Developer: Project Soul | Publisher: Namco Bandai Games | Release Date: 20086 | Genre: 3D Beat ‘Em Up | Website: n/a
SoulCalibur is a title that consistently ranks as one of the best games in the genre and with good reason. The original arcade game was a breath of fresh air, and the excellent Dreamcast port only improved the formula. With the aging classic making its way to the Xbox 360 Live Arcade, the visuals have been spruced up, but not all the content made the transition.
If you are not familiar with SoulCalibur, it is a 3D fighting game where the emphasis is on the weapons that the brawlers wield. Swords, nunchucks, staff, and axes are a common sight making the fights a bit more interesting than the usual punches and kicks. It’s not realistic by any means as fighters can survive brutal blows from deadly weapons. And neither is it gory as there is no blood or dismemberment. It is, however, a lot of fun which makes the port to Xbox 360 a welcome one.
Right off the bat, we were disappointed to note that the game has no real widescreen support. Instead, the game enforces the original aspect ratio with two chunks of SoulCalibur wallpaper on either side of the screen. The actual visuals look pretty decent and got a high-resolution cleanup. I was surprised by how good the character models look as the Dreamcast version of the game was released way back in 1999! The backgrounds look a bit rougher, and the lens flare is a bit unsightly, but overall the graphics do not disappoint. Most importantly, the frame rate is buttery smooth which is a definite plus in fighting games.
The diverse line-up of nineteen fighters has made the transition as well as the usual arcade, time attack, survival and versus modes but sadly the mission-based mode is gone. Fans of the Dreamcast version will remember how fun it was to unlock new content by winning wacky challenges. Whether fighting while poisoned, facing opponents with invisible weapons or battling strong winds during combat, the mission-based mode was a highlight of the original game. Points earned in this mode were the currency for unlocking new characters, costumes, and art. However, in this version of the game, everything is accessible in the “Museum” mode to make up for the loss.
Some players might appreciate having all the content available from the start, but it does detract from the longevity of the title. Also, it makes this version feel a bit bare-boned in comparison. Another blow is the lack of an online multiplayer mode which is part and parcel of all modern fighting games. Instead, there is a wealth of leaderboards, but this is a poor substitute for taking on online opponents. The versus mode is still intact, so you can at least pummel some friends provided you have an extra controller.
In terms of controls, the Xbox 360 pad does a decent enough job, and everything is very responsive. However, if you are serious about your fighting games, an arcade stick is highly recommended. Part of the appeal of SoulCalibur is that it is friendly to button mashers, but if you take the time to dig deeper and learn the moves, you will reap the rewards. Since all fights in this game take place on rather small arenas, the threat of being chucked out of the ring is quite high, so mastering counters and dodges help immensely. The audio is as good as always with an English announcer and Japanese character voices. Things do sound a bit chaotic with the announcer waffling on at the end of a match while the winning character shouts. But then again, the original was like this as well. The tunes are decent enough, but the character voices tend to drown out the music.
While the axing of the mission mode is disappointing, there is no denying that SoulCalibur is still a great game. The spruced-up visuals, inclusion of leaderboards, and achievements, make SoulCalibur a great title fans of the original as well as newcomers that want to see what all the fuss was about.
Speaking of grinding, the liberation missions are even worse. Each of the islands has towns, settlements, military bases and drug cartel hideouts. Liberating these involve destroying three roadblocks and a bunch of enemies before capturing a flag or in the case of the cartel hideouts, killing the big cheese. The first few times you do the missions they are fun, but by the 30th time with no changes to the formula, you realize what a grind it is. There are also various “hidden” packages to collect for achievements, but since they are all clearly marked on the map I would hardly call them hidden. Lastly are the races which are all checkpoint based and thanks to the erratic car handling not to mention the stupid enemy AI these are not a lot of fun.
Considering the sheer size of the gameworld, these paltry few activities are hardly enough to keep things interesting. The size is also very misleading as most of the islands consist of nothing but endless trees and rocks. Traversing them by foot is not only tedious, but also pointless as there is nothing of interest to discover. According to one of the loading screens, the best way to see San Esperito is by air and I am inclined to agree. From above the gameworld looks a lot more impressive and you will be able to appreciate the vastness more. Fortunately, there are plenty of passing helicopters to hijack and you even get your own personal gyrocopter later on. I found myself sticking to air travel for most of the game as using any of the road vehicles just ended in disaster more often than not.
If you are driving around and so much as touch another vehicle the police will instantly be on your case. There is literally a millisecond gap between coming into contact with another vehicle and a police helicopter suddenly appearing and firing on you. Dare to fight back and things will only escalate. Since the vehicles handle so dodgy and the physics is completely wonky it is almost impossible not to hit anyone. The AI is also incredibly stupid, so most of the time you will have other cars crashing into you which causes your wanted level to go up. The police are really stupid however and will usually destroy themselves in their berserk attempts at killing you. Unlike the GTA games there are no arrests in this game so it’s a fight to the death. Watching a cop on a motorbike attempt to smash your tank off the road is pretty funny to watch however.
It is ironic that traversing the gameworld on foot is the slowest and least fun method of travelling as the game practically forces you to do it. With a high wanted level like during most missions it will usually be raining bullets around you, but Rico’s natural toughness and the incredibly poor aim from enemies means as long as you do not stand still you have very little chance of dying. If however, you dare to set foot inside any type of vehicle it will instantly start raining missiles with one direct hit ending your game. You will still have to be on the lookout so that you do not get run over by the erratic enemies. It is strange that this was overlooked during playstesting as travelling long distances on foot is not fun.
The game also has its fair share of bugs and glitches, which leads to it feeling very unpolished in places. In one instance, I was told to collect a package from an oilrig, but when I arrived by helicopter Rico simply fell through the whole structure. Swimming back and attempting to use the ladder just propelled Rico into the air and back through the structure making the mission impossible to complete. It is a side mission so thankfully does not affect your ability to finish the game but still. There is also a weird sound bug where you will hear the police shouting, no matter where you are. At one point, I was high up in the sky flying around with a jet when I heard the police shouting at me loud and clear to stop. It would appear that no matter where you are in the gameworld in relation to the police they will always sound like they are standing right next to Rico which can be very confusing the say the least. Non-player characters that stand around waiting for you to speak to them while the police are busy riddling them with bullets are another bizarre sight that you will see frequently. The cut-scenes are pretty bad and features some of the most plastic looking CGI characters this side of a PSone title. It is really cringe worthy to watch at times.
For all its faults, glitches, bugs and pointless padding, Just Cause can still be a lot of fun to play at times. The parachute while not very realistic is a lot of fun and coupled with the grappling gun is able to provide a lot of entertainment. The auto-targeting makes the combat a bit too easy, but it prevents things from bogging down and keeps the action flowing. The ability to call for a vehicle drop or extraction any time that Rico is not under fire is also a nice touch. The lack of realism is also a good thing as jumping across the roofs of cars before grappling on to a passing helicopter is loads of fun. I do not know of any other game that allows you to cling to the wing of a jet fighter while it is flying at full speed before leaping into the cockpit and hijacking it. There is no multi-player but I do not think it would have added much to the game in any case.
With a bit more testing, polishing and variety Just Cause could have been a great game. It is a different experience compared to the Grand Theft Auto series, but runs out of new tricks way too soon. I definitely had fun playing it, but I cannot turn a blind eye to its faults. While it kept me playing for more than 30hours it can easily be completed in fewer than ten if you do not care about achievements. The game had so much potential but never made use of it all.
*Review originally published November 2006.