Soul Calibur III

Soul Calibur series producer Hiroaki Yotoriyama is explaining the challenges facing his latest project - a tight development schedule necessitating a (single-) console focus and a race to keep its head above the next-gen hype swell - not by way of apology, but to impress on us his team's achievement.

The resulting game isn't a Soul Calibur II.V, no less lavish yet no more progressive, but a game with a nearly overwhelming generosity of play modes.

"I'm eager to find out how fans will react," Yotoriyama says. "For them to think about why we've made these modes. I think the series has the potential to expand into new areas of gaming."

Such future potential may be indicated in Chronicles of the Sword mode, a turn-based strategy wargame where unit conflicts are resolved with one-on-one duels, or in the Soul Arena, a series of quickfire, gimmick-driven versus matches to contrast the military precision of standard two-player.

Or perhaps it's in both modes, as SCIII's breadth is not without direction: there's a noticeable theme of handing the reins over to the player, even allowing you to direct your chosen Calibur hero's destiny in the Tales of Souls multiple-choice, multiple-ending story mode.

"At this point, the game experience shouldn't be linear. We should allow players to always be asking questions: maybe if I did this, how about if I do that?" says Yotoriyama.

Career players' terrifying brains can compute those possibilities in a simulated world tournament ladder against AI opponents, but beginners and veterans alike should find SCIII's character-creation mode attractive.

Sixteen separate, layerable accessory locations go far beyond previous customisation efforts, although height and build are fixed to minimise game balance issues.

Mechanically, the system is equally impressive: custom fighters will not borrow existing characters' moves, instead drawing on one of six professions (fixed at creation) and selectable weapon disciplines.

"The team in charge of character creation has become so involved with it that they're worried it will have more impact than the existing characters," Yotoriyama reveals. "But I think both will live together."

Some of this codependence is forced, as many of the accessories, fighting disciplines and even basic professions must be unlocked over the course of play - creating that truly ideal character may take a little warm-up time.

Even so, it's possibly a watershed evolution for a high-profile, character-driven eastern fighting game to encourage player individuality beyond costume selection.

We put to Yotoriyama that he might be starting his genre's next generation a little early, and he grins.

"It's not really a question of hardware - what's more important than playing to hardware specifications is delivering the kind of experience your players want. That's what we've learned with SCIII, and I'm confident we've achieved it."

Soul Calibur III will be released for PS2 Autumn 2005