soulcaliburSoulCalibur 4 marks the current generation debut of Namco’s Hack ‘n’ Slash fighting game series. While the game has been enhanced in some areas (notably graphics and online play), the game tends to be somewhat lacking in others (story and single player content). Even so, fans of SoulCalibur will once again have a chance to enjoy another installment of the fun and fast paced action that the series in known for, and there are even a few surprises included as well.

SoulCalibur 4 revolves around the Hero King Algol. Long before the events of the game, Algol spread peace thanks to his ability to wield the cursed sword Soul Edge without going insane. However, he was forced to kill his own son after he tried to steal the sword, and he ended up trapped inside the blade. Thanks to copies of the swords Soul Edge and Soul Calibur, he has been able to recreate himself from a memory. However, he still needs to recreate his physical body, and to that end he has created a giant tower in order to attract the world’s greatest fighters, in the hope that one of them will bring Soul Edge.

All of your favorites return, from Taki and Sophitia to Cervantes and Ivy. The new characters Ivy and Algol join the cast. In addition, there are bonus characters who are designed by manga artists. Although they share movesets with returning characters, they have their own unique looks, so they are similar to the bonus characters from SC3. Also, there is a crossover with the Star Wars universe of sorts, as Yoda is playable in the xbox 360 version (and can be purchased on the PSN for $5) and Darth Vader is playable in the PS3 version (and can be purchased on the Xbox Live Marketplace for $5). The Apprentice, who is the main character in the game “The Force Unleashed” also joins the cast on both systems. These characters have Force maneuvers that use a special ‘force meter’ to activate. Although they are somewhat unbalanced, it’s cool to have them in the game. Of course, you can also create your own character as well. The create-a-character mode has been revamped, and there are more options for tweaking your custom fighter. The graphics have been tweaked as well. There is a huge amount of detail in both the characters and the backgrounds. Even if a few of the backgrounds have been recycled from past SoulCalibur games, it’s nice to see the additional graphical tweaks that take advantage of the new hardware.

The gameplay is roughly the same, although some new tricks have been added. Characters can equip armor that enhances their abilities and grants them additional powers. A character’s armor can be destroyed, and they lose the benefits that that piece of armor provided. The Soul Gauge has been added. As you guard and make hits, it changes color. Once your opponent’s gauge is flashing red and a piece of their armor has been destroyed, your character can perform a critical finish, which is a finishing move unique to each character. Online play has been added for the first time in the series, and you can even take created characters online. It is laggy at times, so you’ll have to seek out opponents with good connections. You can also download new content on the Xbox Live Marketplace or the Playstation Network Store.

My main disappointment lies in the single player modes. The thing I liked most about the Soul series is that their single player story modes have gone above and beyond the usual “beat up everybody until you get to the boss then beat him up too” scenarios from other fighting games. They have contained story-driven modes complete with branching paths, unlockables, and details that shed light on the story and its characters. Heck, SCIII even had an RTS minigame! However, in SCIV, the story mode is as bare bones as it gets. When I pick a character, I get a screen showing their storyline. Then I go through 5 stages, including the boss. Sometimes I have to fight more than one opponent, other times I tag team with someone, and it is never explained why. Finally I get to the final boss, either Algol or Nightmare. At least I still get to see a good ending. There is also a mode called the “Tower of Souls”, where players can take part in several single player challenges. This mode is somewhat better, due to the variety. Thankfully, like in past SC games, there are lots of items to unlock. Achievement hunters will find lots have fun finding achievements in this game as well, as their nature is so random, and you’ll get gamerpoints for seemingly random activities. It almost feels like Dead Rising, where you’d be playing the game, then suddenly the achievement bubble pops up, and you’d scramble to press the big Xbox button to see what you just did to get your gamerpoints.

Now maybe I can let the bare bones single player mode pass if I consider that the development team used their time and resources on the online play and graphics. In fact, this is perhaps the first time I’ve seen a fighting game where I can create characters that look just as good as the guys who are packed in without the main characters having to lose out on graphical detail, so this is definitely a plus. Like its predecessors, SCIV is an awesome fighting game. It won’t overwhelm series newbies, and veterans will feel right at home. Now listen up Namco: for the next installment, I demand a deeper story mode, all new backdrops and music, and more play modes. The series has had all of these things since Soul Edge on Playstation 1, so I know it’s possible.