Regardless of whether you consider Soul Calibur III to be a new game, or just Soul Calibur 2.5, there's no denying that it is, hands-down, the most refined and feature rich fighting game ever produced for a home video game console. More miraculous, it's probably the only fighting game that diehard and casual players can agree on.
Under the hood, what Namco did was take Soul Calibur II and sharpen up the characters' fighting styles. "Backup" characters have their own move sets now and characters that previously had moves that put them an unfair advantage or disadvantage have been tweaked so as to not be so unbalanced. If you loved mopping people up with Kilik or Ivy in SC2, you may not appreciate that their cheesier moves have been removed or toned down in Soul Calibur III. On the other hand, if you hated how characters like Mitsurugi and Siegfried didn't have enough quick attacks or couldn't dole out as much damage in combos, you'll be happy to discover that they've got some new attacks now and can transition better while attacking. At the same time, Namco tweaked the command delays, recovery times, and physical momentum of attacks so as to greatly cut down on the usefulness of "turtling" and "button mashing." It's easier to knock opponents out of a guard stance and to break out of grapples in Soul Calibur III than it was in Soul Calibur II. The timing on the guard impact system, which allows players to parry attacks, has been tightened up so that players can't constantly knock away attacks with lucky button presses. These changes are good, because they force both players to be more aggressive and to learn how to effectively use guard impacts and side-steps to avoid attacks, as opposed to just cowering all the time. All in all, matches between skilled players in Soul Calibur III are livelier and faster paced than matches in Soul Calibur II were, which is pretty remarkable if you remember how aggressive that game seemed at the time.
Soul Calibur III isn't completely free of exploits, however. Neither was Soul Calibur II for that matter. It only took a month for tournament level players to uncover dozens of unfair attacks and game breaking glitches in Soul Calibur II. Everybody still bought it anyway, because the good far outweighed the bad. Those same players have been putting Soul Calibur III through its paces for a few weeks now, and while a couple of potentially exploitable glitches have been discovered, they're not as plentiful or as easily abused this time around.
Even though Soul Calibur III is a more technical game than Soul Calibur II, it's still very friendly to newbies and casual players. It doesn't matter if you've never played a fighting game before in your life. Anyone can pick up the controller, familiarize themselves with the basic commands, and hold their own in match after match. Basic moves and combos are easy to learn, and it doesn't take long to figure out what works and what doesn't. It also helps that the game is just plain cool. Unlike typical fighting games, the characters in Soul Calibur fight with weapons such as swords, spears, knives, axes, and everything in-between. When you see two swords come together in a spark shower impact, you immediately take notice and feel the urge to pick up the controller. So too, Soul Calibur III is a visual feast for the eyes, such that every match features two remarkably detailed characters duking it out in a vivid arena located in some mind-bogglingly beautiful exotic land. Newbies and casuals want a game that's easy to learn, fun to play, and that has eye-catching graphics. Soul Calibur III fits those criteria.
One aspect that everyone comments on after they've played a few matches is how balletic and fluid the characters are. Part of this is as a result of the game's physics, which make it such that attacks come out differently or land differently based on whether a character is standing, moving, or following through from a previous attack. If you launch an opponent into the air, you can "juggle" them with additional attacks. If you knock an opponent to the ground, you can get in a quick stab or kick while they're down. When you attack a character that's blocking, you'll both be knocked back a little bit and your opponent will lose a sliver of health. That setup is nice because it discourages players from keeping the guard button held down (a.k.a. turtling) and encourages the use of the guard move as a quick, in-a-pinch response to attacks. Further adding to the games diversity is the fact that the guard button isn't the only defensive move in the game. Since the game allows real sideways movement, you can side-step attacks and counter right way. You can also parry an opponent's incoming attack just by initiating your own attack right away. This parry style move is called a Guard Impact, and it's one of the series' hallmark features. Basically, each character has one or two attacks that, if you time the input right, will cause your sword and the opponent's sword to ricochet off one another. The clash will leave you both stunned for a split-second–him a hair longer because you initiated the guard impact. What all of this boils down to is visual diversity, or, more simply, "style." To watch two players play the game is like watching a dance routine where the two performers push and pull the tide of the performance back and forth with one "oooh"-inspiring move after another.
