Soul Calibur 4 Hands-on Impressions

Two days ago, Soul Calibur IV (PS3, X360) was just another game coming out this summer. Now, after playing a build of it at the recent Namco Bandai press event, I very much want that final disc in my hands.

I was a big fan of Soul Calibur and its sequel, but for whatever reason chose not to partake in the third entry to Project Soul's series. When following these long-running franchises, which typically change very little between iterations, I find it is sometimes necessary to sit one out. Gorging yourself is always more fun when preceded by a period of fasting. Well, I might be done fasting. The first "next-gen" version of the game, Soul Calibur IV is a finely crafted graphical treat. Call me shallow for saying so, but this thing looks fantastic in motion, and the graphical boost alone is enough reason to rekindle my still-burning soul.

Character detail is exceptional, but even more impressive are the environments. Namco has always done a great job of providing interesting rings to fight in, and this game will be no different. From colorful ocean-going ships to stone-laden jungle settings, the background artwork has never looked better.

One level set inside a dark Asian temple was a stand-out, with incense smoke slowly curling up around an intricate lion statue. Another was set inside a carousel, complete with horses and grinding gears. Breakable objects are now in place, though they do little to impact gameplay. I also spotted some strange birds that wander around the battlefield floors, another similarly useless touch.

The new characters look like a good time. Of those, I only got my hands on Hilde, the fully-armored chick who wields both a long spear and a short sword. Her combination of short and long range attacks, like a mix of Sophitia and Seung Mina, made for a refreshingly dynamic fighting style.

Speaking of Mina, I played a round as her too, along with a few turns at Cassandra and Taki. All played more or less as they have in the previous games, which is certainly a good thing in my book. I was Taki triple-kicking my way to victory in no time, and it felt great.

Most notably, the new armor-breaking combat mechanics have now been added. A gem at the top of each player's HUD keeps track of your combat style, allowing your enemy to see whether you are classified as a block-heavy whimp or an all-out attacker. If you block too much, your enemy can attempt to break through your defenses with a well-timed attack, which will break off a chunk of the player's armor.

The status of a fighter's armor can be seen with a small HUD element, and as the condition decreases, the player will take on more damage per hit. At a certain point, players can execute a finishing move by pressing the four primary controller buttons, automatically ending the match in favor of the attacker by way of a short fatality-style cinematic.

The idea behind this is obviously to punish fighters for excessive blocking. While in theory it sounds like a good idea, it was hard to tell whether it was a successful concept from the short time I had with the game. On the one hand, encouraging more offensive tactics is a plus. On the other, being finished off via a cinematic could become fairly frustrating. I'll need more time to make a proper judgment on this key addition.

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Of course, the game is also set to include online play and an expanded character creation system. And Yoda. I didn't get my hands on any of that, though.

Regardless of additions or changes, after playing a dozen or more matches, I was hooked on the weapon-heavy combat of Soul Calibur all over again. Whether it's a fundamental improvement as a sequel, I'm not sure yet. But it looked great, and I had a lot of fun with it, so color my soul gauge as optimistic.

Look for Soul Calibur IV on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 starting July 29.

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