- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2012

A 3D fighter franchise continues its fine tradition of delivering dazzling eye candy and action but falls a bit short of substance in its latest iteration SoulCalibur V (Namco Bandai Games, rated Teen, reviewed for Xbox 360, $59.99).

Now, I would not complain if simply appreciating the interactive excitement of a human player versus human player contest (in the same room or online) where each controls avatars in the heat of battle.

Here the latest SoulCalibur works well through a choice of two dozen male or female warriors spanning the more-than-decade-old series that mix it up in some frantic, weapons-based matches.

The line-up includes the return of the stylish rapier-wielding Raphael, massive sword-carrying Siegfried, monstrous Astaroth and scantily-clad Ivy. Now, also look for guest Enzio Auditore da Firenze from the Assassin’s Creed gaming series to offer his services as well as new characters such as the witch Viola and Chinese sword expert Leixia.

The fights play out in gorgeous arenas from in the midst of massive Middle Earth-style war in the backdrop to a Mount Olympus locale.

Matches feature ground-breaking drops, pieces of armor flying off costumes, dizzying acrobatics, lots of screaming and with enough combination attack sequences (including those legendary toe stomps and groin shots) to boggle a mathematician’s noggin.

New is a bar-based, critical-gauge meter that once built up, through assaults and defensive moves, unleashes a slick attack on opponents (reference Aeon’s in-flight fire spitting). It’s an impressive moment for most characters, but still not as intense as Marvel vs. Capcom.

Also, up to 50 warriors can be customized either from the sore toe up or using the available characters as models. The incredible variations give players nuances to their stable of avatars to control voice pitch, torso size, hair style, facial features, hats, weapons, weapons styles, weapon effects and plenty more minutia.

That feature alone can eat up many hours of a SoulCalibur fan’s life as he literally builds an army of warriors to challenge the online world.

The core multiplayer includes playing ranked or more casual matches (as in not affecting your ranking), hanging out in lobbies to text chat and square up new opponents, replaying your own battles and even watching another player’s recent efforts to help learn from his mistakes.

Most impressive is the Global Colosseo, a sort of worldwide hub to access challengers from the Americas down to Australia. Set atop a massive game board loaded with character cards (depending on the city), a player moves a cursor over potential opponents, can talk some smack, click on the card and enter an arena against them.

The multiplayer experience is seamless and really fun for the casual and hard-core fan and will bring out the braggart in even the most meek of players.

However, I’m more of a recluse and usually in the mood to fight a computer-controlled opponent.

Here, SoulCalibur V never inspires the solo player through its brief, 20-episode campaign, with somewhat extra difficult matches and lack of storytelling.

The plot finds a sniveling mama’s boy named Patroklos trying to rid his sister Pyrrha of malfestation (an evil extension of his sibling, sort of like the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix) and wielding the mighty SoulCalibur sword while she controls the evil equivalent, the Soul Edge.

At best it’s a couple hours of mystic mumbo jumbo that takes itself too seriously. It’s tethered to warm-up matches (with no tips on how to actually play the game) while controlling Patroklos, Pyrrha and a Z.W.E.I., a brooding brute with the power to summon a ghostly werewolf for attacks.

It ends with some fights tied to difficult bosses leading to get to the sappiest of endings.

The story never supports the gravity of the action and the preponderance of manga-style storyboards (displayed on parchment) wedged between the common battles really cheapens the delivery.

Nothing less than fully animated scenes throughout the solo campaign and some variation to the matches would have impressed.

What could have acted as a great tutorial is a wasted opportunity and will be very frustrating for the new fan to SoulCalibur.

More modes for the shy guy include an arcade-style, six-match tournament and the extremely tough Legendary Souls that should crush the average gamer’s will to continue.

Overall, SoulCalibur V has never looked better and won’t disappoint the faithful playing with friends. I just wish it let us loners and those new to the action more in on the fun.

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