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Critical Reception: Namco Bandai's Soulcalibur IV

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to this week's debuting fighter sequel Soulcalibur IV, which initial reviews claim is "unquestionably [Namco Bandai's] best fighting game to date."
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to this week's debuting fighter sequel Soulcalibur IV, which initial reviews claim is "unquestionably [Namco Bandai's] best fighting game to date." Described as the weapons-based alternative to Namco's flagship Tekken franchise, Soulcalibur established itself as one of the Sega Dreamcast's top titles, earning an exceptional lifetime average rating of 98 out of 100. A multiplatform sequel achieved similar acclaim, though its PS2-only follow-up Soulcalibur III met with mixed reactions. The PlayStation 3 version of Soulcalibur IV debuts this week to an average review score of 91 out of 100 at Metacritic.com, while the Xbox 360 port earns 90 out of 100. James Mielke at 1UP awards Soulcalibur IV a rating of A, explaining that the game successfully maintains a balance between hardcore tweaks and genre innovation. "As someone who's ­- as the years march on -- become less interested in how utterly hardcore a fighting game can be and more concerned with how a game can move the genre forward, I'm glad to say that Soul Calibur 4 achieves both," he begins. "Balanced and feature-rich, SC4 improves on the groundwork of core fighting mechanics laid in the series' previous iterations while giving players a virtual fighting sandbox." On the hardcore side, Mielke notes a number of minor improvements that make for a better game overall. "All of the returning vets -- Mitsurugi, Voldo, Raphael, Taki, and so on -- retain their signature play styles, but each receives worthwhile adjustments," he writes. "You can even tag-team characters now (SC finally catches up to Dead or Alive and Tekken in this respect), a feature that's long overdue." "Where SC4 really shines, however, is in its character-creation mode," Mielke continues. "The more you use your custom characters, the more options you unlock -- with a wealth of weapons and armor pieces offering boosts to strength, impact, speed, and more, while certain stat modifiers improve your chances to escape throws or reverse counters." Mielke asserts that these changes make Soulcalibur IV the year's best fighter so far, and Namco's overall best effort in the genre. "With the classic, new-school, and infinitely customizable character roster at the ready, and with online play fully operational, it's not a stretch to say this might be 2008's best fighting game," he says. "I think it'd be hard to top what Namco's accomplished with what is unquestionably their best fighting game to date." Over at Play UK, Jon Denton contributes a Soulcalibur IV review scored at 94 out of 100. "Refined really is the word," he says. "Having spent plenty of time on the original Soul Calibur before IV arrived in the office, the differences are glaring. Casual observers won’t notice, but the tweaks to the parrying system, the subtle changes to the movesets, character speeds and combo damage have made Soul Calibur IV more balanced than ever before." Denton makes early note that Soulcalibur IV's inclusion of characters from the Star Wars universe amounts to little more than disappointment, however. "They may have absolutely dominated the pre-release hype and press, but do you know what? They’re the least interesting aspect of Soul Calibur IV," he asserts. "It’s a weird crossover that never really works, beyond the initial wow factor of hitting Mitsurugi in the face with a Lightsaber, and while the Secret Apprentice is a little more mobile and useable, neither can really match up to the proper roster." Otherwise, Denton has plenty of praise for Soulcalibur IV's gameplay mechanics and tweaks. "The depth is there for the advanced players – the parrying system makes a welcome and slightly tweaked return, for example," he describes. "It’s now slightly easier to parry a postparry counterattack, leading to more of those brilliantly dramatic multiple-parry sequences that amplify the drama of a Soul Calibur bout." "There’s no fighting game that can match Soul Calibur’s eye for the dramatic and thirst for flair," Denton notes in conclusion. "It’s the pinnacle of the genre." Adam Biessener at Game Informer rates Soulcalibur IV at 8.75 out of 10, expressing simultaneous satisfaction and disappointment with many elements. "This latest iteration falls somewhere in the middle of the series' legacy," he explains. "While it doesn’t recreate the finely tuned excellence of Soulcalibur II, it sidesteps many of the issues found in III and adds a ton of single-player depth and lag-free online play." Dodging is described as particularly troublesome. "Unfortunately, sideways dodging in IV is just as bad as it was in III, with vertical attacks magically tracking to negate lateral movement on the defender’s part," Biessener critiques. However: "The flow of a round still finds that magical balance between combos, juggles, defense, and positioning more often than not, which is the most important thing." Biessener also describes Soulcalibur IV's non-traditional modes as being worth a look. "Venturing outside of the traditional Arcade or Versus modes is finally worth your time here, and not just for unlocking the full roster of characters," he claims. "The plethora of challenges, many of which hearken back to the totally unfair (in a good way) adventures in Soul Edge, will take even dedicated Soulcalibur nuts months to clear." "I normally don’t bother with this sort of peripheral frippery no matter the genre," Biessener continues, "but I spent almost as much time playing with the character editor as I did beating the crap out of Miller or the CPU." Though Biessener believes that hardcore fans of the genre will express their usual complaints, he otherwise finds Soulcalibur IV to be a worthy fighter. "Frame-counters and other savants will probably have issues with some aspects of Soulcalibur IV’s gameplay," he cautions, "but the average player or fighting game enthusiast is well served by this title’s array of game types and tight weapon-based duels. I know I’m more than satisfied." After a disappointing sequel in Soulcalibur III, critics note that much has improved in Soulcalibur IV. While some claim that long-time fighting game enthusiasts and series fanatics may be disappointed in some of its failings, most critics describe Soulcalibur IV as a polished, accessible fighter that marks one of Namco Bandai's best efforts in the genre to date.

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