Review by xxMajinerxx
"Sequel to the Dreamcast is a Winner"
One of the most anticipated fighting games of 2003 comes to GameCube with a bonus feature almost too good to pass up: the inclusion of Nintendo's sword-swinging Link in a "mature" form instead of the expressive tyke found in The Wind Waker. If nothing else, Link's guest-starring role is proof of the company's relaxed attitude toward its licensed properties -- at least in the hands of the right developers. And, by the looks of things, Namco is the right developer. Soul Blade and its follow-up, Soul Calibur, were the crowning achievements on their respective platforms in terms of technical prowess and playability. This visual mastery continues with Soul Calibur II on GameCube, with an exquisite amount of detail in both its characters and locales, but the leap in quality is not nearly as dramatic as when the series first made the leap from a 32-bit PlayStation to the 128-bit Dreamcast.
Soul Calibur II can best be described as an enhanced compilation of PlayStation's Soul Blade and Dreamcast's Soul Calibur. The number of modes or features, while impressive compared to the majority of fighting games, isn't going to shock hardcore fans of the series, and it would seem Namco was reluctant to drastically change an obviously winning formula. It's hard to argue against this decision when the end-result is hands-down the best fighting game on GameCube, but the lack of innovation is disappointing -- especially given the amount of time between sequels. The environments are perhaps the biggest area of complaint, as the featured cathedrals, coliseums, dungeons, and so forth are well detailed but fail to elicit the same "oohs and aahs" one hears after seeing the snow, sand, or forest vistas from Dead or Alive 3 on Xbox. Also missing are interactive features -- such as breakaway walls, objects like tables or bookcases, and similar elements -- found in other 3D fighting games.
Those unfamiliar with the series, however, will find Soul Calibur II to be one of the most playable and addictive fighting games released to date. It separates itself from just about every other title in the genre (outside of Samurai Shodown and later games in the Mortal Kombat series) by featuring weapons-based combat instead of punching or kicking. Soul Calibur II transforms this barbaric style into an art form with a staggering amount of articulate moves for each character based on his or her default weapon of choice. Link in particular wields the Master Sword but can also whip out a bow, boomerang, and bomb to use as ranged weapons. The action is fast, fluid, and responsive; Soul Calibur II is not only a game people can enjoy their first time picking up a controller, it is a game offering veterans the strategic depth necessary to keep the disc spinning long after the novelty of the presentation has worn off.
The fighting engine has changed little from the original Soul Calibur, with players still having the ability to juggle opponents in the air, roll away from attackers while on the ground, and perform various throws, parries, and guards to neutralize, stun, or counter a rival combatant's attacks. New to the series are wall-based jumps and combination attacks, which add a subtle degree of strategy in those stages that feature the protective barriers. The rest of the locales offer a defined area of combat or ring, which triggers an immediate victory if a character is thrown or batted past a ring's edge. Namco also saw fit to include Soul Blade's wonderful Edge Master mode (retitled Weapon Master mode) to keep solo players firmly glued to their chairs. Instead of winning artwork found in the original Soul Calibur, players can earn up to 11 different weapons for each character, with each weapon possessing varying attributes, and other bonuses while embarking on a ten-chapter odyssey across an ancient map.
Each destination on the map features a one-on-one battle with random conditions that must be met in order to advance. Players may have to defeat three or more fighters in succession, fight with a portion of health taken away, confront invisible attackers, navigate their way through multi-arena dungeons, knock opponents out of a ring, or trade blows atop platforms covered in quicksand, ice, or explosives. While there is a story loosely tying the different locales and situations together, most players will skip these text-based interludes when they realize it is just filler between the fights. Instead of re-enacting certain situations as described in the story, players instead battle after the fact -- and from within the same basic locales over and over again.
What makes the mode work, however, is the sheer variety of tasks. Though battles can literally end within seconds due to ring-outs, the fast-paced nature of combat only makes the game more appealing. New and different routes will open up as players complete the mode the first time through, and repeat visits will reveal new sub-chapters while offering more challenging bouts (each fight is rated in difficulty from one to five stars). Each contest earns players experience points and gold, but it is unclear how these experience points influence the game other than to give players the satisfaction of achieving a certain rank. Since experience points along with gold are earned win or lose, and the points are tied to a player instead of a specific character, it seems like Namco missed an opportunity to create something special. Imagine the playability if each character could earn new moves or powers by reaching certain experience levels....
Most of the weapons, outfits, and other bonuses are purchased at shops found in each chapter of the Weapons Master mode, which means they're not difficult to unlock since money flows freely with every win or defeat. Like the experience points, this money could have been used in more creative ways, such as entrance fees to enter special tournaments, a wagering system for two-player fights, the ability to purchase individual weapon parts or pieces of armor to customize characters, or perhaps a way to fund a custom home environment to fight in.
Soul Calibur II's fighting engine is nearly perfect, the presentation is top-notch, and the modes are plentiful and are a perfect excuse to whittle away hours of time trying out each and every character. With 200 items to unlock, eight different modes, and Link as a playable character, Namco has certainly delivered an impressive package for fighting game fans. Yet if players look closely, they'll see the package is wrapped using recycled paper tied together with frayed twine that has a few too many loose ends for such an important sequel. As the passionate announcer exclaims during the opening sequence, "the soul still burns," though neither as fiercely nor as brightly as longtime fans may have hoped for.
The game looks stunning on GameCube, especially in progressive scan mode. You can almost count the swirls on marble tiles, the stitching on carpet, or the wrinkles in Link's green tunic whenever he swings his sword. The atmospheric lighting effects and smooth animation are among the best on GameCube, though there's not much activity going on within the environments.
A sumptuous orchestral score perfectly captures the mood in each arena, and the theme from The Legend of Zelda is also accounted for in Link's stage. The voices are not even close to the quality of the music, but the awkward dialogue is kept to a minimum.
Even though little has changed from Soul Calibur to Soul Calibur II, the updated visuals and a handful of new characters help spice up the familiar but solid action.
Weapon Master mode adds immeasurably to the replay value, with unlockable characters, weapons, artwork, arenas, and more as players advance through the 40-plus stages. Detailed statistics are also kept for each mode, including the percentage of time spent with one character, success rate, and more.
Get this game. It's $19.99 and is a great buy. Worth every penny.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 07/13/06
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