Soul Calibur 2 Review
Few could deny that Soul Calibur was one of the greatest fighting games of all time - the biggest problem with it was probably one of exposure, as it only was ever released in the arcades and on Sega's ill-fated Dreamcast console. Namco has known for quite a while that they had a goldmine on their hands with the Soul Calibur name, and they've finally delivered a sequel to US soil for all 3 major consoles. But what room is there for improvement in a sequel to a game that was already considered near-perfect?
I'll focus on the Xbox version for this review, but Namco has actually done a great job with all 3 versions of SC2. Some consider the PS2 controller to be the best for playing SC2 with, but I think it's pretty close between them all, and everyone will get used to whatever they have. Since many players with multiple consoles are picking up the version of SC2 with their favorite unique character (more on that later) as well as the one with the controls they like, it's not always as easy as buying the version whose gamepad fits you best.
Namco has gone through some efforts to bring the SC2 arcade experience home. Soon, controller company Nuby will be releasing a SC2 fighting stick that mimics the arcade controls and will work on any of the three consoles. On top of this, the suggested price for the stick is under $40, which isn't bad in the market of arcade- style sticks. Either way you look at it, controls won't be a major issue for you with SC2.
All this said, how are the Xbox controls? They're just fine. The four face buttons (A, X, Y, B) all correspond to the standard SC2 attack buttons (Guard, Horizontal Slash, Vertical Slash, Kick), and you can configure the other buttons to do any combination of those four - just like SC1 on the Dreamcast. The controls are slick and crisp in action, and they have to be for a reflex-based fighting game.
Again, we come to the question of how one can really improve on such a great game as before. Namco has come up with a bunch of all-new stages for SC2, although I find that many of these aren't as artistically impressive as the first game's levels. It's a personal preference, though; at least these stages have different shapes and aspects which result in tactical differences.
The characters themselves are a mix of familiar ones, new ones designed by Namco, one made by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane called Necrid, and for each of the three consoles, one unique fighter. The Xbox version gets McFarlane's Spawn, while the PS2 gets Tekken veteran Heihachi and the GameCube gets Nintendo favorite Link from the Zelda games. The problem with these platform-specific characters, as well as Necrid, is that they just don't really fit into the Soul Calibu universe very well at all. I'm all for crossovers, but these are just a bit weird.
SC2 employs both 480p and 720p progressive scan modes for plasma & HDTVs, and full Dolby Digital 5.1 support is included in the Xbox version. I hear that the problem with the 720p mode is that it does it in a full-screen, not wide-screen, format - those with HDTV's that can do 720p will most defnitely want wide screen action, but won't get it. The 480p mode does work in a wide screen, but it's disappointing that the support for some of the newest HDTV technology available isn't fully implemented.
Many of SC2's special effects are the same as what we saw in SC1, and that's pretty much fine; this is a weapon fighting game with very few projectile attacks, so the main thing we get to see is flashes when weapons collide.
The character costumes this time around are more elaborate than ever, although I do have a beef with one specific costume. My favorite character, Taki, now has massive bouncing breasts with visible nipples both in-game and in the drawn art, and they look terrible compared to the rest of the game. This is the worst it gets, people; I've never seen another game with them this bad.
The thing is, Taki has had this costume in previous games without the mammaries - Namco specifically enlarged her boobs, Weird-Science-style (anyone remember that scene?), to a silly level for SC2. A couple of the other characters have large breasts anyway, but they're at least somewhat in check compared to these. At least Taki's second costume isn't remotely near this bad.
Soul Calibur was a very fun fighting game mainly because it offered an extremely smooth learning curve. It was great at low levels where players did slightly controlled button mashing, and allowed you to slowly start figuring out the game's higher-level strategies and combos. This made it accessible even to non-fighting fans, and it's an aspect that probably every developer of these games aspires to do. Namco decided not to mess with success for SC2, so you won't find a huge number of drastic changes in each character's moves. The very high-level players will of course notice a huge difference, but the average gamer probably won't.
Many of the old characters are back, either as their old selves or as a new character with many of the old moves. Some of the new characters (like Spawn or Raphael) have a fully new set of moves - Necrid seems to have a mishmash of other fighters' moves. Inferno and Charade take on any of the fighters' styles and it changes every round, just like SC1.
