It's the herald of a new generation. The big name fighting game is back. As good as Virtua Fighter was, and as much as everyone is looking forward to Live Arcade's HD Remix, Soul Calibur is still very definitely The People's Fighter.
Knowing well that the days of arcade competition are long behind us, Namco have furnished SCIV with more solo fun than a box filled with Solitaire sets, GI Joes and porno mags. Every character has a dedicated Story mode, a unique Arcade mode ending, and can be thrown into a marathon Challenge mode for costume rewards.
Like every past Calibur, SCIV is unfathomably beautiful - a sixty-frames-per-second lightshow, full of particle effects, real-time lighting, beautifully designed characters, and around ten bazillion polygons per eyeball. It uses every drop of the hardware's juice - just as Soul Calibur broke the Dreamcast's back and Soul Calibur 2 dropped the Playstation 2 and Gamecube to their knees, SCIV is a game really only possible on the current generation.
Except... in every other way, that's hardly true at all. Calibur IV is a visual corker which wouldn't work anywhere else at any other time, but it handles like every other Calibur before it. Move lists have been changed and some of the best moves have had their controller movements altered, but it's still the same old game once you chew your way though layer upon layer of eye candy. Like Ridge Racer, Katamari Damacy, Tekken, Ace Combat, Time Crisis and almost every other long-running Namco franchise, there's little to differentiate it from its forerunners besides a fresh lick of paint.
While the initial hype centred around a series of increasingly obscenely-proportioned female inductees into the Soul Calibur pantheon, each of the new girls is just a straight clone of another of the game's characters. Anime girlie Angol Fear is Seong Mina with the moon quite literally on a stick, Shura is Cervantes, Kamikirimusi is just Nightmare, and Ashlotte is a robotic Astaroth. The only new additions from within the Calibur universe are Hilde and big boss Algol. It's the kind of character update normally reserved for Champion Edition-style updates to existing games, but not Namco. Two's your lot. Anything else would be spoiling you.
From outside the Soul Calibur mainstream come the Star Wars boys - Yoda and Vader's Secret Apprentice from The Force Unleashed. Using the Force the Apprentice will launch you fifty feet in the air and chase you skywards, dealing out lethal combos. He can blast you with Force lightning, ground pound to lift you for an air assault, and move and attack with such speed that he becomes a blur. In spite of his grossly overpowered Force moves, it's the Apprentice who most feels as if he belongs in the Calibur universe; Yoda is the freak.
The little green fella is symptomatic of the latest Soul Calibur's biggest problem - he's an unstoppable, unrelenting, unbalanced terror who can plough through just about any other character in the game. Yoda is too short to grab, too fast to evade, and too dangerous to keep at range. While the first Soul Calibur (reviewed on page 100) brought a degree of harmony between its 19 characters, SCIV mercilessly overpowers some, gimps others, and is generally as shambolic as Super Smash Bros.
There's nothing serious about SCIV - not the combat, nor the stories, nor the character designs with the embarrassingly gigantic mams. Soul Calibur's team have made sweeping alterations to Ivy and a few others, but it seems they gave up halfway through the balancing process in favour of upping the polygon counts on every chest in the game.