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SoulCalibur II (PlayStation 2) artwork

SoulCalibur II (PlayStation 2) review

"When playing in Extra Arcade, you can change what weapons your characters use in battle, provided you have obtained new ones. This can greatly affect how balanced a fighter your character is. Tamil can find a weapon, for example, that lets her take out anyone almost without effort, or she can pick a different weapon that has some attributes that are great and some that are a disaster. It's amazing how many ways Namco found to keep gamers playing."

Heihachi was enjoying his time at a hot springs retreat in Japan when he happened to notice a menacing shard of steel. His pulse quickened as he realized this was the part of the evil sword known as Soul Edge, the possessor of men's souls. Without a moment's thought, he dove for the shard, grabbed it in his fingers, and realized that he had cut his thumb with it. Ouch. Next thing he knew, he woke up in a field somewhere and thought to himself, ''Hmm, I must have woken up four centuries ago.'' And indeed he had, and that's why Heihachi is in Soul Calibur II.

I only tell you this in case you're wondering. The latest in a series of three fighting games, Soul Calibur II is the direct sequel to Soul Calibur, which in turn was the indirect sequel to Soul Blade. While Soul Calibur was released on the Dreamcast only, its sequel is making the rounds on all three of the current consoles. Each of these games has its own unique special character. Namco was fresh out of ideas when considering what character to plop in the Sony edition of this weapons-based fighter, so in the end they chose the weaponless Heihachi from Tekken fame. Whatever works.

And work it does, though not so much because of Heihachi's inclusion as the fact that Soul Calibur was always quite cool, and its sequel is much, much more of the same but in new and improved form. From the minute you turn on the power, you'll be assailed by one of the most stunning gaming experiences on the market today. Try to avoid feeling exhilarated as the falcon glides over the choppy surface of some waves, as each of the characters from the game is introduced in a stunning few seconds of computer-animated footage that will make any respectable gamer drool. When the title materializes on the screen, you'll likely be cheering, and that enthusiasm will last right through the slick menus that take you to your game.

Seriously, you've seldom seen an interface as polished as this one. Once you've got a memory card with a save on it inserted into your Playstation 2, the game does the rest of the work for you. It loads your file at the start, it saves to the file when you've accomplished something particularly noteworthy, and it does it all in a matter of seconds. There's almost no hassle. Equally polished is the customization interface. You can easily switch between the three available sound modes. Not sure your right rear speaker is working? Test it. Everything is that simple.

Speaking of simple, you can also make the game about as simple as you will need. Adjust the number of rounds in a fight, choose from six difficulties that accommodate even someone like me (when I first started playing Soul Calibur II it was after years of separation from Soul Calibur, which I was never very good at), and even modify the energy you have and number of seconds on the timer. With so many options, it's a safe bet that even your grandma can finish this game with enough tries. Maybe afterward she'll hook up with Heihachi.

Once you've made the proper adjustments to the game settings, it is of course time to play. At first, there are several modes available. These include the standard arcade mode (you play through eight rounds to see a text-based ending with a few pieces of artwork), the timed mode, the two-player versus mode, and a practice area. There's also the Weapon Master mode, which does as much for Soul Calibur II as it did for its predecessor.

Most home conversions of arcade smashes are content to tweak what people loved at the arcade. Throw in a versus mode and gamers should be happy, right? Not after we've played Soul Calibur. In that game, you wandered the globe and fought rounds of battle that progressed the story and got you goodies. In Soul Calibur II that's again the case, only it's much, much cooler. I was reluctant to even try the mode this time around, but I had come to the (absolutely correct) conclusion that if I was going to unlock more of the characters, I would need to. And so began what was intended to be a brief flirtation with that mode of the game, but turned into several hours of white-knuckled excitement and then the game's closing credits. Oops.

When you begin Weapon Master mode, you of course pick whatever character you think is the best for your fighting style. I remember choosing Kilik in the last game, so this time I tried Tamil. She's one of several new characters in the game this time around, and she looked suitably feisty. Once I chose who I would be looking at for the next few hours (though you can alternate as necessary, I chose not to), it was off to the races. The first few areas are simple, recommended adventuring for anyone. I learned again how to grab my opponent, how to block attacks, and what the difference was between the three attack types. Most excellent. This took only a short time and I was ready to go. From there, the game took me along a map, letting me stop at one point, then another. At each stop, there was text to read that advanced the story. I told myself it wouldn't be worth my time, but I read it anyway and almost immediately found myself caught up in what is actually a good plot (better than the story about how Heihachi wound up in the game, anyway). All the characters you'll recognize from the arcade mode's character select screen appear at some point in the story, and there are also additional characters you might have at first thought didn't make it back into the roster from Soul Calibur.

