Soul Calibur II HD Online
“Transcending history, and the world, a tale of souls and swords, eternally retold.” That’s the po-faced introduction that greets you upon launching Soul Calibur II HD Online, and it sums up the game pretty succinctly: weapon-based battling, with interesting character options and a side order of incomprehensibly overdramatic voiceovers, rereleased to a new generation.
Soul Calibur II HD Online is a remaster of the 2003 Playstation 2, Gamecube and Xbox classic. Soul Calibur II is a game that holds quite a special place in my heart, as it was one of the games over which I bonded with people early in my time at university, and very little has changed from that game beyond the additions suggested by the title: a graphical upgrade, and the inclusion of an online mode.
Like most HD remasters, the graphical upgrade is the most noticeable change from the original. The stages on which fights take place are the most noticeable recipients, with plenty of HD shininess. That being said, the characters, once in motion, all look lovely, although pre-match close ups tend to reveal the aging models upon which the characters are based. It’s not like Soul Calibur II was a notably ugly game anyway though, and it probably isn’t actually the raw graphics which benefit the most from the increased computing power available, but the framerate: gameplay feels liquid smooth.
The major new feature implicit from the title is the integration of an online mode. This takes the obvious form of head to head versus battles, and is pretty basic: it only takes two or three clicks and two or three seconds to go from the title screen to character selection, and finding a match is rarely a challenge. It is possible to filter by issues such as connection quality or opponent quality if you so desire, but that probably only adds another second or two to the matchmaking process.
These additions are really a case of tinkering around the edges to provide some justification for a further release of the game. The obvious question that is then begged is whether such a release is justified, based on such relatively meagre tweaks to the original.
The answer is yes. Or rather, the release of Soul Calibur II HD Online is justified; not because of the new additions, but simply because Soul Calibur II remains a fantastic fighting game that is thoroughly deserving of being brought back to the forefront of current console gaming, rather than languishing unplayed on long-obsolete consoles.
The ten years that have passed since the original console release of Soul Calibur II have done nothing to blunt the edge of the gameplay. It’s the same fast-paced, perfectly balanced fighter that it always was. Attacks are divided into the vertical and horizontal, the low and the high; combos are easy and intuitive; further variety to attack methods is provided by slow, powerful unblockable attacks and partially blockable throws. Strategies of a series of powerful individual blows or long combos are equally viable approaches for almost every character.
Most battles take the form of barely controlled chaos. Each match round is constrained by a time limit of 50 seconds, but it’s a rare event for even the most cagy of rounds to last as long as 25 seconds, as combatants, both human and AI, will tend to rush in and seek to land a flurry of blows. Attack is most definitely the best form of defence, and this leads to battles that are generally brutal and short. It’s not uncommon to sit down for a quick game and stand up half an hour later having completed 25 or more matches.
Balance remains one of Soul Calibur II HD Online’s strongest attributes: an enthusiastic amateur button-basher can, with a little luck, defeat a more experienced player with enough regularity to keep them interested, yet not with enough regularity to give the impression that button-bashing is the most viable tactical approach to the game.
The characters remain a lovely mix, ranging from the giant, slow axe-wielding Asteroth to the tiny, nimble tonfa-twisting Talim, taking in all sizes and combinations in between. Kilik, with his long reaching staff, and Voldo, with his gimp suit and apparent complete lack of joints or sanity will be instantly effective for beginners; Ivy’s chain/sword and Mitsirugi’s katana can be close to unstoppable in the hands of experts.
The sole disappointment with Soul Calibur II HD Online is that the old complaints that could be levelled at Soul Calibur II remain. The final boss in Arcade Mode, Inferno, is probably the weakest character in the entire game both in terms of looks and gameplay, and it feels like a real missed opportunity to not create a brand new character to fill this role (or repurpose one from another entry in the series), because Inferno does nothing but make the conclusion to Arcade feel underwhelming. The stories of characters in Arcade Mode also remain so briefly sketched that even referring to them as “stories” is a gross overstatement. The single player experience is only supplemented by Weapon Master mode, a relatively joyless slog through a series of only occasionally interesting challenges. These are relatively minor niggles in what remains a great game.
The timing of this release is particularly interesting, coming as it does with the gaming world moving into a new console generation and reflecting on the one that has just gone. Soul Calibur II HD Online has a part to play in this reflection, because it does beg the question of whether there have actually been any advances in fighting games in this generation. The Soul Calibur sequels added very little beyond bizarre tie-in characters. Amongst the other big names of the genre, Street Fighter IV tightened up an already strong system, Tekken was largely absent, and Mortal Kombat was largely mediocre. The only new feature added in this generation seems to have been the more widespread use of systems similar to like Street Fighter’s EX Special attacks, which have generally been dumbed down to become about giving the player something “cool” to do, rather than supplementing the core mechanics of the game.
The lack of progress in the genre over the last ten years then leads on to question of what sort of future fighting games such as this might have. As a pure one-on-one matchup against friends, a good fighting game is hard to beat, particularly one as well-balanced as Soul Calibur II, where newbies and devotees can compete on a fairly equal playing field (something that isn’t the case with other major head-to-head genres, such as sports games). But it’s also very hard to suggest any marked improvements that can be made to these types of games, and therefore to justify future games. And that applies not just to the games that are in the market now, but equally to the games that were in the market ten years ago.
Soul Calibur II HD Online illustrates this perfectly: with the core game given nothing but a face lift, it remains a great fun experience, even if it’s the exact same experience that it provided ten years ago. The new features add very little, but then there’s very little that needed to be added even ten years ago, and therefore it remains to be seen whether similar tales of swords and souls will continue to be eternally retold.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy provided by Namco.
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