Thursday, March 8, 2012

Soul Calibur II Review

By definition, one cannot improve upon perfection. So, considering that 1999's Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast is widely considered to be a flawless fighting game, maybe that explains why Namco didn't take many risks with the sequel, which has finally hit the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. If you played and enjoyed the original Soul Calibur, chances are good that you'll also enjoy the sequel since it's so much like the first game. That also means Soul Calibur II won't impress you as much as its predecessor, since you've seen most of these characters, their weapons, and their moves before, and the available gameplay modes are nothing out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, on its own terms, Soul Calibur II is by all means a great fighting game, and Namco has done a fine job of making each respective console version equally enticing.

For the majority of players, the most significant difference between Soul Calibur II and its predecessor will be cosmetic, though the visuals haven't been overhauled completely. The returning characters all look different and the stages are all new, but many of the animations (even for some of the new characters) are recycled from the previous game, as is the flow and feel of a typical match. As before, gameplay involves four buttons, corresponding to your character's horizontal slash, vertical slash, kick, and guard. Using various combinations of these and the directional pad, you can make your characters unleash dozens of different moves. A number of the characters even have alternate fighting stances, which they can readily switch between to vary up their attacks.

There's a two-tiered rock-paper-scissors system here that's more or less identical to the system that worked so well in Soul Calibur: Low attacks hit high-blocking opponents, mid attacks hit low-blocking opponents, and high attacks tend to beat out mid attacks. Additionally, vertical slashes tend to have priority over horizontal slashes but can be dodged laterally, while horizontal slashes can counter an opponent who's sidestepping too often. Add in guard impact moves, which all characters can use to deflect their foes' attacks, and soul charge moves, which all characters can use to power up their attacks, and you've got a deep, tried-and-true combat system. The gameplay has been tweaked since Soul Calibur, to account for some of the issues that highly experienced players of the previous game picked up on. However, most players won't really notice the different properties of crouching or of lateral movement or things like that. Of further note, the game controls well using the default PS2, Xbox, and GameCube controllers. The PS2 controller is best suited, and the GameCube's directional pad is a little small, but all of these are responsive and more than serviceable with the game.

All of the Soul Calibur cast returns either in form or in spirit. From the samurai Mitsurugi to the undead pirate Cervantes, from the nunchaku-wielding Maxi to the female ninja Taki, from the bizarre Voldo to the aptly named Nightmare, most all the old favorites are intact, each with a smattering of new moves. Some have changed more than others, but for the most part, tactics and combos that worked well in Soul Calibur still work well here. There are a number of new characters in the game, though aside from the exclusive character in each console version of the game, only two characters are completely new: Raphael, a fencer whose feints and ripostes suitably capture the elegance and effectiveness of this fighting style, and Talim, a young girl whose speed and expertise with her twin blades make up for her small stature.

The special-guest characters in each version of the game are well done in their own right and are about as fully realized as the rest of the cast. The PlayStation 2 version gets the Tekken series' grizzled old karate master, Heihachi Mishima. The Xbox version gets Spawn, Todd McFarlane's muscle-bound comic book antihero. And the GameCube version gets none other than Link from The Legend of Zelda. These characters have been heavily promoted and talked about, and though none of them fits in very well with the rest of Soul Calibur II's characters, they each look good, are competitive, and have their own unique fighting styles. Heihachi has all the ferocious kicks and punches that make him a powerhouse in Tekken and looks better than ever before. Spawn has a limited ability to fly and can inflict massive damage with his ax. And Link's got all his classic moves and all his classic weapons, including the boomerang, the bow, and the bombs.

Another character is new to the home versions of Soul Calibur II and is not in the arcade original: Necrid, a Todd McFarlane creation specifically designed for this game. Necrid is surprisingly fast and powerful and fights with a ghostly weapon that mimics the other fighters' techniques. But this hunched-over, bloated action figure of a fighting game character seems like he was ripped out of some other game and thrown in here. Surely, it's great to have as many characters as possible in a fighting game. But there's also something to be said for having a cohesive look and style across all the characters. Each fighter in Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast, though remarkably different, at least looked like he or she belonged in the same game as all the other fighters in the lineup.

At any rate, the exclusive characters represent the biggest difference between the three console versions of Soul Calibur II, and if you're trying to decide on which version to get, you should probably go for the one with the character you'd most like to play as or against. Or if you have a home theater system and an Xbox, then the Xbox version is the way to go, since it features 720p HDTV support and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The other two versions are no slouches either, though, and natively support surround sound and widescreen progressive scan displays.

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