Posted by: Mithrandir | January 11, 2008

Oh, well done, Namco. Well done.

It is the best friends that can hurt one the most, they say… and it certainly appears to be the case with Namco’s unveiling of the SCIV secret characters we have been hearing about during December. Well, Namco did announce two new characters that will be appearing in the next Soul Calibur. And I really, really wish they hadn’t. Because the new characters are Darth Vader and Yoda. Yes. The Star Wars arch rivals and none other.

In typical sales-aspiring fashion, Vader will only be available in the PS3 version of the game, while Yoda will only appear in the Xbox 360 version (I wonder what that says about Namco’s view of the evil side of the Force… heh). This will probably only be the case at first, though, as the suspicion of both characters being offered as optional (read: paid) downloadable characters later on, through Xbox Live and PSN, is very strong. What’s more, the Web is already rife with rumors about those two characters not being the only ones from the Star Wars universe appearing in Soul Calibur IV. Which makes sense, since Namco would not negotiate with the infamous Lucas Arts money machine for just two characters.

In any case, Namco’s choice hurts. A lot.

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I remember the time I first read about the inclusion of Heihachi Mishima, Link and Spawn in the versions of Soul Calibur II for PS2, Gamecube and Xbox respectively. I was bitterly disappointed then, since it was the same marketing mentality which lead to that decision. But, well, Heihachi and Link were still video game characters, so that softened the blow somewhat. In practice, Link actually played pretty well and did not seem out of place much (well, excluding the bombs, of course). Heihachi’s braces blocking swords? Ridiculous, but I went along with that (for the three or four days it took to complete the PS2 version). Spawn was totally out of place, of course, purely there for the American audience, but him I learned to ignore pretty fast. In time, all three just faded into the background in my mind… and that was that. I am pretty sure this is how it went down for all SC fans, sooner or later.

So, I was disappointed then. But now? Now I am enraged.

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I am enraged because… well, there are marketing choices and then there are marketing choices. It’s one thing having video game characters (often used in fighting gameplay mechanics) appearing as kameo characters in a beat’ em up and quite another having movie characters – that were created in a totally different context – engaging in one-to-one combat for no apparent reason. It’s one thing having two characters that could fit in a medieval background (the one Soul Calibur has built upon) in a fighting game roster, and quite another bringing in that background two characters from some far off future, pitching sword to light saber. And it is one thing borrowing characters from another fictional universe and quite another choosing not just any fictional characters, but Star Wars characters, which have printed money for Lucas and his crew in all the possible ways known to mankind. It is such a cheeky, in-your-face choice, that it is nothing short of embarrassing.

I wonder how would Namco’s story writer explain a scene where Yoda and Mitsurugi would have to cross swords (Namco will not bother, of course, but let’s just imagine so for the sake of the argument). Let’s see. Did Vader and Yoda come from the future to claim Soul Edge, in order to bring peace to the Empire, one way or the other? Did the wizards that resurrected Astaroth send him to a parallel universe, where Knightmare was a Sith Lord, to steal the evil sword? Or has the whole Soul Calibur franchise actually taken place in a virtual space inside the Emperor’s arcade room and we were all playing a fighting simulator for the last 13 years?

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Of course, I can discern the reasons behind Namco’s decision. I do realize that video games have to have a world reaching effect nowadays in order to be really profitable. They have to appeal to as many gamers as possible – and that means mainly American gamers, yes, since that is the biggest market for a number of years now. But even based on that, I do have to question Namco’s choice. The Star Wars business surely is not what it used to be, even in the US (its next peak will probably be “the definitive Blu-ray  collection”). It’s sizable, sure, but is it so important as to dictate that kind of decision on Namco’s behalf?

Japanese people seem to have no clear indication of what is “hip” in the Western world nowadays, if one thinks in terms of global and not US-centric appeal. I mean, come on. Darth Vader…?!?!? He is not even remotely hot anymore and many clicks away from being considered a “classic” character of universal appeal. His time has passed and people who are into movies know that he was a weak symbol to begin with. Geeks that have been decorating their rooms with Vader posters are what? In their mid-thirties now, like me? And does anyone in their right minds at the Namco HQ think that the “Star Wars Generation” should be the primary target group for SCIV?

