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Namco Bandai
The covers of the "Soul Calibur IV" fighting game available for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Each features a different character from the Star Wars universe.

Game review: "Soul Calibur IV"; Platform, PS3; Studio, Namco Bandai; Rating, "T" for Teen; Score, 9/10

The review

Gameplay: If you've played previous entries in the "Soul Calibur" series, you know what you're getting: a 1-on-1, weapons-based 3-D fighter that's easy to pick up and button mash with, but deep enough to keep the hard-core interested. But "SCIV" takes that depth to an almost ridiculous level — there's so much to do here, online or off, alone or with a friend, that it would take weeks of dedicated play to experience everything, even with the help of "the Force."

Yeah — that Force. Continuing a series tradition, "SCIV" contains guest fighters outside the game's regular roster. This time, Namco Bandai visited the "Star Wars" galaxy and returned with Yoda (for the Xbox 360 version) and Darth Vader (on PS3). Both versions of "SCIV" also contain "The Apprentice," a character from an upcoming Star Wars game called "The Force Unleashed." Not much is said about The Apprentice's back story, but he's a secret recruit of Darth Vader, meant to assist Vader in overthrowing the emperor, and his story will connect Episodes III and IV of the "Star Wars" movies. Yoda and Vader play pretty much the way you'd expect— Yoda flashes all over the screen with quick attacks (his height also makes him hard to hit), while Vader is slow and ponderous but very powerful. The Apprentice is a balanced character with a unique fighting style; he seems destined to become a fan favorite (and he's probably a bit too strong).

At its heart — or "soul," you could say — "SCIV" retains the same battle techniques as ever: one button slashes your weapon horizontally, another vertically, another is used for kicks and another for blocking. Sounds simple enough, but various combinations of button presses, along with directional movement, create some amazing (at times ludicrous) feats of martial arts skill. If you dare to venture deeper, "SCIV" does contain a few game-play innovations, including a "Mortal Kombat"-esque set of finishing moves (minus the blood). You can still enjoy the game without these moves; in fact, sometimes it's harder to attempt more advanced techniques than to just mash random buttons. You could play the game for hours and then get a friend to try it for the first time, and he'd probably beat you. Dedicated gamers will appreciate the depth, but it's hard to get there.

In addition to the very brief story and arcade modes, there is the "Tower of Lost Souls," the hardest mode in the game. After choosing two or three characters, players battle through successive levels and enemies, each harder than the last. If certain criteria are met — defeat an opponent with a throw, for example — bonus items will be unlocked. These items can then be used in the character creation mode, where players select a fighter to use as a template and then customize the character's wardrobe, color scheme, weapons and gear. Different items bestow your character with added skills and strengths. Character creation is almost too deep; it will take players a long time to figure out the best combinations. Again, you'll get out of it whatever you're willing to put in.

All this, and I haven't even mentioned the online mode yet. Matches are easy to start, whether with friends or random opponents, and latency usually isn't a problem. You can choose whether to include the skills and gear you've unlocked in the single-player game or not. Global rankings are there for the hard-core, but I enjoyed just beating up on a couple of buddies.

Graphics: The graphics are great as usual. Battles involve the usual flashy swordplay, complete with glowing, multicolored attacks and impossible acrobatics. The frame rate is smoother than ever, with no slowdown whatsoever, and the backgrounds are nicely detailed (though at times the textures seem a little stale). The price you pay for this beauty? Load times. They're not overly noticeable, but on some levels of the Tower mode, I got just a tiny bit impatient staring at that "now loading" screen. A minor quibble, but worth mentioning.

Audio: The musical score is the same familiar orchestral fare; it sounds vaguely like "Pirates of the Caribbean," but you usually won't notice it. Sound effects, including clashes of swords and over-the-top voice acting, are appropriate touches.

The wrap up:

Parent's take: "Soul Calibur IV" is a fighting game. It's violent. Giant armored knights regularly impale tiny ninja girls with huge swords (and vice versa), although absolutely zero blood is involved, and many of the hits are masked by glowy effects and the general speed of the game. The characters never look the worse for the wear, despite light-saber slashes and crushing ax blows. Also, several of the female fighters are, shall we say, "well-endowed," in a way that is probably inappropriate for some.

Final word: Anyone, anywhere can have a good time with "Soul Calibur IV" the first time they play it. (It's almost better if you don't try to take it too seriously.) The game's appeal increases if you have friends handy, whether in the room with you or online. But even if you're playing solo and offline, "SCIV" contains a ton of content that even the hardest of the hard-core will spend ages unearthing. This is an improvement on the previous "Soul Calibur" game, and the reigning champion of 3-D fighting. The Force is strong with this one.