It seems fight fans are better off with a PlayStation 2 this Christmas. Not only does the PS2 have the superlative Tekken 5 exclusive to the console, but the fighting videogame world's other 500-pound gorilla, the Soul Calibur series, is now a Sony-exclusive with the recently released Soul Calibur III.
For Soul Calibur fans, Soul Calibur III features a roster of all of their favourite characters, introduces three new faces into the mix, adds a slew of new gameplay modes and, most importantly, retains the tight yet frenetic gameplay of previous titles. But while PS2 owners will rejoice, it's not all doom and gloom for Xbox and GameCube fans. Those who fell in love with Soul Calibur II on Microsoft and Nintendo's home consoles can take consolation in the fact that while Soul Calibur III boasts new game modes, its fighting core feels and plays remarkably similarly to the previous game. The new gameplay additions also feel tacked on for the most part - bottom line is if you've played Soul Calibur II, then you've experienced the best of what Soul Calibur III has to offer.
But if you are a PS2 owner, then there's no need for such downhearted consolation. Soul Calibur III is undoubtedly the best in the series thus far, offering up more characters and gameplay than any Soul Calibur before it. Its new parts may not exactly be as fun to play as they should, but the game's fighting system is so honed that it more than makes up for the rest of the title's slack.
Good news first - Soul Calibur III's fighting mechanics are still the best in the business, with only Namco stablemate Tekken coming close. For the uninitiated, Soul Calibur is a 3D-fighting game where all of the combatants fight with weapons. Gore is kept to a minimum, however - you won't see limbs or heads flying off, even though it does seem strange for characters to get back up after a heavy blow to the head from a 3-metre long broadsword. The game's controls are as simple as ever -- there is a horizontal slash, vertical slash and kick and block button, with movement done via the PS2's control pad.
The basics are simple, but there are literally dozens of moves for each character that can be pulled off via different control pad and button combinations. Add to this an extensive list of blocks, throws and counters and you've got a system that's simple at first glance but has many layers of complexity below. This makes the game imminently playable for newbies and hardcore fight fanatics alike. Frenetic button mashers will be able to pull off some impressive moves from the get-go, but only true veterans will be able to master the game at its highest difficulty.
There are more than 30 characters to be played in the game (only 15 are initially unlocked), but series veterans will be most interested in the three new additions: Zasalamel, a mysterious scythe-wielding warrior; Tira, a smaller fighter who uses razor sharp rings as weaponS; and Setsuka, a Japanese geisha with a parasol as a sword. These three additions will give fans of the series some new challenges, but for those who prefer to stick to older characters, they all make a return here. Aside from a few tweaks here and there, series veterans will have no problem immediately playing one of the established characters, as their move sets remain unchanged for the most part.
The game's main single player mode is called Tales of the Soul, a story-based mode which takes your chosen character around the world and into many one-on-one fights. The fighting's fine, but the actual story component of Tales of the Soul is a little disappointing. Most of exposition is done through text windows overlayed on a bland world map, although the game does try to spice things up by including the occasional diverging path where players have to choose which battle to face. There's also the occasional reaction-based minigame, where players have to press a certain button combo in time to an on-screen indicator. All the additions to the story mode are rather haphazardly done, however, and only serve to frustrate those eager to just get to the fighting.
The other major single player mode in Soul Calibur III is the disjointed Chronicles of the Sword, which attempts to merge the fighting with a real time strategy game and a character-building RPG. If that sounds like an odd mixture, it's because it is - Chronicles of the Sword has players taking custom characters onto a map, where the objective is to occupy enemy checkpoints by besting them in one on one battles. The RTS component of this mode is frankly not well executed, plus there are plenty of load times to annoy gamers.
In fact, if you're looking for straight out arcade fun, you'll have to look under several menus to find it (the inappropriately titled Quick Play mode). Thankfully, Soul Calibur III features an extensive Tournament mode which puts you in fictional local and international competitions. Its action all the way in these modes and it's a welcome change from the drawn out Tales of the Soul and Chronicles of the Sword.
As has become the norm with modern fighting games, Soul Calibur III has an extensive list of unlockable bonuses, which includes everything from hidden characters to new weapons, armour and accessories. The only way to access these hidden goodies is play plenty of Soul Calibur III, which for most won't be too much of a chore.
Soul Calibur III looks extremely impressive, which says something for the ability of Namco's programmers to push the ageing PS2 hardware to new highs. Every character is marvellously detailed, with the varying environments they battle on featuring as much graphical punch as the fighters.
When it sticks to fighting, Soul Calibur III is a definite must-have, featuring the same tight controls and in-depth system of earlier games in the series. Some of the new gameplay modes are more miss than hit, however.
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