LAS VEGAS--At CES, Namco showed off a playable demo of Soulcalibur IV and announced some surprising guest characters for the game's roster of combatants. We got our first look at the multiplatform fighter in motion earlier this year at the Tokyo Game Show but hadn't had the chance to try it until today. However, news of the playable demo was nearly overshadowed by the announcement that Namco and LucasArts have teamed up, with the result that Darth Vader and Yoda will appear as console-exclusive playable characters.
The news that Darth Vader would be exclusive to the PlayStation 3 version of the game and that Yoda would be exclusive to the Xbox 360 game was a surprise but was not unexpected given the franchise's history. Soul Calibur II set the precedent with three console-exclusive characters back in the day: Heihachi from Tekken appeared in the PS2 game, Link from The Legend of Zelda appeared in the GameCube game, and Spawn of comic and cartoon fame appeared in the Xbox game. The Star Wars cameos are a bit left field but, given that Darth and the Y-man are packing light sabers, not too big a stretch. While neither character was playable, we were able to catch a glimpse of them in motion in a trailer that announced their inclusion in the game. We expect Internet debate to kick up a bit over the hidden meaning of what each console's exclusive character has to say. The only thing we're sure of is that the pair will most certainly play better than the original PlayStation's Masters of Teras Kasi fighting debacle, considering the Soulcalibur team's experience.
Sadly, neither character was playable in the Xbox 360 demo on display at the event, so we'll have to reserve judgment on how they fit into the action. However, we were able to try out three characters--Mitsurugi, Taki, and Cassandra--in two different backgrounds. Namco reps on hand were quick to point out that the demo was roughly 50 percent of what the game will offer, and next to none of the new additions to the system were present. So there were no finishing moves, stage interactivity, or new character attacks. Instead, the demo offered a modest taste of basic combat and the visual upgrade the game is getting on the PS3 and 360.
The combat in the demo felt familiar because the game will use the same button layout as before and will feature an array of strikes, a kick, and a block, with combos and special attacks when you mix up button and direction combinations. The three characters handled as they have in previous versions, with Mitsurugi kicking much butt with his sword and powerful moves, Taki tearing foes up with lightning-fast attacks, and Cassandra offering a more balanced attack style. The two environments were basically outdoor areas in two different settings. One had us fighting in a Grecian locale that featured columns and stone statues, which had us thinking it was a stage for Cassandra or her big sister, Sophitia. The second arena was bordered by a lush rainforest on one side and a vast river heading off to nowhere. Both locales had a decent amount of space to move around in, with some ring-out hazards, but they didn't do much outside of look pretty. The arena by the river showcased the best hippo modeling and animation this side of Sony's Africa--when that hippo yawned we were totally feeling it.
While the fighting system was solid as ever and did give us an idea of how the final game is going to wind up, the visuals stood out a bit more because of the bump the game is getting over its predecessors. The three fighters were looking good, although the game's incomplete state was obvious in a few spots. In general, the fighter models look great and benefit from the extra polygons being thrown their way. Detail on all the fighters is up (although some of the scarring on Mitsurugi is still being worked on), and their clothing contains a number of different animated elements that move convincingly in battle. Of the two females, Taki is the current lady on the roster testing the limits of gravity with her ginormous and independently bouncing breasts. At present, the speedy fighter is bounce-tastic and tremendously lucky to not knock herself out during her more athletic combos. By contrast, Cassandra's bounce factor is considerably lower thanks to her outfit's corset-like style. Fortunately, the physics madness has missed Mitsurugi for the moment, although we're a little worried about what this might mean for Voldo (but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it).
Based on what we've seen, Soulcalibur IV seems headed in the right direction. The combat system feels solid and should be a good foundation for the team to build on. The visuals are shaping up nicely, and the team is clearly having some fun with all the added processing power and polygons afforded by the new hardware. We're eager to see the various new additions come into focus, especially the character customization and online play and how the Star Wars characters get balanced along with the rest of the crew. Fans of the series should be pleased by what's coming, and newcomers to the series should consider checking in on this latest entry if they've never tried it, since it doesn't appear that this generation of consoles will be having an overabundance of 3D fighters. Look for more on Soulcalibur IV as it becomes available.