What's always been so great about Soulcalibur (in my mind) is that it combines pick-up-and-playability with the motivation to become really good on your own. You can dedicate days to learning the in's and out's of a single character. And if you're talking about Ivy, you can spend weeks, now that her stances have changed again. On the other hand, if you just want to duke it out with the computer for some quick in-game change, you can do that, too. While the AI doesn't necessarily reward spamming, it doesn't heavily discourage it, so newbies and experts alike can get into the game.
Soulcalibur on the Dreamcast was a piece of perfection, an arcade game faithfully reproduced on a home console and, more impressively, a console gamepad. When SC2 rolled around, I picked up the GameCube version so I could play as Link, and I found the fighting engine to be just as flexible and welcoming as it was before. Plus, the Hero of Time was a great addition to the cast (I wish he'd return!). I spent months with Soulcalibur 2. Like SC before it, SC2 had a sort of "mission mode," in which you fought under bizarre conditions to earn unlockables and coinage. SC2 also introduced the "Soul Charge," which powered up some attacks to become unblockable.
The Soul Charge would say "bye bye" in SC3, a PS2 exclusive which differed too greatly from its predecessors to warrant much time. Mission Mode became "Chronicles of the Sword," a very strange RTS/Fighting hybrid which was slow-moving and, at the higher levels, ridiculously difficult. However, SC3 introduced two important new concepts to the series: Character creation and fighting multiple opponents during a single fight.
And now we've got SC4, which has the potential to be the best game in the series. Overall, it falls a little short of the greatness that was SC2, but the gameplay is tighter, the mission structure is more refined, and the character creation aspect is impressively deep. What's more, SC4 adds a robust online element, although there are pros and cons to it that will need to be addressed in the next game.
For the solo player, SC4 is divided roughly into thirds: Story Mode, which follows one character through five fights in their quest to obtain/destroy the Soul Calibur/Edge, Arcade Mode, which tests your skills against a string of difficult single battles, and Tower of Lost Souls, which provides SC4's "mission mode." Story Mode is notable both for its brevity (each playthrough lasts less than 10 minutes) and for the fact that ending sequences are told through in-game cinematics instead of boring static images and scrolling text. Story Mode is where the bulk of your time will be spent, mostly because it's a quick way to earn cash and level-up individual character traits (more on that later).
Arcade Mode is designed with difficulty in mind. Players are asked to fight eight battles of increasing difficulty and are ranked based on their performance. These rankings can be compared with those of other players online, so if you're into that kind of thing, competition can be fierce. And like Story Mode, it's a good way to level-up your characters.
Tower of Lost Souls was implimented with created characters in mind. You take up to three fighters through a series of floors and are given an option task to accomplish on each floor. For example, one challenge might be to switch out with your partner three times, while another demands that you never miss an attack. One of the toughest challenges is to defeat your opponent while the timer is on zero. Whenever you succeed in accomplishing a goal, you are rewarded with a fat cash prize or a piece of equipment for the Character Creation mode. As you climb higher in the tower, the difficulty increases substantially, so simply beating the opposition may take priority over acquiring the treasures (which you can re-try later).
Character Creation is ridiculous in its depth and puts the same mode in SC3 to absolute shame. Remember in SC3 how you couldn't change your character's body type? Well, now you can. You can make a warrior woman with Mai Shiranui's proportions if you want. You can increase or decrease both the level of musculature and limb mass. The only thing you can't really change is height. And then there's the equipment--hundreds of pieces of interchangable gear for women and men, each with its own set of statistics. Your fighter will eventually be ordained with unique skills, such as "Auto Impact A," which turns a large fraction of your normal blocks into Guard Impacts, or "Nullify Ring-Out S," which makes being kicked off a ledge impossible. Each of the stats which modify which skill set (Power, Impact, Boost, Gauge, Special) fluctuates based on what gear and weapons you select. Do you see where this is going? Yeah, it's insane. What's more, each piece of equipment modifies your character's attack damage, defense, and total HP. Do you want to create a dude with 200% HP? You can do that, maybe at the expensve of your skill set, but the point is that it's possible. The game welcomes customization based on individual player strategy. And you can create up to 50 characters!
You can even modify existing SC4 roster characters. While you can't change their unique costumes (besides change their colors), you are always able to switch up their secondary costumes. Primary character models are able to equip "Special Equipment," a group of accessories available only to SC4 roster characters which increase or decrease certain stats. You can then select that skill set as you would a different costume on the player select screen.
The Character Creation mode's only real downside is that, unlike SC3, you are unable to create characters based on alternate weapons not found on the roster. Remember the tambourines and grieve edge boots in SC3? They're nowhere to be found here. Instead, you are limited to existing character movesets. As you defeat more opponents with any single moveset (like Kilik's), that moveset levels up, allowing that character access to more skills. Of course, once you gain access to the best skills, you will probably have to mess around with that character's weapons and equipment before you have the attribute points necessary to equip them!
