Overblown, operatic music? Check. Lavish cutscenes that don’t make a lick of sense? Check. An almost impossibly responsive control scheme? Double check. To the miserly, constructing a new Soul Calibur game may seem more like a purely economic endeavour than an especially artistic one, but to dismiss its lack of broad innovation in comparison to its genre competitors would be a huge mistake. Street Fighter took a brief trip beyond hardcore before it returned to something that everyone could understand, and Mortal Kombat gleefully descended into the seventh circle of self parody before wisely going back to square one. Soul Calibur may never had made any such journey, but in the wake of those wildly successful reboots, this now seems like elementary good sense: why bother messing with something if it was perfect in the first place?
Soul Calibur V may have pinched – like every decent fighting game made in the last three years – an approximation of Street Fighter IV’s Super/Ultra meter, but it’s the smaller refinements that weave the most magic here. The series’ customary Guard Impact system has been scrapped, and replaced with a scheme called “Just Guard”. This involves repeatedly being able to nail a “Perfect” guard: essentially hitting block at the exact moment that your opponent’s strike lands. It’s a mechanic that’s nowhere near as pernickety and intimidating as something like SFIII’s parry system, yet it becomes essential very quickly; if your opponent successfully nails a perfect guard, you’re unable to retaliate for the best part of a whole second. The fact that one measly second feels like an eternity here is a great exemplar of just how much more hardcore-friendly this iteration really is, and yet at the same time, somehow it’s never overly threatening to newcomers.
Where Soul Calibur V really raises its game though is in its absolutely superb online multiplayer suite, which again (sensibly) takes most of its cues from Capcom’s esteemed behemoth. Using the most recent incarnations of Street Fighter IV as a blueprint, numerous new tournament options, replays, customisable player cards, spectator lobbies and online leaderboards are all present and correct, and having played the game extensively in the wake of the launch day performance patch, we can attest that technical hitches and lag were almost entirely non-existent. Comparing the online offering of its predecessor with this is like comparing a beaten up, faulty old Lada to a brand new Rolls Royce; multiplayer has always been the most (only?) important aspect of any contemporary fighting game, and Namco are now thankfully only too aware of that fact. If Soul Calibur has always been your favourite fighting game tonic, prepare to be spoiled.
The new single-player story mode is much more involving than expected – telling its daft-as-a-brush story via a mixture of grandiose cutscenes and gothic, tapestry-style tableau – but the amusing (and patented) portentousness of the ring announcer’s banter is a little hard to take when everything else has the exact same tone. That said, there is a huge amount of entertaining content here, and the more-extensive-than-ever customisation suite has seemingly been built solely to bring aspiring comedians out of the online woodwork – which we can’t wait for. The heinous cheapness of the AI that was present in previous episodes (and Soul Calibur IV especially) has been very commendably reined in, Ezio Auditore fits in like an old hand and the tortuous Mission Modes of old have been thankfully scrapped. Soul Calibur V may be staggeringly good looking… but it ain’t no bimbo.
Soul Calibur V is available now for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Watch the launch trailer for Soul Calibur V below: