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ZADZOOKS: Swords cast world into strife

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2008

Superhero and cartoon characters have become integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at some ...

Comics plugged in

The world's greatest warriors battle for control of two powerful swords in Soulcalibur IV ($59.99). Namco Bandai Games America Inc. takes its three-dimensional fighting game franchise to new visual levels through the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 entertainment systems. Teens eventually access more than 30 characters and fight in locations as varied as a Star Destroyer's hangar and a destructible pirate ship.

What's the story: Paraphrased from the game manual and Web site ( http://soulcalibur4.namcobandaigames.com/) - Set in the 16th century, the epic struggle between the holy sword Soul Calibur and cursed counterpart Soul Edge comes full circle. As the last chapter in the battle begins, the great heroes of the age are drawn together and driven helplessly toward a terrible denouement.

Control your destiny: A single player chooses from an incredibly designed cast of warriors from the history of the franchise and uses weaponry and combat tactics to survive against opponents. Players can enter a story mode to participate in the adventure of each character, fight through an arcade mode or ascend or descend the Tower of Souls, a rich set of battles with more than 60 floors of fighting that often uses tag-team-style matches with multiple characters.

Get to the action: Players can strategically implement - but often may stumble upon - an incredible variety of combination attacks with more than 100 available for each character.

I'll readily admit to button-mashing my way to victory the majority of the time, but I recommend trying to master many of the finger-fumbling moves, using the souls gauge and critical finish option to watch a satisfyingly rich battle.

Multiplayer possibilities: Besides the standard two-player offline matches, for the first time, warriors can go online and challenge fellow Soulcalibur brethren.

Star power: The Force is strong with this game as each console version offers bonus characters from the "Star Wars" universe. Xbox 360 owners get Jedi Master Yoda, while PlayStation 3 owners can control Darth Vader. Both systems offer the Starkiller, an apprentice of the Dark Lord, soon to star in the LucasArts video game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

So who's best to use among the stars? Yoda is a delight to watch, while Vader is solid for combat and the Starkiller is almost too powerful.

Memorable moments: Seeing Yoda duck an attack (his short stature pays off big time) and jump into the air to unload one of his light-saber-fueled whirling-dervish attacks is amazing. Vader's Force choke also is pretty slick, as are the acrobatic slithering attacks of Voldo, a "Hellraiser"-inspired character.

Violent encounters: For the incredible amount of fierce action and screams of anger and pain, the game is not at a Mortal Kombat level of graphic violence. Although swords can be seen skewering opponents, no bloodshed occurs.

Extras and unlockables: A deep character customization option is enhanced as success in the Tower of Souls unlocks weapons and armor upgrades that can be purchased. The player often receives gold for winning matches, which can be used to buy the upgrades and even unlock characters.

Read all about it: The premium version of the game ($79.99) is packaged with a 24-page comic book. Developed with DC Comics, it stars Heishiro Mitsurugi and many of the popular characters of Soulcalibur.

Additionally, Dark Horse Comics highlights the world of Vader's apprentice with the 104-page graphic novel "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" ($15.95).

The bad news: I used what one of my testers called a "bum rush" strategy - running at an opponent and using a special attack to take him down, then using the same attack again and again as he tried to stand up - to easily conquer most single-player levels of the game. It worked surprisingly well.

Pixel-popping scale: 9 out of 10. Gorgeous 3-D animated modeling designs and breathtaking cut scenes will cause a crowd to gather around the television as the game is played. Some of my favorite characters include Siegfried Schtauffen in the John Borman/King Arthur-style armor, the skimpily clad Isabella Valentine and lively lizardman Aeon Calcos.

What's it worth: Without the "Star Wars" celebrities in the game, Soulcalibur IV is an amazing experience. Add the legends from a galaxy far, far away, and it's a geekified extravaganza for fans and gamers. Let's hope Namco Bandai delivers on rumors and offers downloads of Yoda for PS3 and Darth for the Xbox 360.

Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times' Community pages ( www.washingtontimes.com/communities/zadzooks).