SoulCalibur II (GameCube) review
"Rather than force you to face nine million matches to unlock all the hidden characters and their alternate weapons, Namco went the story-based route. When you first begin this mode, you appear on a map and get to read some text. This leads to a battle with an opponent, where you'll quickly learn the basic moves that make up a typical fight. From there, you advance onto the next area, where there's more story to read and an excuse for another fight."
For the typical Nintendo fan, the announcement was some of the most exciting of the year: Namco would be including the 'adult' version of Link in its upcoming weapons-based fighter, Soul Calibur II. Word spread across the Internet lines like wildfire, and I have to admit, I was caught up in the blaze. It seemed almost too good to be true, but Namco was entirely serious and they had Nintendo's full support. Inspired, Namco made similar announcements regarding the Playstation 2 version (it would feature Heihachi) and the Xbox version (Todd McFarlane's Spawn would make a guest appearance). I was unintrigued. Surely the GameCube version would be leaps and bounds ahead of the Playstation 2 version, if only because of Link. Right? Well... not so much.
Don't get me wrong. Link's inclusion in the GameCube edition Soul Calibur II is an inspired move that has deservedly moved quite a few copies of the game on that system. Gamers have wanted to see a more mature Link kick ass since they first received word that Nintendo's famed Hylian would be cel-shaded for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. And they got their wish. The Link of Soul Calibur II is vividly detailed and looks every bit as good as the instruction manual illustrations of recent years, every bit as stunning as he did in the Spaceworld demo so many Nintendo fans still reference with clasped hands and prayerful tones. In short, Link is just as cool as we imagined. The real problem is that it doesn't matter.
To understand a little better where I'm coming from, you need to know that I've played two versions of Soul Calibur II: the Playstation 2 one and the GameCube one. I enjoyed both. And here's the odd part: neither one really felt better than the other. It was fun to slice enemies up as Hyrule's hero, but that's a joy that can last only briefly.
To their credit, the people at Namco tried to increase the effect. The story of how Link arrived in the tournament is reminiscent of Zelda stories we've heard before. This one feels like it was ripped straight out of A Link to the Past. It's certainly more credible than the Narnia-inspired incident that accounts for Heihachi's presence in the Playstation 2 version. In addition, there are a good variety of unlockable weapons for Link to obtain, ranging from the bug net to the Biggoron Sword, to everything in between. None of this really makes the game a whole lot better, though. You either like Link or you don't. Therefore, his presence in the game will make you smile briefly or it won't. Nothing more. End of story.
So, now we got that whole Link issue out of the way. What about the rest of the game? Well, it's pretty much the same as it is on the Playstation 2. The excellent interface, a true godsend, was just as good on Sony's system. The number of characters in the roster is the same, too. Nintendo fans just get Link instead of Heihachi. And while some would point to the fact that load times between the typical fight in the GameCube version are three seconds long compared to the five-second affairs on the Playstation 2 edition, this is balanced by the fact that Nintendo's controller simply isn't as good for fighting games as Sony's. If you keep trying to compare the two games beyond that, you'll go insane. There's a series of checks and balances, it would seem, and neither really comes out ahead.
Which isn't entirely a bad thing. It just means the two games are even, and suddenly there's only one final question that matters: how does Soul Calibur II compare against other games you can find on the market. The answer should come as no surprise for any of those who played Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast, this game's immediate predecessor. Rather than jockeying for a good position near the top of the heap, Soul Calibur II shoves everyone else out of the way, trips them, knocks them into the dirt, then stomps merrily all over them. It's just that good.
The first sign of this is the falcon gliding over the water in the opening video. Considering I was watching this on the GameCube, I expected signs of compression, the little blurs here and there that make you wonder if your eyes are tweaking before you realize the mini-discs limitations are kicking in. There weren't any in sight. Any flaws in presentation were so miniscule that I couldn't find them, even after switching over to the Playstation 2 version and watching that. The only difference I could find is that the color tones on the GameCube version are slightly dimmer, and there may be a little less depth to the color palette. None of this detracts from the overall experience.
From the intro, it's onto the game itself, with loads of modes that for the most part must be unlocked. At first I was content to enjoy the arcade mode. It's a simple enough pleasure. You take your favorite character through eight rounds, including the final showdown with Inferno. I was disappointed by the lack of some of the characters I remembered from before, but heartened by the presence of eight slots for unlockable characters.
