Version tested: Xbox 360
Relax, breathe easy. All is well within the Namco fighting game universe. Soulcalibur IV boots up predictably with the usual CG intro loveliness, staggeringly good HD graphics, the full-fat 60FPS gameplay experience and a satisfyingly vast selection of single-player modes in addition to versus and online action. It's everything a die-hard Namco fan would want from the franchise's transition to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 - and it's this which is the game's greatest strength and biggest weakness.
To get the bad news out of the way first, Namco has done little to refresh or redefine a genre enduring a terminal decline in popularity. Undoubtedly, Soulcalibur IV is very good and has at least one genuinely brilliant new feature. But in terms of the basic fighting gameplay barely anything has changed since the series' last- gen console outings. The formula that has stood Namco in such good stead has been tweaked yet again, but there has been only gradual evolution since the arcade debut of Soul Edge more than 12 years ago.
Despite the use of the ubiquitous Havoc physics engine, the characters look and move exactly as you would expect. The animations are as pre-baked as they always have been, the input method and control scheme remain identical, and aside from a couple of basic, unremarkable moments, interactions with the backgrounds are extremely limited.
You can't help but feel Namco has missed a real opportunity to re-invigorate the gameplay using the massively superior technology that PS3 and Xbox 360 feature. But equally, with fighting game releases being so rare these days, it's a joy to find that Soulcalibur IV is so beautiful, so right, in so many respects.
Historically, Namco has been skilled in spinning the basic arcade mode into a variety of intriguing single-player options. There's the story mode - essentially a beginner's guide to the world of Soulcalibur, giving even the greenest warriors the chance to beat some opponents and earn collectable weaponry. Then there's the Tower of Lost Souls. Ascending the mighty structure sees you taking on increasingly tough battles against characters kitted out with a vast array of different weapons, equipment and special skills. You decrypt mysterious hints and adjust your fighting strategy to unlock clothing and accessory bonuses. Descending the tower promises more of the same, this time with more of a survival mode edge.
What quickly becomes obvious is the basic fighting roster won't cut it against the challenge being laid down. You realise that while the basic gameplay hasn't really evolved significantly, the surrounding trimmings have definitely been improved. Soulcalibur IV features a character creation mode that is - quite simply - one of the most advanced yet seen this generation.
You can take an existing character and adjust their weapons, clothing and trinkets, or you can create an entirely new fighter completely from scratch. While the basic fighting moves on offer can't be adjusted (your creation still needs to have their move-list derived from one of the existing characters), different weapons and clothing adjust your stats in different ways. In turn, those stats give you access to a range of different abilities and techniques - the power to stave off ring-outs, restore hit points, or even turn invisible, for example.
In short, what could've just been a function for creating an individual avatar in a similar way to Virtua Fighter 5 is so much more. Online and superior AV aside, it's the only thing that really elevates this over the previous Soulcalibur titles. The Tower of Lost Souls essentially forces you to create a range of different characters, each suited to a particular type of challenge. The fact that you can then take these characters online, tweaking them further if necessary, is a further bonus.
Online, there's little more on offer than basic versus gameplay - a bit of a disappointment bearing in mind the creativity surrounding the single-player options. There's the usual array of player and ranked matches, along with the ability to take both basic and customised characters into the fray. This is a smart move from Namco as it allows newcomers to give online a go without the fear of begin annihilated by a tailor-made Soul Calibur-wielding maniac, complete with ridiculous stats and special abilities.
A pre-launch patch includes a ping meter with latency between players measured on a scale of 1-5. A three-bar ping produces a gameplay experience with variable lag, while four to five bar connections are generally excellent - pretty much approaching Virtua Fighter 5 Xbox Live performance.
So long as you choose your opponents carefully and bear latency in mind, online works. Considering how much the game relies on the brilliant character customisation mode to extend its lifespan, that's a major win. However, the online game doesn't take on a life of its own in the same way as titles like Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3 - it still feels tagged onto the single-player game, with nothing in the way of online-only bonus weaponry or equipment that I could find. Basic options like a rematch feature are also absent, with the game dumping you back to the lobby post-bout.
Having managed to get this far without mentioning the Star Wars connection, it's probably about time. The 360 code I played gets Yoda as the bonus playable fighter, accessible from the select screen immediately and the key to unlocking the mysterious Apprentice character. While Yoda himself is a fully formed Soulcalibur fighter (albeit limited in customisation potential, like the bosses) his appearance in the game is hardly its highpoint.
His diminutive stature makes him impossible to throw (expect to see him crop up regularly online then) and his moves bear only a passing relation to the insane duelling abilities seen in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The PS3 game, which I've yet to play, features Darth Vader instead, but leaked videos and shots suggest that both fighters will be available on both platforms in the fullness of time.
As an overall package then, Soulcalibur IV does plenty to keep everyone happy. Just like all the best one-on-one fighting games, there is a hugely complex and technical gameplay experience to be had if you delve deep enough. However, Namco has wisely made the single-player mode accessible enough for unskilled button-bashers to enjoy; the Story option is almost stupefyingly easy to complete at its default difficulty setting. It does enough to leave you hungry for more, so hopefully newcomers will check out the training modes and moves lists before moving on to the tougher Tower of Lost Souls challenges.
But for all the game's technical excellence, sumptuous graphics and epic soundtrack, Soulcalibur IV also serves to remind us just how bereft of basic innovation the one-on-one fight genre has become. Were it not for the customisation and online options, this would essentially be an HD rendition of previous games. As it is, Soulcalibur IV's new features and its ability to entertain both newcomers and fighting game experts make it a good buy - if not the revolutionary leap to the next level you might've hoped for.
8 / 10