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This all makes Soul Calibur IV a pretty rare thing: a fighting game you can play alone for more than a weekend and still get something out of it. In fact, Tower of Lost Souls can be hideously more-ish. At the same time, it's a superb multi-player fighting game. It helps that the roster of characters is so extensive, and that the fighters are so different and so well balanced.
While, as in any fighting game, you can divide the heroes and villains up into basic types (quick and offensive, heavy hitters, slow tanks, evenly balanced) there's still a surprising degree of differentiation between those types. Both Taki and Raphael, for example, specialise in high-speed, hard to defend attacks, but each has a different rhythm and style to how you play them. The emphasis on weapons also has a major effect, because the difference in range between, say, Hilde's spear and Voldo's knives necessitates different approaches.
The other thing that helps the multi-player experience is that Soul Calibur IV is still a game where a certain amount of button-mashing goes a long way. In the single player game this can be to the game's detriment, but it does mean that even novice players have a chance at unseating old hands in a winner stays on situation given a healthy dollop of jammy luck.
Interestingly, Soul Calibur IV also toughens things up for those wussy players who do nothing else but block. A new soul gauge under the health gauge turns from blue to red while players are guarding, and when it turns pure red a well timed attack can shatter armour, making the player more vulnerable for the rest of the match.
Sadly I've had little opportunity to test online play before release, but the little I have seen seems smooth and not seriously affected by lag or sudden frame-rate drops. Whether this remains the case after release remains to be seen, but given Namco's success at making Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection work on PSN, I wouldn't bet against it.
The icing on the cake - though some of the hype has made it seem like the filling too - is the introduction of Star Wars characters into the Soul Calibur world. Yes, the justification story-wise is every bit as spurious or non-existent as you might have feared, but it's still cool to play as Yoda in the Xbox 360 version, even if he's not quite as acrobatic as Episode II might have suggested. Darth Vader might be slightly less attractive, being slower moving and less responsive, but it's still good to see him in action.
Both Vader and Yoda - not to mention their guest, the secret apprentice from the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed - have limited force powers at their disposal. You won't be tearing pillars down and flinging them at your foe, but you can hit them with force lightning as you hurl yourself into the fray.
All in all, this isn't a game that scores high for big or obvious revolutionary transformations, but the more you play it the more you realise that the generosity of the package and the huge number of small enhancements makes this the best Soul Calibur yet. Is it the best fighting game out there? Well, for me Virtua Fighter 5 pips it for the perfect precision and balance of its play mechanics, but there's not an awful lot in it.
What I would say is that if you haven't played a beat-em-up for a while, then this one has an excellent chance of reigniting your interest in the genre. It's fast-paced, bold and beautiful, and the perfect way to spend a summer evening with a few beers, some pizza and some old mates.
The ultimate Soul Calibur. In terms of the core gameplay there's nothing revolutionary, but the new single-player modes and the character creation tools improve the experience in ways you might not expect. Get back to the stage of history and enjoy.
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