Let’s face it: chances are that more of the people who are interested in the “lifestyle side” of a game like this would rather have Aragorn or Jack Sparrow or Blade or The Bride as a selectable character than Vader and Yoda. Plus, make that kind of choice hoping that geeks of days past will be interested in a modern beat’ em up just because a character they like is in it…? Not to mention that die-hard followers of the Soul Calibur franchise will be indifferent (at best), annoyed (at worst) towards this decision. And I do hope that Namco does not underestimate those followers by thinking that they will buy SCIV even if SpongeBob Squarepants was included in the roster.

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No, there is no logic in this. None at all.

But, when all is said and done, it is not a matter of logic or sales or global marketing. It is a matter of respect. Of respect to a legacy built over more than 10 years, over more than three different versions and several different formats. Of respect to the fans that have honoured that legacy, recognising the work that has been put into making the Soul Calibur universe a coherent one: one with a generally decent main story, entangling a lot of interesting – conflicting and tied by their own smaller stories – characters. All that now goes out of the window, because there is no way the elusive “suspension of disbelief” any video game strives for, could be retained in players’ minds once a Star Wars character walks into a medieval castle yard or a Japanese garden wielding a light saber. The two images are just too incompatible. And being that, they ruin everything.

But, hey. Since there is apparently no problem with shoving mismatching fighters down Soul Calibur’s throat, I have this to propose to Namco: why not go all the way? Why not include any and every character the marketing department says has a good chance of boosting sales! Include Oprah, complete with a deadly saucepan. Hell, make a new fighting stage out of her TV stage. Include Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, wielding a hard drive with all our personal data in it. Signature special move: the Suspension of Account. I also hear that Britney Spears is making a comeback. Arm her with a really long microphone handler. That should do it.

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It all is so very disappointing. So very hurtful. And still… will I be buying Soul Calibur IV? Well, yes. Of course. I just hope the smartypants at Namco that thought all this was a good idea have the decency to include a “Special Characters On/Off” option in the Settings Menu. I do not want to even have to look at Vader’s black helmet in the Characters Selection Screen. Ever.

Oh, and I do hope that Capcom does not get any brilliant ideas based on Namco’s choices. The director of Street Fighter IV has repeatedly stated that he wants the new version to stay true to the spirit and “feeling” of the classic series. Here’s hope that the marketing people harassing him are all on vacation right now. The last thing I would like to see in spring are SFIV screenshots with 50 Cent facing Ryu. With a gun.

Namco, you managed to disgrace yourself and your best product as only you could. You also spoiled what I deemed to be the video game highlight of 2008 for me, killing off all the enthusiasm I had to pour into this blog in the process.

Congratulations. I hope you’re happy.

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Posted by: Mithrandir | October 31, 2007

Another Quickie: New SCIV Screens

Since the 2007 Holiday Video Game Frenzy is almost upon us and all heads will turn to the titles that will fight for everyone’s money THIS Christmas, Namco is understanably keeping quiet about Soul Calibur IV, since it will probably be asking for our money (and getting it by default) sometime NEXT Christmas. Still, Team Soul have released a small set of new screens taken for the latest build of the game and, well, let’s just say that things are starting to show signs of real, discernible progress. Nobody will find any unveiled secrets or great revelations in those (it is just a round of sword clashing between Mitsurugi and Cassandra), but the step up in graphics quality is readily apparent. Yes. Things are definitely starting to shape up… and for once, not in the “spectacular curvature” sense.

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Looking closely on Mitsurugi’s body and Cassandra’s face, one can easily see that the polygon count of the models is starting to resemble more of what we would expect a “next-gen”, high definition fighting game to look like. The level of detail shown is already higher than that of, say, Virtua Fighter 5 in either the PS3 or Xbox 360 version. The muscle lines on Mitsurugi’s torso are extremely well defined and the body type of Cassandra, even through this rather modest outfit, is differently shaped from that of Taki or Ivy (Cassandra is Greek and we should know): smaller breasts, wider hips, thicker knees and anckles… a more “Mediterranean”, ordinary body type. We like. We do not all live in B&S fantasies with leather clad women and blind gimps. Heh.

