Soul Calibur IV
It doesn't take much to make me nostalgic about the Dreamcast. Sega's brilliant but doomed last-ditch attempt to stay in the console market hosted dozens of games, of which Soul Calibur was the first in a long line. I still remember the excitement of turning on that console for the first time, and realising that Soul Calibur was the first one-on-one beat-em-up to truly justify the move into three-dimensions. Before then you could side-step, but never walk around your opponent.
Now nearly a decade has passed, the Dreamcast is gone but not forgotten, and we have Soul Calibur IV. With good reason, the mechanics of the fights have barely changed over the years. The button layout, the moves list, and even the character roster are almost untouched. The majority of the 'new' characters are renamed and redesigned models of the originals, but the reluctance of the developers to meddle with a winning formula is probably well founded. Indeed, the inclusion of an un-throwable Yoda, and a slightly-too-quick-and-strong Apprentice from the Star Wars universe, undoubtedly damage the game's balance once the novelty of using a light sabre has worn off.
Crucially though, the fights are still fast, tense and instinctive. But what is there, if anything, that makes this game significantly better than the Dreamcast version released a decade ago (and recently re-released on Live Arcade at a much lower price)?
Its not the single player game. The 'Story' mode is pathetically easy on 'normal' difficulty; so much so that I actually noticed myself getting worse at the game after extended play. The narrative is (as always) totally skippable, and without bumping up the difficulty to hard it quickly becomes a boring grind.
'Arcade' offers the usual procession of 'best-of-three' fights that's been a compulsory inclusion for any one-on-one fighting game since Street Fighter II. Thankfully, this provides a sterner challenge, as the computer opponents do start to show some interest in knocking you out as you move closer to the final boss fight. Yet so far, so familiar.
The most interesting option for those forced to play the game alone is undoubtedly the 'Tower of Lost Souls' mode. Here you progress through a series of increasingly difficult challenges, while being given cryptic clues as to how to unlock secret items with which you can customise your character. Although it can be frustrating falling at the final hurdle on some of the longer and more difficult floors, it's here that the series' die-hard fans will surely gain most satisfaction; not just because of the sometimes fierce difficulty level, but because the secret items unlocked have more than just cosmetic value.
Somewhat surprisingly, the ability to modify existing characters and create new ones is perhaps the game's greatest asset. Although you're limited by basing your creation on the move-set of a pre-existing character, the clothing and equipment you choose will alter their Strength, Defence and Hit Points. In addition, you can choose from a large selection of skills that give your character special abilities. These range from giving you a boost of strength at the start of a round, to decreasing your chance of being knocked out of the ring, all the way to letting you become temporarily invisible. The more useful skills are prevented from disrupting the balance of the game by depending on fairly specific sets of equipment, so that if you're ludicrously over-powered in one area, you'll have to accept weakness in another.
This adds a genuine tactical element to the 'Tower of Lost Souls' mode. Although the default character configurations will probably see you through the earlier challenges, you'll need to fine-tune your special abilities and stats as you come up against the tougher and longer series of opponents, especially if you intend to unlock all the secret items. Almost acting as a counter-balance to the paper-thin Story & Arcade modes, there is potential to be kept busy in the 'Tower of Lost Souls' for a very long time.
But unless you completely lack videogame-playing friends or a broadband connection, you'll probably only want to play the single player modes until you've unlocked all the characters and most of the equipment. This version of Soul Calibur, like every head-to-head beat-em-up before it, needs to be played against human opposition in order to get the most out of it; and the addition of online play undoubtedly goes a long way to increasing the longevity of the game.
The 'Special Versus' mode is arguably the highlight of online play, as it allows you to try out your custom character creations against the rest of the world, with their equipment and weapon effects activated. It's immensely satisfying to feel that you've tweaked your character perfectly to match your playing style, and then watch as your online ranking creeps up following each victory against your opponents. However, if you're uninterested or unimpressed by the ability to tune your character, there is still the option to play with all the bonus effects turned off in the Standard mode.
Sadly, neither the offline or online versus modes are perfect. Offline, it's not possible to load characters from two different Xbox profiles at once, massively reducing the appeal of 'Special' versus play. Online, I found myself getting annoyed with the difficulty of joining a game before the 'lobby room' gets full (obviously there's only room for two). Additionally, it seems slightly odd that a match-making system is not automatically applied when you start a 'quick match': your hapless reviewer chose this option for his first few games and watched helplessly as he was destroyed by skill level 67 opponents who clearly hadn't slept since the game's release. It was only after discovering the option to search for opponents within ten levels of my own 'skill' that I found opponents of a similar level of experience. It seems slightly short-sighted of the developers and an unnecessary inconvenience for the player to have to rummage around in the options in order to get a game against someone of a similar ability. I mean, why on earth wouldn't you want decent match-making as standard?
Yet these are irritations rather than deal breakers. I was never going to feel the same buzz playing Soul Calibur IV as I did the original: the core experience is too familiar. But the online play has been implemented impressively, and prevents this becoming a game that will sit on your shelf until your friends come round. Meanwhile the character creation mode allows for some interesting experimentation, and may one day create a community as focused on customisation and tuning as the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza. In the long run, it is this that may prove to be Soul Calibur IV's greatest achievement.