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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Soul Calibur II

Tom is a big Ivy fan

Beat 'em ups aren't really my forte, which is one reason why I won't be reviewing this one when it comes to Europe. But like just about everybody else with a pulse I was allured and then briefly transmogrified by Soul Calibur, a game structured around beauty, playability and balance - so much so, in fact, that when I spotted the sequel on the shelves of my local importer a couple of weekends past, I couldn't help myself. It did cost me £60, yes, but it was worth it.

The agony of choice

Heralded as the vanguard of a new era of beat 'em up, the first game enticed us with its breathtaking intro sequence, and its intricate yet wholly balanced play mechanics, and didn't really let go. As a result, Soul Calibur II has an enormous amount to live up to - and in certain ways it achieves this with aplomb. But before you even consider importing it - something that you'll have to do if you want to play it this side of Christmas - you should know a couple of things.

First of all, each version is slightly different. Still fantastically playable of course, but different. Everyone we know has gone for the Cube version, partly because the controls (mostly the same) map perfectly (the big A button is for regular blows, blocks can be on B and other attacks/combinations work very well on the other buttons or even the C-stick), and partly because the game's not-so-secret exclusive character is Link, who can use his boomerang, bombs and Fairy Bow attacks in addition to a crushing repertoire of Master Sword thrusts and parries.

However, like the PS2 version (which features Heihachi from Tekken exclusively), there's a touch of slowdown here and there, which is seemingly absent from the Xbox release (which, for the benefit of those who have been keeping count, features Spawn as an exclusive). Ultimately though we're not going to make a recommendation on which to buy, because we honestly haven't played them all extensively, but it's something to bear in mind. The agony of choice is entirely yours, but whichever version you pick, the game is still fantastic.

Also on the plus side, upon opening the PS2 version's Kanji-soaked manual a glossy pamphlet fell out with a Dual Shock 2 control layout, and notes on basic operation, throws, recoveries, wall defence and so on - all in English. It's always nice when a developer understands its fans, and this is one of the many ways Namco demonstrated its understanding during the course of our time with SCII.

From low to high

Quite simply though, our first impressions were a bit confused. From the content to the characters, it all seems eerily familiar. With the obvious exception of Heihachi, (whose Fists Of Fury type attacks are at odds with the general flavour of the fighting), the 15 default characters, including the likes of Ivy, Voldo, Asteroth, Raphael, Mitsurugi and Cassandra, herald few early surprises. Few, if any, are a serious branch away from what's come before, and even the new/updated characters like Todd McFarlane's Necrid creation are a bit contrived. Likewise, the inclusion of a few Arcade modes, Vs modes, survival, team, and Weapon Master options won't raise many eyebrows for those familiar with the Dreamcast original. Weapon Master, for the uninitiated, is a story and challenge-based quest to accumulate unlockables (weapons, characters, art, etc).

The visuals too, though sumptuously detailed, have that sort of uncomfortable déjà vu feel you sometimes get from sequels, which do look many times better than their predecessors, but seem to be largely the same at face value. You start to notice things that DOA3 does better, for instance (and not just Ivy's breasts), and the gameplay pulls its punches too, allowing old hands to dive in and practise their finely crafted art with gay abandon. It's not all that different. To begin with.

Where we are now though, a few hours down the line, it's starting to suck us in like a digital black hole. We fired up Soul Calibur again shortly after we got SCII, and although our initial impression of the sequel had been "that's not so different," going back to SCII it's easier to see and feel the difference throughout. For a start, there's just so much more detail (which is saying something), whether it's the fluid, inhuman movements of the Dhalsim-crushing Voldo, or the behaviour of Ivy's sword-cum-lasso, and the arenas they fight in are infinitely more detailed. You get the occasional beat 'em up pre-requisite seam-breaches like weapons tucking embarrassingly into the floor, and walls vanishing if you rotate your characters/camera towards them at certain trajectories, but these are a rarity now, and on the whole it's so much more polished, detailed and gorgeous than ever before. The lighting is a good example - go back to Soul Calibur after watching the effect of SCII's Soul Charges and you'll wonder why you were ever impressed [erm…because it was utterly delicious? - Ed].

A certain Calibur

And of course it plays like that dream you won't tell your girlfriend about. Every character has some familiar combos and a wealth of new ones, and the subtle addition of smoother animation helps you balance your attacks with greater ease. It's slightly easier now to capitalise on an enemy's attack by butting in the split-second before he or she launches it, and the Dual Shock 2 for its part lets you ease the process by mapping square/triangle/circle to a single shoulder button press, and so on.

At the moment we'd perhaps question the balance of characters like the two-sworded Cervantes, or even the too-quick-to-counter Heihachi, or the AI, which whilst challenging (and variable in about a bagillion ways via the friendly, English language in-game menus), occasionally sits there like a rabbit in the headlights and waits for you to do something, but just as ever, the game has hooked us and won't let go. With so many characters to explore and check up on (Asteroth's new look might surprise, and we're keen to give him a go next), a multitude of stages and tons of gameplay modes, we're going to be playing this for a very long time, probably at the expense of other games which deserve our attention, and we couldn't care less if it feels a bit more like an update than a sequel. But hey, such is Namco's grip on the Soul.

We'll bring you more on Soul Calibur II when we get our hands on the US versions, and of course when the game eventually materialises in Europe.

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