Online Mode is also introduced. You can play against opponents for fun or for rank. The more opponents you beat in a ranked game, the more experience you get, and the higher your online level increases. Online levels exist as a way for you to gauge your opponent's skill level before entering a game. I'm only at level 3, so I don't want to go up against some level 22 guy. For me, anyway, online mode is kind of a throwaway. After playing enough online to earn some Honors (Achievements), I gave it up, as there were problems.
First, you can customize any match request, but when the result screen comes up, there will often be a lack of matching players. Second, if there ARE matching players, selecting one will usually result in the message "The Session is Already Full," and the game will boot you back to the match request screen, where you must re-enter your match request and sit 'n' twiddle your thumbs while the computer searches again. Also, you should never enter a match with less than 4 bars of connection, as doing so results in crippling lag. So if you like online play, that's really a lot to sit through. If you don't, like me, you can simply ignore it.
Okay, so enough about the modes. What about the gameplay? It's Soulcalibur! X is horizontal attack, Triangle is vertical attack, O is kick, and X is block--same as always! Character movesets have been tweaked from the last game or reworked entirely (they gave Ivy a whole new stance), and some previously cloned characters have finally gotten their own movesets (Seigfried is no longer Nightmare's clone, and Amy plays very differently from Raphael, for example). Rock is still lame, though. There are several additions to the roster:
Hilde is a heavily-armored, lance-wielding spitfire who, aesthetically, is the complete opposite of her female companions. She's also great fun to play as, but takes some getting used to, as her moveset feels much different than the other SC fighters.
Shura, Angol Fear, Ashlotte, Kamikirimusi, and Scheherazade are all "bonus" characters designed by prominant Japanese comic book artists. Those five girls are heavily stylized (only Shura seems to fit the SC aesthetic) and have cloned movesets. They are unlocked as you play through Story Mode.
Famously, Darth Vader appears on the PS3, while Yoda is on the 360. I suspect that, in time, each missing character will be available as DLC on both systems since the full character roster still has two open slots: One for a random character choice and another right next to Darth and Starkiller. Since I have a PS3, I got Anakin. He's slow but brutally powerful, and, oddly enough, fits in with the rest of the SC gang.
But Starkiller, Vader's "secret" apprentice, doesn't. He holds his lightsaber backwards and enters every fight in an awkward stance. His attacks are powerful, sometimes too much so, but he's fairly difficult to control. Also, his design is generic and boring. I never play as Starkiller unless I have to use his broken Force Throw move to easily ring-out opponents in the Tower of Lost Souls.
The overall gameplay package gets a new addition called "Critical Finishes," which are essentially fatalities. However, they are brought on by the defender. Players who block too often will bring their Soul Gauge down. Cracking that orb results in a stun, during which time the opposition can unleash a one-hit-kill maneuver. Stay at least partially on the offensive and you'll be fine, although some of the Critical Finishes are really cool. Switching out is another first for the series. During the Story and Tower modes, you can press R2 to switch between your available characters. Doing so will allow the resting character to regain their HP.
I really wish they'd used a multiplayer switch option, so that two players could tackle the Tower together. Maybe in the next game.
Graphically, SC4 is eye-poppingly gorgeous. The shadows, particles, and light effects dazzle and confuse the mind, while the character models move with newfound life and great facial expression work. And don't discount the background elements. You'll be fighting alongside hippos and dodo birds, a magma cauldon, and, yes, the Death Star Hanger as ships fly in and out. My only wish is that...*gulp*...SC4 had the same "breast physics" that DoA4 and DoAX2 do. Why? Well, it looks strange when Ivy's string bikini is somehow holding her bustling busom in a lock when that's clearly not what would be happening. The same follows for Shura and Sophitia, both of whom should be falling out of their tops.
Not that I want them to be falling out of their tops, but when the rest of the game's physics engine is so top-notch, it's strange to see that one area (two areas?) not conform.
The music is equally awesome and epic, although I can't say the same for the voice acting, which retains the series trademark of being hammy and uninspired. Half of it doesn't make any sense, but at least they improved it from SC3 by making some of the character say context-sensitive things (like when Sophitia fights Cassandra in Story Mode). But really, there is no storyline. I mean, there is, sorta, but that's not why you're playing this game.
So yeah, SC4 is freaking awesome. Yeah, there are some minor problems here and there, but nothing big. Overall, it's a wonderful, wonderful game and I can't recommend it any higher. In fact, the only reason I say it's slightly inferior to SC2 is that SC2 had a far more robust Museum, whereas the one in SC4 is meager and unimpressive. But again, that's not the main draw. That'd be the fighting engine, graphics, Character Creation and...
Bewbies. Let's be honest. ;-)