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Soul Calibur II is available for the PS2, GameCube, and Xbox, but this review is only going to specifically cover the PS2 and GC versions. The core gameplay is the same in all three versions, and it rocks, so the 5/5 I'm giving SCII could apply to the Xbox version as well. For the most part, this review is going to be a general overview of what makes Soul Calibur II good no matter what system you play it on, but at the end I'm going to do a little comparison between the two versions I have: PS2 and GC.
Soul Calibur II packs a ton of modes, and all of them are fun to play through. There is the standard arcade mode where you fight through several opponents and open up a little story sequence for your chosen character. Other modes include time attack, survival, team battle, and the very useful practice mode. Extra versions of these modes can also be unlocked. The extra version of each mode allows you to use the weapons you unlock in the Weapon Master mode while the normal version of each mode requires you to use each character's standard weapon.The Weapon Master mode allows you to buy or unlock new weapons, costumes, and even new characters. In Weapon Master mode, you must overcome special conditions as you progress through each area on a map. Some matches take place on quicksand or ice while other matches take place on platforms ranging from very big to very very small. Other matches give you objectives you must complete in order to win. For example, perhaps you can only do damage if you hit wall combos or use Guard Break moves. There are also dungeons you have to fight through, which consist of several matches against unknown opponents under unknown conditions. There is a lot to the Weapon Master mode, and there are tons of weapons and costumes to unlock. To open up everything the game has to offer, as well as beat the arcade mode with all of the characters, takes a good 20 hours. With practicing and just playing through for fun and the thousands of multiplayer matches that you are sure to have, Soul Calibur II has the potential to last you for a really long time.
What sets Soul Calibur II apart from other fighters is that it is both easy for beginners to pick up and enjoy but it still offers enough depth to keep hardcore fighting fans interested. Recent 3-D fighters lacked this balance. Tekken 4 was great for novices but couldn't keep experts interested for long. Virtua Fighter 4 (and Evo) was extremely deep, even more so than SCII, but it was so unforgiving that it was too hard for beginners or even average players to pick up. Soul Calibur II strikes a delicate balance between ease of play and overall depth, and that is why it is the better game out of the big threeŁ that have been released over the last year or so.
The key to Soul Calibur's success is that it manages to be both simple and complex at the same time. There is one button for vertical strikes, one button for horizontal strikes, one button for kicks, one button to block, and one button to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Combining these buttons produces new tactics and adding in directional movements gives you even more moves. It is possible to play SCII with just basic attacks and throws and still be quite successful. This makes the game fun for novices. They can pick up a controller and get impressive results right away.
For players that want to dig a little deeper into the SCII bag of tricks, there are a multitude of tactics that you can use. First up is Guard Impact. Pressing guard and forward or back at the right time will parry your opponent's attack and give you a second or so to launch an attack of your own. Another tactic is to use the Soul Charge. This adds a lot of power to your weapon, but you are vulnerable while it charges. Using the 8-way run is another tactic that you can use, but it isn't absolutely necessary. 8-way run allows you to move pretty much anywhere you want in the arena. A great way to avoid attacks is to simply try and step around them. The 8-way run also opens up new attack possibilities as new moves become available if you attack from the side or the back.
There are more attacks and techniques to use, but to cover them all would take days. Things such as buffering (being able to add in commands between the commands of the move you want to perform so that human opponents won't be able to see the telltale movements of, say, Ivy's Summon Suffering move), reverse Guard Impact, three different levels of Soul Charge, air combos, wall jumps, and wall combos. The characters all have different stances you can switch to that open up loads of new moves as well. There is a lot to learn in Soul Calibur II and all of the tactics are well worth learning for hardcore fighting fans, but like I have said, it isn't necessary to know everything in order to be successful. It is worth learning, however, and I highly suggest using the practice mode so you can learn how to get the most out of each character.
Among the 20+ characters, it is easy to find a character that suits your style. Whether you like to engage in quick attacks, focus on defense, use a lot of throws, or a combination of all of the above and more SCII has a character that will match your style perfectly. Some characters are harder to master, like my personal favorite Ivy, but most characters are easy to learn and then the game simply becomes a matter of applying the right tactics in the right situations. I sound like a broken record, I'm sure, but Soul Calibur II is a very user friendly fighter and the variety of characters with different fighting styles and all of the different ways that each person will figure out to use them really make the game a lot of fun to play.
The only complaints I have about SCII are all character related. Some characters have a distinct advantage, so much so that you'll dread facing them in the arcade and Weapon Master modes. Raphael, Voldo, and Ivy particularly stand out simply because the way the computer uses them on any difficulty other than easy can only be described as cheap. Those three stand out because the rest of the characters are so balanced in comparison. Another complaint I have is that Necrid is a lame character. He was designed by Todd McFarlane specifically for SCII, but compared to the rest of the cast he just doesn't fit in. He looks like he would be better off in a Mortal Kombat game than amongst the ranks of the SC cast. Speaking of lame characters, the console specific characters aren't all that hot either, but I'll get to that later.
