Soul Calibur IV made a surprise appearance at this year's Ubidays event in Paris thanks to Ubisoft's agreement to distribute the game in Europe. We'd already played the game on the PlayStation 3 prior to Ubidays, but this was the first time that we were able to play as Darth Vader, and it provided our first taste of the Xbox 360 version with Yoda. Both editions are shaping up fantastically--a good sign given the two months left until release-- and we're happy to report that the Star Wars characters are not only excellent renderings of Lucas' characters, but also great Soul Calibur fighters in their own right.
The demo that we played had four playable characters and stages on both the PS3 and Xbox 360. Siegfried, Mitsurugi, and new character Hilde made an appearance on both, while Yoda is exclusive to the 360 and Darth Vader to the PS3. Each version featured the same stages, though, some of which boasted new features, such as destructibility and moving walls. The Ostrheinsburg Castle Throne Room had a wall of armoured soldiers that gradually closed in on the fighters, while the Phantom Pavillion had walls that could be broken down by smashing an opponent into them. Thesmophoros' Imperial Garden was the sort of idyllic green location that's now standard for a Soul Calibur game, while the Star Destroyer Docking Bay was the token Star Wars level--complete with laser beam walls and Imperial Shuttles in the hanger. Even better, the Imperial March music played in the background, completing a dream stage for Star Wars fans.
The highlight for many people may be these Star Wars characters, and we're happy to report that they work superbly within the Soul Calibur universe. Darth Vader moves much quicker than he ever did in the movies, but his double-handed lightsaber grip and rough-and-ready throwing style feel authentic to the character. He's also got some great intros and winning animations, with such quotes as "Do not underestimate the power of the dark side" voiced by original Vader actor James Earl Jones. The graphics engine also allows for some nice visual touches, with cloth deformation effects on Vader's cape and his shiny helmet reflecting the environmental detail. The same cloth deformation is present on Yoda's cape on the 360, and as you'd expect, he's even faster than Vader. Yoda's quick, unpredictable movements have clearly been modeled on his fighting style from Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones, and he has a great grab move where he jumps on an opponent's face and slashes it with his green lightsaber.
As well as new characters, Soul Calibur IV will introduce a couple of new gameplay mechanics to the series. The first is the critical attack, which can be used to break through the guard of a particularly defensive player. If you manage to land several attacks on a players while they're blocking, their defense will eventually become weakened and their health bar will flash red. If you land another powerful attack when this happens, the character will stumble backward--giving you a chance to hit all four face buttons and perform the critical hit. Each character unleashes his or her own particular finishing moves--in Siegfried's case, he strikes his opponent down with a highly charged slice from his sword.
But perhaps the biggest new addition to the series is online play. This isn't something that we got to see in action at Ubidays, but we did talk to the manager on the game, Namco Bandai's Katsutoshi Sasaki, about how it's shaping up. He conceded that while an online mode is an essential part of any fighting game these days, he still believes that it will help fighters of all abilities get into the series. The online mode will offer simple one-on-one ranked and unranked modes, but Sasaki-san described how players of similar ability will be grouped together to make matches fairer. There'll also be the usual leaderboards for the top players to track their overall standing. Speaking to the Ubisoft representatives at Ubidays, character customisation also seems like it will play a large part of the game postrelease. Characters can be adorned with various outfits and armour depending on taste, and these items can be unlocked by playing the game or buying them online.
Soul Calibur IV is looking very promising in the run up to release, with an impressive graphics engine and the unmistakable Soul Calibur gameplay both in place. There's little to choose between the two versions, and ultimately it may well come down to your choice of Star Wars character or preferred controller. The game is set to launch in the US on July 31 and Europe on August 1, so we don't have long to wait to start slicing each other up online.