SoulCalibur is still the best sword-on-sword fighting series around, and with SoulCalibur IV the core gameplay is better than ever. If you're as much of a fan as I am, that's more than enough to carry you over the disappointing lack of trimmings.
SoulCalibur IV is actually the fifth game in the series, the first being 1996's Soul Edge. Despite twelve years, five iterations and one disappointing spin-off, very little about the series has changed.
The premise is simple. You take one of a number of fighters loosely themed on 18th century history and proceed to use their distinctive weapon-fu to beat the tar out of all comers. With a winning concept like that you don't really need a plot, but for those who care it's all about one of those ancient clashes of archetypal forces you hear so much about these days. There's these two swords, see, and one's horribly evil, and one's not quite so evil, and...
Actually, if you want to know more than that you're out of luck, as the SoulCalibur narrative is completely missing from SC4's Arcade Mode and is given only the most rudimentary service in the horribly missnamed Story Mode. Context is overrated anyway - the important thing is weapon-fu, which I swear is absolutely a real phrase and not in any way made up.
Pretty much every series favourite returns; they're joined by SC3 bonus character Amy (now appparently balanced) and lance-wielding newcomer Hilde. Also, you get a handful of Star Wars guest characters, consisting of The Force Unleashed's "The Apprentice", and Yoda on the XBox 360 and Darth Vader on the PS3.
Gameplay-wise, the big changes are about penalising blocking. Each character now has a Soul Meter; blocking reduces your Soul Meter while successfully landing hits charges it. If your Soul Meter is fully depleted, you enter a threatened state in which your opponent has the opportunity to perform a "Soul Crush", which will destroy an area of your character's armour. In addition, Soul Crushes can be followed up by Critical Finishes, which are essentially one hit kills.
That's great and all, but unless you're some kind of guard-spamming coward it's a part of the game that's never going to worry you. And once you carefully put all of that Soul Crush nonsense into a cupboard and forget about it you can get right down to enjoying the fact that SC4 is otherwise exactly the same as whichever of the previous SoulCaliburs you loved the most.
The game's at its best when you're playing against other people. It works just like it always has if you've got a bunch of friends in your living room, but you can also go online for ranked or friendly battles. Sadly, the matchmaking is rubbish and likes to try and make friends by giving each player an extra-large helping of lag. And it just wouldn't be online gaming without a large selection of ass-clowns, who in this instance take a special delight in dropping out of matches if your play history is anything other than a perfect streak of losses. Don't get me wrong - online play can be fun, but you should definitely put on your Frustration Pants and Tard-Resistant Hat before signing in for a ranked match.
So in short the versus play is good. By which I mean that it's awesome, because I'm a total SoulCalibur fanboy and I want to have its babies. True story. But even while slavering at the mouth I have to admit that the single-player game is a mite lackluster.
In my mind, I picture the people responsible for developing the single-player component as 14 year-old boys who were too busy doing backstroke in giant tubs of money to get around to any actual game design.
Straight up, there's no option to set the difficulty. Story Mode is ridiculously unchallenging for even novice players, while Arcade is initially frustrating but quickly becomes old hat. I should say, too, that most of the difficulty in Arcade comes from a single fight against guest character The Apprentice, who is so comparitively hard he makes the other characters look like they're made of jello. Still, with this sort of game you improve, and it would be nice if the game could keep offering up challenge past the point where you become comfortable with grinding the Apprentice's whiny face into the dust.
Actually, the Star Wars characters as a whole are more of a curse than a blessing. They don't fit well with the feel of the game, and their mechanics are so different from the regular cast that they really throw you out of your flow. Yoda, for example, is totally immune to throws and high attacks.
In a similar vein, it's hard to hear about SC4 without noticing the new direction that the character design has taken. By which I mean, of course, enormous frikkin' mammaries. Practically every female character in the game now appears to be ridiculously well-endowed and the game is obviously set during a period of history prior to the invention of the bra. Fighting-games-with-boobies is a corner of the market well covered by Dead or Alive; it's disappointing that SC4 went down this path and it takes away some of what made the SoulCalibur franchise feel special.
One nice improvement is to character creation. There's a great character customisation system that lets you re-skin existing fighters or create your own based on one of the pre-set fighting styles. You can do almost anything, visually, although in practice your fighter will play exactly the same as whoever you based them on. But seeing a Cervantes-style fighter in a giant cat suit or the Hamburglar wielding the Soul Edge is priceless every time.
Having set the armour, you then get to have it knocked off you through the Soul Crush system, which occasionally yields sensible results but more often turns things into a game of Strip Calibur. Watching characters beaten down to their underwear varies between entertaining and disturbing, but on the whole it feels more like bad fan fiction than serious gaming. This is something SoulCalibur could do without.
The game's short on modes, too. Options from previous games including Survival, Time Attack, and Tales of the Sword are all absent or have been folded into existing game types. There's no branching storylines, there's no special encounters, and when it comes down to it there's not much to unlock other than a stack of additional costume items.
Look - I make a lot of complaints about SoulCalibur IV, and for good reason, but this is still one hell of a game, and as a casual multiplayer title it's something I'm going to continue getting value-for-money from for a long time to come. SC4 is at the peak of its genre and will thoroughly entertain veterans and newcomers alike. Get it now.