Image: Soulcalibur IV
Namco Bandai
The latest entrant into the "Soulcalibur" series adds "Star Wars" characters, such as Jedi Master Yoda, who uses his green lightsaber and force powers to overcome opponents.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/12/2008 9:03:11 PM ET 2008-08-13T01:03:11

Fans of “Soulcalibur,” it’s time to take up your blade, axe, hammer, and shield yet again — and the ensuing battle has never looked so beautiful. 

“Soulcalibur IV” is Namco Bandai’s fifth entrant into the series, and its first for the next-gen consoles. Utilizing the graphics potential of both the Xbox 360 and PS3, this game definitely takes the weapon-based fighting genre into the modern gaming age.

A group of heroes, villains, and those aligned somewhere in between seek to take control of one or both of the rival swords: Soul Edge and Soul Calibur. To do so, they must defeat each other in brutal combat and finally claim their prize from the cold, dead hands of the swords’ wielders. Throw in some Jedi and Sith from the “Star Wars” universe for a little extra spice and you’ve got the basic premise behind the game.

Overall, the biggest differences between “Soulcalibur IV” and the rest of the series are the substantial number of guest and bonus characters, the heavily expanded character creation and customization options, and the long awaited addition of online versus modes.

The game’s fighting system is essentially the same as the other games in the series in that you attack with horizontal, vertical, or kick attacks while you guard, parry, throw, and dodge around your opponent. Most special moves are initiated by pressing attack buttons simultaneously, but most players will start off button mashing until they find which button combinations work for each character. Plus, two new aspects have been added to the fighting system: destroyable armor and critical finishes.

As you attack, your strikes will direct either high, mid, or low. If you continuously strike an opponent in the same area, that part of their armor will eventually break away and they will take more damage from those types of strikes. The graphical representation of armor being broken off of your characters makes fights more interesting, but it also has a habit of making ludicrous outfits even more ridiculous.  Didn’t think Ivy’s outfit could be skimpier? Think again.

Critical finishes are devastating combos that will bring you instant victory regardless of what round it is or who is currently winning. But unlike destroying armor, which seems to happen normally in most fights, critical finishes are one of the most difficult moves I’ve ever tried to pull off in any fighting game I’ve played. And the criteria for pulling off these moves seem incredibly finite.

Each player has a soul gauge next to their health bar that starts off as green but will slowly become redder as they block strikes or blue as they land them. To pull off a critical finish, you must first get your opponent’s soul gauge all the way down so that it starts flashing red.  Then you must attack with a heavy attack that knocks your opponent back with a large clash and immediately press the critical finish trigger button.  Not only does your opponents gauge rarely get all the way down to red, but the timing of the move is super-hard to predict. Despite nearly 60 hours of gameplay, I’ve only been able to pull it off once.

"Soulcalibur" is a series known for having guest fighters from other games join the battle, but this game’s additions are arguably the most eyebrow-raising. Iconic characters from the "Star Wars" universe have joined the fray this time: Yoda guest stars in the Xbox 360 version, Darth Vader shows up on the PS3, and Vader’s secret apprentice from LucasArts’ upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” makes an appearance on both systems. 

I eventually got over the fact that lightsabers slice through other fighters’ weapons, and that the force user’s storylines don’t really mesh that well with the Soulcalibur or Star Wars universes. And to my surprise, the characters' fighting styles actually worked. The main difference between the Star Wars fighters and the normal "Soulcalibur" bunch is that they can unleash overwhelming force attacks that are reliant on a force energy bar that, when drained, causes the character to become momentarily stunned.

At first I found the character customization options as little more than simple amusement or fuel for endless tweaking. But it wasn’t until I decided to test out the online gameplay that I really saw character customization’s potential. 

About 90 percent of the players I fought online had fully customized their character or made one completely from scratch — it was amazing to see just how creative people could be.  Some players made near-perfect replicas of other iconic characters such as Blanka from "Street Fighter," Cloud from "Final Fantasy VII," or Solid Snake from "Metal Gear Solid." Others made ridiculous fighters like fat clowns, purple wizards, or a fighter who looked like something out of an '80s workout video. Overall, the new online multiplayer is not only fun, it also provides a great stage to show off your most impressive or terrifyingly gaudy creations.

If you’re already a fan of the series, “Soulcalibur IV” is a must-have game that definitively takes the series into the next generation. If you’ve never played a "Soulcalibur game," try renting it first and seeing if the gameplay is something you can grasp and enjoy since there is a fairly steep learning curve when playing online.

But at its core, the game is the most exciting when playing with a group of friends in the room who are taking turns dealing out good natured beat downs. And really, who doesn’t enjoy that?

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