It should be noted upfront that I am both a big fan of 3D fighting games and an unrepentant, inveterate button-masher. When I come at an opponent in a fighting game I will hit the same button over and over and over again until the opponent shows me that they can block it, at which point I become a little flummoxed and need some time to regroup. Usually I try to gain that time by pressing any and every possible combination of buttons until something cool happens.
That out of the way, let me tell you about Soulcalibur IV (the latest title in a franchise I haven't visited since the original Soulcalibur appeared on Dreamcast). As a 3D fighter, the game operates in the best traditions of the genre, pitting one character against another at a time (though some matches do allow for tagging in teammates). The graphics are beautifully smooth, and each character is given a distinctive fighting style.
Each and every level in the game is stunning, and the vast majority of them allow for opponents to be knocked out of the ring, but all are distinctive. Some are larger and some smaller, but not feels overly cramped or expansive.
In terms of gameplay itself, the game is a pretty standard 3D fighter, and anyone picking up the controls will be able to quickly learn how to perform high and low attacks, throws, and blocks. The game also features the addition of a "Soul Gauge" which is designed to prevent players from simply blocking attacks repeatedly. If a player performs too many blocks, the gauge will begin to flash and a player will go into "Soul Crush" mode which prevents further blocking and can lead to pretty spectacular finishing moves.
There are over 30 characters available in the game, though most of them need to be purchased with money earned during play or unlocked via gameplay. There are very few truly "new" characters here, and many of them I distinctly remembered from their appearance on the Dreamcast.
The most obvious addition in terms of characters on the Playstation 3 version of the game is Darth Vader and The Apprentice (from Star Wars: The Force Unleashed). In addition to regular skills, they also have some pretty good "Force" abilities, which tend to give them advantages in battle. The Xbox 360 version of the came swaps out Vader for Yoda (and one can only hope that sometime down the line Vader will be downloadable for the360 and Yoda for the PS3).
For single players, Soulcalibur IV features an extremely abbreviated Story mode, the only real point of which seems to be that it allows users to unlock more characters and various extras. There is a brief, written, introduction for each character in this mode and a different final scene after the last battle, but as there was never really any attachment to the character created via the story, while the end cut scene is nominally interesting it is not truly affecting.
Though this extremely minimal Story mode is a disappointment, the game does have a number of other modes to make up for it. There is a pretty standard, though fun, arcade mode and the "Tower of Lost Souls" mode which is, in effect two different modes. There is an "Ascending" mode, in which a player has to battle through a few floors without a break (with a different number of fighters depending on the level). Each level features some sort of unlockable element (weapons, clothing, armor, etc.) which is freed upon performing specific actions during the floor (x number of blocks in a row, KO'ing an opponent without taking any hits, etc.). The "Descending" mode makes the player (with two fighters) go through floor after floor nonstop.
One of the best elements of Soulcalibur IV is its Character Creation system. All the standard characters can be customized with various choices of armor, weapons, and looks, and all new characters can be created as well. The game does a wonderful job of balancing out the created characters so that even with unlocked equipment it is difficult (if not impossible) to create an unbeatable character. By adding more powerful armor or weapons something else, like the ability to equip special powers (hit recovery, etc.) is diminished. Consequently, one can spend hours tweaking little bits and pieces of their characters to work out the best combination for their style of play.
There is also an online mode which performs exceedingly well. Players can choose to be able to use characters with or without special abilities equipped. Matches can be either ranked or unranked, but the game does not seem to try and pair low level players against one another. The first few hours I spent playing online I fought opponents who were ranked at levels 40 and above as opposed to other newbies. Though it is, of course, possible to beat more experienced players, it does give the impression of being thrown into the deep end before actually learning how to swim.
The game features a two player mode as well. It is perfectly fun, but slightly disappointing in that team battles cannot be played. In single player, there are several modes that put two-plus fighters on each side, so the game ought to be able to support it in two player mode, but for some reason does not.
Despite whatever shortcomings it may have (and there are some), Soulcalibur IV is a spectacularly fun game for both novice players and genre experts. A more fully developed Story mode would have improved it significantly, but with the addition of the "Tower of Lost Souls" mode and online play there is still enough taking place to make up for that. The graphics, both in terms of the characters and the levels are wonderful, and the gameplay is almost as smooth online as off. The addition of the Star Wars characters may seem a little out of place and gimmicky, but they are easily avoided by those who wish not to see them (except in Arcade mode, where The Apprentice is a staple).
Soulcalibur IV is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Partial Nudity, Violence, Sexual Themes and Mild Language. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360.