Once the fights got going, I remembered all over again that Namco is the king of 3D fighting games. My characters circled each other in some of the most beautiful arenas I had ever seen. Their bodies moved almost perfectly. Nothing seemed jerky or out of place. There were the occasional sharp edges when a character posed a certain way (an effect that I didn't notice on the Playstation 2 version, oddly enough), but otherwise all the images were so polished that I had to remind myself from time to time that I was playing a game.
As good as the characters are--and some would rightfully argue that they're the most impressive part of the videogame's visual package--they don't hold a candle to the environments. At least, not in my opinion. While it's true that most environments are just a square platform in the middle of different background art, Namco's artists disguise the fact in a number of ways. You'll really feel like you're up high on a tower when fighting in the windmill stage, or that you're on the face of a cliff in another stage, or at the center of a watery cave in yet another. Everything is detailed with astonishing care. Boards have splinters, and the splinters are shaded. Water ripples and reflects. Better yet, this microscopic attention to the small things extends out as far as they eye can see. You're looking at a television screen, but it instead feels like you're looking out the window at a fantastic scene you only wish could exist.
This immersion is achieved by more than just the visuals, though. Sound effects kick in nicely, as well. The game supports surround sound if you have the setup, and it's worth it to hear water gurgling to your side, or the windmill grating in the background, or whatever. Even if you don't have a fancy system going for you, the audio department is impressive. Each character has somewhere around 50 voice samples. If he takes a hit, he might grunt in one of seven or eight different ways. Then there's the musical score to consider. Amazingly, I have spent quite a few hours with this game and I still didn't get sick of its soundtrack. There's good variety, not a single song grates on the nerves even a little, and most of what's here is so richly orchestrated that turning down the volume seems almost a crime.
Of course, little of this matters after a few hours, when the dazzle has worn off and all you really want is a rewarding experience that will last a while. Fortunately, Soul Calibur II delivers in that regard, as well. This is due in large part to the Weapon Master mode. Perhaps you've heard of it. Rather than force you to face nine million matches to unlock all the hidden characters and their alternate weapons, Namco went the story-based route. When you first begin this mode, you appear on a map and get to read some text. This leads to a battle with an opponent, where you'll quickly learn the basic moves that make up a typical fight. From there, you advance onto the next area, where there's more story to read and an excuse for another fight.
Though all you're really doing is going from one fight to the next and reading a bit of text, the experience is somehow more rewarding than you might imagine. It feels neat to see your rival one step ahead of you, then to find out about a hidden temple or some tournament of warriors. Only occasionally does the plot get silly, and it's always ready to redeem itself with another satisfying twist. Even if you tire of reading the latest chapter, you'll want to keep going because as you do so, you're unlocking more characters for the game's standard modes, and you're also building up an arsenal of weapons.
Yes, weapons. As you know, Soul Calibur made a name for itself because it let players swing giant swords and axes at one another. And that's back, only Namco decided to take it one step further. Now each character has not only a default weapon, but several other options. The other instruments of destruction aren't just decorative, either; they come with different attributes that can greatly affect the outcome of a fight. Finding a new blade or knife (or insect net) can at times be almost as exciting as discovering that your favorite character was in the game all along.
It's a testament to the game's solid design that I'm able to say all of this with any authority at all. When I played Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast, I found quite rapidly that I lacked serious skill. When I plugged in its sequel a few years later, I expected more of the same. And I was right. But the Weapons Master mode this time around really has improved, and it taught me a lot about different strategies that can be used to turn the tide of battle. Suddenly, I realized the value in the occasional sidestep. I saw how cool it can be to throw one's opponent over the edge of an arena. All of these moves were now within my grasp.
Part of this is because the game allows you to ease yourself in. Whatever your skill, there's an appropriate point of entry. Namco's developers included six difficultly levels. The default one is 'Normal,' about two levels up, and it's a recommended starting point for anyone that's new to the franchise or just rusty after a hiatus. It gets tougher from there, and you can also adjust your life meter and the time limit. Also waiting to be modified is the number of rounds in a given fight. By allowing gamers to modify so many details, Namco opened things up so that anyone can enjoy this game with only minimal effort expended, but anyone can also face a serious, competent challenge if he or she so desires.
The word 'masterful' comes to mind. But then, it comes to mind in regards to nearly any aspect of the game you might care to name. The most serious flaw I've seen anyone point out is that Soul Calibur II is just more of what we saw in the original a few years back. That's not such a bad thing, though. After seeing more, more, more this time around, I'm just crossing my fingers and hoping that they eventually get around to making a Soul Calibur III. Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll be more of the same yet again.
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 06, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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