(Xbox 360 Review) Soulcalibur II HD Online

Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Genre: Fighting
Players: 1-2
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 7 = Good

As the successor to a system-selling predecessor, Soulcalibur II had a lot to live up to. In an effort to meet gamers’ lofty expectations, Namco—no Bandai back then—pulled out all of the stops. The game was not only released for all three major platforms, but each version had their own exclusive character: Zelda’s Link for GameCube, Tekken’s Heihachi for PlayStation 2, and comic antihero Spawn for Xbox. New characters were added, the original characters had their move lists expanded, and the engine was refined to offer more freedom of movement and tighter controls. While it might not have caused as many jaws to drop as the original, SCII not only served as a model sequel when it was released but also remains both a fan and personal favorite.

There are always titles in any long-running series that remain entertaining despite the advancements made in the genre and the series itself. Through a combination of the right characters, the right features, and the right design, they stand out as exceptional standalone releases. For me, SCII is one of those titles. It sits at this crossroad where it features a roster with many appealing characters, a wide array of combat styles, a deep yet accessible fighting system, a respectable feature list, and a particular rhythm that is at once unique but familiar. Players need only focus on a few actions—horizontal and vertical attacks, kicking, and blocking—but those areas involve a sizable move list that takes advantage of the series’ 8-Way Run movement system, allowing them to also dodge blows, dash away from ledges, and attack from the flank and rear. It’s a compressed, elegant system that is immediately impressive and well-rounded enough to offer hours of satisfying discovery and experimentation.

Soulcalibur II HD Online is an update to the original, featuring all of the gameplay modes in addition to improved graphics and online play. The good news is that the game has stood the test of time exceptionally well and proves as addictive today as it did in 2002. The bad news is that, while the base game remains strong, the new additions are barebones and poorly implemented.

Offline players will find a lot to like in SCIIHDO. The game offers a nice variety of modes: Original Mode, Extra Mode, Weapon Master, and Museum. Original Mode includes the bulk of the content: Arcade, VS Battle, Time Attack, Survival, Team Battle, VS Team Battle, and Practice. Of these, Time Attack includes three difficulty levels (Standard, Alternative, and Extreme), while Survival pits players in a marathon of 50 one-round bouts. Practice stands out for how robust it was for the period, allowing for a respectable amount of dummy customization options—stance, attack type, etc.—that prove more than enough today. For those who make some progress in the other modes, Museum unlocks galleries for weapons and characters as well as ending cinematics. The rest of the modes, although standard for the genre, cover a wide range of matchup possibilities and challenges.

One of the more unique aspects of the series has been its incorporation of adventure elements, namely Weapon Master. Here, players select a character and embark on a journey across several maps, with each area including several stopping points that host a challenge of varying difficulty that must be completed in order to proceed. Each stop has its own (endearingly ridiculous) story elements, giving the journey a narrative element that adds a lot of personality to the mode. The standout challenges have players making their way through a dungeon filled with booby-trapped arenas, such as floors made of slippery ice blocks and quicksand, followed by a boss battle. As players progress through the world, they gain experience and cash as they unlock new areas, modes, and characters. The gold they gain can be used to purchase a variety of items, such as a Weapon Gallery and costumes, but primarily weapons—namely, those of their opponents. This mode is actually one of the best tutorials of any fighter. The initial stages are in fact set up as tutorials, but the instructions gradually shift from specific commands to more general goals (e.g., ‘Land X vertical attacks’ to ‘Land X hits in under Y minutes’); the challenges are designed such that players will need to experiment with all of their moves in order to hit the exact attack combination or type in order to complete the objective, exposing them to that character’s strengths, weaknesses, and various attacks through experience. There is a lot to learn, too, with characters using long and short swords, staffs, axes, nunchuks, whips, and bare knuckles. Equipped weapons can be switched out at any time, and a helpful set of icons indicate any speed, strength, or reach changes that will occur by wielding the selected weapon. These weapons can also be equipped outside of Weapon Master in Extra Mode for even greater variety.

All of the content from the original release has held up remarkably well. The numerous modes and options offer a lot of replayability, while the roster and fighting engine remain engaging and competitive. Surprisingly, the game stumbles not with the decade-plus-old content but with the new features, which is to say the online functionality. It’s actually jarring to go from the rich, well-implemented offline content to the seemingly tacked-on online component. For starters, something as basic as a rematch option isn’t available. After either a Ranked or Player (unranked) match, players are sent back to the menu. There aren’t even lobbies; if players want to fight friends, they have to continually create a private room in Custom Match and send an invite. Spectator mode is also absent, as is a replay mode. The only modes available for Online are Ranked Match, Player Match, and Leaderboards. These omissions would be more palatable if the game had stable, solid net code, which it unfortunately does not, it does not.

Soulcalibur V was highly regarded for its online play, but that reliably smooth system is absent in SCIIHDO. Match connections are too often sluggish or prone to latency spikes. Even when a bout feels relatively level, there is still a good chance that the game will stutter, and those instances make some of the more advance or input-sensitive moves, such as the Guard Impact (the game’s version of a parry), all but impossible to pull off.  In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to see player profiles with zeros across the board—as in no Player Points, Wins, or Losses—meaning the player hadn’t bothered fighting in any Ranked matches. The connection quality is so mercurial that it doesn’t allow for a true reflection of the player’s ability, and as a result, many have opted to fight in Player matches in order to battle others but retain an unblemished, distorted record. The problem isn’t that every match was laggy, as many were smooth enough for casual play; instead, the problem is that too many had issues for players to consistently perform at anything more than mid-level play. For those who are already good at the game, which would be a sizable number at this point, or who want to become good by playing against old pros, online play doesn’t offer the consistently stable, fast connections that are required. The net code definitely falls short of previous efforts.

Soulcalibur II HD Online’s greatest strengths are those same elements brought over from the original, while its weaknesses are its latest additions. The core of the game remains outstanding and well worth playing, as it offers numerous modes, an involved combat system, a solid roster, and excellent pacing. Unfortunately, the online component, one of the main reasons for this re-release, is incredibly limited, missing such basic functionality as a rematch option and lobbies. It’s also frequently prone to poor connections. The offline content is strong enough to make SCIIHDO as relevant a release as the original, but the online features need some work.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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