? That’s weird man, at least 95% of my online time has been absolutely lag-free, and that’s on both consoles and plenty of three- and four-bar connections (never even risked playing any match under three bars). Literally only two or three matches I’ve been in have been laggy, and even in those it was only a short blip during one round, not persistent lag lasting the entire match. Frankly, I’ve found the online play damn near perfect. If Brawl‘s online model was half as good as this I wouldn’t have abandoned it after only like two weeks of play.

As for the Soul Crush and Critical Finish mechanics… again, you make a valid point regarding Namco’s apparent focus shift to multiplayer with the new features, but however you want to explain their purpose I’m still not seeing that they really add anything. I suppose the armor breaking and finishing moves were put in there to discourage players from nonstop blocking and, as you said, make the combat more offensive-oriented, but I don’t think they actually accomplish that goal. To me it still seems like you can block quite frequently and never risk being Soul Crushed. It takes a lot of hits to wear down an enemy’s Soul Gauge, and by the time you even get close to doing so the round is over. So again, I don’t see the point to any of it.

Ultimately, though, I’m complaining about such a small thing here. Whether you find these new mechanics worthwhile or not, SCIV still packs some of the finest fighting gameplay around. I’m still not entirely sold on all of the characters being equally balanced — seems to me there are a handful of fighters that are clearly dominant over all the others — but all in all the weapon-based combat offers so much more of a dramatic and cinematic experience than hand-to-hand fighters. There’s something about sword duels that just feels so satisfying.

I’m glad you brought up the character creation because it’s without question the next best feature SCIV has to offer after the online play, and actually it’s part of what makes playing online so fun. It’s not like the Tiger Woods GameFace tech where you can go in and tweak the facial mapping and all that stuff to make a character look exactly like you, but rather a creation system that lets you edit the existing characters with hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of armor, clothing and weapons. If you put enough time into it, you really can recreate almost any favorite character you have in fairly good detail. Playing online I’ve seen some sweet characters, superb recreations of Batman, Conan and Shinobi come to mind in particular. It’s also fun to browse around on forums and see what other characters players have come up with.

Zach: Well I think we’ve pretty much hit all of the main points that anyone who was still on the fence about buying this title would be concerned about. After taking a hiatus from the series after the abomination that was Soulcalibur III, Soulcalibur IV has pulled me right back in where SCII left off. While the single player portion is a bit weaker than other Soulcalibur titles, the shift in focus and added replay value of online multiplayer should be enough to make up for it. Add in the awesome character customization feature that will grow in time with the inclusion of new armor via downloadable content, and you have a fighting game that will be popular probably until the time that Namco pushes out the next version.

Zach-BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Great character customization will have you making new fighters for hours
+ Online multiplayer will keep you coming back to this title well after you’ve unlocked everything in single-player

Cons:
– Weakest single-player mode of any Soulcalibur to date
– Lag during online multiplayer can make some matches frustrating

Matt: Yep, we’ve touched on just about everything, but let me wrap things up with a quick platform comparison since I’ve been able to spend a lot of time playing on both consoles. Graphically, the PS3 and 360 versions are indistinguishable from one another. I don’t have the ability to do a side-by-side comparison, but I played one right after the other and couldn’t pinpoint any differences. Both look gorgeous and play at a smooth, speedy framerate. Load times do seem a tiny bit zippier on the 360, however, but on the PS3 you have the option to install the game to the HDD (installation is not mandatory) and that pretty much evens things up. Honestly, though, installing to the HDD only provides maybe a five-second loading boost, so if you’re strapped for storage space it’s easy to get by playing from the disc only. The PS3 version did get skimped on in a few areas, though. Both trophy and DualShock 3 support were left out completely. I can understand trophies not being included since Sony only just implemented the feature, but rumble? Come on Namco, the lack of rumble is inexcusable. The DualShock 3 was announced at last year’s TGS and dated for the North American market at the very beginning of the year, so there was plenty of time to program rumble in before launch. Hopefully there’ll be a patch to activate these features in the future…

Okay, so that about does it. Clearly, I have quite a few more bones to pick with this latest installment – sorry, it has so many little annoyances that just bug the hell out of me! — but overall I’m right there with you, Zach. Soulcalibur IV is totally worth the purchase. When I first started playing through the solo modes I was about ready to give up and move on to other games after an hour or two, but then as I eased into online competition and began tinkering with the character customization I became hooked, and I haven’t stopped playing since.

Matt-BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Superb online play makes you forget about the poor single-player modes
+ Incredibly robust character customization feature
+ Exquisite weapon-based fighting mechanics SC is known for are back and as intense as ever
+ Downright stunning graphics; great sound effects as well

Cons:
– Shallow, repetitive and completely forgettable single-player offering
– Critical Finishes and other new gameplay features seem kinda pointless
– Star Wars tie-in characters don’t fit and don’t belong in the SC universe
– PS3 version missing trophies and DualShock 3 support

Game Info:
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on both platforms)
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Project Soul
Release Date: 7/29/08
Genre: Fighting
Players: 1-2

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!