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One particular element in these new screens had us pleasantly surprised: the eyes. Very few video games have so far succeeded in nailing down a natural, believable “expression” in the eyes of 3D characters, but in these screens, both Mitsurugi’s and Cassandra’s look is not glaringly artificial. It is just… well, more “there”. The glance of Mitsurugi even seems more “focused” and the childish eyes of Cassandra light up her face. We can only hope that Namco will pursuit the depicting of more expressions (like “frowns” in anger or pain, for instance) and try to animate the eyes along with the most important lines of the faces of characters in the final version of the game.

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As before, we have no indication whatsoever which format these screens come from – Xbox 360 or PlayStation3 – but then again, it should not really matter at this point. The screens’ dimensions are still 1280×720 pixels, which means that Namco has probably not yet experimented with 1080p. We hope they do so pretty soon because, at the end of the day, by this time NEXT Christmas FullHD res will not be anything exciting to write about. It will almost be the norm.

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Ladies and gentlemen who would like to take a look at this new set of screens can do so through this link. And, oh, a friendly advice to our friends in Games Radar. People, when you give a visitor the chance to see a game screenshot in its full-res glory, obliging him/her to go through several hoops in order to get there, you do not compress the hell out of the final picture. You just don’t. It’s idiotic. You do not introduce noise and artifacts to a piece of graphic that the visitor clicked no less than three times to see (not counting the typing in of your URL or the click on the bookmark). You leave the original graphic at peace, uncompressed, for the visitor to admire.

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OK, Namco, you’ve got us hooked. We cannot wait for the next batch of screens, especially considering the fact that there is not a single AAA fighting game asking for our money THIS Christmas. Be a darling and let us in on some of the new things Team Soul intends to bring to the gameplay, though, yes? Sometime this year would be nice. Thank you.

Posted by: Mithrandir | October 9, 2007

Quickie: A set of new SCIV screens

Just a quick post to let people know that there is a generous amount of fresh Soul Calibur IV screenshots released. They revolve mainly around the new character revealed a while back, Hildegard, but known veterans such as Rafael, Sophitia and Astaroth all get a few poses in. The game remains in the early stages of development, which means that the graphics are quite unpolished and sport no proper lighting, shadowing and effects in many cases… but God, what a beautiful game this is going to be in a year’s time.

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It is not yet clear whether these screenshots are taken from the Xbox 360 or the PS3 version of the game, although it would be hard to tell anyway if the developer’s comments in interviews so far are any indication. Should we feel the need to be… well, naughty, we’d say that due to the total lack of anti-aliasing, they should probably be PS3 screens. But hey, that would be just mean, yes? In any case, we’re just messing with PlayStation fanboys here: the stage of development is so early, that the screens could have come from either platform.

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Worth noting is also the fact that all the screens released up to now are 1280×720 pixels in dimension, which means that Namco is still working on 720p for SCIV. We sincerely hope that the developers strive for 1080p or 1080i at the very least because, in 10 to 12 months time, a lot of high-profile games will be boasting FullHD graphics. Come on, Team Soul, do not leave us at the mercy of the countless Tekken fanboys, who will probably get 1080p for T6 and will certainly lose no chance to boast about it. We deserve to be the ones who get to do the boasting about beautiful graphics, don’t we?

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Yes, we do. We certainly do. So keep releasing those screens, mama Namco. We want to cherish every step of the way on the road to 1080p, super sharp, high definition greatness!

Posted by: Mithrandir | September 21, 2007

New SC character: Hilde!

…or Hildegard Von Krone, to be precise. This is the first fighter that Namco introduces to the series through Soul Calibur IV (in several interviews the Soul team mentioned that there will be more than one) and, although not terribly original conceptually, this character looks like she can hold her own against our favorite veteran compatants. What’s more, she may be one of those “don’t judge a book by its cover” fighters that do not appear to offer spectacular move lists or eccentric characteristics, but prove to be very popular among the SC players’ ranks through extensive play.