The speed of gameplay is pretty much the same as its predecessor, which I particularly like. I find too many fighting games to be way too fast for my tastes, and SC2 brings the speed down to what I would consider a more reasonable level. The animation is also very smooth, which helps one to specifically recognize an incoming move and react. The frame rate always hovered at 60fps with a hitch every once in a blue moon.
The flow of combat is also something I really enjoy. Not only does it visually look great, but the game doesn't frustrate me when I lose. The simple reason for this is that the very fluid animation makes it easy to see what mistakes I made. The fact that the characters do telegraph many of their moves for a split second gives me hope that one day I can avoid or counter them all. It's a subtle part of a fighting game that isn't always done right, but Soul Calibur 2 does it perfectly.
In the single player mode, plenty has changed for the sequel. The Arcade gameplay is the same, but the Mission mode from SC1 has been scrapped in favor of a Weapon Master mode complete with story. It requires you to do fights with special circumstances that are similar to Mission mode from SC1, but with a few new twists. Sometimes there is a wind that threatens to knock both players off of the arena, or a special way that enemies can only be hurt (knock them into a wall, use guard impacts, etc).
There are some added twists in Weapon Master mode; on top of being able to win new playable characters or special gameplay modes, you can also win or even buy weapons for your characters. These weapons introduce subtle changes for the character, allowing you to fine tune your style a bit. These weapons can be taken into the "Extra Arcade" mode as well as several other modes, so they're not only usable in the Weapon Master gameplay. You can also buy new costumes, which is nice since you can actually pick a character to deck out in gear.
One of the best fighting games out there currently is Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, which is known for its highly-technical combat and "Kumite" mode with unique AIs controlling characters. SC2, on the other hand, has less technical combat that relies more on timing than move memorization, which of course makes the game more accessible to newbies.
The Weapon Master mode includes a very long-winded story done in all text that you might find yourself skipping through after less than an hour of play - to be honest, the Kumite mode in VF4 proved to be a bit more interesting. Other than the overall difficulty setting, SC2 seems to play a character the same every time; I would have loved to see a VF4-style mode here where you get vastly different AIs controlling any one character in very different ways.
While the AI winds up being no slouch in the single player mode, especially at the higher levels, It can still be tripped up by certain patterns or moves. In this case, VF4 is the better game with its AIs that had a variety of strengths and weaknesses, although SC2 makes up for a lot of this with its very smooth learning curve.
Two-player matches are usually where fighting games get the largest amount of replay value, and SC2 doesn't disappoint here. The game has had plenty of time for balancing, seeing as it's been in arcades for over a year by now - this allowed Namco to fine tune the game in a public forum of fighting game experts, and it really shows. http://www.atomicgamer.com/admin/articleAdmin.php
For those gamers who don't necessarily enjoy fighting games and missed out on SC1, then you may or may not really get into SC2 - it depends on how hooked you get on the actual combat. If you loved SC1 and can't wait for more, it's a no brainer: buy this game. Many of the changes look cosmetic or different for the sake of being different, but the gameplay is even tighter than before, and more has changed than you might first notice. It's just enough to make it a real sequel without screwing up all your skills from the first game.
Soul Calibur was known for its rousing, symphonic-style music, and SC2 continues the tradition with even more of the same. The announcer goes through some cheesy voiced introductions for the characters which would have been better left out, but at least the rest of the stuff he says is pretty decent.
The worst thing about the audio comes from the English voice work for each character. The translated sayings are terrible, and the delivery isn't much better. Thankfully, the original Japanese audio for the characters (which is far better) is included, but I have to wonder how many people will not even notice the option buried in the menus. Many of the game's sound effects will be familiar to Soul Edge or Soul Calibur players - for the most part, this reuse is ok, as the old effects fit in well enough with the new ones.
Soul Calibur 2 is an evolution of the original on all levels - it might take you weeks of play to figure out all the changes made from the first game. The new characters, arenas, and Weapon Master mode might seem to be what Namco worked on the most, but the many subtle changes to the combat are what make this a brand new experience for every Soul Calibur veteran.