Soul Calibur II Review

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Publisher: Namco Hometek Inc.
Developer: Namco Ltd.

Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

In 1995, a game called Soul Edge hijacked the young 3D fighting genre, exploring weapons use in what was then a totally novel approach to the fighting system. By the time the sequel, Soul Calibur, was created for the Dreamcast, it had the chance to evolve from a quirky fighting game with weapons into arguably the greatest 3D fighting game of all time. It's a new millennium, and Namco has unveiled their latest contender for that title – it's as ambitious as ever.

Carrie Gouskos

There are two types of people: those who have played Soul Calibur, and those who haven't.

If you're in the first category, there's a good chance you already have Soul Calibur II. Sitting there in your house, grinding through Weapon Master mode, you can easily recall when Soul Calibur came out on the Dreamcast and proved exactly how good a fighting game could be. Looking at the new characters, graphics, the never-ending supply of game modes and unlockable content, it's easy to see that Soul Calibur II is no less brilliant than its predecessor. Why, then, do you feel a little different about this one? Why does it seem like it won't receive the same unbelievable acclaim? Why won't people hail it as one of the greatest fighting games of all time? Why? Simply because it wasn't first.

It's unfair and unfortunate that timing plays such a part in how a game's worth is perceived. But if you've played Soul Calibur before, there's no chance of duplicating the feeling of discovery and novelty when you first tried the series. Namco intelligently kept changes to the game minor, especially considering that only a small fraction of console owners previously had a Dreamcast. But this is a disappointment to long time fans who are expecting some major changes in a sequel released years after the original. Once you've come to terms with the scarcity of changes, you can sit back and enjoy, as the game is practically flawless. It's the same game you know and love – prettier, bigger, and ultimately better.

For those of you in the latter category, those who have never played Soul Calibur, get ready to play the best 3D fighting game there is.

Different Styles of Play

Unlike the combat system and the characters, the mode options of Soul Calibur II aren't going to be the big selling point, but there are many ways to play. There are the standard Arcade, Versus, Time Attack, Battle, Survival, and Practice modes with variations to account for multiplayer, but nothing (at least under that little "Original" heading) that is going to make the game stand apart from other fighting games. Head down a notch and you'll see "Extra" which should be relatively empty at the onset. After many hours of practice and a few icepacks, you'll receive unlocked content in that section entitled "Extra ______" where _______ is filled by those Original modes. The only difference is that now you can pick any weapon that you have unlocked for your character. The Soul Calibur elite will find this particularly handy because only they know the intricacies of the different weapons and can feel the impact of weapon changes on gameplay that might seem to a novice like a +/- 0.006 second difference in timing.

Weapon Master mode will consume the majority of your single player Soul Calibur II experience. Veiled behind a razor thin storyline that is more tedious to bypass than it is interesting to read is an intricate mission mode where you gather experience points and gold. The latter is used to unlock weapons, outfits and other features. Unlike the Original modes, Weapon Master mode sometimes requires more from you than just winning a match. The objective can be as simple as taking on three enemies in a row or as complicated as having to kill the enemy by performing only guard impact moves. Progressing through weapon master mode, your goals are mixed and matched until at the end you're fighting five people under a strict time limit while your health drains away. Fortunately, Namco did a great job of balancing the mode so that the objectives start off easy and get progressively harder. Some other interesting variations include different ring surfaces like ice or waist-high mud, wind gusts that force the fighters off the edge of the arena, and an opponent that consists of (and therefore you can only attack) a pair of legs. Overall, the mode is just a creative way of getting you to fight a whole helluva lot, but the features vary enough to truly make it interesting, just not enough to make it a completely different game experience.

The Warriors Themselves

The characters from the previous installments (and that's pluralized to include the early 90s game Soul Blade/Edge) are carbon copies of their former selves. Main man Mitsurugi is an ace with the katana and the amazingly nimble ninja Taki is ferocious and fast with her blades. Ivy's snake sword is still one of the coolest weapons ever (unless you're her opponent and on the last dregs of your health meter) and Voldo is still a fantastic mixture of unpredictability and grace. Most of the new characters fit perfectly into the Soul Calibur scheme. Although it seemed like there was no room to create different, balanced characters, Raphael and Talim find those gaps and fill them well. Raphael is an agile, strong and lanky fencer. Talim is the tiniest character in the game and always seems to wriggle her way out of being hit while still being quite deadly with her elbow blades. Other new characters don't offer much – Cassandra is too similar to her sister Sophitia and Charade is the all-too-typical everybody-in-one character.

If you've been following Soul Calibur II's release, you've likely heard of the guest characters in Soul Calibur II that vary among the three game systems. It's a simple idea that emphasizes the different markets for the three consoles and perhaps even convinces a few (very devout) people to buy multiple copies of the game. There is a different, unique character for each of the three consoles. The PlayStation 2 version gets Heihachi, the notorious father figure from Tekken, who joins Yoshimitsu as a shared character between the two series. The GameCube version gets the adult version of Link from the Legend of Zelda series, and as the first step in a Namco-Todd McFarlane relationship, Xbox owners will see the character Spawn. McFarlane also created Necrid, a character that appears on all three consoles.

