"Justice will prevail! . . . . Just kidding!"

If you're a manly man like me, you know that fighting games just freakin' rock. So if you happen to be graced with the awesomeness of extreme machismo, then Namco's Soul Calibur II is just what your looking for. Just visualize it: German men wielding gigantic blades, samurai readying their katanas, pirates plundering gold, busty ninjas purifying demons, and even buff undead smacking down foes with axes. Now that's a game with promise. In fact, Namco has definitely made some real improvement since their overrated Dreamcast exclusive Soul Calibur, but at the same time they falter with revolting laziness.

When we last left off in this now three part series, the demonic blade, Soul Edge, was about to be destroyed. Thanks to the efforts of the brave youth Kilik, graceful swordswomen Xianghua, and pretty-boy pirate Maxi, Soul Edge was shattered to pieces and scattered throughout the land. But I think we all knew this wasn't the end of the story. Four years later, the wheels of time took their toll on the world. The broken shards of the Soul Edge began to gather and restore the demonic blade once again. The second coming of Nightmare was at hand, and surely this wasn't good for all the soon-to-be-slaughtered sheep of Europe. But the souls of justice still burned brightly and set out to conquer evil once again. This is a tale of souls and swords eternally retold.

You'll start with an impressive cast of 15 balanced characters and then unlock an additional 8. Many of them are returning fighters like the grizzled samurai Mitsurugi, the top-heavy kunoichi Taki, or the undead mass of muscle Astaroth. Each one can bring on the pain with simple yet effective balance. For example, Astaroth's mighty two-handed axe smacks away quite a bit of your health meter, but he's dreadfully slow. While charging all his strength for a devastating upward swing, any character can easy attack the now unguarded golem. Take the beautiful Xianghua. Her combination of artistic flurries of stabs and slashes can quickly bring Astaroth to his knees, but, of course, there's always the chance that Astaroth will successfully connect and our poor girly girl will be hurting in the morning.

But with the returning cast comes six completely new souls (two of which are home exclusive). First we have Cassandra, the spunky sister of veteran fighter Sophitia. Like her sis, Cassandra fights with a short sword and small shield only she's actually more enjoyable to play as. Her faster, more offensive fighting style makes Cassandra an effective and cool new member of the cast. Next we have a little girl by the name of Talim. Now Namco may claim she's 15, but I'd swear she's not a day past 13, which is why it's gross that people actually claim she's hot. Talim's use of two arm blades resembling tonfas rather than yet another swordsperson makes for an interesting new fighter. In addition, she packs impressive speed and high-hitting combos despite her laughable strength. But probably my favorite newcomer would have to be the suave Raphael. His sense of arrogance and swift, elegant skills with a rapier make him a deadly Frenchmen with attitude. Another fresh face you'll come to love is the horribly underrated Yunsung with his combination of acrobatic moves and one deadly scimitar.

We've seen these fighters in the arcade, so they're nothing new. But us home version owners have two additional souls for our bidding. The first is the McFarlene Studios created beast, Necrid. He's a big stupid looking green thing with idiotic design and probably the most uninteresting fighting style. You see, Necrid wields a mysterious pulsating ball that can take the shape of a whole arsenal of blades, but rather than using this power to make something cool, Namco instead churns out a fighter that just steals a bunch of moves from previous characters. As you watch the huge, green monster beat his chest and roar, you'll realize that this is a stupid fighter that could have been used for something better. My guess is McFarlene would only allow Spawn in the XBox version if he was able to create another character too. And, of course, McFarlene was probably saying, “Yeah, let's make Necrid SOOOOO powerful that he can like have everyone else's moves!”

But moving along, the GameCube is graced with Nintendo's legendary hero, Link. While I really can't comment on how the other two special characters (Hehachi on PS2 and Spawn on XBox) play, Link is by far the most exciting of the three. But in all honesty, Link isn't exactly the best fighter in the game. His trademark moves from The Legend of Zelda just don't fit into place. Just imagine trying to fire arrows in a 3D fighting game without auto targeting. Or how about using the devastating spin attack by charging the attack button? Let's think for a minute. Link stops to gather power thus immediately leaving himself open as well as essentially telling his opponent what his next move will be. Yeah, great job, hero. Before you know it, you'll be ditching the elf for someone superior. But Link and Necrid aren't the only things inferior with this version. The GameCube controller is definitely the worst for this job, but not by much.

