Soul Calibur V, like almost all fighting games nowadays, finds itself having to serve multiple purposes for a broad and fragmented user base. Fighting games demand investment if you're actually trying to excel at them. You've got to pick a character that speaks to you and then master enough moves to be competent and diverse. Nobody's just showing up to get beat down, after all, and winning ugly is worse than losing.
The different types of people who flock to a fighting game all want the same thing—fun face-offs in throwdown tournaments—but won't necessarily put the same level of commitment. There are the casual players who've dabbled over the years, laughing off best-of-five-matches with friends and relying on a few moves to get them through. On the other end of the spectrum are the hardcore competitors, EVO tournament mainstays or hopefuls who parse every frame of animation for the exploits and upper-hands that pop up in each new chapter of a fighting game franchise. And then, you've got the lump of folks in the middle, moving from one pole to another, going from laid-back to serious or lapsing in the other direction.
Dev studio Project Soul won fans by making the Soul Calibur games satisfying for all those different strata. As the Tekken series has stumbled for its last few outings, SoulCalibur's gone from being Namco's B-list fighting franchise to being the standard bearer for the Pac-Man publisher in the brawling department.
SoulCalibur V's still all about the renaissance-fair melodrama of the medieval warriors fighting to wield two magical swords, but this entry introduces new characters and a Story Mode that centers on the new brother-and-sister pair of Patroklos and Pyrrha. The offspring of Greek swordmaiden Sophitia, the siblings go through a stereotypically dark saga to get their hands on the mystical weapons. If you're showing up for plot, be warned that the one in SCV is as dull as a butter knife. Even if you concede that story's just not as mechanically important in fighting games and that the genre can get away less sophistication, SCV's Story Mode still fails to jump over the lowest of bars. Part of what makes its rehash of the Soul Calibur-vs.-Soul Edge plot flounder is that you're cycling through some truly unlikeable main characters, and the new ones that you're forced to play as don't really hook you.
However, SoulCalibur V sports the same razor-sharp responsiveness delivered by the previous entries in the franchises, making you really feel like you're in control of a lethal martial-arts master. The move lists retain all their prickly depth and new tweaks to the combat system make powerful moves more accessible. Critical Edge attacks are easier to pull off than in SCIV, where doing one was like spotting a unicorn under a rainbow. But these super moves aren't one-way tickets to victory either; you'll still have a chunk of life to hang onto if you get nailed by one. The Critical Edges work more like super moves in Street Fighter or the new X-Ray attacks in Mortal Kombat, where you need to figure out when best to deploy them.
Going mano-a-mano in SCV bathes the player in an exquisite moment-to-moment tension. You can lose a round in ten seconds but it'll still feel like an eternity with its unique roiling highs and low. A successful last-minute low block, lowering your guard to approach or retreat, a missed unblockable or a desperate throw lunge... these split-second tactics change everything in an eye-blink. Time slows down when you're playing SoulCalibur V as you and the guy trying to kick you out of the ring dance a deadly, improvised choreography. And that last round's won, you only want more. It's instant rivalry; just add water.
That said, the appearance of Ezio feels perfectly in sync with the ethos of SoulCalibur. This isn't a cheesy crossover like the Star Wars characters showing up in Soul Calibur IV. Ezio feels like an organic part of the cast—not an overpowered intruder like Darth Vader, Starkiller or Yoda were in SCIV—and plays wonderfully. The flair that the Italian assassin has shown in combat in his own series gets replicated here and long-range weapons like his crossbow and pistol give him advantages that will probably make him loved—or hated—by the Calibur faithful.
If the Ubisoft guest star shines, then the minor league substitutes stink. Project Soul's most baffling decision might have been the replacement of established characters Talim, Taki and Kilik with younger stand-ins who share the same move-set. They're clearly designed to appeal to a younger audience, but all come across as squeakily annoying junior versions of the originals.
Of course, you can roll you own bespoke fighter in SCV's character creation suite. The ridiculous depth of the avatar customization gets best displayed when you're in the Quick Match mode—where you fight randomly-selected create-a-characters. I fought a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle lookalike that fought me with giant turkey legs, an overweight clown-goth warrior and a ninja geisha hybrid. You can also customize the art on the character card seen online, too. The RPG elements from Soul Calibur IV have been toned down a bit but you're still accruing player points and character gear as you play.
It's too early to say what the online experience will be for SCV but the online matches I fought in showed only a little bit of stutter. Project Soul's added a slew of filters and elements to make finding online opponents easier, the highlight of these being the Global Colosseo where you can find SCV players in regions all over the world. NOTE: This review will be updated in a week with my assessment of the game's online play.
Whether you're an acolyte for whom the soul never stopped burning or someone whose embers glow weakly, Soul Calibur V will satisfy your need to slash, pummel and kick. Pulling in a superstar character from another franchise enriches the offering rather than debasing it and the goofily addictive character creation serves as a driver to continued gameplay. Project Soul's given people loads of reasons pick up their latest effort and even more reasons to stick around. Soul Calibur V's a beautiful weapon, go sharpen your skills and find someone to cut.
With the hue and cry surrounding the glitchiness of online play in SoulCalibur IV, the massive changes in SCV's online layer come as a mostly welcome overhaul. Split up into three flavors—Ranked Match, Player Match, Global— the multiplayer in SCV is much more stable than that of its predecessor. Dropped connections and lag were much more infrequent but matchmaking still comes with frustratingly long waits. Ranked Matches and Player Matches are certainly more hard to come by.
You can host a room, of course,where six players take turns watching or fighting each other. But if you just want to jump online and bang out a few matches, it's best head to the more user-friendly lobby in the Global Colosseo. Inside the Colosseo, there are lobbies—which offer text chat—for territories and countries and regions inside those countries. Tournaments happen inside these spaces as well as random matches. Other online features include the ability to tag other users as rivals and follow their stats and activity, along with replays that you can archive for later viewing.
While the overall offering is greatly improved, it continues to make me long for the day when online fighting games will have netcode that's as well-structured as, say, what serves the even the most average FPS multiplayer. The inconsistency of SoulCalibur V's online experience isn't enough to make me wave people off the game, but the ideal way to engage in competition is still in the same room with somebody.