While Namco made a litany of primarily subtle changes to the way the game handles, they took a more obvious and "in your face" approach with the game's features and bonus content. There are 18 new and gorgeous locations to take in (along with 7 "classic" ones), and the character roster includes just about every fighter that has ever appeared in a Soul Calibur game, along with three new characters. In all, there are 42 playable characters. FORTY-TWO! As if that weren't enough, Namco hijacked an idea from Sega's Virtua Fighter 4 and put in a custom character editor. The number of customization options is off the scale, with a dozen different martial arts styles and hundreds of different clothing and body settings to pick from. Bonus content borders on encyclopedic, with promotional videos, martial arts demos, and character illustrations being the most notable unlockables.
What's really wild is how many play modes there are. It used to be that a fighting game would simply have an arcade mode for competing against the CPU and a versus mode for competing against human opponents. Soul Calibur III has numerous CPU and VS modes, including practice, quick play, 2-player, world competition (vs. cpu tournament), 2-player tournament, mission, and survival.
The two main single player modes are called "Tales of Souls" and "Chronicles of the Sword." Tales of Souls is like a traditional arcade mode, where you pick a stock character and attempt to play through their story. The one notable exception is that you can choose multiple paths after each battle, which gives you some control over the opponents you'll face. Chronicles of the Sword, by contrast, is an RPG style mode where you create your own characters and guide them through a unique story involving numerous embattled lands and the game's entire cast. What makes Chronicles of the Sword unique is that it's setup like a strategy game. In order to complete a chapter, you need to capture enemy strongholds and figure out the best path to the enemy's command post. Characters can be moved around alone or in groups, much like chess pieces, and you can have the CPU automatically fight your battles or select the "battle" command to challenge the enemy in a traditional arena setting. Some arenas also modify conditions such that you have to fight while poisoned, without guarding, or on slippery or sticky floors. Characters level-up just like traditional RPG characters do, and you can buy and equip different weapons that can bolster your characters' offensive and defensive capabilities.
Once again, the game's presentation is slick and technically marvelous. Many people have commented, truthfully, that the graphics and audio in Soul Calibur III don't make as giant of a leap over Soul Calibur II that SC2 did over the first Soul Calibur. While that is true, Soul Calibur III does feature numerous graphics and audio upgrades that do make it look and sound superior when compared to its predecessor.
Visually, while the character models haven't changed much, the backgrounds have been significantly improved. Characters still move fluidly and their costumes are still intricate, both in terms of design and physics. In real life, cloth tends to conform to a person's body and flap around when people move. That's also what the costumes do in Soul Calibur III. Of course, that was true of Soul Calibur II too. The majority of obvious graphical improvements to the latest game are located in the game's 25 backgrounds. Each is an intricate arena situated smack dab in the middle of a gorgeous setting, like an old clockworks, an ancient Japanese temple, or the canals of Venice. Pre-match fly-ins really show off the work that Namco's graphic artists put into the surrounding geography and throughout the match it's almost impossible to not stop and gawk at the amount of detail visible around the arena. You'll notice flames, waterfalls, fluttering leaves, heat distortion, and other sexy visual effects going on ringside and in the environment outside each arena. In one stage, there's an entire hallway and staircase on fire in the background, and the paintings on the walls surrounding the arena slowly catch fire throughout the match. The Pirate Raid stage, which is Cervantes's background, features massive undulating ocean waves and a constant crash of ocean spray. If you played God of War and remember how striking the first level on the pirate ships was, that's what Namco has achieved here. Most stages also now feature interactive elements, such as smash-able wall and floor sections. The damage is entirely cosmetic and doesn't change the layout of an arena, but it's a nice bit of extra visual detail.