Soul Calibur II does utilize a four-button configuration and the controller has the goods to deliver in that aspect. You'll have a horizontal attack, vertical attack, kick, and guard button at your disposal to create an array of beautiful, deadly attacks and maneuvers. Using the game's basic moves and apply your character's dazzling array of combos are all a piece of cake. The GameCube controller's eccentric button formation only becomes a problem during throws. To execute a throw, you must hit the guard button (B) and either horizontal (A) or vertical (Y) attack. While pressing both B and A isn't any problem at all, getting your thumb to reach both the tiny, red B button in the lower-left corner and the rectangular Y button near the top is impossible. There's a good one inch of space between both buttons meaning you'd either have to be the proud recipient of the fattest right thumb in the world or maneuver your hand in such a way that you'd disrupt your fighting style and allow the AI to kick your ass. I ended up mapping one of my shoulder buttons to the vertical throw, which I've still not gotten used to.

But the stupidity of Nintendo's controller isn't enough to make me stop playing. The already polished fighting engine of Soul Calibur has actually been improved. All the tight combos and moves are in place with lightning-fast gameplay to keep you in awe. There are still a variety of basic maneuvers to make combat a flawless form of art: the art of fighting! Parrying will come in handy to break through the attacks of a predictable foe. Simply push forward or back with the guard button to momentarily take a defensive stance. Should your opponent attack, watch as you bat them away and leave a gaping hole in their defenses. Or press all three attack buttons to activate Soul Charge and unleash your inner power. Quickly moving the analog stick up or down will allow you to sidestep and avoid attacks with the 8-way run. When all these forces combine with your already powerful skills, you'll be one badass fighter. But then you find neat improvements. The arenas are still surrounded by nasty pitfalls to toss your opponents into for a quick win, but not completely surrounded. Namco even took a page from the Dead or Alive games and added walls to bash your foes into and cause major damage. I must say I've won a few matches with the aid of my friend, the wall, but in all honesty actually managing to successful slam someone into one is too inconsistent. The minor improvements really don't make the game that much better though. Thankfully, the AI does.

What always kept me indifferent with the last installment of this fighting saga was the terrible AI. Even on the toughest difficulty setting, I could bust out Xianghua and leave everyone in the dust. No AI controlled fighter could stop me with my superior intelligence, swift fingers, and pretty techniques. The AI just never put up much of a fight. It barely did anything to defend itself. Soul Calibur II on the other hand has been really beefed up. On Normal, I've gotten my ass handed to me. The AI will now parry more than once in a blue moon and it will come after you and use impressive tactics. By far, superior AI was something that this series really needed. Unfortunately, one fundamental hole still remains in the game's armor. The AI does allow for players to get away with “scrub tactics” such as constantly reapplying the same attacks. It's not often that the game will do anything to prevent this.

Many fighting gurus, such as mysel,f will tell you that you're going to need more than a well-oiled engine to keep you playing. Luckily, Soul Calibur II has a bulky treasure chest crammed with awesome gameplay modes. These include the essentials of any fighter like Arcade or Versus Modes. Namco has also put in a cool Team Battle Mode as well as the nifty and self-explanatory Survival and Time Attack Modes. None of these, however, will stand up to Weapon Master Mode. While it's still not up to par with my beloved Edge Master Mode from Soul Blade, the return of the choice to buy weapons for each fighter along with new costumes, movies, and art galleries was a smart decision by Namco. Not only that but the missions are as cool as ever with feats ranging from parrying every attack to finishing off someone in 10 seconds to even challenging two fighters both wielding the unholy Soul Edge. You're also given the ability to switch among all the game's characters (minus three of them) for each mission. This adds a level of strategy for picking the right fighter for the right mission. For example, one mission requires you to use the arena's walls to deal any damage. Choosing Nightmare would be a good idea because his easy-to-execute thrusts generally fling his foes backward.

Thanks to the inclusion of over 200 weapons, there are “Extra” versions of each gameplay mode for you and the AI to use the unlocked blades. The reason behind this is all balance that is normally in the game is thrown right out the window. You'll notice that certain weapons just make characters too powerful (give Mitsurigi the Damascus Sword and see what I mean!). Not only will weapons have a variety of attack and defense stats, but they'll embody a wide range of both positive and negative added effects. This includes but is not limited to hurting a blocking fighter, restoring health with each attack, or even longer reach. Trying out and acquiring all of the weapons is a blast, and it really makes this title last even longer.

