"Sooooul Calibur... FOUR." It's the booming voice that heralds the fourth iteration in this esteemed fighting game series, that echoes across the room grabbing the attention of those hard at work, that makes grown men giggle like girls in excitement of what's ahead. It is, as the voice announces, Soul Calibur IV.
We went hands-on with an early build of Namco Bandai's brawler and played around with the three characters made available in these early stages - Mitsurugi, Cassandra and Taki.
Initially, there didn't seem to be major surgery performed on their movelists since the Soul Calibur III days. Taki seems to have had her speed and priority toned down ever so slightly, while Cassandra still seems like a powerhouse. Mitsurugi still has his sword stances, the same old launchers and ghetto tricks. The novelty was seeing them in shiny next-gen clothing rather than checking out their new moves, as it felt like familiar territory for those three faces.
This extends to the actual game itself. There are no gameplay mechanics that shift how Soul Calibur IV is played for those coming off the back of III. Everything feels slightly more deliberate and studied but there's nothing substantially new to get your head around. It still has Guard Impacts, horizontal and vertical attacks, ring outs, throws and so on.
The two arenas we tried were also somewhat smaller than those seen in Soul Calibur III. One arena took place in the jungle, with dense, slimy vines cutting off all the stage except for a nearby water edge to grab a quick Ring Out victory. In the background... hippos! The other stage didn't have hippos, as it was a Greek ruins level for Cassandra, with crystal clear water surrounding the stage for those looking for a Ring Out victory. Two very different stages but one thing they shared in common was that they were both quite small.
The Future Online
There's a reasonable explanation for downsizing the arenas and making everything more deliberate - the online mode. This is the big selling point for Soul Calibur IV and arguably an inevitable one, as Soul Calibur III shunned the arcade until long after its console release, with Namco looking to other avenues to allow fans to get their mano-a-mano kicks. And so it has arrived, via the online mode.
And it will be popular. Soul Calibur IV's appeal should lie in mainstream areas Virtua Fighter 5 couldn't reach. Example: Gillen asks what the buttons are. He is told A is block, B is kick, X and Y are his attacks. And then, he mashes all the buttons, like he can see a Test Your Might mini-game the rest of us can't.
It's that kind of ease of play that will ensure the masses are attracted to Soul Calibur IV. There were a few odd glitches in the build we played - characters wouldn't stay down after a KO and throws still did full damage when teched, but these are the kind of kinks that will definitely get ironed out before release. More importantly, under the gloss and the shine, there was a sense of fun that has kept the Soul Calibur series burning bright to this day. Keep an eye on this one. And don't pick Mitsurugi, he's ours...