Platforms: PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: Project Soul
Publisher: Namco Bandai
There might be those who suggest that SoulCalibur has never had its own identity, but that's not really true. The weapon-based fighter has, since the days of the Dreamcast, been a fighting game that's tried to welcome everyone and, not only that, but it's been one of the few series to successfully provided solo gamers with a reason to buy a fighting game. Yeah, about that. It must be said that in recent years, the series became a little bloated, mind: Overly complex game mechanics, not to mention gimmicky and exceptionally cheap cameo characters, had become the order of the day. Project Soul clearly felt that change was needed.
It would appear that the solution, to the former point at least, has been to take a leaf out of Capcom's books. The combat in SoulCalibur V is just as fluid, gorgeous to look at and artistically bountiful as it has always been, if not more. Indeed, making the combat look right has often seemed to play larger role when it comes to the series. Now, however, the fiddliness of the past has been replaced with systems that cater well to newcomers and there is no better example than with the revised Soul Gauge.
Critical Edge attacks replace Critical Finishers, but they're now far easier to execute. In the past, deploying your stunning move of balletic excellence would have required superhuman dexterity as you attempted to pull of a rather complex array of button presses. Now, however, all it takes is a couple of quarter sweeps of the stick, and the mashing of three buttons (or the right trigger) simultaneously. The result is suitably spectacular, although not quite up to the seizure-inducing special effects of Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
The Soul Gauge can also be utilised to augment your existing attack chains with a Brave Edge move, and it serve as defensive fuel for Guard Impacts, absorbing and then flinging back all attacks (high and low this time, no need to discern) and opening up your opponents to quick counter attacks. Not that you'll ever use them. You see, requiring a similar level of precise timing, and using the same button, comes the new Just Guard feature (which is basically the old Guard Impact, witha brand new name). Tap the block button just as a blow is due to land and you're character will parry the attack swiftly with not even a hint of being stunned, instantly ready to go on the offensive. It's so effective, that it rather renders the new Guard Impacts somewhat superfluous in the grand scheme of things. The system wasn't broken before, indeed it was one of the things that actually worked really well, so why Project Soul felt the need to change the defensive aspects of the game is anyone's guess.
There also seems to have been a serious attempt to really push aggressive playing styles. Combat is a little faster than before and the changes to the guard break system fail to offer cautious players much opportunity. You can only block for so long before your guard breaks and you're incapacitated for a moment or two. That's fine, more or less. The perennially defensive approach makes for an inferior spectacle, but the fact that your proximity to a guard break fails to reset at the end of each round is something of an issue. Additionally, the fact that you can only reduce your guard break level by going for an all-out attack approach and dealing damage, which appears on the face of it to punish the defensively proficient. Astaroth fans might not appreciate that.
That said, matches do prove to be rather satisfying when played, as they should be, with a friend sat next to you on the couch. Similar attacks will spark and bounce off one another, the 8-way run has never been better or felt smoother than it does here, grapple animations aren't quite as slow as before and the meat and potatoes of the cut-and-thrust gameplay, the need to watch your positioning and footwork, is as rewarding as it has ever been. It looks staggeringly beautiful too, both backdrops and animations, making it a feast for spectators waiting for their turn with the controller.
However, just as there are some issues in the ring, so too are there some away from it. The new characters, by and large are welcome additions. Patroklos dazzles with his Cassandra-esque moveset that strikes a better balance between speed and power than that of his sister. Z.W.E.I., with his odd grips and werewolf summoning, probably won't be an immediately favourite and takes some getting used to. But where are the likes of Zasalamel and Seong Mina? Where are the reams of semi-designed incidental characters from the previous game? Why the hell is Kilik back? Just when you thought they'd gotten rid of the cheating little bastard, not only does he get an avatar swap thanks to Xiba, but Project Soul snuck him in anyway.
Ezio makes a cracking debut, though, and is probably the best addition to the SoulCalibur roster since Necrid (please can we have SC II DLC characters Namco...please!). A good all-rounder, with some deft close range attacks and one or two powerful ranged options, he's best used as a mid-range fighter, with a number of his chain attacks making use of the 3D space. In light of the new tweaks to the gameplay, he's probably one of the characters I've spent most time using and is fast becoming a favourite. Not just because he utters 'Requiescat in pace' every time he defeats a foe.
Offline there's really not much to keep the lone player interested. This never really used to be a problem, fighting games are made primarily for multiplayer action after all, but you have to consider the series' history. Not only that, NetherRealm delivered a fighter last year that not only boasted a really quite lengthy good story mode, but also gave the player a vast array of unlockables and a dauntingly high challenge tower mode. SoulCalibur II, III and even IV to a certain extent were all games that you could plunge hours into offline. There's no excuse for not being able to cater to all comers and, for a game that's seemingly tried to do that in the ring, it's a shame that so much is lacking in terms of game modes.
The story isn't particularly worth bothering with, even though the voice actors give it a good go. At maybe three to four hours long (depending on difficulty level), it's told through sepia-soaked storyboards and features one ending and one ending only. The arcade mode and quick battle options serve only to allow for further unlocks and the chance to obtain 'titles' that you can use for bragging rights online in conjunction with the rivals system (more on that in a moment). Once you've bested those modes it's on to the Legendary Souls mode, which is exactly the same as the basic arcade except all of the AI opponents are vein-poppingly hard to beat. You'll give yourself a hernia.
I want to know what happened to Weapon Master, or even something like the Challenge Tower in SoulCalibur IV would have been fine. There are plenty who just play fighting games to thrash their mates, and unknown entities from across the globe, online, but plenty more as well who bought into SoulCalibur precisely because it was one of the few fighting games out there that offered genuinely engaging offline modes that did things a little bit differently. At least character creation provides its usual amusement, with lots more cosmetic customisation options; yes, including the ability to adjust breast size, but more importantly allowing like-minded people to stick afro hairdos on every character in the game. I never wanted to know what it would look like if Voldo and I had a child. Now I do.
Online, Project Soul have done better job at creating a competitive platform than with their last game. The netcode seems to run better, with lag only having been a problem in one or two matches thus far. Better still, is the ability to designate up to three rivals across PSN or Xbox LIVE, and have their progression and latest results, rankings and statistics constantly taunt you whenever you log in and vice versa. It's not exactly Autolog, but it does make for a more personal competitive environment. The lobby takes a leaf out of MK9's book, letting you sit and watch others at play before leaping into the fray yourself.
SoulCalibur V is something of a mixed bag. The refinements to the Soul Gauge and the introduction of Critical and Brave Edge attacks are quite welcome, but the emphasis on aggressive gameplay and juggle combos rather devalues the variety in movesets served up in this game, particularly against the AI. Played with a friend, offline or online, this game provides smooth and fluid fighting entertainment, catering to fearful more than ever before. But the price in content that's been paid for that may well prove far too high for some.
- New Critical and Brave Edge attacks work well
- Some great online options - especially Rival designation
- Captures the spectacle of balletic fighting superbly
- Fewer, less interesting characters
- A drought of unlockables
- Where's the single player content gone?
The Short Version: In trying to trim the fat and create a smoother and more focused experience, Project Soul have gone too far. Although probably the most sleek, shiny and accessible game in the series, it's also the lightest since the original game. Although it delivers a fine online experience, SoulCalibur V flies in the face of previous instalments, offering a pittance to the solo player and serving up an overall package that features little we haven't seen before.