I might as well get this out in the open from the start. Soul Calibur IV is stressing Xbox 360 in ways Namco-Bandai has been unable or unwilling to match on the equivalent PlayStation 3 code. For one thing, the game is running internally with a whopping great 40 per cent resolution increase on the Microsoft console, with a native framebuffer of 1365x960 versus the standard 1280x720 on the PlayStation 3. The Xbox 360 version also has an extra layer of lighting effects completely absent on the PS3 game - though the effect is rather subtle. They only manifest in the form of a touch of bloom and a good old-fashioned lens flare mostly apparent on the pre-fight animations.
So the Xbox 360 version is tangibly superior, right? Wrong. Well, it's not as superior as it could've been, that's for sure. Right after rendering Xbox's higher resolution image, Namco's coders then scale it back down again to 720p! Neither version has any anti-aliasing effects but the idea in using the Xbox 360's higher resolution is to downscale the larger image in order to smooth off edges and reduce 'jagginess'. In theory, this should produce a smoother-looking game for Xbox 360 owners - but as you can see from the video, you have to wonder if the effort was really worth it.
It strikes me as a real shame that the 720p downscale has been included at all in the 360 code, when that extra resolution could have been used for all manner of better things - for example, an improved image at 1080p, better picture quality on 1360x768 LCDs and plasmas or a cracking picture on the forthcoming 1440x900 mode coming to the next dash update. Instead, all that effort seems to have been pretty much wasted.
On the plus side, we do effectively have 'platform parity' on what is a very decent beat-'em-up. Gamers need have nothing to fear in terms of gameplay - SoulCalibur IV is indeed identical on both platforms. Performance online is also like-for-like, so no worries there.
For its part, the PS3 game offers an optional installation to hard disk - weighing in at 2.6GB and taking a not-inconsiderable 14 minutes to complete. A 20 second 'Tower of Lost Souls' load drops down to a mere five seconds, up against the same data taking 10 seconds to stream in from the DVD drive on the Xbox 360 game. In basic one-one-one versus matches, the 360 game is a match for the HDD-installed PS3 version.
Of course, the real headline difference is the Star Wars feature. Xbox 360 gets Yoda as a playable character while PS3 owners enjoy the saber skills of Darth Vader instead. The Dark Lord of the Sith gets preference in my book; I particularly like the way Namco-Bandai has included the exact throw Vader used to toss the Emperor into oblivion at the end of Return of the Jedi. Despite Namco's denials it's only a matter of time before both fighters are unlocked for both games - the leaked videos and vacant slot on the character selection screen are dead giveaways.
Overall, my main issues with SoulCalibur IV are the same as when I first reviewed it. They have more to do with the concept than the admittedly slick execution, which is great on both consoles. The fact that I was able to effortlessly match up the gameplay in producing the videos just goes to show how rigid and pre-baked the game's animation and physics are, and in that sense it feels as though nothing tangible has really changed since the franchise launched on the original PlayStation. Fighting games need to move on to the next level, and despite its lovely visuals and superb character creator, SoulCalibur IV still feels like a throwback in terms of gameplay.