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.