With regards to the game's audio, the quality of the music is roughly on par with what was present in Soul Calibur II. Fans of the franchise's music won't be disappointed with the soundtrack for the latest game. Once again, Namco's musical department has come up with dozens of beautifully composed orchestral and classical compositions that add dramatic flair to the on-screen action and also put much of today's professional classical music to shame. Where Soul Calibur III trumps its predecessor's audio is by expanding the overall collection of sound effects and voice comments. It's crazy how many different sounds there are for footsteps, metal-striking-metal, and blades smacking against soft flesh. At the same time, the characters grunt, groan, and vocalize more frequently, and they're chattier before matches and during cut scenes. Between simple taunts and lengthy conversations, you really get the impression that the fighters in Soul Calibur III have distinct personalities and feel some guilt or joy over the prospect of killing their opponents and claiming the two legendary swords. Some of the English voice actors are perfect fits for the characters that are mouthing their words, but some aren't. If you're the kind of person that prefers original Japanese voice acting, you'll be happy to know that you can switch between English and Japanese voices in the options menu.
Many people voiced concern when they learned that Soul Calibur III wasn't going to be published on multiple platforms, but would instead be exclusive to the PlayStation 2. Namco's decision to focus solely on the PS2 left the development team free to optimize the game for the PS2's hardware, and enabled them to throw in all of those sexy graphical details mentioned above. They did such a good job that they pretty much managed to squeeze Xbox-like performance out of Sony's ancient black box. The game also supports 480p widescreen for HD capable monitors, and you can configure the audio to output Dolby Pro-Logic II in-game and Dolby Digital EX during cutscenes.
Personally, I've been playing this latest Soul Calibur game to death and haven't come across anything that I'd call a "deal breaker." I do have to mention a few subjective pet peeves though, some of which actually might matter to some people.
1) It's still Soul Calibur. As the numeral suggests, Soul Calibur III basically is just an updated and beefed-up version of Soul Calibur, and I'm kind of getting burned out on the series.
2) The CPU A.I. is "cheesier" than it was in previous games. The CPU takes advantage of juggles more frequently in this game, and has no problem constantly performing guard impacts, grapple cancels, and guard cancels. On the whole, the A.I. is still very diverse and emulates human tendencies really well–which is something that the series has always been noted for–but in this game, more so than the two before it, the CPU will sometimes develop perfect clairvoyance.
3) The loading times are longer than they were in Soul Calibur II. It takes five seconds for the game to load up a character model on the character-select screen. Load times between matches, typically, are approximately four seconds. They're as high as ten seconds in the Chronicles of the Sword mode, though, which bugs me because I had to pour a dozen hours into that mode just to unlock the majority of custom character options. I hate waiting, period. Clearer-minded individuals probably won't care so much.
4) No online mode. What's up with that?! I know full well that lag can make fighting games a pain to play online, but games like SNK Vs. Capcom and Dead or Alive Ultimate on the Xbox have proven that fighting games can be fun and competitive online even if command inputs are laggy or imprecise.
5) A majority of the game's custom character editing options are locked from the outset. It's one thing to make players unlock new characters and weapons–we're used to that and it gives us a reason to play through the standard game modes. But it's cruel to make players work just to unlock new disciplines and outfits for their custom characters, especially since doing so requires a time investment of at least a dozen hours going through the Tales and Chronicles modes.
All of the above-mentioned complaints are purely subjective. They bothered me but they may not bother you. If you can't get enough Soul Calibur, tend to stick to the stock characters, and have plenty of live opponents to play with, you'll be hard-pressed to find fault with Soul Calibur III.
There's no denying that Soul Calibur III is the most refined, most feature-rich, and most artistically pleasing fighting game ever released for a home video game console. Once again, Namco has managed to concoct a game that's deep enough for diehards and approachable enough for casual players. Series faithful should rent the game first in order to figure out whether or not they like the subtle changes that Namco has made. Everyone else should just head on over to their local game retailer right now and buy it. It's that worthy.