As you accomplish goals and progress along the map, you occasionally stumble across dungeons. These are simple little areas. You beat an enemy, you advance to the next square. Sometimes you have to make a choice. Choose poorly and you'll fight an enemy only to discover a dead end. Choose wisely and you'll be onto the next square. None of these dungeons are quite long enough to be tedious, though a few do come close. Fortunately, there's always an incentive to move quickly, such as a timer that lets you know how long before the whole place turns to a watery grave.

The further you advance into the Weapon Master mode, the more rewarding it becomes. This is because as mentioned earlier, it's a great way to unlock more characters. There's more, though. When you win a round, you get experience. As you go up levels, your rank increases. Even more important is your wealth. You get gold for winning rounds, which you can then use in shops found along the way. The inventory of these shops varies as you progress further and further into the mode, but always it contains alternate outfits, artwork, and new weapons for your characters.

Perhaps I should explain the whole weapons thing. Going back to the game's modes (some of which must be unlocked in Weapon Master mode), there is this thing called 'Extra Arcade.' When playing in Extra Arcade, you can change what weapons your characters use in battle, provided you have obtained new ones. This can greatly affect how balanced a fighter your character is. Tamil can find a weapon, for example, that lets her take out anyone almost without effort, or she can pick a different weapon that has some attributes that are great and some that are a disaster. It's amazing how many ways Namco found to keep gamers playing.

Of course, the biggest reason of all is that the game is so much dang fun, regardless of mode. There's an amazing roster of characters and almost each of them is more memorable than anything from Tekken. A wide variety of styles is represented, from the hulking Astaroth to the busty Ivy. As fun as the characters are, though, the best part is when they meet in the arena. While you can certainly button mash your way through the whole game, there's actually a rewarding system underneath that makes study a worthwhile endeavor. Since most of the fighters have terrific range due to their weapons, you'll quickly find yourself mastering the art of rolling to the side, moving in for the kill, using your foot to knock the opponent off-balance, and throwing him when you get close enough to grab him. It's outrageously rewarding, due in part to the visuals.

Ah, the visuals. Fighting games have always been about eye candy, and Namco certainly delivers here. Just the fact that Ivy is back for another appearance likely has a few of you nudging one another and winking. Aside from her, though (and perhaps Taki), none of the characters have an overwhelming Dead or Alive style to them. Bouncing bosoms are less noticeable, as most of the character models are more conservative in terms of bustiness. They often make up for it by being grotesque. Astaroth's pulsating chest is still eerie, and Nightmare's face and chest are just begging for some acne cream. There is even a special character named Necrid, courtesy of Todd McFarlane of Spawn fame.

Visuals go beyond the amazingly detailed characters, though. Backgrounds are simply stunning. That was true in the last game, too, but this time around they're even better. As I fought my way through the arcade mode time and time again to unlock each character's ending, I was stunned by the sheer depth. Even the backgrounds have backgrounds! There are multiple levels of scrolling, the textures are nothing short of breathtaking (most developers would just picture boards lined up next to each other in perfect symmetry, but Namco's artists lovingly detail each splinter that's out of place), and the colors all blend in perfect harmony. It's hard not to stare out over the water, out of the cave and to the distant waterfall while fighting near the pirate ship, or to keep one's eyes off the windmill as it spins lazily in the background.

Speaking of the windmill, it chugs somewhat jerkily on the Playstation 2. In nearly every regard, the Playstation 2 keeps up with the GameCube version. In some ways, the textures feel even smoother on Sony's system, which doesn't quite make sense but seems to be true just the same. Aside from the windmill, so far as I could tell, the two systems manage the same visuals. Most impressive.

Also impressive is the audio. Each character has somewhere around 50 different voice clips. Most of them are just grunts and groans at different pitches and lengths, but it's nice to see Namco paying this much attention to the tiny details. One gets the impression that if they wanted to make Heihachi sound horny, they'd devote three sound files to the process. Of course, it's not just the voices that got all the attention. There are also the background compositions, which are nothing short of epic. I played the game for hours on end without growing irritated by the music, which is richly instrumented and a real treat for the ears.

There's a reason people waited years for Soul Calibur II. Its predecessor was a great game, and Soul Calibur II is more of the same but with all the modifications you might expect. It's not just a rushed successor; it's a masterpiece in its own right. Nothing was done halfway. Right now, the only question you should be asking yourself is which version is the one you should own. Obviously if the only system you have is a Playstation 2, the question is already answered for you. It's also answered if you have multiple systems and you prefer Sony's controller. Then, too, there are the load times to consider. The average load time between a fight on the Playstation 2 is around 5 seconds, while it's 3 seconds on the GameCube. Minor differences, all around. In the end, the only difference that should influence the decision for the multi-platform owner is the obvious one: the extra character. If you're cool with Heihachi, the Playstation 2 version is the one to own. Otherwise, go for one of the other versions. Whatever you do, though, get Soul Calibur II! The fighting game fan in you deserves it.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (October 05, 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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