'Welcome, to the stage of history' says the announcer as you start up the arcade mode of Soul Calibur IV. A sure reminder that you are being welcomed back to another of Namco's long-established fighting game franchises, the Soul Calibur series.
The fourth in the series (technically the 5th) is the first to be brought to the next generation consoles and it shows. Long-established characters in the series have been given a graphical overhaul and although it takes a little to get used to at first you soon adjust to the changes and realise they are for the better. Characters look more realistic than ever (with enough pretty boys and sexy girls to satisfy both tastes) with fluid animations and movement, the backgrounds are rendered beautifully and the presentation is top-notch (which is to be expected from Namco). However, graphics alone do not a game make, so let's take a look at how will SCIV plays.
Players familiar with the system introduced in Soul Calibur 1 will feel right at home here and be able to pick up and play straight away. Those new to the series can use the tutorials in the practice mode which will teach them the basic controls (horizontal slash, vertical slash, kick and guard) as well as combos, unblockable attacks and throws. The 8-way walk make a return in SCIV where double-tapping in one of 8 directions on the d-pad/analog stick will allow your character to step in that direction around the opponent. This also opens a whole new range of attacks that characters can perform to outwit their opponent. Players can also utilise the guard impact and guard defense techniques which allow you to either deflect your opponents attack or knock them off balance to the side to gain the upper hand and get a free strike on your opponent.
Newly introduced to the franchise are the critical finishers which every character can use to deliver an instant K.O on their opponent. Although this may sound cheap the player has to meet certain conditions first to use this in battle. Firstly the player has to attack the other player to the point where their armour gauge (an icon next to the player's health) begins to flash red. From this, if the player is struck with a heavy attack (say an unblockable attack) they will lose some of their armour/clothing. After doing this, if the weakened opponent has their attack guard impacted the offensive player can then try to initiate their critical finish done by pressing P+K+G together at the right time). As you can see it is not something that can be use any time in battle and thankfully is more of a last resort when a player's back is against the wall.
Fortunately, having all of this at the player's disposal does not prohibit the flow of battle as the fights are as fast and fluid as ever. The game experiences no slowdown with a smooth framerate and seeing a fight between two experienced players is as exciting as it is beautiful to watch. There can be the occasional situation where a beginner will be able to 'button bash' their way to victory but thankfully in SCIV this has been toned down a great deal. Where as the prior games in the series were a beginner's best friend in this iteration the game will reward the seasoned player with a victory as long as they play well. Although certain characters are still overpowered (Misturugi (as ever), Astaroth, Kilik and the Star Wars characters) they can still be beaten and maybe for the first time eve Soul Calibur can be considered a worthy tournament fighter alongside the likes of Virtua Fighter and Tekken.
In addition to this the online mode allows players to take their battles online and play people of all levels of skill from around the world. The matches hold up fairly well and the game has a clever way of dealing with lag by rather than have the game skip frames during play the action will slow down ever so slightly to compensate. It doesn't inhibit the match though and it is nice to see that Namco had taken this on board when incorporating online play in SCIV (although fighting fans will surely find this unacceptable).
The character creation mode has been expanded from SC III and is more extensive than ever before. Players can either customise the existing characters or make their own warrior from the items available. It's a nice addition to the main game and probably the biggest contributor to the game's longevity. When players are bored of using the in-game characters they can have matches between each other using their own creations (Mario versus Stalin has to be seen to be believed!) and you can literally end up spending hours either tailoring an existing or created character to how you want them to look. You can also change the physical and facial features and the pitch of their voice too (no doubt fans of Shunya Miyashita will end up making certain female characters based on his illustrations then!) Add to all of this the Star Wars characters that have been included (Yoda for the X-Box 360, Darth Vader for the PS3 and Starkiller from The Force Unleashed as an unlockable character) and you have a multitude of characters at your disposal.
Positive comments aside, players may feel SCIV is a familiar path that has already been trodden before. Many still hold SC 1 or 2 as the best in the series and may see SCIV as a graphical update of the former. Experienced fighting game fans may also feel that despite the concessions made SCIV is still too beginner-friendly and does not cater to the hardcore fighting game fans like Virtua Fighter or Tekken do. Those same players may also criticise the online play due to lag interrupting the flow of gameplay compared to playing others side-by-side. The DLC offered which are very minor downloads that could just be unlock codes for content on the disc may frustrate players who feel they have paid for the game in full already.
These issues aside, SCIV is a worthy entry in the franchise that has been reasonably updated for a new generation whilst retaining enough of the old games' elements to please old and new fans alike. Plus, playing a custom made schoolgirl versus Darth Vader can not be beat! I would have to conclude that with SCIV 'the soul most certainly still burns' here.