The original release on Soul Calibur II is one of my most played games of all time. When I had a Gamecube, I rented the game multiple times and eventually made the smart investment of saving up my allowances so I could own a copy for myself. The novelty of playing Link in a fighting game drew me in, but there was something else about the game that kept me coming back to it.
I've played every Soul Calibur game at least a little bit, but II always stood out to me as being the most fun. It was also the only one I owned a copy of instead of renting.
I was excited about a high definition re-release of one of my favorite fighting games from my youth. Parts of the game are just as cool as they were back then, but this port is not as good as it should be.
Fighting games are notorious for having mediocre single player options. You can usually expect a basic Arcade Mode in most titles and that's about it. Soul Calibur II is one of the few exceptions, having a ton of stuff to do outside of basic versus play. Arcade Mode is self-explanatory, but you do get a few cutscenes, a unique ending for each character, and a Character Profile for completing that. There's also Time Attack, Survival, and Team Battle which are different twists on the basic Arcade Mode formula. You can unlock “Extra” versions of every single player mode which lets you choose which weapon your character uses; this is important because each weapon has a unique effect.
To unlock all these extra weapons, you have to go through the best part of Soul Calibur 2: Weapon Master mode.
Each square on this map leads you to a screen that contains a handful of unique battles. There's a fair amount of story here (a few pages at the beginning of each chapter and a lengthy text scroll for each battle) that is mostly skippable. Nice to have it, but after a certain point I just started skipping through it because it's plain, unvoiced text.
The cool thing about Weapon Master is that every match has some kind of unique stipulation. Some matches disable blocking for both characters, so you have to rely on jumping and sidestepping to avoid damage. Some matches poison you, so you have to defeat your enemies before the poison kills you. Some matches give your enemy regenerating health and turns the edges of the stage into a hazard that harms anyone who stands on it.
In the end, I found the Weapon Master stipulations to be about 70 percent cool and 30 percent unfair. Around Chapter 6 I began running into challenges that were just not fun. There is a challenge where you have to fight five enemies in a row on a limited timer. If you beat one enemy the timer refills, but it's very possible to make it unwinnable if you don't beat the enemies quickly enough.
One challenge is a dungeon with multiple branching paths, but only one exit. It also has a timer that carries over between rounds. So if you don't find the exit quickly, it becomes unwinnable and you have to start from the beginning.
Weapon Master is the way to unlock all of the “Extra” modes on the main menu, as well as bonus characters, weapons for each character, and modes that let you do sort-of cool things like watching computer characters fight or the Exhibition Theater, which shows them doing cool tricks with their weapons.
My only problem with Weapon Master is that too much content is only unlockable inside that mode. I got stuck at some point but there's a lot of characters, weapons, and costumes to earn later on in the mode. The later missions get so annoying or unfair that I don't care to finish them, so there is just some content I won't get to without putting myself through a lot of annoying gameplay.
So I'd like to get back to the main topic of this series: does this game teach you how to play it well? Could a newbie get into this game and do well? The answer to that is a strong “maybe”.
The tutorial mode of the game isn't on the main menu, but it is the first mission in Weapon Master. This teaches you that Horizontal Attacks are good for hitting circling opponents, vertical attacks are good for hitting opponents in low stances, and kicks are really fast and weak, to catch opponents off guard.
It teaches you how to guard, but not the difference between high and low guards. So without experimenting, you can't tell which types of attacks will hit crouching or standing opponents. It doesn't teach you how to visually recognize Unblockable Attacks, or about special moves with Guard Break or Guard Impact properties. It doesn't teach you how to crouch or jump.
To put it simply, the tutorial gives you enough tools to be mediocre at the game. So I jumped into Practice to see if there is Command Training. There isn't.
I say this far too often, but every fighting game needs Command Training. Especially if you have 100+ moves per character like Soul Calibur 2 does. Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown nailed Command Training the best: it puts the command on top of the screen and you can't advance to the next move until you do it.
In Soul Calibur 2, you can't even make a selected move stick to the top of the screen! You have to pause, go to the Command List, scroll to the move you want to see, and click on it to view a demonstration. It's nice to have a video of every move, but I'd rather have it work like Virtua Fighter's system. So I did far too much of this:
2. Go to Command List.
3. Scroll to the move I wanted to see and click it. Watch the video a few times.
4. Unpause and try to move for myself.
This could have been handled much better.
And yet, I don't feel like this game requires a large amount of studying to win some matches. You won't ever get lucky and beat someone online who has hundreds of games of experience, but unlike most fighting games, you won't get completely blown out either. The game values good movement and using your moves smartly as much as memorizing combos.
If you are adequate at blocking, Guard Impacts, and proper sidestepping, you can hold your own. I've won matches online by simply sidestepping and punishing, or Guard Impacting and punishing. So it's refreshing to beat people without having to learn too many combos...which is good because the game doesn't try to teach you any combos.
Even with inadequate tutorial and training options, Soul Calibur 2 feels pretty accessible for newcomers. People who study frame data and combo theory will excel, but if you find a character among this diverse cast whose style “makes sense” to you, you can do cool stuff just by hitting buttons sometimes.
Now, I really do enjoy Soul Calibur 2. I can't say that this is worth the $20 price tag at all, though. The single player modes are still as fun as they were years ago, but the “Online” part of this package is weak.
I'm confused as to how Soul Calibur V had nearly flawless netcode and a cool set of features, but Soul Calibur 2 HD Online has neither.
There are three options on the “Online Mode” menu: Ranked, Player, and Leaderboards. Ranked Match lets you sort by connection quality and player skill, but it seems like neither option matters. Even when picking “similar rank” I would get opponents ranked significantly higher than me (the ranking system gives the winner points, and people would have thousands more points than I did). Even when choosing the highest possible connection quality, every match has noticable input lag.
I doubt this is an issue with my connection, because it has come up in every review I've read of the game and everyone I've spoken to about it. The netcode in this game is bad. I guess this must have been developed by Namco's B team because the netcode in Soul Calibur V was excellent even under bad conditions. But the “online” part of Soul Calibur II HD Online is not very good.
There are no lobbies in Player Match. You can search for a match, but if a match isn't found it kicks you out to the main menu and you have to restart the search. Why isn't there a Refresh or Retry Search button? After finishing a Player Match, you are kicked to the main menu. No option to rematch, no lobby, there isn't even a button to pop up the opponent's gamertag.
To be honest, I'm pretty surprised this game costs $20. The graphics look fine, and as long as you aren't playing online, the versus mode and suite of single player features are above average. But even the offline modes aren't perfect. There are random instances of slowdown in single player mode that I've experienced every time I've played the game. I've seen Cervantes' auto-guard impact move freeze the game on two separate occasions. “Freeze” as in “you need to turn off your console because this is fucked” freeze. The online netcode is frustrating because it makes the game much harder than it should be, and it lags even under ideal conditions.
It's still fun to play locally, and it's easy enough that you can have fun with it without a ton of studying moves. But I can't fully recommend it for new players of fighting games or anyone really. It's too expensive, the online features are bad, and it does a poor job of teaching you how to play it. Instead of spending $20 on this, spend less money for Soul Calibur V or Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown.