Amid the feverish hubbub of next-gen’s arrival, a lone PS2-era game is still managing to make one heck of a noise. SoulCalibur 2 HD Online is an all-singing, all dancing-around-your-feeble-attempts-at-vertical-attacks shout from last-gen. So, just for a moment, wrench your eyes from Killzone, Forza, and whatever is catching your eager eye and take a look at this XBLA/PSN gem.
For the uninitiated, SoulCalibur 2 is a one-on-one fighting game, set in the 16th century. The small arenas have slightly uneven floors with either ring-out drops or solid walls lining them. The fighters carry bladed weapons, which can be used in horizontal swipes or horizontal attacks. They can also kick, throw, and jump. Most liberating of all--even today--an ‘8-way run’ feature allows them to circle each other in the 3D space of the ring. It’s a very traditional setup with no gimmicks. Just fighting. Pure, brilliant fighting.
Matches develop organically instead of becoming a battle of combo recitals. Sure, there are combos to learn and exploit, but I find there’s more fun to be had in relying on reactions, wit and tactics. Second-guessing your opponent’s attack and deftly deflecting it is something Dead or Alive allows you to do far too easily. The window for success here is much narrower, which means it feels way better when you pull it off. For a game over a decade old, the fighting still feels fresh.
But what about the conversion? The first thing you’ll see when you start up SoulCalibur 2 HD Online is that--unlike SoulCalibur HD and its 4:3 aspect ratio--it’s full-screen. And gloriously so. Every single one of the 1,080 lines of vertical resolution is brought out to the edge of the screen without stretching, making this look for all the world like a modern XBLA release. The colours are so vivid, the art direction so strong, and the animation so melted-chocolate smooth, it still stands up as a great-looking fighting game.
If that wasn’t enough of a pleasant surprise, the conversion has cut nothing out. You unlock characters just like you used to, watch museum mode profiles like you used to and--best of all--embark on a full-fledged single-player mission mode. Yep, just like you used to. This single-player campaign impressively augments the one-on-one experience by adding new rules and win states which gives the game more meat than the short-burst, arcade-friendly gameplay of story mode.
It’s a wonderful world in which to immerse yourself. This is SoulCalibur from a time when the primary design brief from the original Soul Edge could still be seen. It’s a world of pirate galleons, libraries full of dusty tomes, and underground caverns lit by flaming torches. The effect is exacerbated by beautiful fonts that display best clear times over a slowly rotating arena. It is probably how you remember SoulCalibur 2 looking on PS2, not how it actually looks today.
But if anything, it’s better than the original. Not only does it look sharper, it sounds better too. Maybe we’re just playing on better set-ups than our old CRT TVs in the early 2000s, but the orchestral score absolutely sparkles, with grandeur and drama that never feels cheesy or over-egged.
You want more? Well, it’s now online too, with both non-competitive and ranked matches. As a result, the package is every bit as fulfilling and meaty as a modern-day release. I just hope the game’s community comes out of the woodwork to keep the lobbies populated. It certainly deserves it.
This doesn’t feel like a modern game. It isn’t bloated or gimmick-ridden. Instead, it’s all about the artistry in the animations, the flourish of a sword, the split-second timing of a perfectly-executed parry. For me it’s a toss-up between SoulCalibur and this sequel as to which SoulCalibur is ‘best’, as both share the same vision and flawless execution. But in terms of the HD conversions, there is no contest. SoulCalibur 2 HD Online is everything SoulCalibur HD should have been.
But that’s OK. At least this exists. And the gaming world, while understandably distracted and looking forward instead of backwards at this moment in time, is all the richer for its existence.