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I've been cracking virtual skulls in fighting games from around the time of Street Fighter 2 on Super Nintendo. Though this makes me a roughly 20-year veteran of fighting games, I've never been what could be considered a hardcore fighting gamer. My interest in the genre has waxed and waned over the years, mostly due to a lack of consistent people to play with after high school ended in the mid-1990s.
I still bought new fighting games over the years, but would eventually tire of them because playing against the computer is oft masochistic. There are infinite pools of opponents to be found online now, but the multiplayer of olden days was harder to get going for obvious reasons. Virtua Fighter 5 was one of the few fighters that got the computer AI right. By watching humans play and incorporating their play styles into the game, Sega created something more balanced and intuitive, something less infuriating than the evil omniscient bastard that most fighter AIs end up being.
Eat Thunder and Crap Lightning
But I digress. To clarify why I consider myself a casual fighting fan… I don't learn unbreakable combos. I've never played in a tournament. I can't consistently pull off the fireball-fireball-three-button super moves that most fighters require, maybe in part because I've never owned a fighting stick controller. When reviewers talk about guard impacts, just guards and other precisely timed nonsense, I zone the hell out. I don't dick around in the training mode for hours to perfect my move arsenal.
But I'm also not some incompetent spammer. I won't decline a fight request unless a person is repeatedly being an annoying douche (Astaroth corpse-grabbers come to mind). Above all, I don't farm crappy players for rating. I play for fun, and if I can't get my numbers up without selectively fighting bads, it just ain't meant to be. I'm sometimes focused enough that I'm darn-tootin' good, but it's not every match, and I don't generally sweat a loss unless it was particularly cheap.
Houston, We Have a Problem
In reading various SCV reviews and forum discussions, one finds the older games inspire an obnoxious amount of rose-colored nostalgia among players. Not that the old games should be forgotten, but too often fans just refuse to accept that this or that feature is gone. I've tried to ground my issues with SCV, which are numerous, in the distinction that the problem is less what's not been carried over, but how well the existing features have been implemented.
Before really digging in here, it might be easiest to just say if you're someone who has never enjoyed SoulCalibur games in the past, SCV isn't going to win you over. It's all basically the same as before, as subsequent fighting games tend to be, and even represents a solid step backward regarding options for players (weird hermits) in search of a solid single player experience.
Unfortunately, the game feels rushed. You may have heard SCV has a lack of modes, and this is true. The Story mode amounts to a couple of hours of incredibly boring (but thankfully skippable) cutscenes broken up by slightly varying fights. A high tolerance for vapid tiresome sentient sword bullshit helps one get through this complete waste of time. Besides Story mode, which by the way features a single unchanging and thoroughly terrible story, there are Arcade and Legendary Souls modes.
The difference between these is negligible. In Arcade, you fight six matches against random opponents. There are no character endings, and the only reward is a meager amount of progress toward unlocking content. The first couple matches have the difficulty set to "Vegetable" while the last couple are closer to "Deep Blue," by which I mean at higher difficulties, the AI becomes goddamned psychic at reacting to your inputs. The Legendary Souls mode dispenses with politeness and just facefucks you for all seven rounds, the first of which I gave up on beating after half an hour.
All Out of Gum
The disappointment of the single player is a shame, but then who's really buying SCV for the single player? Not many probably. On that note, the online multiplayer is great fun and runs darn smoothly this time around. Making the online work better is maybe the best thing Namco-Bandai could have done in terms of making SCV good. I've seen very little stuttering or slowdown over numerous online matches. The game is reliably responsive to inputs, and if the base game is already fun (it always has been) the question of quality boils down to minutiae.
In addition to a matching system with several welcome options to refine your search for opponents, SCV has a very informal lobby system that allows people to hang out and chat in between fights. I can already see the awesome potential of this for delightful public humiliation as players become known by name in the community. Having a keyboard makes chatting much less tedious, if you have an extra laying around. The only real problem I've encountered in online matches so far is an occasional tendency for opponents to drop after taking a thorough ass-beating in the first round. They always blame their connections, but come one guys. Come on.
A few gripes about the fighting itself… it feels a little stiff. The characters don't quite move fluidly so much as snap from move to move like cheaply animated cartoons. This might be a side effect of the action moving incredibly fast, which in itself poses a couple of problems. It is insanely hard to accurately react to attacks that are coming every second and switching from high to low to high. As a result, you must often lamely hold block in hopes of stopping potential incoming attacks, rather than specific ones.
It's arguable this is how fighting games generally work, but when blocking a set series of timed hits, shouldn't it be possible to sneak in a quick hit and disrupt them? Once you're hit or have blocked the first hit, it feels like you're locked in that reaction. Again, this is coming from a player who struggles with counters and special blocks. One last issue pertains to the fight length, which is a little short. It stems from a combination of small health bars, overly heavy hits and the speed at which those hits come. The Critical Edge super moves don't help this situation either, and feel a bit cheap (a third of your life bar? really?) when compared to someone actually getting the jump on you with regular hits.
Much Ado About Nothing
Sooooo yeah, I've ripped pretty hard on SCV here, and although my complaints are sincere, I also recommend they be disregarded. As problematic as some of the design choices are, my simple conclusion is SCV is still massively fun. Once the action gets going, the flaws feel forgivable. I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a lot of content waiting to be unlocked through DLC patches, as there are already three DLC packs planned for the month of February, mostly featuring items for the custom character creation.
Apart from the satisfying gameplay, the other bright spot of SCV is the custom character creation mode. The joy of winning an online match is greatly enhanced by doing so with a personally tailored avatar. Unfortunately, unlocking the majority of creation items requires playing for hours and hours, but even with the meager starting selection, I was able to make Gonzo the Muppet, Illidan from World of Warcraft, a version of Final Fantasy Aeon Shiva and a big, cuddly cowboy named Bronco. The options for customizing your characters are vast, and in only the first few days, I've seen some wildly imaginative creations online.
I have reservations about urging many to buy SCV, if only because it's only designed to satisfy one kind of gamer, the online versus player. There is virtually nothing of value for players without a good internet connection. It just doesn't feel like a complete package, especially given that it is a $60 game. The bottom line is that people who have loved other SoulCalibur games in the past will probably be happy enough to play this next iteration, but Namco-Bandai has done their best to make SCV as mediocre a package as possible.