Certain timeless ponderables permeate the human experience: Who created all this? Where do people go when they die? What would happen if the villains of the Galactic Empire and the heroes of the Rebellion squared off against a group of buxom, scantily-clad Amazon warriors and flaxen-haired knights wielding swords made of eyeballs and meat?
Much to the joy of creepy Internet fan fiction writers everywhere, Namco's SoulCalibur IV seeks to answer one of these questions. The latest of the Soul series of fighting games, SoulCalibur IV scored a licensing coup when its development house secured the rights to include Star Wars veterans Yoda and Darth Vader (as well Vader's new apprentice from the upcoming Force Unleashed).
Lucas could have picked a worse series to let muck around with his best-known properties. Namco's Project Soul team is responsible for one of the most positively received fighting series to grace modern consoles, and SoulCalibur II's guest characters set the precedent for Project Soul playing with other people's toys.
Don't worry about why these new challengers have taken leave of continuity to put in guest appearances here. Leave that for the Star Wars fanatics, and be happy that George Lucas signed off on SoulCalibur IV instead of rehashing the mediocre Star Wars: Masters of Teräs Käsi. A fighting game needs a coherent plot like a fish needs a bicycle—Project Soul's writers included something about a disturbance in the Force and a dimensional rift, but that's all quickly forgotten once the iconic lightsaber combat kicks in.
The combat itself retains the sense of fluidity common to the series. While getting the most out of the SCIV experience practically requires a Ph.D. in SoulCalinomics, most every button press results in some acrobatic feat of deadliness, so becoming a presentable contender isn't an insurmountable task. Characters previously known to be cheap and easy weapons of mass destruction have largely been brought in line with the rest of the pack, making the game more enjoyable if you've ever had to suppress the urge to strangle a button-mashing Voldo player.
Character creation, buoyed by ever-increasing console capabilities, is a new trend in fighting games. SCIV is the first fighter in recent memory to make it practically a prerequisite. You can tool around with an unchanged standard-issue roster and let the growing mass of rewards earned by your success go to waste, but that's like leaving a seven-course meal after the appetizer. Better to customize your favorite characters as you see fit (or cut your own from whole cloth), equipping them with weapons, armor, and skills designed to enhance practically every potential play style imaginable.
It's deep for a fighting game, but is it pretty? There's a cost-to-benefit ratio inherent in the graphical prowess of a game like SCIV. As consoles grow beefier in terms of processing power, graphical complexity nears—but probably will never meet—truly photorealistic visuals. After a certain point, the effort required to make technological leaps as impressive as those made between previous generations becomes unrealistic.
Long story short, SCIV's visuals won't wow anyone who played either of the previous two games. But that's OK, I promise—instead of sitting on their thumbs in the presence of all that next-generation muscle, Namco used it to tighten up the game in other areas. SoulCalibur III pushed the PlayStation 2's hardware to its limit, and the only things players got for their troubles were frame-rate drops and intolerable loading times. SCIV largely eliminates these issues, providing an experience that is only half a step beyond its predecessors visually, but a giant leap forward in other areas.
Expect a fun experience, but don't bet on a simple one. The Soul series at its peak is less a game and more an exercise in Thunderdome-style mathematics. The very best players memorize hundreds of moves, countermoves, and combinations; and like high-level chess games, competitive matches are often decided by the first few actions. Project Soul, being a game development team, carries a festering hatred of its fans beneath its seemingly innocent veneer, and the evidence of this loathing in SCIV lies in the top end of its gameplay.
Granted, what was once complex is still complex, but for the first time in nearly half a dozen games, Project Soul went and changed the rules. Character move sets have seen changes, and the addition of destroyable armor, a special move gauge, and finishing moves all tweak the match dynamics in ways that shouldn't really bother casual gamers but will inevitably trip up those aforementioned Soul series pros.
Changes like that are to be expected, though, and given the senseless updates too often seen in venerable series, a few shifts in direction that don't capsize the whole franchise are enough to warrant a sigh of relief. Given the lackluster performance of SoulCalibur III, SCIV easily could have done worse.