As a rule, I can give or take one-on-one beat ’em ups these days. Whereas I once lapped up each and every scrapper, such as Street Fighter II, Tekken, Virtua Fighter and so on, the lack of any form of originality eventually dulled my sense of enjoyment, and the genre has long since been MIA in my collection, with perhaps the odd retro title like Marvel Vs Capcom 2 still doing the rounds. So, when, after playing SC4 for what I thought was an hour or so, and looking at the clock only to see that I’d actually been duking it out for over four hours, I was more than a little surprised. This is seriously good stuff. Fans of Soul Calibur will know exactly what to expect here, and SC4 covers all the combat basics perfectly. There’s a plethora of weird and wonderful OTT characters, a bevvy of gorgeous-looking arenas and a wide variety of fighting styles and tactics to make use of. Each character is armed with their weapons of choice, with armaments ranging from swords, staffs, axes and rapiers, to more interesting fare like circular, hula hoop-style razors, ‘Snake swords’ and lightsabers. Yes, ligthsabers, as this instalment features a few characters from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In a clever bit of marketing, the game has been released as the light side of the Force for the 360, with Yoda entering the fray, while the PS3 is depicted as the Dark Side, with Lord Vader spreading his brand of love.
Both versions also feature the Apprentice from the upcoming Force Unleashed game, although sadly, Jar Jar Binks isn’t available to smack even further back in time into a galaxy about as far far away as possible. Oh well. On a side note, it’s interesting that there’s a blank character space on the Star Wars row in both versions of the game. This, along with the various videos allegedly showing Yoda vs. Vader floating around the Internet surely means that both platforms with soon see both the light and dark side combatants strutting their stuff via downloadable content.
There are several game modes on offer in SC4. There’s the ever-present Arcade mode, which puts players up against eight opponents in straight fights, the Story mode, which tells the brief, and to be honest, pretty dire, story of each character’s involvement with the fabled Soul Edge and Soul Calibur swords, and there’s the Tower of Lost Souls. This is one of the most interesting modes, and replaces the quest-type modes from previous games. In this mode, you pick your characters and proceed through the floors of a massive tower, fighting off teams of opponents. Your energy doesn’t return between battles on a given floor, so tactics and sharp skills are a must.
As you complete floors, you’ll unlock all sorts of bonuses and items, which can then be used in the character creation. Fulfilling special conditions also unlocks secret bonus items. In fact, this is one of the key modes for unlocking extra content.
The aforementioned character creation mode lets you edit existing characters, changing their appearance, clothes, weapons and even voices. Almost every piece of equipment, from shoes to monocles can change your character’s stats, so there’s plenty of scope for longevity, as playing the other modes opens up more and more possibilities in the character creation. Sadly though, some bonus characters, and the Star Wars characters cannot be edited much, aside from weapons and skills.
Speaking of skills, SC4 features a host of power-ups, as well as a couple of major changes to the combat system. Each character can be equipped with various skills, as long as their stats allow. Example skills include health boosts, increased damage, invulnerability to ring K.O. and even invisibility.
Changes to the battles include the ‘Soul Gauge’, which changes colour as damage is received while blocking. Once the orb of your opponent flashes red, they’re open to your powerful single-hit finishing move. This makes those annoying block-happy players a thing of the past, and greatly encourages fast paced play. It’s also possible to shatter an opponent’s armour, fighting Vipers-style, with repeated blows, which is a nice touch.
You can fight with more than one character in some situations, which you can change mid-fight at any time. This tag-team element is great for long, tactical battles, and comes into its own in the Tower of Lost Souls mode, where you have to carefully conserve your precious health.
The single most important improvement for most fighting fans will be the online mode. As is usually the case, the real mileage here is in multiplayer, and as well as the standard Versus from local games, you can jump onto Xbox Live and scrap challengers from around the globe. This is also where character customisation really comes into play, and aside from the obvious “look at my cool character” bragging, the statistical boosts bestowed by special items give you a real edge over the competition, meaning those who’ve worked hard unlocking content will see a real reward.
All of these features, great characters and lush visuals don’t disappoint, and luckily, the core game play doesn’t either. SC4 is as fast and fluid as ever, and the series’ trademark pick-up-and-play means that anyone can pick a fighter and have a blast, without having to memorise endless button combinations to get the most out of the game. That’s not to say the combat is shallow though. This is a true example of easy to play, hard to master, and with prolonged play, you’ll develop some seriously powerful moves and combos that’ll make others cower with fear.
There are some issues though, especially with some character balancing. The most commonly quoted problem people have found is with the Star Wars cast, in particular, Yoda. Although Darth Vader on the PS3 is balanced about right, being powerful but fairly slow, many have criticised Yoda for being the token ‘cheap’ character. As he’s so small, he’s impossible to throw and jumps around like a mad man, making him hard to hit with certain attacks. In all honesty though, I found Yoda to be fairly well implemented. His force power usage isn’t over the top, and he’s actually not that powerful, at least not compared to some other characters. He’s also pretty slow too.
My major gripe is with the Apprentice. He certainly stands a good chance to win ‘Cheapest character in a beat-em-up 2008’. He’s powerful, versatile, fast and uses the Force with such gay abandon that you’ll be pulling lightning bolts out of your arse for weeks to come. When you fight against an A.I. controlled Apprentice, things are bad enough, but I can imagine newcomers to the game going online, only to quickly leave the game alone after getting mercilessly beat down by this very unbalanced fighter time and time again. The character creation is a great feature, but some will find it frustrating due to the fact that many of the more powerful items look pretty stupid, so it may be hard to create balanced, good looking fighters, and the most powerful will be adorned with joke glasses, baggy pantaloons and other strange apparel.
These minor gripes aside, I’d highly recommend SC4, whether you’re partial to beat ‘en ups or not. It’s got masses of longevity and some of the best online scrapping around. And you can’t beat waling on your mates with everyone’s favourite Kermit-voiced Jedi.