In Soul Calibur III, I am a lowly level 10 Saint-class warrior dressed in a traditional Chinese changbao robe and armed with a magically elongating Monkey King-style quarterstaff. Across from me is my opponent, the 1000 pound, level 60 barbarian, Astaroth, with his 2000 pound "great" sword.
The omnipresent announcer chimes "Fight" and I lunge at Astaroth with a wide swing. It's deftly blocked. I sidestep and twirl my staff in big circular attacking motions. No success. I step back and launch a powerful missile-like staff attack, but again, I fail to find my mark. Astaroth rushes me a sweeping upward blow that sends me straight into the air. I'm struck several more times in mid flight with only a fraction of my health remaining before hitting the floor. I recover off the ground, but I'm nervous now. I've lost my composure. What do I do next? My mind races through the unending list of moves available, but Astaroth doesn't afford me a split-second to focus. He's right in my face and the horrific finishing blow that I don't see coming follows. This one takes my legs from underneath me and it's over. Astaroth-12, Chi-0.
It would take me several more humiliating matches before I could manage to discover and employ a more effective technique and as luck would have it, I managed to finally defeat Astaroth. However, there was little time to savor the victory because it didn't take long before I would encounter another tough adversary and go through the same trial-and-defeat process before I would emerge victorious. All another win meant was another opponent to struggle against. Not all battles were so difficult, but the pattern remained the same. The ebb and flow of the battles frustrated and drained me to the point of mental exhaustion.
Boxing is often called the "sweet science." The strategy, execution and skill make up the "science" and I'm assuming the thrill and satisfaction of victory is what makes it "sweet." In Soul Calibur III, I feel there's very little "science" that goes into the combat and consequently, victory isn't particularly "sweet."
That's not to say that the weapons-based combat that drives the heart of the gameplay in Soul Calibur III is not complex or wrought with intricacies. Being the third part in the series in addition to hundreds of similar types of versus fighting games, the multitude of rules and deep mechanics that govern the types of strikes, counters and damage in the game are finely tuned and well tested.
The problem is that all the development and evolution hasn't resulted in a more satisfying test of wills. Mental toughness, strategy and training aren't the decisive factors they should be. Classic maxims of competition like honor and courage have little place in the arena. The ultimate deciding factor in Soul Calibur like so many other competitive videogames is patience and endurance. Patience is required to find the most effective "cheesy" technique that will work and endurance is necessary to be able to exploit it ad nauseam until victory is achieved.
I'm reminded of Bruce Lee's reflections on different fighting styles. To paraphrase his thoughts, he believed that since humans typically have two arms and two legs, there shouldn't be a huge disparity in terms of what works in hand-to-hand combat. The best answer is usually the simplest one. That's not to say that there shouldn't be a variety of different techniques. However, the dictionary-length list of moves afforded to each character in Soul Calibur III is counter-intuitive to what this game is about: defeating your opponent. What's the point of having hundreds of techniques (most of which are useless) when a player—even with extensive training—would probably only end up remembering and using under a dozen of those moves consistently?
To take the battle to the next level, one has to wade through the exhaustive list of moves to determine which techniques are most effective and the kicker is that the most effective ones usually defy any form of reality or functional logic in the amount of damage distributed and the control scheme employed to execute that attack. In some cases, the best attacks were never intended by the developers. Exploiting difficult to defend attacks, bugs in the fighting system, and holes in the computer artificial intelligence in order to gain an advantage isn't a rarity. It's best practice. I'm not so much testing my abilities against someone as I'm just trying to find one or two unbalanced techniques to abuse. Call it whatever you want, but don't call it fighting.
The exploitation dynamic improves marginally to something a little more organic when facing off against a human opponent, but the heart of the fighting gameplay sadly doesn't change. Gamer abuse is a phenomenon that occurs throughout many competitive videogames, whether it is sports or martial arts. The problem didn't originate with Soul Calibur III and it would seem unfair for the game to shoulder the brunt of this criticism, but I do criticize the game for not improving the situation. If anything, the increasingly growing cast with more ludicrous weaponry and more attacks has only made things worse.
For those who don't mind martial arts that border on the fantastic and don't expect honor and courage in battles and enjoy the well established rules and mechanics of these types of two-player fighting games, Soul Calibur III is the cream of the crop. There's a variety of new mission modes with much bonus content to unlock. There's even a beautifully comprehensive and slick create-a-fighter option which I used to create the fighter described at the beginning of this review.
In the past, I accepted and enjoyed many versus-type fighting games like Soul Calibur III. I even gave the original Soul Calibur an incredibly positive review. However, as with most sequels, the developers are compelled to add more and in this particular case, adding more characters and moves takes away from what the core experience should be about. This coupled with my recent fascination and growing knowledge of mixed martial arts, boxing and other pugilistic sports has changed my perception of what I appreciate about competitive fighting and what I think about these types of games. I can accept but no longer appreciate the conventions of the past that Soul Calibur III upholds and I look forward to a game that embodies the newer and more reality-based ideals of competitive fighting.