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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Soul Calibur IV (Playstation 3)

The epic stage of history is open once again for Namco-Bandai's Soul Calibur IV, which brings an impressive array of new modes, characters and features to the fray. An expanded roster of more than 30 characters is just the beginning, with new character creation and customization modes, extensive online play, downloadable and extra unlockable content. Soul Calibur IV's superb production values showcase brilliant character designs, smooth animation and epic backdrops. With plenty of secrets and surprises to uncover, this is another outstanding installment in the long-running Soul Calibur franchise that delivers the excellent gameplay you've come to expect from the series.

Even though it doesn't seem to have many revolutionary features on its surface, Soul Calibur IV is probably the deepest and most robust series on the console to date. With it's deep set of 30 returning, new and hidden characters, there's plenty of fighting styles to master, and since each character can now be customized, there's almost no end to the number of options available to hardcore players. All of these additions come without sacrificing the balance, accessibility and entertainment value that this mainstream fighting series has sought to provide since its beginnings as Soul Blade more than a decade ago. As you begin, only around half the characters are available, but more can be unlocked by playing through various story and arcade modes, and either unlocking them outright or purchasing them using any acquired points you accumulate. Most players should be able to unlock most of the regular characters quickly, though there are a few such as Darth Vader and his Apprentice that require a bit of skill to defeat. Players will find an array of returning favorites such as Sophitia, Mitsurigi, Voldo, Taki, Cassandra, Ivy and Yoshimistu along with new foes plus several guest characters from the Star Wars universe. These newcomers from LucasArts feel a little bit out of place in the Soul Calibur universe, but that doesn't mean they aren't fun to play. Who hasn't dreamed of swinging a light-saber in combat, anyway. It's a bit of a stretch, but their inclusion feels somewhat less disconnected the more you play them. The Star Wars characters, aside SCIV still has most of the familiar style and approach you expect from the series. This broad selection of characters is surprisingly well balanced and you should find a relatively evenly matched fight with each battle. Controlling each character is relatively easy with the standard PS3 controller, with movement using either the analog stick or d-pad allowing for an easy to play experience. Adding intuitive button mapping and convenient placement allows you to get right into the action with little effort. This makes for a highly enjoyable game, and one that veterans of the previous games should have little trouble playing. Its accessible controls and simplified weapons-based combat makes for an immediately appealing title that doesn't require extensive knowledge of previous titles to enjoy.

Most of the previous titles' conventions return here including the standard 8-way running mode, special charge attacks, counters, combos and finishing moves making for a very familiar feeling game. The basics of SCIV's weapons-based combat haven't changed that much, which is slightly disappointing on one level, but still lends this edition a comfortable feel. One thing that has carried through are the ring outs, which are annoying and mark a quick, unsatisfying end for too many matches. However, these aren't really much of an issue once you build up your character traits and learn to block attacks and power moves. Your opponents can range from very aggressive to almost docile depending on the difficulty setting, though those players looking for a challenge will probably want to play at the higher levels. Still, as stated earlier, the game is well-balanced and most lost battles are usually the result of your mistakes, not cheap moves on the part of your opponents. While novice players might be able to get away with some button mashing in the easier stages, truly mastering SCIV requires players to learn and deploy a much deeper skill set, learn the timing and styles of each opposing fighter if they want to see all that SCIV has to offer.

Previous installments offered plenty of extra features and Soul Calibur IV is no exception. This installment offers many of the standard modes players have come to expect plus a whole lot more. There's a training mode where you can practice your moves, and improve on your weaknesses. Soul Calibur IV's traditional arcade mode allows you to battle against a series of foes but this new version now allows you to check your scores against opponents in ranking charts by connecting online. SCIV's typically elaborate story mode is impressive, as each challenge delves into each character's background and story. Playing through the story mode also allows you to earn gold and points which you can use to purchase additional characters, weapons and items on the customization mode. This is another way of keeping players motivated and adds a sense of purpose to the game, where you're not merely going through endless battles without an objective. This mode can be quite addictive and challenging, and the AI of the opponents seems to get harder as you reach the final boss battles at the end of each character's plot.

Soul Calibur's superb gameplay would be enough if the features stopped there, but the game also provides a number of extra in its museum mode including art galleries, character connection charts, cinematic sequences and much more that players can unlock. One of the main ways to do this is by earning honors, which are basically achievements for performing specific tasks or attacks during the various game modes. This adds more depth to the fighting, and gives players reason to replay the game. Soul Calibur 4's single player mode is engaging enough, but the game offers an extensive versus mode where you can compete against another player either online or with another controller hooked-up. There are two types of versus modes, Special where your customized weapons and items can be used to great effect, and Standard, where both players battle with the regulation characters. These versus modes are complimented by several other areas of the game that provide plenty of depth. The most important of these new elements is the character creation mode, which allows you to design your own unique fighter and use them in various modes. You have a great deal of flexibility in terms of the characters' look and can change their hairstyles, outfits, clothing and shoes, along with facial features, skin tone and many more aesthetic options. However, the customization is more than skin deep, since you can choose your characters' fighting style, weapons and special moves list. There are many items available from the basic customization screen, but players can also earn and purchase additional items. This is a remarkably flexible system that's easy to navigate and use, making it easy to create and edit your characters. SCIV provides enough memory for about 50 customizable characters, which should be plenty for most players.

In addition to the standard battles and arcade modes, Soul Calibur IV introduces a new mode called Tower of Lost Souls, where you can battle hordes of enemies in a brutally challenging survival mode. Choosing either 1, 2 or even 3 characters per round, players are pitted against several other characters, each of which is quite powerful. Making things even more challenging is the fact that your characters have a single life bar that is very difficult to replenish. You can switch characters during rounds and the off-screen ones slowly regain their energy, but you have to battle strategically in order to move on to the next stage. There are two basic types of tower mode, Ascending where you have to beat each level of the tower to claim it, along with bonus character and extra unlockables. If you choose to go down in descending mode, it becomes a pure test of endurance to see how many characters you can defeat on a single life-bar. Towers of Hidden Souls requires players to enter it with a fully customized and tweaked character. Otherwise, the standard fighters won't last long against the brutal assaults that await. This mode is easily the most challenging, and also most satisfying in the game, and truly serves as a test of your skill and endurance, making it an excellent addition to the Soul Calibur universe.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Soul Calibur IV delivers an excellent looking experience, with cinematic production values, beautifully rendered backgrounds and an impressive epic score. As each round begins, the series' bombastic announcer reveals each character and sets up the drama surrounding each battle. This is complimented by an epic score, with the typically lush Soul Calibur soundtrack. The stages range from castles, tranquil fields and rivers to more ominous stages filled with raging fires and lava. The game's lighting effects and character renders bring a heightened sense of realism to the action, with decent voice acting and the sounds of clashing swords adding to the overall experience. Soul Calibur 4's overall production is slick and polished, effectively bringing the series to HD consoles in dazzling form. While the latest edition in the long-running fighting series doesn't really change the basic gameplay mechanics, it builds on previous installments with its extensive player customization abilities, several challenging new modes and newly implemented online play. Soul Calibur IV features the intuitive controls, deep moves lists and arsenal of weapons you've come to expect. There are loads of new modes and featues that give the game plenty of depth while maintaining an excellent sense of balance and solid play mechanics. Its accessible gameplay, multiple modes of play, appealing cast of characters and new internet play make this a solid upgrade for the long-running series and another solid fighting game that should please fans of the franchise and newcomers alike.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: B+

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