Graphically, Soul Calibur II is one of the finest looking games out there and definitely the best looking fighter. The characters are all very detailed, right down to their hair blowing in the wind or clothes moving around realistically during combat. The arenas are also very detailed and look great. Also, the special effects for charge up moves look very good. Overall, the graphics are crisp and clear and look gorgeous. Likewise, the sound is very well done. The music gives the game an epic feel and it really fits well with the sort of medieval theme of the game. The clang of metal against metal and the other sounds of fighting have never sounded better. The characters all have quite a bit to say as they taunt you during matches.
And now for a bit of comparison between the PS2 and GC versions. The biggest fear most people had about getting the GameCube version was that the controller really doesn't seem like it would be that great for a fighting game like Soul Calibur II. I can honestly say that once you get used to it, the GC controller does an excellent job. I actually prefer using the control stick rather than the D-pad so you don't have to worry about using the GC's horrible little D-pad. Once you get used to the button placement, the GC controller does a fine job. Of course, the PS2's Dual Shock is easier to get used to and might provide a slightly better experience depending on how you like to play. Hitting your G+B throw is easier on a Dual Shock, simply because pressing the B and Y buttons on the GC controller is rather difficult, but it is easy enough to change the controls to your liking. I assigned my throws to the shoulder buttons of the GC controller, for example. The point I'm trying to make is that you shouldn't have to worry too much about the controller of the system you want to buy SCII for. Both the Dual Shock and the GC controller do an excellent job, so GameCube owners should have nothing to fear.
The only real differences between the GameCube and PS2 versions of SCII lie in graphics and load times. The graphics are slightly sharper on the GameCube, and the framerate on the PS2 version stutters every once in a while, but it is something that only happens once in a great while and you barely notice it. The difference in load times between the two versions is something that leans strongly in favor of the GameCube, as you'd expect, but it actually makes a big enough impact on the flow of the game that it makes it hard to recommend the PS2 version over the GC version if you own both consoles. Loading a match on the GC only takes a couple of seconds. It is so fast, in fact, that you are usually already in the arena before the pre-match taunt sound bytes are over. The PS2 version takes considerably longer. The GC takes maybe three seconds to load while the PS2 can take about ten. When comparing the two, the GC version is just plain more fun because you can go from match to match much quicker and attempting the same Weapon Master level over and over again doesn't seem like such a pain.
Oh yeah, there is one more difference: Link is in the GC version and Heihachi is in the PS2 version. For all of the message board arguments over which version would be better because it had a better exclusive character, I am sad to say Link and Heihachi really, really suck. Link's problem is that he has a bow and arrow and boomerang and none of the other characters have projectiles and that gives him an unfair advantage that the computer will make use of every chance it gets. At least he looks freaking awesome and his alternate weapons and costumes will make Legend of Zelda fanboys (myself included) very happy. The PS2 version's Heihachi doesn't have a similar advantage and is actually at quite the disadvantage. He doesn't have a weapon and his reach is miniscule, so he is pretty much useless. At least Link has a weapon and look that fits in with the rest of the SC II characters. Heihachi simply doesn't fit in. Even though Link can be a cheap projectile firing bastard, he is still better than Heihachi.
So what version should you get? The controls for the GC and PS2 version are both great, so put your fears of using the GC pad behind you. It does a great job. The graphics and load times are a bit better on the GC version, but unless you have them running side by side you won't even notice. The only other factor is which exclusive character you prefer because, lets face it, everything else between the different versions is pretty much the same. Seeing adult Link with realistic graphics is actually a pretty awesome sight, and he proves to be a better fighter than Heihachi, so I would say the GC version has the advantage here. My choice for the superior version is the GC version. I would expect the Xbox version has similarly fast load times and great graphics, so I would recommend the GC or Xbox version over the PS2. The only thing the PS2 version has going for it is the Namco demo disk that comes with it, but the demos and trailers aren't all that hot, I'm afraid. No matter which version you get, you are definitely getting one of the best fighting games on the market and it is a game you can be proud to own.
Overall, Soul Calibur II is a great game and it was well worth the wait. The graphics and sound are spectacular, it controls like a dream no matter what system you have it on, and it is flat out fun to play. The characters are well designed and unique and you will probably find yourself choosing a favorite character based on their personality rather than just their moves. The game is easy enough for beginners to pick up and enjoy, something that is very important because multiplayer matches make up a big chunk of the playtime you have with any given fighter, unlike a certain other fighting game that required hours of practice to really enjoy. Soul Calibur II is the best 3-D fighter out there, not because it is the deepest or has the most moves, but because it has the ability to appeal to everyone. Whether you get it on PS2, Xbox, or GameCube, you are in for a treat.
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