Although this was reviewed on the PlayStation 2, we made sure to get a chance to play each of the version's unique characters in order to check out the differences. At first, Heihachi seems a strange choice for Soul Calibur II – he's a man who brings his fists to a weapon fight. What's interesting and simultaneously distracting about Heihachi's style is that it feels very much like Tekken not Soul Calibur. So while you'll be able to convince your friends who are Tekken fans to play, Heihachi feels a bit out of place.

Link on the GameCube version seems at first glance to be a very powerful character. He has the ability to throw his boomerang, toss bombs, or shoot arrows as well as a more standard move set with the Master Sword. However, it soon becomes apparent that projectiles are not well suited to Soul Calibur II. It's very easy to duck, sidestep, or avoid the thrown items and using them leaves Link in a vulnerable position for too long. Aside from the impracticality of his projectiles, Link's bag of tricks is very similar to that seen in Zelda and he works fairly well as a character in this game.

In the Xbox corner, Spawn takes the prize for being the most powerful (isn't that what special characters should be?) of the three. He fits more with the Soul Calibur style than the other two characters and is a lethal combination of fast and strong. The mixture of those two makes it almost unfair to use Spawn, but as long as we get to play him, we're not complaining. In fact, he's so much fun to use that it makes us eager to see how the Spawn game is developing.

Deep Combat Like No Other

Enough talk about character choices! At the heart of Soul Calibur II is the phenomenal combat system that remains essentially the same on all three systems. This starts with the movement system in the game which Namco has coined the "8-Way Run." Players can move in nearly any direction, which allows the freedom to escape from dangerous moves that was never possible in 2D fighting games. Add to this the ability to crouch and jump, which can be used in conjunction with attacks and blocks to target specific areas. Overuse one of these movement techniques and the opponent can pounce. The full range of movement ensures that something exists to counter any one stance. It's the need to rotate between movement styles and attacks that makes Soul Calibur II such a deep and fulfilling game.

The fighting system itself is as intricate as it could possibly be. The impact of different moves depends on more than just the two characters making contact. Factors include what the opponent is currently doing, the orientation of the two characters, and how charged up the attacking character is. Again, players must develop a system of counteractive playing, capitalizing on the weaknesses in the moves their opponent makes, as every action in Soul Calibur II has a few equal and opposite reactions. For example, if your opponent attacks with a vertical strike, you can sidestep to avoid the blow, but if you try to sidestep a horizontal strike, you'll likely fail to get out of range. Throws are high-damage maneuvers but have many ways of being countered or avoided, such as ducking, sidestepping, or hitting the successful counter button (depending on the button used in the throw). Using knowledge of an opponent's moves to one's advantage has never been better implemented in a fighting game. Most other moves can be deflected by guarding, and (if your timing is right) achieving a Guard Impact, which knocks the opponent off balance and lets you capitalize on their weakness as they recover. In order to plan your defense, you must try to guess your opponent's next move based on a combination of their fighting patterns, previous moves, physical cues (called telegraphing), and luck.

Important to the fighting style of Soul Calibur is juggling. Juggling consists of a player's ability to get their enemy up in the air (usually with a launching move) and then hit them multiple times in the air while they are defenseless. Although successive juggling moves do less damage, mastery of juggling is what makes a Soul Calibur master truly stand apart. Control of the air game also helps players achieve a Ring Out, in which the opponent is thrown/kicked/whatever out of the arena (if possible) and brings about an automatic victory. Ring Out moves would be extremely "cheap" if they weren't so tricky to pull off.

A Refinement of the Original

Graphically, Soul Calibur II doesn't falter in the slightest. Everything (and I mean everything) on the characters that should move, moves, from hair and clothes to everything else that isn't securely fastened. The environments are beautiful and the animations are (albeit familiar) cohesive and responsive to the controls. The cinematics, although ripe with that unfortunate story mentioned above, are top notch and worth watching for the visuals alone. Very rarely is there the slightest slowdown or collision problem. It took many hours of gameplay to reveal such rare glitches, which are soon forgotten because nearly everything else in the game is flawless.

Although Soul Calibur II is a rare beast among fighting games, it doesn't escape some of the weirdnesses of the genre. Sometimes upon engaging enemy AI, it seems like they are barely trying and can be beaten with almost no strategy whatsoever, while other times it's like the opponent is just toying with you, and you can barely get a move off to save yourself from being Perfect-ed (the utter humiliation of a fighting game player in which you are defeated without injuring your foe).

In the end there's no denying it: Soul Calibur II is a truly great game, and it stakes its claim as such (although more so) for new players as well as longtime fans of the series. Its biggest drawback is that it made no huge changes from the first game, but its easy to argue that no major changes were required. All Namco needed was a fighting game that was exactly like Soul Calibur but more, and that's what Soul Calibur II achieves.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on June 2, 2003 5:03 PM.

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