As any fan can testify, Namco took a substantially great leap forward when Soul Calibur was released on the Sega Dreamcast. Exalted as a near flawless game, fans eagerly awaited a sequel which would surpass the scope and excellence of its predecessor. However, rather than reinvent elements from scratch, Namco opted to refine the existing design many of us have come to treasure. Thus, if you've played the original installment, many of the characters, moves and overall style will certainly feel very familiar.
"Well, let's begin."
Most of the significant differences fans will notice are more cosmetic than technical. Each of the original characters return in search of the phantom Soul Edge weapon, including such favorites as Mitsurugi, Ivy and Taki (whose assets seem to have grown since the last time I remember). By now, you've probably heard that only two characters out of the entire cast of fighters can truly be considered new. Talim, a young girl toting dual blades, is fast and agile, making up for her small stature. Then there's Raphael -- elegant, swift (and sure to be a favorite with many), making him the perfect choice for gamers looking to play with precision. Cassandra, Yun Sung, and Necrid (an original character designed by Todd McFarlane) to some extent are loosely based on previous fighting schematics of existing characters. Although this is somewhat of a throwback that newcomers may not mind, purists are likely to feel a tinge disappointed at the lack of fresh new faces.
Then there's the platform exclusive characters that have been widely discussed and promoted over the past several months. The Xbox edition features Spawn, the popular comic book anti-hero, also designed by Todd McFarlane. PlayStation 2 hosts the grizzly, old warrior Heihachi and the GameCube edition offers the legendary Link, the star character from Legend of Zelda.
"You're definitely not my type."
Among the three bonus characters, I've found Link and Spawn to be the most enjoyable, despite the fact that they all seem somewhat out of place. Namco has certainly gone to great lengths to establish a unique battle design for Link, featuring all of his trademark weapons including the boomerang, bombs and arrows; (additional "Zelda" weapons ican be acquired in the Weapon Master Mode). It's impressive how the developers skillfully integrated these abilities to work within the Soul Calibur design. Numerous lateral moves and links can be buffered into such moves as the Bomb and Arrow Stance respectively. And nothing beats seeing Link lay the smackdown on the muscle-bound Astaroth. Best of all, Namco even went the extra mile by remixing the main Zelda and item collection themes (Dun, dun, dun dunnnnnnn!!!!) Definitely a nice touch which every Link fan will wholly enjoy!
Spawn is more robust, slow compared to the others, but with his battle axe in hand, he's just as deadly. His most effective attacks include the ability to levitate and throw projectiles (no, it's nothing quite as potent like Hadoken). Because of his lack of speed, players need to set up openings, or await moments before they go in for the down and dirty strike.
I'll openly admit that I don't have much love for Heihachi (probably because I sucked at Tekken all these years). Nevertheless, he stands out more as being the unorthodox character. The key to success lies with his trademark 10-hit combos, perhaps the only formidable quality that makes him worth playing. I haven't spent too much time playing with Necrid, whose fighting style mirrors other characters such as Ivy, Cervantes, and Nightmare. Not to mention his design seems like it was ripped from the concepts of other games and tossed in here for added variety. I learned to accept Yoshimitsu's cameo, because he at least felt like he belonged in the game. Necrid does not, so he definitely looks quite foreign compared to the others.
If you're puzzled about which version to get, it all comes down to breaking down the pros and cons of each. For starters, decide which of the three characters you want to play with the most, and then go from there. Visually, the GameCube and Xbox versions are inarguably the best looking among the trifecta, featuring native surround sound and progressive scan displays. For anyone who's fortunate to have a HDTV and an Xbox shouldn't pass up the chance to enjoy the visual excellence in 720p. (Though it should be noted there are reports surfacing that players with widescreen are forced to commit to the 4:3 setting instead of the desired 16:9, go figure). I won't get too much into the loading times, although the PS2 wins hands-down as the slowest version of all. But if a few seconds more is enough to make your soul burn, perhaps you should consider replacing the internal CD-ROM drive with one of your own?