Back in the days of the Playstation, Soul Blade was one of my all-time favourite weapon-based brawlers, I sunk too many hours into the game and they were frustrating at times but ultimately fun. Now we're in 2008 and the series is called Soul Calibur, this being the fourth instalment in the legendary tale of souls and swords, eternally told. Soul Calibur IV for the Xbox 360 kicks into high gear with dynamic highly polished visuals that are excellent and brings to the table a tonne of new fighting moves, a great character roster list and several new modes to the series.
Namco are also quick to announce that the series ties in to the Star Wars universe, and I can't help feel that they're trying to piggy-back onto that name to bring in some fans of both Yoda and Darth Vader along with the newly named Starkiller, Vader's secret apprentice from the forthcoming game: Force Unleashed. Yoda is on the Xbox 360 version of the game and Darth Vader is on the PS3, there are rumours however that there'll be downloadable content that brings Vader into the 360 and Yoda into the PS3 version of the game.
The controls for Soul Calibur IV at default are reasonable, they're customisable so you're going to be able to map various fighting moves to the different shoulder and trigger buttons to suit your control style. We were able to blast through the game using just the normal controls and pull off some stylish and devastating moves, using most of the characters. It is still a game about learning rote-style the various character moves, picking a favourite and mastering that set so you can dominate against your friends online or offline.
New to the series is the concept of the Soul Crush, a state that you enter if you block too much and your opponent rains down a series of devastating moves that leave your health bar flashing red. A few more hits and there's an impressive clash, a visual effect and if you're unlucky the CPU will pull off a Critical Finisher move that'll end the match in one. Fortunately you have access to this as well and it's mapped to the left bumper on the 360 pad.
These finisher moves are big on special effects and blast you with gorgeous visuals; they rain down destruction on your opponent and end the match in style giving you a huge boost in terms of bonus points as well. There are special powers that can be triggered with the right trigger (if they're manually activated) or kick in when certain conditions are met. Such as at the start of a match, where for a short time you're given increased statistics.
Each character has various abilities, they have different statistics and they can be levelled up via constant play. I should mention at this time that whilst Soul Calibur III had an excellent character customisation system, IV has taken this to the next level and through it you can make your own unique custom character based on any of the unlocked character's move and weapon sets. You can also customise a variant of your core character, altering powers, costume and so on. So if you want a Kilik with a new hairstyle and clothing that you may have unlocked, you can do it.
Clothing and various equipment parts have some effect to your overall stats and can change attack, damage, impact, defence and other statistics. They can also add or subtract from your various power, boost, gauge and other abilities allowing you to customise your character in an almost limitless number of combinations.
You start with a limited amount of clothing; you can buy more items and equipment with the money that you make from battles and the various game modes as well as getting items by doing the challenges in the Tower of Souls (we'll discuss that later on). Every aspect of your character can be changed physically, you can pick numerous faces, hairstyles, alter the height/weight/musculature and voice/character voice pitch until you're happy with the character you have. You can make sweeping colour changes to the character or you can colour each individual part of the clothing to create a finely honed design. It's possible to spend hours just tweaking in this part of the game, picking powers, buying new weapons and refining until you have the character you want: male or female.
There are lots of characters to unlock in the game; they can be used in the various game modes. There's the revamped story mode that gives you new battles with opponents jumping into the fray one after the other, without a chance for a second breath. You might have a secondary character join you, which you can switch to by using the right bumper at any time as long as you have enough energy to do so. There are five stages to the story mode this time around, so it's possible to complete the core story characters in a short time. You can buy secondary characters in the character creator and unlock special characters through story play, so there's a lot to do in this mode.
Then you have Arcade Mode, with the usual 2 round (or 3) timed battles that last for 8 stages. The Tower of Souls, where you must fight a through x-number of floors as you ascend the tower, pay careful note of the opening text that tells you what you might need to do to unlock the treasure chests that contain bonus clothing and armour. You'll also find as you play this mode other equipment unlocks for purchase in the character customisation system. Descending the tower means that you must fight from floor to floor without stopping and the further down you go, the greater the rewards.
There is the usual vs. mode as well as a mode that allows you to fight without weapons and special abilities/powers. There are various options to set here and you can choose the match you want to fight.
The game however falls down from being truly great since it's marred by a laggy online play experience. It can feel like you're battling through treacle on some servers and the overall enjoyment of fighting someone who you don't know online is marred by the fact that wins are often hit and miss, based purely on the server conditions and not decided on the skill of the opponent in question. Hopefully a few patches down the line this problem will become a thing of the past because purely from the excellent story mode, great unlockable weapons and items and superb Tower of Soul's challenges this game deserves a better score, it's lowered by those lag issues however.
The graphics in Soul Calibur IV are excellent, they are true next-generation style and they have a visual appeal to them. The model designs and fighting animations are wonderfully done and they lend a real sense of character to the various stalwarts of the series, like Taki and Kilik. The special effects are well done, not too over the top and they don't obscure the all-important action. The level designs and the presentation in the graphics are top notch. Along with the music and the audio this is an all round package that lives up to the task of taking Soul Calibur into the next generation platforms.