Reviewed: September 9, 2003
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: August 26, 2003
As the release date for Soul Calibur II grew near I blew the dust off my Dreamcast and popped in the original Soul Calibur, partly to get in the “spirit” but more so that I would have a fresh frame of reference to make any comparisons. The first thing that struck me was just how good the original game was and still is today for that matter. There aren’t many 1999 games that can manage to retain their next-gen feel four years later.
And four years is exactly how long we have been waiting for Namco to release this much-anticipated sequel. Has it been worth the wait? With this exciting line-up of features I think so:
Soul Calibur II is still based on weapons combat rather than the physical hand-to-hand martial arts found in nearly every other fighting game. This aspect alone sets is apart from games like Tekken and DOA, but for each step forward in innovation Namco takes two steps back by failing to include gameplay elements that have become fighting game standards over the past four years. At the end of the day you are left with a solid fighting game that is merely an enhancement of the original rather than a true sequel.
I must admit I was surprised at how well Soul Calibur II played on the Xbox. Normally when it comes to fighting games I prefer the comfort and configuration of a PS2 Dual Shock, but since Soul Calibur II isn’t a highly technical game there are more than enough buttons available and even some nice shortcuts like using the right trigger instead of pressing three face buttons.
One thing that is moderately confusing is that the game uses generic in-game references for commands like A, B, K, and G. Obviously this makes it easy to release the game across multiple systems, but it also means you are constantly have to transpose the actually controller buttons for their generic counterpart. It gets even more confusing when the buttons on your controller match a few of those references in name but not function. Example: B on your controller is K (kick) in the game while B (vertical strike) in the game is Y on your controller.
While most every fighting game out there has a certain level of accessibility to the “button masher” there is a surprising amount of skill and finesse required to play Soul Calibur II to any degree of consistent success. Sure, you can mash and luck your way through the first few rounds of any given character’s arcade mode but when you get near the end you will need to be using some serious skills and all the abilities of your chosen character. Blocking, counters, grabs, and throws will all come into play and will not only offer the most visually stunning battles, but also the most satisfying.
Soul Calibur II brings back all the traditional fighting modes from the original including; Arcade, Time Attack, Survival, VS, and Team Battle Mode. The Mission Battle Mode of the original has now been replaced with the new Weapon Master Mode, and the prizes (unlockable features) are much more exciting and worthwhile than the Soul Calibur Art Cards from the original. As you take each of the 15 warriors through the massive adventure-style game you will unlock weapons, characters, new game modes, exhibition movies, and much more.
Unlike Mission Battle Mode, Weapon Master Mode is now a core element to the game and probably one of the first parts of the game to be thoroughly explored. By the time you complete this mode with a single character (about 2 hours) you will have unlocked plenty of material that can be accessed in the other modes and hopefully have learned your way around the controls and the abilities of one or more characters.
Even though Weapon Master Mode appears to be an adventure of sorts, it is really only a thin veil to disguise a lengthy series of battles in some unconventional arenas. To spice things up most of these challenges will have certain rules or conditions. You might be fighting on a tiny platform in high winds or dueling on a bed of quicksand. You may have to attack an enemy using only a certain type of attack or defeat a series of opponents using only one life bar.
To make things even more interesting you are allowed to switch out characters between the missions and equip those characters with any weapons you may have unlocked or purchased up to that point. You can also earn experience to increase your rank and gold to spend in the shops to purchase weapons (more than 200) and additional game content. Each shop in the game has a unique inventory, so if you want to purchase cinematics you will have to travel to the one store that sells them.
Also new to Weapon Master Mode are dungeons, but these aren’t nearly as interesting as you might think. Again, this is nothing more than a series of battles presented in a flowchart of boxes that slowly reveal themselves as you advance through each stage. You are often given multiple paths, many of which lead to dead ends, boss battles, and the occasional bonus item.
