by Marty Demarest

The first Soul Calibur remains an incredible one-on-one fighting game. Players square off and try to beat the hell out of each other onscreen. It's slick and no-nonsense, which makes it addicting and fun. You can actually learn how to play.

It's also ultra-beautiful, and when it was released in 1999, it displayed just how powerful Sega's Dreamcast was. The sequel, Soul Calibur II (Rated: T), will probably be remembered as the game that demonstrated how shabby the Playstation 2's graphics were in the face of the Xbox and GameCube. The versions for those machines look jaw-droppingly good. The PS2's... well, it looks pixilated and frayed around the edges.

Aside from the graphical difference, the big distinguishing factor is the inclusion of a special character in the roster of fighters in each version. The PS2 gets Sega's Heihachi, from the game series Tekken. The Xbox gets Todd McFarlane's recognizable comic book anti-hero superhero Spawn. However, the GameCube gets the pick of the litter, with The Legend of Zelda's elfin hero Link. Each of the characters has special abilities and is a lot of fun to play.

Under the hood though, each system has essentially the same game. A good fighter has to work on two different levels: Players who desire actually to learn the different combinations of buttons should see their efforts rewarded with precise battles and regular victories; players who just want to brawl should be able to smash the controller randomly and stand a chance of winning. On both of these counts, Soul Calibur II succeeds. But a great fighting game needs something more. The controls have to be tight -- no delay between pressing the button and seeing the characters respond. And there should be a hell of a lot of special moves for dedicated players to discover and memorize over time. This is where Soul Calibur II rises above almost all of its competition. It's incredibly precise, and learning all the moves for the different fighters is as intricate as learning a new language.

So which version should you buy? If you only have one system, you only have one answer. I prefer the PS2's controller, but the graphics leave much to be desired. The Xbox features better graphics, especially for those with progressive scan TVs. But the GameCube looks almost as good, and it has Link. Pick your poison.

Publication date: 10/23/03

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