Soul Calibur 4 Impressions: Online Woes

When I first popped Soul Calibur IV into my Xbox 360, I was a bit overwhelmed. In the first few moments I was assaulted with talk of destroying equipment and armor, word of activating character skills, some type of one-hit kill Critical Finish thing.

As someone that sunk countless hours into Soul Calibur II but never touched Soul Calibur III, this was confusing, disappointing, and slightly worrisome. It seemed the sequel had lost the simple pick up and play mentality that defined its predecessors.

The more I've put into the game, the more that feeling of disappointment has lessened, replaced the familiar sensation of wanting, no, needing, to play more. However, there's still a twinge of disappointment, a notion that the sequel isn't everything I'd hoped for.

The online play has been problematic and prone to match-destroying lag. Character creation and customization isn't explained well, leading to much confusion. And despite pouring over all provided documentation, I still don't know how to unlock new parts.

Wait, what? I'm confused.
Much like the previous Soul Calibur games, Soul Calibur IV sports a lengthy single-player campaign that runs players through a number of match types and variations. And now that characters can be equipped with various skills, such as recovering health after a successful hit or a tendency to avoid being knocked off-stage, the numerous matches have more variety than ever.

Every encounter sports a few hidden items, which can be unlocked via certain criteria. However, the game is rather vague about the conditions. For example, one hint suggested I "unleash attacks that strike and seize." The command list isn't clear on which attacks do that, suggesting a trial-and-error approach instead of a defined goal that would help me learn and master a small portion of a character's vast moveset.

As new equipment is unlocked, players can customize pretty much everything about their fighter, from 11 separate wardrobe elements to hair color to weapons and skills.

The customization system provides a lot of possibility--you can even make a unique character and choose which fighter's style he or she will use--but it's not well explained.

The actual customization requires a great deal of number crunching as you try to balance between beefing up a character's defensive and offensive traits while nabbing equipment that gives you enough points to have some fancy traits. Is it worth taking a hit on defense to make your attacks poisonous?

Online woes
Lag has been a major issue for online fighting games, and of the many Soul Calibur IV battles I fought over Xbox Live today, roughly half were marred by a marked delay between the button press and the eventual execution of the actual action.

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As Soul Calibur IV is a fast-paced, reflex-heavy fighting game, that latency destroys the experience. At those points, it's no longer Soul Calibur; it's a pretty version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. There's no way to counter or react accordingly, just the vague hope that seconds after you press a button, the actual move will hit its mark.

Fortunately, that lag doesn't affect all matches, only some. When I went up against an opponent with a connection rated 4 or 5--something that happened about half of the time--I rarely encountered lag. I even had a few matches that were so fast and responsive, it felt like my opponent was in the room.

Problem is, there's no way to filter the connections of those you're paired against. The best you can do is hit Custom Match to provide a list of available matches, but you could be backing in and out for a while before you find a decent connection.

The scarcity of a good connection could change tomorrow once Soul Calibur IV is officially released, as there will be more players, and hopefully, a wider selection of stronger connections available. Then again, the flood of players could also have the opposite effect, clogging the tubes and slowing performance for all.

I don't know, but I like it.
There's still a lot I don't understand. What does it mean when a character gains a Style Level? How did I manage to level up, anyways? Do I get experience just for winning? What effects, if any, does that have beyond unlocking new skills?

Is there a way to customize a character's beginning with their regular outfit as opposed to random gear? And is equipment destruction supposed to be strategic? Because right now, it seems rather random.

Ideally, more time and experimentation will illuminate these questions. Already I've come to appreciate the new Critical Finish mechanic, which leaves an opponent vulnerable to a one-hit kill if they block too much.

The annoying part is that another page or two in the manual could have helped alleviate these frustrations. Instead, I get coupons for $1 off any value combo at Church's Chicken and $10 off a purchase of $50 or more at Journeys.

The more I continue to play Soul Calibur IV, the more eager I am to play. It's obvious this game has a lot of depth hiding beneath the surface--I just wish it was better explained and didn't seem so damn intimidating at first.

Developed by Project Soul, Soul Calibur IV arrives on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 tomorrow, July 29.