Namco's Soul series makes its stunning debut on PS2 with Soul Calibur II, the third and by far the finest instalment yet. Choose from an array of exquisitely designed characters, from samurai to blind, bondage gear-loving oddities, and do battle on the new stage of history for Soul Edge, a mighty blade with incredible dark powers. As you'd expect from the creators of Tekken, SCII offers a level of depth beyond that seen in most games of its ilk, although this doesn't make it any less accessible for the casual player. In fact, we'd challenge anyone not to pull of a move within the first few minutes of playing that won't elicit at least a small gasp of delight. Not that we're advocating button bashing or anything, but hey - everyone's got to start somewhere.
Supplementing the typical Arcade, Survival, Time Attack modes for solo players is Weapon Master, a lengthy jaunt through the Soul Calibur world where you can locate and purchase a variety of extra weaponry for every fighter. As ever, though, the real testing ground for your skills is the two-player Versus mode, home to some of the most thrilling clashes between human opponents ever. If you've pining for some quality, no-nonsense fighting action on your PS2, Soul Calibur II delivers the goods with aplomb.
Soul Blade and Soul Calibur fans will be pleased to learn that a number of familiar faces return to the fray once more, including katana-wielding samurai Mitsurugi, ninja vixen Taki, rod-swinging Kilik and the owner of Soul Edge himself, Nightmare. They're joined by a number of new faces, including arrogant French fencer Raphael, the youthful-but-deadly Talim, green demon Necrid (designed by comic book guru Todd McFarlane), Hwang's protégé Yunsung and Sophitia's kid sister Cassandra. Tekken mainstay Heihachi Mishima also makes a PS2-only appearance and proves that the King of Iron Fist isn't just a name - how else could he block razor-sharp blades with just his bare hands? Of course, being a Namco fighter, SCII isn't without its fair share of unlockable characters, although we'll leave it up to you discover who they are.
You'll find many of them tucked away in the vast world of Weapon Master, which does away with the quick fix entertainment of the standard Arcade mode in favour of a lengthier - and ultimately more fulfilling - quest for your warriors. Although it features plenty of textual narrative to add context to your travels, Weapon Master is essentially about defeating opponents under an increasingly difficult set of conditions and imaginative stipulations. This can be anything from battling while poisoned to defeating six opponents consecutively in just 100 seconds. Aside from new fighters, you'll also earn valuable gold, which can be used to obtain various death-dealing implements with unique characteristics that can both hinder and aid your pursuits. For example, a weighty new rod for Kilik may inflict more damage on your adversary, but the effort it takes to use it also results in a minor loss of energy. As you can imagine, completion of certain missions can rely on your ability to select the right weapon for the right occasion.
For a console with such a vast catalogue of games, it's perhaps surprising that PS2 has encountered such a relative dearth of quality fighters. Soul Calibur II may not redress the balance - it is only one game after all - but it makes a damn good effort of doing so. After you've witnessed the gorgeous environments, meticulously detailed characters and, most importantly, got to grips with its fast-paced, multi-faceted combat, we're sure you won't be longing for another beat 'em up for quite some time. This Soul most definitely still burns.
- Earn new weapons for each character in the challenging Weapon Master mode
- Seven new fighters, including PS2-exclusive warrior Heihachi
- Thousands of moves and combos to master
- Sumptuously-detailed arenas and unparalleled character animation