Let's talk boxing. Great boxers need great opponents to bring out their greatness. Ali had Frazier and Foreman to challenge him, to make him shine. Sugar Ray Robinson had Jake Lamotta to give him hell, to bring out his best. In contrast, Roy Jones Jr. has no one who can really challenge him, which is why boxing pundits, despite Roy's impressive achievements, continue to question his abilities.
Enough about boxing. Since Soul Calibur was anointed as the consummate fighting game in 1998, a number of notable fighting games have quietly made the scene: Victorious Boxers with its innovative control; Pride: FC with its unique ground-fighting scheme; the limb-damage and real-time bruising in Tao Feng: Fist Of The Lotus; and the compelling Quest mode in Virtua Fighter 4 (and the recent update, Evolution), among others. This was all good news for Soul Calibur II, because it meant that the heavyweight champ of fighting games now had an entire stable's worth of credible opponents to challenge it, to push it to its limits, and to bring out its true greatness.
But that didn't happen. It should have, but it didn't. With its limited single-player experience, typical mode offerings (Arcade, Versus, Time Attack, Survival, Team Battle), a downright lazy Practice mode, and yet another firey appearance by final boss Inferno—whom I've probably defeated hundreds of thousands of times at this point—it's as if Soul Calibur II was created on a desert island in the South Pacific by natives who have never even heard of Virtua Fighter 4 or any of the other fighting games previously mentioned. The hard truth is—and this is going to be tough for most gamers to swallow—Soul Calibur II is essentially the same game I was playing on my Dreamcast in 1998, albeit with sharper graphics, a few new characters, a few new moves, and a handful of new arenas.
If only Soul Calibur II had taken a risk of some kind, any kind. A deeper, richer single-player experience certainly would have helped. The "new" Weapon Master mode isn't really much of a creative departure from the old Mission Battle mode. Sure, buying new weapons for my fighters is indeed a dramatic improvement over unlocking those useless (though beautiful) art cards in the 1998 Soul Calibur. But why am I forced to read through four eye-straining pages of tiny text (imagine! having to read in order to play a fighting game!) just so I can find out that my "challenge" is to fight atop a windblown platform. Or that I'm poisoned. Or that I'm fighting in quicksand. Haven't I done this before? Even those innovative dungeons aren't especially ground-breaking. Honestly, who thought fighting 30 back-to-back single-round matches against Lizardman would be exciting? That's half-assed game design, plain and simple.
Part of the blame has to be attributed to the same-day, cross-platform release of the game. As a concept, I believe cross-platform releases inevitably stifle creativity. Instead of game development being an exploratory process, producers are forced to meet a quota; i.e. Talim must look and play the same exact way on the GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2, etc. Any truly inspired moments—like the programming bug that resulted in the enemy "juggling" in Devil May Cry—are left on the cutting room floor in the name of conformity. Indeed, cross-platform releases force developers to take an "assembly line" approach to the development process, leaving no room whatsoever for self-expression. Each console technically has strengths and weaknesses, and it would have been really interesting, and brave on Namco's part, to develop three distinctly different versions of Soul Calibur II, each tailored specifically to each machine's individual strengths and weaknesses. Instead, what we have are three nearly identical, and somewhat bland, versions of the same exact game.
Here's another misstep (three of them, actually): Spawn, Link, and Heihachi. These intruders simply don't fit very comfortably into the Soul Calibur world. All three look visually awkward and feel shoehorned into the game. Spawn vs. Voldo? Link vs. Astaroth? Heihachi vs. Yoshimitsu? It's all wrong somehow, wrong in the same way that monkeys wearing pants is wrong. (These aren't the first intruders either; fighting game scholars know that Yoshimitsu, like Heihachi, is another refugee from the Tekken world.) The world of Soul Calibur was in dire need of more artistic cohesion and logic—frankly, even after years of playing Soul Calibur games, I've never fully understood what the heck the narrative was all about—and the presence of the three outsiders only serves to make the Soul Calibur world even less artistically cohesive and less logical. Their appearance is a marketing ploy, nothing more, and it's one that in my opinion cheapens the game. And what happens with future installments of the game? Does Soul Calibur IX feature The Tick? Luigi? Maybe Marge Simpson?
All that aside, I did enjoy playing Soul Calibur II…at least for a few nights. Chi, Dale and I even got together for some giddy two-player action on several occasions (let me tell you, those guys can hold their own). Soul Calibur II's control is truly spot-on fantastic, and testing out the new weapons is wonderful fun, but what held my attention and kept me playing for those few nights wasn't the sweet control or the new weapons; it was my nostalgic attachment to the game. Soul Calibur and I have a history together, and I truly enjoyed revisiting my old "friends"—Kilik (my man), Sophitia, Ivy, Xianghua, Astaroth, Nightmare, even old pervy Voldo. But once that nostalgia wore off—and it took a few nights, like I said—an unsettling sense of been-there-done-that deja vu crept in. My attention began to drift, and I found myself hungry—starving, actually—for a new experience. "The sad truth of the matter is that gamers simply do not want original content," Dale concluded in his recent Critical Hit piece. Soul Calibur II, which features probably 85 to 90 percent recycled content, is the quintessential example of this. My guess is gamers new to the series will undoubtedly wring the most enjoyment out of Soul Calibur II, especially if they've got a friend to play against. But seasoned gamers looking for a more avant-garde gaming experience will probably find themselves back at the local game store in a couple of days, craving something fresh and new.
Soul Calibur II simply isn't the revolutionary, innovative, mind-blowing experience I'd hoped it would be. I sat down in front of my TV, fully prepared to be feverishly addicted. And I wasn't. I desperately wanted to re-anoint Soul Calibur II as the consummate fighting game…but I can't. Instead of rising to the challenge and "cleaning out the heavyweight division of every last misfit" as boxer Lennox Lewis has promised to do, Soul Calibur II seems to be resting on its laurels. Instead of going for an aggressive, crowd-pleasing KO, the game seems content to coast to a competent, if a little dull, 12-round decision, the way Oscar De La Hoya did in his famous loss to Felix Trinidad. And in the ever-evolving fighting game genre, that's just not enough anymore.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.