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Let's face it, Soul Calibur IV was always going to struggle to make the same impact that the original did when it appeared at E3 in 1999. The fighting game that then made jaws drop around the world now feels as familiar and comfortable as a pair of old slippers. Once, Soul Calibur was the beat-em-up that redefined expectations of the genre and actually looked like it might rescue Sega's doomed Dreamcast. Now a new version is looked forward to with about as much expectation as the average FPS. Can Soul Calibur IV turn things around? Can the series still deliver one more genre-redefining masterpiece?
After a few hours with Soul Calibur IV your answer will probably be “maybe not.” It's not that Soul Calibur IV doesn't push the boundaries at all - it's undoubtedly the most beautiful and graphically advanced fighting game ever made - but like the last iterations of Tekken and Virtua Fighter it plays safe. While the fighting seems to take place in full 3D, you still have little control over movement outside of a straight 2D plane.
Despite the incorporation of the Havok physics engine, the arenas are no more interactive than they were in previous versions and there's little evidence of any realistic location-by-location damage modelling going on. The eye candy might have moved on in leaps and bounds since Soul Calibur I, but the basic combat hasn't. This isn't the Resident Evil 4 or Half-Life 2 of fighting games; just a more gorgeous, more polished and more generous package of what we've already had before. On that, we should be clear.
But once you get past that slight disappointment, Soul Calibur IV is utterly fantastic.
Let's face it: that eye candy helps. I'm a little disappointed to see that Namco has taken a trip into the seedy Dead or Alive T&A district when it comes to character design - I've never seen so many female fighters who look like they're on their way to a World of Warcraft-themed S&M party - but the amount of care and detail that has gone into the human (or inhuman) form, not to mention arms and armour, is frequently breathtaking.
I thought Ninety-Nine-Nights and Devil May Cry 4 had established new benchmarks for reflective breastplates, swords and shields, but Soul Calibur IV makes even that work look clumsy. The lighting and the use of post-processing techniques like focus blur gives the game an effect that's part cinematic and part airbrush fantasy painting. And the animation is just plain awesome.
Lest we forget, this is a series that has always been known for its incredible backdrops, and Soul Calibur IV doesn't disappoint. Battles are staged in palatial gardens, ancient halls and misty swamps where dodos waddle through the arena while hippos munch in the background. We get mountain shrines, Egyptian temples and pirate ships, not to mention icy wastes and weird baroque monuments that seem patterned after carousels. Needless to say, the classic fight on a drifting barge is back too. In all locations it's hard to take in all the textures and colours or spot all the detail going on behind the action. Basically, beat-em-ups don't get any better looking than this.
And you already know what Soul Calibur IV sounds like: the clash of steel on steel, the yelps and screams of battle, the powerful orchestral score and - above all else - that incredibly cheesy voiceover. I won't spoil the pick of the lines for you here. All you need know is that fans of ridiculously overwrought commentary and bizarre motivation won't be disappointed.
Who wrote this stuff? Does anyone know who the legendary voice narrating it belongs to? Does he speak like that when ordering takeaway? “Torn between Pork Chow Mein and Kung-Po Chicken, a warrior must cheat fate to embrace his destiny.” Enquiring minds want to know.