A cut above.
I once went head to head against Gary Coleman in a Soul Calibur event at E3. I was doing well, too, until his seven-foot tall bodyguard got me in a headlock and unplugged my controller. Even though I could counter Coleman until the cows came home, there was no move in my list for use against a three-hundred pound gorilla. I tried a couple outlandish maneuvers like reverse psychology - "Now I've got you where I want you!" - and lying - "Ugh! You just ruptured my glavin!" - but none of them worked.
Namco seems to be in a similar spot with Soul Calibur III. Its predecessor, Soul Calibur II, is still pretty much the best fighting game around, making it a bit of a tough one on which to improve. So like me, they got creative and added an expanded Story mode, an unorthodox real-time strategy game and a create-a-player feature.
The good news is they didn't break anything important - this is essentially an updated Soul Calibur II with new moves, new characters and a few balance tweaks. The bad news is the rest. You still can't play online, the character creator is not as invigorating as we'd hoped, and the new single-player modes are as feeble as telling a man-giant you'll pee on him if he continues to crush you. Not that I tried.
Instead, I got completely re-addicted to Soul Calibur, which was easy since the controls haven't changed at all. You can still run, sidestep, execute horizontal and vertical slices, throw kicks and, of course, opponents. The moves list has been slightly tweaked for each character, though the basic strategies remain the same. It may take a second to get used to, but you will have no problem picking up where your favorite character left off.
Then again, if you'd like to try wielding a new blade, three new characters present plenty of opportunity. Zasalamel is a mysterious, hooded man with a wicked scythe. He's big and slow, but can mow through opponents with a couple well-placed slices from his grim reaping tool. Setsuka is a nasty geisha with a Zatoichi-style blade hidden away in her parasol. She's a mid-range fighter with a good balance of speed and power. Finally, Tira is a lithe little wench who apparently idolizes Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy. She's got a razor-bladed hula hoop and a fittingly unorthodox fighting style. While none of these characters are as fully realized as the roughly thirty returning fighters of Caliburs past, they add a needed gust of fresh air.
We hoped the character creator would allow us to create tons of genuinely new characters to go with these three misfits, but it functions more like an advanced costume modifier than anything else. Aside from choosing your character's weapon, all of the available options are cosmetic. If you pick nunchakus, you're playing Maxi, even if you look like a one-eyed woman in a red dress. While some new weapon sets give created characters a moderately different feel from the normal characters, you cannot customize their move lists to actually make them your own.
Still, the cosmetic options are deeper than a Clinique counter. Right off the bat they're a little shallow, but through playing you'll unlock hordes of weapons and armor and maybe thousands of accessories. You can even set the colors of each item from a large palette. Finally, my pink and black hoola-hooping ninja of humiliation is complete!
The downside to these unlockables is that they mainly become available through Chronicles of Swords, Namco's failed attempt at turning their fighter into an RTS. Chronicles has you guiding a handful of units (fighters) around a battlefield map, capturing castles and beating up everyone that gets in your way. While this is a great premise, it makes for a boring strategy game. It doesn't matter how you approach the field or what you capture so long as you win fights. You can lay siege to castles, but this just means your guys beat on the walls until breaking through, at which point you fight the inhabitants. Just like the other modes, you're still getting in fight after fight, but the stakes have been reduced and the loading time has doubled.
It's too bad the designers didn't scrap this feature and craft a better campaign. In Tales of the Souls mode, players pick a fighter and follow his or her storyline around the globe, searching for Nightmare and Soul Edge. Unfortunately, most of this unfolds via text, and that gets to be a drag pretty fast. After all, you came here to fight and be entertained, not read a less-than-thrilling tale of how the Soul Edge corrupts its victims. We already heard that one.
They tried to spice things up with some Choose Your Own Adventure branching, providing you with choices like "Travel by land/Travel by sea" or "Follow the mysterious man/Stay on your quest." It's cute, but the big, interesting decisions aren't yours to make. Whether you take land or sea, you'll still wind up in the same key battles. The actual cut-scenes feature occasional interactive bits ala Dragon's Lair, where you respond to events by pushing the correct button at the correct time. But these aren't consistent or interesting enough to draw you into the story. Instead, they feel random and forced, much like "Tales of the Souls" itself.
Most Soul Calibur fans will grow tired of these diversions rather quickly and will make the leap over to World Competition mode, where players can join a simple mock tournament or league. Winning these competitions can net a ton of cash to spend on unlockables. This mode in particular would have been awesome online. A tournament tree full of custom characters would have been a thing of beauty, each fight bringing you into contact with an opponent you'd never seen before, even if you recognized their style. But Soul Calibur III is not online. Instead, it's an RTS. WTF.
Regardless of the weird modes, though, Soul Calibur III certainly get the fighting right. The moves lists are immense and the strategy sublime, relying on timing and skill instead of button-mashing or mindless combo-ing. It might not have gotten the modes right, but it still beats the pants off just about every other fighting game out there.
And it's likely the prettiest. The new arenas are lush and gorgeous, the character models animate smoothly and the entire package is tied together with a vivid color palette. Vets might notice some recycled animations from previous games, but that's in keeping with the engine, and that thing is definitely worth keeping.
Besides being broadcast in THX, the sound effects underscore the great graphics, and the same orchestral background tunes that have ruled the series provide rhythm without getting in the way. Voiceovers can be pleasantly set to Japanese, although that isn't nearly as fun as listening to the terrible English dubbing.
With tons of characters, an awesome engine and loads of unlockable content, Soul Calibur III manages to do enough things well to keep this vaunted series afloat. However, its odd new modes and lackluster character creator leave something to be desired and the game still isn't playable online. Hopefully the next blade will be a bit sharper.