Fighting games aren't dead. Just because everyone's too busy playing Call of Duty 4 doesn't mean that the soul doesn't still burn. Soulcalibur and its sequels transcend other fighting games in the hearts and minds of gamers who remember just how super-rad the Dreamcast was, and the newest entry not only lives up to the previous entries but even exceeds them by adding online play that actually works. Soulcalibur IV hones the greatest series in the fighting game genre to a razor-sharp point, reminding gamers why fighting games are so damn fun in the first place.
Name aside, this is actually the fifth installment of the Soul series. It's easy to forget original game Soul Edge when compared to the unbridled awesomeness of the Dreamcast's Soulcalibur. What was a mildly entertaining, arcade fighter became the premiere launch title for Sega's little white box, with the port's addition of a complex Missions Mode, graphics that surpassed the original coin-op version, hilarious melodrama and perfectly balanced gameplay. It's not hyperbole to say that Soulcalibur was legendary, and that this newest edition holds the tradition is a sweet miracle.
Compared to other fighters, Soulcalibur IV's single player modes are a tour de force. The standard Arcade mode, typically the only real single player option in other games, is the mode you'll probably spend the least amount of time in. Story mode offers five distinctive levels for each character, often throwing up to four enemies at the player per level. Each of the five battles in story mode is paced with a disarming intensity and frequently pits you against multiple consecutive foes. Drop one enemy and the next will rush into the fray, leaving hardly a moment to catch your breath. Make it through these levels and you'll get to face Algol, King of All Fighters and bearer of a tragic spiky haircut. He's a fierce competitor -- especially for looking so dorky -- but his fight rarely feels as cheap as the bosses in, say, Dead or Alive or Tekken. Your reward for dethroning the king is a special cutscene and normally new unlocked characters.
Tower of Lost Souls is where you'll spend most of your time. Like the Mission modes of past games, you'll be presented with stages that offer unique challenges, typically based around your enemies skills. New to the series is the Tag-Team concept, allowing you to choose more than one character for each mission and swap between them during a fight with a tap of the right bumper. Switching on the fly will often save you from certain doom, as many of the levels in Tower of Lost Souls pit you against large groups of enemies. Also different from past games are the rewards for completing each mission. The rewards of each stage have to be unlocked by meeting specific criteria during your fight -- winning without taking damage, switching characters 3 or more times, or destroying sections of the arena are just a few examples. While Tower of Lost Souls doesn't have the complexity of previous mission modes, there are a metric ton of unlockables to keep compulsive collectors plenty busy.
Those unlockables are vital for the extraordinarily deep character creation mode. Just like in Soulcalibur III, you can create your own overly-dramatic warrior and set his or her soul alight. Your custom avatar can use any of the attack templates of the existing characters in the game, though unique fighter profiles like the Dancer are sadly gone. After tweaking her skin and hair color, pose, voice, musculature and preference of Jell-O flavor, you'll outfit your toon with a large variety of equipment, including the unlocked gear discovered in Tower of Lost Souls. Each piece of armor affects the character's battle stats, allowing for an outrageous amount of customization for your new warrior.
As if that wasn't overwhelming enough, each fighter can be given customized skills out of five different categories. As your fighter increases in level and gets better gear, you'll earn access to the more powerful skills, including invisibility and toxic attacks. If you forgot at this point that you were playing a fighting game instead of WoW, that's okay. Soulcalibur IV has all the intricacy of a role-playing game but with the added bonus of getting to pummel your opposition instead of rolling dice.
Of course, the real appeal of a fighting game is the multiplayer. Soulcalibur IV adds on to its stellar Versus mode with Online play via both Xbox Live and PSN. Contrary to reports, my experience in online soul burning was overwhelmingly positive. Battles with friends in Canada and across the US were largely lag-free, though one friend was consistently dropped right before our fight would begin. Multiple gamers can meet up in a lobby and spectate as two players battle it out for imaginary supremacy. Voice chat works throughout the battles as well, even between current fighters and spectators. The whole setup is reminiscent of huddling around an arcade cabinet, waiting for your next shot to take down the current champ. It's the kind of online fighting game experience true believers have been lusting after for years, and is almost as fun as sitting in the same room with your buddies.
Soulcalibur IV stands alongside its predecessors as a landmark game. Namco Bandai would need to make massive changes to its winning formula to put tarnish on the series, like replacing everyone's weapon with french baguettes or translating the game's menus into Esperanto. But crowded in a market of Halos, Maddens, and Mass Effects, it's easy to miss that Soulcalibur IV fits alongside those outstanding, blockbuster games. With a bevy of game modes and online play that works, Soulcalibur IV is a game that should spin in everyone's console this summer. Even if you skipped the genre's heyday back in the arcades, there's plenty here to keep your soul toasty warm until the winter months and beyond.