Saturday, November 8, 2014

Impressions #19: Soul Calibur 2 HD

So, how did this happen? How did I go from talking nearly nonstop about Shin Megami Tensei games to an HD remake of a PS2-era fighting game? Well, I remember playing Soul Calibur II a lot as a child, and the HD remake went on sale for $5 on PSN. It really is that simple. Placing my “Season of ATLUS” on hold temporarily, I decided to take some time to reconnect with the game, looking at it from a modern perspective. In light of recent trends in fighting game releases, Soul Calibur 2 is actually a nice breath of fresh air, aging surprisingly well. This week, I will tell you why that is.

First released in 2002 for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and original Xbox, Soul Calibur II is the direct sequel to what many had considered to be one of the best games on the Dreamcast. The basic premise of the game is that there are two very powerful swords. The first is an evil sword named Soul Edge, which takes over its wielder and devours the souls of those it kills. The second is a holy sword named Soul Calibur, which is constantly at odds with its evil twin. Fighters from all over Europe and Asia covet these blades for various reasons. Some seek to possess them, others to destroy them, and so on. This sets the stage for all of these warriors to travel across the world and fight each other over these weapons.
Each of the various consoles had a guest character join the cast as well. Tekken's Heihachi Mishima made his cameo on the PS2, since Tekken was a major Sony-exclusive at the time. Nintendo gave permission to allow Link to make an appearance in the GameCube version, because he is the most logical Nintendo character to bring to a 3D weapon-based fighter. As for the Xbox, they got Spawn because Namco and Todd McFarlane really needed to get out of that contract they had with each other. (That is not a joke.) The HD rerelease of the game, released in 2013 for both the PS3 and the 360, brought both Heihachi and Spawn to the game. Link was not present, since there is no way Nintendo would allow it. A bit of shame, since he was obviously the best of the three, but understandable.

As for the game itself, it is still as fun to play as ever. One of the things that I enjoy about the Soul Calibur series is that the mechanics themselves are relatively easy to understand, compared to other fighting games. Most of the commands are generally simple to pull off. In general, spending ten minutes or so with a given character will teach a player the basic gist of that character. Some fighters are obvious more or less difficult to use than others, but on a fundamental level it has more to do with the properties of their attacks and how their combos work, and less to do with the execution of any one move.
It is also nice to play this game when taken into context with its sequels. Many franchise fans, myself included, would say that it was the series's pinnacle. Soul Calibur III was not a bad game, but it did feel a bit like a step back. Because each character had more health, fights took longer. Furthermore, the discrepancy between the power of each individual fighter felt significantly greater. Soul Calibur IV added in the Soul Gauge mechanics, which punished more defensive playstyles. Players who continue to block attacks would get broken, which allows the aggressor to perform an instant kill. The power differences between characters in Soul Calibur III were also felt in IV as well. The ultimate culmination of this downward spiral was Soul Calibur V. SC V turned the franchise into a low-rent Street Fighter IV clone with swords. Everything about that game was awful and better left forgotten. This is one of the few franchises where “Taking a few steps back” is actually a really good thing, and Soul Calibur 2 HD best demonstrates why this is the case.

The other great aspect of Soul Calibur II, that in hindsight makes it such a great game, is its vast stores of single-player content. Weapon Master mode, with the possible exception of the campaigns in either the Mortal Kombat reboot or Injustice: Gods Among Us, is what I would call one of the best single-player campaigns in the history of fighting games. It puts the player directly into a story where they are a warrior seeking Soul Edge. During the journey, the player undertakes a series of missions, each taking the form of a battle. As they progress, they unlock new characters, weapons, and modes to play with.
However, these are not just typical battles more often than not. Usually, special conditions will be imposed on the battle. It is these constrictions which inject variety into the campaign. For example, one mission will make it so that the enemy will only take damage while he is in the air, but he will fall at a slower rate when launched upwards. Another mission will make the enemy invisible, with the exception of his weapon. Not only do these requirements add to the variety, they help teach players about the many mechanics of the game in a non-competitive, relatively safe space. Since the difficulty of these missions greatly increases the more players progress, it is safe to say that someone who gets through it all, while maybe not be the best player out there, is equipped to hold their own against other players.
Even outside of Weapon Master, there is still much that one person can do to get more out of the game. Arcade Mode is standard to fighting games, but there also options like Time Attack, where the goal is to fight through every character as quickly as possible. Other modes include Survival Mode, where players see how long they can last in a series of matches, with only limited healing between each match. Team Battle allowed players to form up to 3 character teams to fight in a series of one-on-one matches, where team members would fight in sequence. VS Team Battle allowed two players to pit teams of 8 against each other. “Extra” versions of these modes even allowed players and enemies to use the weapons unlocked in Weapon Master mode in battle. All in all, even someone who cannot regularly play with friends can get much out of the game.

While Soul Calibur 2 HD is still really good, it is far from flawless. For example, although the game now offers online play, and the net-coding is solid, it feels extremely limited. It is only possible to engauge in standard versus mode online, meaning players can only go against friends one-on-one, without using any weapons they unlocked. For a game that has such a diverse set of weapons for each cast member, and so many different modes of play like Team Battle, this comes off as overly simplistic and downright disappointing. I was hoping that my friends and I would be able to create our teams of characters and go against one another with our own custom assortments of weaponry. It would make sense to have Ranked matches be this limited, but when playing Unranked, these options would have been greatly appreciated.
Further, while the balance is much better here than in the sequels, there are some noticeable balancing issues. The people who originally purchased Soul Calibur 2 for the Xbox must have been really disappointed by Spawn. Now that I have had the chance to play him in the HD remake, I am astounded by how bad the character is. Unlike Heihachi and Link, who both fit in well, Spawn feels so much like an afterthought that I am honestly left dumbfounded. There had to be some other character they could have used. Along these same lines, the character of Necrid, who was also designed by Todd McFarlane, is also pretty terrible. Whoever in Project Soul worked on these characters seems to have a grudge against McFarlane, because his characters are some of, if not the worst in the game.

Overall, Soul Calibur 2 HD is a great game for both newcomers and veterans to the fighting game genre. Compared to many other fighters, it is very easy to learn. On top of that, there is a wealth of content available for single-players. I am sure there are those who would disagree with me on this point, but Soul Calibur 2 is my favorite fighting game. The HD remake does well to bring the game to more modern consoles. It is definitely worth your time and money.

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