Speed. It's what has separated 2D fighting games from their 3D counterparts for so many years. That's not to imply that 3D fighting games aren't fast per se, they've just never really been at the same level... until now.
SoulCalibur V is fast. Not crazy Marvel vs. Capcom 3 fast, but it's definitely a Usain Bolt-sprint faster than the competition. It's the kind of improvement that might go unnoticed at first glance, but when paired with the game's other new mechanics, helps define the experience as something completely fresh to franchise fanatics.
SoulCalibur V (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [Previewed])
Four new features, paired with the game's improved speed, were the focus of my hands-on with the gamescom build -- a faster Quick Step, Guard Burst/Just Guard, Brave Edge, and Critical Edge. The Quick Step is the most basic of new additions, but it may also be the addition that most benefits the tactical fighter. Double tapping the control stick up or down allows for a faster dash around an opponent.
While side stepping, with the eight-way movement system, in previous games was effective to a degree for evading attacks, a well timed Quick Step can easily put you behind an opponent to open up some punishing combos. Not to mention, the sleek blur effects look really cool.
The Guard Burst/Just Guard is similar to SoulCalibur IV's Guard Impact/Just Impact counter system, but it has been refined to eliminate the tenacious "spamming for success." Instead of by hitting a direction and guard to throw an opponent off balance, Guard Burst is performed with a simple well-timed press of the block button. Executing this move, which requires a lot of skill in timing, adds a fancy slow-motion effect, opening up the countering window.
The final two mechanics shown off, Brave Edge and Critical Edge, are by far the biggest changers to SoulCalibur's formula. New to the game's interface is the Edge Meter, which builds throughout the fight when you cause or receive damage, similar to Street Fighter IV's Ultra Meter. Two levels of the meter can be filled, and by inputting certain control combinations, players can unleash some spectacular moves that are as deadly as they are beautiful.
Brave Edge is triggered by performing certain moves followed immediately by pressing all three attack buttons before the strike hits. For example, one move with newcomer Z.W.E.I., when done normally, will launch his opponent into the air for a possible juggle. The Brave Edge version of the same move, which consumes half of an Edge Meter, adds a second hit where Z.W.E.I's familiar, Ein, comes out and smashes the opponent back to the ground, effectively changing the properties of the combo.
Critical Edge, the replacement for (and not to be confused with) the Critical Finish move from SoulCalibur IV, is the flashiest of the new additions. Similar to Street Fighter's super moves, the Critical Edge attack unleashes some major damage. Pulling off the move is the same for everyone -- double quarter-circle forward followed by all three attack buttons -- but knowing when and where to execute is key. Characters like Mitsurugi and Pyrrha can string their Critical Edge move in from certain combos, ensuring the move is extra punishing. Ivy, on the other hand, has to make sure she is at a close range to pull off her technique, a super-powerful grab that's very hard to link.
Speaking of Ivy, like many of the returning characters, she yet again has been completely overhauled. She still retains all of her classic moves, but the whip state modifiers that made her oh-so complicated to use for the casual fan have been done away with in favor of simpler combo inputs.
I was told during my play time that the SoulCalibur team really wanted to make every character accessible for all levels of players. While this may sound like everyone has been dumb downed -- though in Ivy's case, I think she’s just too old to remember how to use her whip properly -- this really isn't the case. In fact, with all the new additions, players will find that characters are more balanced and have strengths that fit every style of play thanks to the game's improved speed.
Back to the game's speed, it ironically wasn't until the end of my time with SoulCalibur V that I was truly floored by the upped tempo. As we wrapped up, I was presented with a special demonstration that the folks at Namco Bandai could only refer to as the "Natsu Beat Down." By flipping the game's A.I. to max, Namco Bandai's own "FilthyRich" Bantegui took on newcomer Natsu. The beating that ensued was ridiculous. Trained by Soul Calibur's ninja booby-lady Taki, Natsu looks to be one mean and formidable opponent. Her full arsenal of moves, when implemented at the highest level, makes her a blur.
Like Taki, Natsu uses close-range weaponry and speed to her advantage, but unlike her sensei, she has the ability to teleport around her opponent. Her most awesome technique was a three-part teleporting kick, where she phased in front, above, and behind, delivering lethal strikes to the head.
It's stuff like this that really has me pumped for this game. I've always enjoyed SoulCalibur, with its eclectic cast of weapon-wielding warriors, but I felt that the series hadn't really evolved since part II. There's still a lot for Namco Bandai to show of SoulCalibur V, as this was only the tip of the iceberg. So far, only 11 characters -- with close to 30 expected in the final build -- have been unveiled, but with the Tokyo Game Show around the corner, a few more should be announced.
Here's hoping for a little Hwang Seong-gyeong action. I think he's due.