by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Soulcalibur IV & r & Rated Teen; Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & et's establish something: Darth Vader looks cooler than Yoda. The Soulcalibur IV gameboxes prove it. On the PlayStation 3, Darth's helmeted death-mask towers over the game's title. The evil sword Soul Edge sits below, illuminating one of Darth's lifeless lenses with a bloody red haze. On the Xbox 360 gamebox, in contrast, things are bright and sky-blue. The good sword Soul Calibur radiates a complacent glow. Above it hunkers Yoda, his wavy green ears outspread and his old-man fuzzy brow furrowed atop his nubbin nose. Clearly Yoda is no match for Darth Vader when it comes to appearances.
But put them in a Soulcalibur IV arena and it's another story. Darth is as agile as any fighter while somersaulting out of knockdowns. And his long legs lend range to his kicks. But Darth is dull. He advances maniacally yet monolithically. The most impressive height he achieves is when he hoists a foe overhead. Yoda, in contrast, is as nimble as he is light ("Weight: Unknown," according to the game's unlockable bio). He pivots and bounds over and around his Xbox-green lightsaber. It pinwheels in the air for leverage while he leaps. It's a fulcrum as he kicks. He can propel it forward, trailing behind it like the ragged tail of a comet. Yoda is clearly the cooler fighter.
Though Yoda is only in the 360 version of Soulcalibur IV, and Darth is only on the PS3, both versions have the full lineup of Soulcalibur fighters along with the game's best Jedi: Darth Vader's "Apprentice." The Apprentice's fast recovery time makes him excellent at regaining his feet when whacked by one of the Soulcalibur fighters' cliff-sized swords. And the Apprentice's ability to call in Emperor Palpatine-style lightning from a distance makes him effective against the game's women warriors who pack long-range whips and spears alongside their overstuffed breasts.
With the exception of the visitors from the Star Wars franchise, each of Soulcalibur IV's fighters is customizable. Playing through the game's cycles of battles earns in-game cash that can be spent on upgraded weapons. New armor adds skill points, but it can also be destroyed by opponents during battles. Armor colors and hairstyles are changeable, so it's possible to design facsimiles of Neo from The Matrix or Zelda's Link. These features turn Soulcalibur IV into a role-playing fighting game, making it possible to create personal Soulcalibur fighters, which is cooler than using any Jedi around.
THE GOOD: Soulcalibur IV requires players to master many button combinations that are not physically convenient for the human thumb. This would be maddening in a game with more than 30 characters if the various button combinations were not the same -- or similar -- for many characters. This makes it easy to jump in and enjoy the diversity of fights that await.
THE BAD: Soulcalibur IV's unlockables are less than lavish. Not all of the characters receive their own extravagant cutscenes after battles. Scores aren't fully tracked or prominently displayed. And even though the game has online multiplayer, battles cannot be recorded and shared.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A sumptuously designed, elegantly paced weapons-based fighting game that offers enough customizability to make it the most personal entry in the Soulcalibur franchise.