Now all this squeaky clean awesomeness is enough to let me forget some of the minor problems left here and there, but I can't forgive Namco for their laziness. The standard Arcade Mode is obviously emulating the exact arcade code. I can tell because you'll never fight any of the home exclusive fighters and opponents will never wear their third costumes. Yes, it's true that these aren't terribly horrendous problems, but it gets worse. Charade and Inferno, the standard “mimic” fighters, will never take the moves or weapons of home exclusive fighters because Namco was apparently too lazy to mess with their coding or polygon models. But I still haven't gotten to the worst of it. Three hidden characters have been totally shafted and they are Assassin, Berserker, and Lizardman. You absolutely can't choose these combatants in (Extra) Arcade and Weapon Master Mode. Why did Namco do this? Well, now they had an excuse to leave out endings, weapons, or profiles for them. I'm not angry about missing out on that extra stuff, but it does annoy me that I can't use them in those modes. Hell, the AI can choose them in Extra Arcade, so why can't I? If that's not bad enough, you'll surely realize who Assassin and Berserker truly are and become even more pissed. They're simply the classic characters Hwang, who they even had the gall to mention in Yunsung's background story, and Rock respectively. First of all, a random assassin or berserker just doesn't have the same feeling as an already established character. Second of all, Namco got away with not hiring voice-actors for these two and just let them yell some boring nonsense passed off as battle cries. Granted Rock wasn't much of a talker, but he did have a distinct voice over his replacement.

My disappointment with Namco's lazy programming was easily pacified by Soul Calibur II's visuals. The polygon models are slightly more detailed and smoother than that of the Dreamcast Soul Calibur. The GameCube version even handles well by showing no signs of slowdown or frame-rate problems like that of the PlayStation 2 edition. Unfortunately (for you), the XBox version is sharper making this one look blurry by comparison. But never fear, GameCuber! The animation is equally as fluid and gorgeous. You'll be drooling as Mitsurugi thrusts his sword into Voldo's chest and pulls it back to his sheaf with the aid of a kick to the rest. Your eyes will be ready to drop on the floor when you spot Xianghua charmingly waving her blade around with “Lao Tse-esque” precision. But nothing matches the dynamics of Ivy's incredibly sword-whip combination. I also liked how many of the character's costumes have been dramatically alternate to make the game feel more fresh and new, and the completely different backgrounds also help to do this. However, my favorite graphical improvement has to be the more bouncy breasts and even jiggling asses. I mean, just look at those babies on Taki. Damn, Namco! Thanks! I like my fighting babes to be sexy, so I'm glad Namco is trying to put a little more Dead or Alive into the mix. But believe me, this isn't Dead or Alive 3. It doesn't even come close. The clothing just looks too fake in this game. It doesn't move right at all, and too many arms and legs move into each piece of polygonal cloth. The polygon count just isn't up to part with the XBox wonder. That game was a damn work of art, and you have to believe me. I've been blessed with superior vision as well as other things. Yeah, you heard me.

Speaking of hearing, Soul Calibur II offers plenty of music to pump you up for a fight. Each tune is very climatic making every battle feel like a truly important event that will shape the world as we know it. Fight with courage as the Chinese fiddles quietly “twang” with the beat of your crimson slashes and the pleasant sound of your opponent's bones breaking upon impact with a solid stone wall. Elegantly slaughter your foe while the refined orchestra plays in the Library. The loud crushing and slashing sound effects more than help put you in the mood as well. In addition, Namco crammed in a whole mess of voice-overs during combat. The game has both the original Japanese and a new English track. I'm telling you now: don't bother with the English. Not only did they dub battle grunts with silly phrases like, “Let's dance!” or, “How's that?”, but the horrendous acting is almost insulting. Way to waste your money, Namco. That was money that could have been spent on more important aspects of the game.

Clearly, this is a superior sequel. Soul Calibur II improves upon the faults of the last game such as easy AI and the exclusion of extra weapons. Not only that, but the new features and characters makes this one bundle worth picking up. Still, there is work to be done with this series and its fighting engine. The AI has room for improvement, wall-attacking needs tweaking, the graphics were outdated even at release, Necrid sucks, and Namco needs to stop being so lazy. Just because they already know they'll rake in the money no matter what doesn't justify some of their annoying corner-cutting tactics. Hopefully by Soul Calibur III Namco will fix some of these problems and add more to the engine. And maybe next time Nintendo's console won't have such a weird-ass controller. Simply a lot of minor faults add up to minor annoyance and me wishing for small changes.


Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/25/04

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