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Apart from Tekken 3, Soul Calibur 2 was a real introduction to the fighting genre in video gaming. I know that sounds rather naive with neither game being an original or particularly revolutionary in any sense, but this one kept me happily occupied for some time. Released in 2003 on 3 platforms - Xbox, PS2 & Gamecube - each with a different character included - Spawn, Heihachi & Link. To have such a dark and intimidating undead character such as Spawn involved in a 1v1 fighting game seems a bit of a mistmatch, especially as he dons black and white spandex suits with gothic spiked red bracers. Still, it was a welcome idea to have his creator Todd McFarlane include the character as well as the equally demonic character Necrid. 5 years had passed since the first Soul Calibur game was released on Dreamcast and the gaming world really needed its return. Whilst the Tekken series is possibly the most well known, original 'fighter' out there, Soul Calibur 2 manages to stand on its own without drawing too many comparisons. Namco's SC2, doesn't feature the 'jump' option - something many avid tekken fans and even casual gamers ridicule - but what it does have is weapons. Is it that beneficial or realistic to suddenly jump in battle anyway? Sure sometimes, but truth be told you can technically 'jump' :) Unlike Tekken though, you can't get away with button bashing, you need to use skill to remember attack patterns, block and pull off efficient moves.
Along with the appearance and special abilities of some, the story is what makes this game a 'fantasy' fighter. Set in 1591, the fragments of the destroyed 'Soul Edge' weapon have scattered across the planet, found by each character. The combatants then set out to either piece together the legendary weapon, or stop those who intend to. There isn't always a mention of these efforts, some merely choose different paths to discover themselves and fulfill other personal missions. The story is put together in the 'Weapon Master Mode' where further details can be found but the 'Arcade Mode' also offers a shorter, fighting only 'story'. With each chapter of WM, comes a few paragraphs to mull over, shedding light on your path and where you are in the game. For some insight into the story and characters, its worth checking out the introduction video to the game - its fantastic, not just visually.
The best part about the game is that it has a long campaign-like mode in Weapon Master. You take part in numerous battles with specific rules and regulations, unlocking characters, purchasing weapons and special features such as artwork, costumes, videos, profiles and all this whilst exploring the world and story. There also the standard Arcade Mode, where you choose your character (with the optional weapons found in WM) and fight your way through the ladder of enemies - each character has a specific finale battle before facing the games boss 'Inferno'. Vs Battle is for battling friends, Time Attack sees you try to complete the Arcade ladder as quickly as possible. Survival is an interesting mode as it requires you to fight opponents whilst injured from previous battles or the interesting 'first hit wins' rule. Team Battle allows you to build a team up of your favourite or random characters to take on the AI's set of enemies (there is also a VS mode) with teams ranging up to 8 characters. Then there is Practice mode to try out moves etc and the Options. You can also view any artwork unlocked, player profiles that contain every bit of dialogue, weapon demonstrations, fact-files and all sorts of other fascinating insights to the characters and game.
There are 23 playable characters in total, 8 of which must be unlocked. Mitsurugi, Spawn (Xbox Only), Necrid, Taki, Talim, Cassandra, YunSung, Raphael, Kilik, XiangHua, Maxi, Nightmare, Ivy, Astaroth, Voldo, Seong Mina, Cervantes, Lizard Man (Sophitia & Cassandra move set), Berserker (Enemy), Charade (Uses random character move set), Sophitia, Yoshimitsu, Assassin (Enemy, YunSung Move set). The move sets all feature different styles, motions, speeds and damage (depending on weapons). They all have their own voice actors with often hundreds of phrases/noises and have different variations on the story but don't particularly change anything. You do however get written endings explaining what happens in the character. They all have secondary costume to choose from as well, although some have unlockable third ones. Some are slow and mighty, others quick and nimble, but it doesn't always come to raw strength or fast moves - you need to think, block and stay focused throughout battle.
WEAPONS & MOVES
The weapons are fairly complex to begin with, designating attacks to buttons - X acts as a horizontal swing, Y vertical, A is block and B kick. I personally prefer to alter the controls in the options menu as I would rather use the left trigger as block, so you can truly customise all the buttons to your own liking. Pressing both triggers charges your next move to do more damage, certain button combinations equate to 'grabs' and several moves can be built up by sprinting or followed up by more devastating 'unsporting' blows when the opponent is down. There are weapon lists of over 10 for most characters (over 200 total), which all have detailed appearances and abilities. Weapon stats include the following: higher/lower attack/defence, vampire, weakness/strengths to vertical/horizontal attacks, no/weak guard, more moves, stronger/healing charge, longer/shorter reach and others that I can't recall. The moves are usually quite over the top and have colourful effects leaving trails all over the screen. The use of parrying or guard break also spices up battles so you can't just block or swing the whole time - you can block low and standing attacks but some moves are unblockable.
ARENAS & GRAPHICS
There are several arenas/areas that are character specific, include ring out disqualification, quick sand, lava, water, explosives, cages, all of which can be strolled around as the battles are 3 dimensional, allowing you to step forward and away from opponents as well as strafe around them to avoid attacks or take them by surprise. You can expect to fight in dungeons, castles, gardens, rooftops, mansions, ruins, loads of well designed places, all in brilliant graphics. The characters are particularly well designed, hair flowing in the wind, bouncing boobies, kicking up dust & dirt, slashing in the water, steaming from fires and smooth movements. The weapons all look fantastic as well with katanas, whips, axes, scythes, daggers, shields, rapiers, nunchucks, staffs, halberds, clothing like skin tight lycra, capes, helmets, knight armour, leather boots, miniskirts... Definitely one of the most visually pleasing games available on Xbox.
MUSIC & VOICE ACTING
The music makes use of the whole orchestra using soaring, epic scores for as basic of things like the main menu. Some scores are well suited to arenas, like secret dungeons using mysterious, foreign instruments. The voice acting though is too exaggerated most of the time. Characters make funny noises now and again, each has a 'death howl' and whats rather surprising is that before a battle, the 2 combatants face off like boxers and can say something by pressing a button. This makes VS. games pretty hilarious when one of you screams and the other calmly declares "FOOL". You can have a laugh in the profiles as well, rapidly pressing buttons to make your character squeal and say incoherent sentences. Its completely unnecessary but its there if you want it.What I love about this game is that unlike almost all other fighters, victory isn't the only reward. You get gold to buy better weapons and explore new environments instead of fighting the same type of battle over and over with scaling difficulty. But it is tough at times, forcing you to test out questionable strategies to achieve your goal. I also have the Playstation 2 version of this game, which feels a little less free, being a bit clunky and the addition of Tekken's Heihachi isn't that inspired or much fun. Spawn on the other hand is mentally overpowered with an attack that can at times be a one hit K.O. I haven't tried out the Gamecube's version, but I can't imagine a tiny Link will be of much use or different to any of the other 3 sword and shield bearers. So if you want a challenging fighting game with hundreds of weapons, plot and customisable aspects - this is the one for you. Awesome game.