The fighting game formula really hasn't changed much over the last few years. Two fighters square up in a basic arena and once encouraged to do so, pummel the hell out of each other until a horizontal health bar has completely changed from green to red. Once this has happened, the corresponding combatant is KO'ed. Oh, and it's the best of three rounds. The recent innovations to the somewhat stale genre have included "3-dimensional arenas" (which basically means that you can walk around a bit and knock people off the edges of the elevated ones), "moving in and out of the screen" (tapping the up button no longer produces a somewhat pathetic hop, but helps the character dodge an attacker) and "real attacks" (in other words, you don't have the option of throwing fireballs or turning into some sort of enormous penguin to conduct an overly elaborate death move). Soul Calibur includes all of these plus the usual beat-em-up hallmarks, such as "secret characters" (win the single player mode and you'll either get a new character to play with or a new mission for the Mission mode) and the "stupidly unrealistic plot" (an excuse for the violence. You may remember that Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat both did this quite well, inspiring a good Manga adaptation and a good movie respectively). The game also owes a lot of its traits to specific beat-em-ups. While I'm rounding up the usual features, lets give credit where credit's due.
So What's It Got?
Something you'll notice is that with the exception of the very latter aspect, everything mentioned above is something fairly positive. Soul Calibur amalgamates a plethora of the best aspects of beat-em-ups over the last 10 years. It does more than just that, too.
So What's New?
While Soul Calibur makes a killing (pun intended) off of the best things that have been done with the genre over the last few years, it also brings a load of interesting new aspects to the table. The Mission Battle mode, for example. At first I had fleeting visions of popping across the globe Street Fighter 2-style when I looked down and saw a map. It's much better than this, though, as although your character does progress around the map, it's more like an RPG, your character accepting challenges wherever he finds them and beating off all comers. It's surprisingly endearing. Unlike a lot of its competitors, it really does take advantage of polygon graphics in the best possible sense. Graphically the game is outstanding, with intricately detailed characters (the facial expressions are unbelievable), equally detailed arenas (look out for rats running around in Voldo's lair!) and none of the intrinsic clipping problems console games expect to encounter. Most importantly, when you think you've hit someone with a punch, you will have; the collision detection is definitely the best I've seen. The series' most defining feature is that it is based around close-proximity sword-based combat. Each fighter has a weapon of choice, usually some sort of sword, big or small, and as such the gameplay often becomes a question of blocking and counter-attacking at the right times. This makes for a much more strategic fight and the battles aren't just decided by who can mash the buttons best.
Every Little Thing She Does is Magic…
Increasingly, as you play Soul Calibur, it's the little things that do the most to impress you. Survival mode for example. How long can you hold out without losing? Things that you always thought were too simple to warrant inclusion often pop up herein and lend themselves well the formula. Multiplayer tournaments are common place around here now, with Soul Calibur the game of choice (although Virtua Striker 2000.1 will doubtless give it a run for its money), as the game is very easy to get into with the special move combinations accessible via a menu brought up by the pause button, and even more fun when you think you've mastered it and find out that your best friend has turned into a veritable opponent overnight.
Well, not quite. There are some small set-backs to the fun. While the various arenas that you contest your might in are aesthetically diverse, with proper 3d backgrounds (actually it's an elaborate trick, but I bought into it and it's effective enough), in terms of the actual battles, they have no real layout differences at all. I would just love to have seen a battle on a hill, with the highest point giving a direct advantage; perhaps a snow-capped mountain peak where the players can't move as freely… there is so much scope for change and yet I haven't seen one beat-em-up where this sort of thing has been considered, let alone included. The sounds don't inspire too much passion in me either. The music is tyrannical in places and very fitting; I like it very much; but when you land heavy blows, the satisfying audio thuds encountered in games like Ready 2 Rumble are strangely absent. Soul Calibur's alternatives seem a tad wimpy.
In spite of these little niggles, Soul Calibur really is superbly executed and probably the best beat-em-up I've ever played, trouncing all of its competition on the home systems without flinching. Combining gorgeous graphics, multiple modes of play and a very strategic outlook on an otherwise motionless genre, Soul Calibur brings together the best of the rest and adds to the formula.
What The Scores Mean
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