Hilde is a lady knight – we used to put these two words in the same sentence very differently in the old days! – who, judging from her confrontation with Siegfried in the latest Tokyo Game Show trailer, is out to defend her father’s kingdom from the threat of a rather well-known bloodthirsty stranger brandishing an evil sword. In the trailer she is accusing Siegfried of “bringing this curse upon the land”, so she could only be talking about Nightmare and the Soul Edge.

Hilde is designed and armed in a strange way – but one that makes a lot of sense none the less. Being a woman, she is not carrying a heavy “knightly” sword, but she is not using a shield as the Greek sisters do either. Instead of that, she is wearing full body armor (magnificently detailed, even in these early stages of development) and holding a sword in the right hand and a metal-headed spear in the left. The sword appears to be short and rather light, so it is rather safe to assume that it will be used for quick, immediate range attacks and maybe a couple of vicious throws.

Following historically accurate information, Namco has included moves that combine the sword and the spear in a crisscrossing way in order to provide defense. This can be discerned in several screenshots of Hilde a while back, when we were still under the impression that she was a fighter built by the “Create-a-character” function of SCIV (an impression that speaks volumes about the design of this specific combatant, obviously).

The most important weapon of Hilde seems to be the spear, though. Even if it visibly isn’t as long as Kilik’s staff, it can cover a lot of ground around the new character and it is rather safe to assume that it will be used effectively in horizontal and lateral moves for different purposes. Indeed borrowing a signature move from Kilik, Hilde can extend the spear over her shoulder – adding thrust power with her triceps – in order to land a focused, powerful strike. This is very well demonstrated in the new trailer as well, from a sequence that is most probably Hilde’s kata.

It is way too early to speculate on the way Hilde stacks up against the well-known fighters in the SC roster. Taking into account the fact that the Soul team will strive for absolute balance between different characters, though – and the fact that in motion she seems to stand on the “quick” side of the fighters available and known – Hilde should prove to be an obvious choice for new Soul Calibur players and a worthy challenge for the veterans among us to master. The “wow” factor in her exquisite appearance is a big plus (even this early stage her shiny armor sports environmental mapping) and it is more than certain that she will be available to play with a rather more revealing 2P or 3P costume (as it seems to be the trend in SCIV these days, for better or worse).

More information on Hilde, her backstory, her relation to the Soul Edge/Soul Calibur saga, her move list and special moves is sure to follow on a later date. Here’s hope that the next new character is more original and eccentric, though: medieval knights we already have three now, Namco dearest!

Posted by: Mithrandir | September 21, 2007

The soul burns bright. Again.

Yes, yes. Oh, yes. The launching of this blog is not exactly timely – let the person posting this message pretend that “being fashionably late” is some kind of an excuse and, well, move on! The exclusive, totally focused subject of this blog, Namco’s Soul Calibur IV, has been “confirmed” for more than a year now, the first solid info starting appearing in June 07. So not too late after all – especially considering that the title is still more than 9 to 12 months away – but late enough so as to have some catching up to do.

So, what is the purpose of this particular blog? Does the world really need another fanboy salivating over the newest screenshots of women dressed in precious few pieces of leather or another psycho-hardcore nerd pondering over animation frame windows and such? Well, no, the world does not need anything like that. Not really. I’ve checked, belonging to the latter category myself and knowing way too many people of the former.

This is exactly why this blog will keep its distance from the “ooohhh… we are the chosen few who get SC, the hardcore ones, the wise ones” mentality and concentrate on what matters most. In other words, on what Soul Calibur IV will have to offer to the gaming community as a whole. Because sometimes people like to read intelligent, thought-out text about their favorite subject instead of “OMG OMG OMG” gibberish. Yes, about a video game. Yes, about a fighting game.

At the end of the day, let’s face it. Soul Calibur IV is not going to be “some game”, not even “a good fighting game”. You know exactly what it is going to be, so I will not elaborate needlessly. Just get onboard, participate, discuss the posts and enjoy the ride: the road to this game’s launch promises to be paved with more than a few surprises. The first hi-def, online SC could be one of the most exciting products Namco has ever offered. And if that is not saying something, I am not sure what would. See you around!

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