Friday, 7 July 2017

Edgy swords and calibured souls

Retroactive review: SoulCalibur II HD Online

Back in the early 2000's I'd heard so many good things about SoulCalibur on the Sega Dreamcast, the sequel to SoulBlade (SoulEdge in Japan). Jokingly referred to as "Tekken with weapons". It was the first game that not only got a perfect arcade port, but also had been extensively upgraded for the Dreamcast. The days of superior arcade graphics had passed, now the consoles were better.

I could hardly wait when SoulCalibur II was announced for my platform of choice that generation, the PlayStation 2. Released in 2003 for the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox, one year after the arcade, it was the fighting game I learned to love on my PS2. Finally putting my other beloved Namco produced PS2 fighter into it's DVD case for a rest; Tekken Tag Tournament. SCII felt fresh, different and more exciting, much thanks to it's 3D orientated 8-way movement and exciting weapons to battle with. But also because I had never experienced the franchise before.

Although I somehow never care to think of the 2000-years as "a long time ago", seeing the introduction video and hearing the sounds of the main menu in SoulCalibur II HD made me realise it's ages since I played it. I remember battling it out with a friend who also had the game, aggressively debating which character was the best one and comparing how far we'd reached in the main story mode. Every fight was about trying out new tricks and strategies, but perhaps even more importantly; learning how to stop them from damaging you. Wonderful memories that give me that warm nostalgic feeling, even though I never settled into the PS2 library as fondly as I did with the PS1. I guess retrogaming nostalgia is picking up for that console now too as it's such a long time ago.

Going back to the story mode I mentioned, I cannot avoid the subject of how excellent it was, called the "Weapon Master" mode. I'd always thought that fighting games were a tad shallow in their content before SCII. Discussing this topic and agreeing with my SCII rival friend; we'd love to see a fighter with some sort of grander story content than a simple arcade mode back in the early 2000's. Behold when SCII arrived then, we missed out big time on the Sega Dreamcast and the first SC with exactly the same mode here in Norway, which offered just what we'd hoped!

In Weapon Master you embark upon a story of a traveller seeking the mighty Calibur sword. Each location give you, while simply presented as text, a small back story and description of where you are and why. Fights will typically be multiple battles with one life bar, some sort of boss or scenarios where the ground is slippy or your life decreases rapidly. These mission-like tasks give the game more depth and lifespan to the singleplayer, an unusual feature for fighters back when SC1 and SC2 released. Granted the story was simple and completely alike regardless of which character you chose, but it at least felt refreshing and far more ambitious than the competition, and that meant a lot for my opinion of the game.

Let's not completely forget the arcade mode though, it's the standard affair of a series of fights, followed by one main last boss fight and then a short ending to watch. Nothing new, but it's standard affair when fighters are concerned and  a fast and fun way of collecting endings. Costumes and new weapons though, have to earned and bought through points earned in Weapon Master. Kind of forcing players that wanted stuff unlocked to play the main offering of SCII. Something everyone that plays this game really should!

There's a fairly large and varied number of fighters too. Each with unique weapons and moves. Learning the moveset and most of important of all; the range of your weapons key to becoming more skilled at SCII. That range gives you the knowledge of knowing when you can strike with a vertical or horizontal blow and knowing when you can approach and avoid the enemy's weapon. Be it nunchucks, a fighting stick, a samurai sword or a long whip you are up against or using, you need to know how far it could reach or how fast it could hit to become skilled. It still is very fun, and was a huge change for me back then from fighting with fists and legs like in most other fighters at the time.

SoulCalibur II HD Online is a faithful conversion of the old console game. Everything looks just how I remembered it, although the jaw dropping graphics look incredibly simplistic by today's standard. This time though, it's not running through the infamous horrible video output of the PS2 (even the Dreamcast which predates the PS2 with two years has much better image quality output), which hampered many games from showing their best side, but in glorious 1080p at 60fps! Smooth, sharp and still pretty nice looking in it's upgraded resolution.

It's perhaps the last graphical effort the arcades pushed before disappearing as home consoles became extremely powerful and far more advanced. In a time just before the dawn of online console gaming too. To modern eyes it may look a little sterile and empty, but it's clean and sharp presentation without tons of clutter onscreen feels kind of a refreshing change compared to modern games. Plus it also has this colourful arcade, 90's Sega-like flair to it's visuals that I can't exactly explain. Colourful and vibrant then, showing off it's high polygonrate and impressive 3D models of it's time.

The game still plays fast and responsive, it's fairly simple control scheme captivates even today. Perhaps the appeal of a simpler game is breath of fresh air as many fighting series these days take for granted you're familiar with them in advance. The variation in fighting styles are quite impressive as each character feels distinctly different. Be it long range weapons or close combat ones. As a minus though, which is not an issue for me since I was playing the game as a singleplayer one, I don't believe this game has received any of the patches the arcade version did. As such, I'm guessing there are ways to cheat with certain characters not being balanced enough. This will leave hardcore players annoyed, it was a chance to make the definitive version of the game and they still missed that mark. Sadly.

Can SCII still hold up though, besides nostalgia in a clean presented and high resolution package? Is there anything to get here that younger gamers can't receive through a far more recent fighting game? Well, I felt the SC series after this release became a little cluttered with ideas and new directions that perhaps weren't well planned out. As such I feel SCII still offers a more pure Soul Calibur experience, just before the series went a bit overboard. The Weapon Master mode still stands out as a fairly unique idea, that rarely has been touched since in a similar fashion. There's also a ton of unlockable content here, further showcasing these were the days before paid DLC cluttering any extras you would want to obtain.

All things considered though, it's probably a purchase that values itself best for nostalgic players rather than newcomers. Back in the day I'd give this five stars without blinking, these days it falls back a star compared to more modern iterations. Plus they missed the mark on making it the go-to definitive version by not including patches from the arcade version.




I've thrown hours of hours into SCII through my teenage years and I replayed the Weapon Master mode once again now. I feel it's kept it's charm well and would recommend others with fond memories of SCII check it out on either Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Xbox One. If the Dreamcast was your scene though, don't worry there's SC1 available too in HD (only on Xbox 360 & One mind), though it hasn't retained it's weapon master mode sadly, but it's an excellent port nonetheless.

A fighting game classic then, a ton of great memories and a fun reunion! If I were to pick one of my favourite fighters through the years alongside Tekken Tag Tournament and Dead or Alive, I'd pick SCII each time. Just like I'd pick Ivy each time to be my fighter!

Let the nostalgia battle commence!

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