My one and only complaint with Soul Calibur II is the total lack of valuable documentation. The 14-page manual does a respectable job of telling you about all the game modes and translating the command system for you, but where are the fighter profiles and the basic moves list for each character? This is the first game in recent memory that didn’t at least profile the starting line-up of characters and give you a dozen or so moves and combos. Sure, you can pause the game and read the complete list within the game but if you want to “study” while waiting for your turn at the controller you are out of luck. Perhaps this is a conspiracy to sell more strategy guides.
Soul Calibur II is gorgeous game on a conventional TV, but when you play it in the supported 720p high-definition mode you’ll feel like Astaroth just clocked you in the jaw with his axe. It’s about the same increase in clarity that you may have experienced if you ever played the original Dreamcast game using the VGA adapter.
The levels are a bit on the small side, probably to assist you in the occasional “Ring Out”. I really miss the multi-tiered fighting levels of games like DOA and I must admit I felt rather confined at times, but then there were some battles where a “Ring Out” saved my butt. All of the levels feature excellent textures, lighting, and special effects to bring them to life in eerie detail. Sometimes the special effects are used too heavily as is the case with the final arcade battle with Inferno. There is so much flame effects going on it’s actually hard to see or fight the final boss.
Characters vary in quality but for the most part all look terrific. Voldo is just as creepy as he was in the original and Ivy is just as sexy even though her ass has exploded into J-Lo proportions. Each character offers their own unique intro and dazzling array of moves complete with special effects and multiple costumes. Spawn is easily my favorite character of the game (on any platform) both because of his attitude and his superhero proportions and overall smoothness. His moves just flow together seamlessly, much more so than any other character in the game. Necrid is my second favorite character so I’m guessing Todd McFarlane may have added some extra touches to his characters that you won’t find in the rest of the cast.
While Soul Calibur II is easy on the eyes I wasn’t “blown away” like I was the first time I played Tao Feng. Perhaps the Xbox version suffers from limitations of being designed to span three systems of varying power. The cloth animation is a bit stiff and fails to flow realistically and the camera seems to jerk around to preset locations rather than panning to follow the action. When you break down the graphics into their various components there are a few things lacking, but overall, the combined presentation is still quite close to perfection.
Having just come from a week of playing the original Soul Calibur I was rather surprised to hear some familiar music while playing the sequel. Not that they ripped the music note for note, but it was more of an overall tone or theme to the music. It definitely has an epic quality to it that is missing from most of the other fighting games out there. While custom soundtracks are always a welcome feature, I didn’t really miss them in this title.
Speech is put to good use with each character having several intro and exiting pieces of dialog as well as unique taunts you can invoke with a button press. Again, Spawn has some of the most memorable lines but regardless of the character being played the library of speech is limited and you’ll be hearing repeated lines all too soon.
Those of you with Dolby Digital capabilities will enjoy the best sounding version of Soul Calibur II on your Xbox. The surround mix totally grabs you from the opening movie and envelops you in lush music and crystal clear sound effects throughout all the battles. Admittedly, surround sound doesn’t really aid you in your fights since rarely is your opponent ever off camera. The spatial mix is just extra added goodness that compliments the 720p support and the Xbox’s commitment to high-end gamers.
You can expect about 8-10 hours to finish off the arcade mode with all 15 characters. The Weapon Master Mode will take you substantially longer and with the new rewards system you will probably want to tackle this part of the game early on to gain access to new characters, levels, and costumes. Plan on 30-40 hours to totally unlock everything this game has to offer.
Just like any fighting game, Soul Calibur II offers virtually endless replay value, both in the mastery of all the fighters and their vast library of moves and in the game’s multiplayer modes. You might “complete” this game in a week but you will never truly finish it.
It would be easy to say that Soul Calibur II is the best weapons-based fighting game available since there really is no competition. Sure, you have Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, but weapons are only a minor part of that title. For those of you tired of the same old punch, kick, combo games then Soul Calibur II is definitely a breath of fresh air.
Admittedly, it’s not as huge a leap in technology or innovative gameplay over the original that I would have liked to seen, but then again, the original game was already quite close to perfection, even in 1999. Soul Calibur II remains a solid, hard-hitting fighting game that requires skillful mastery of it characters and their unique fighting abilities all wrapped up nicely in a next-gen package that no fighting fan will want to miss.