A Lost Soul

Soul Calibur III is a gorgeous but frustrating rehash.

Soul Calibur III

Soul Calibur III

Publisher: Namco

Platform: PlayStation 2

Price: $49.99

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen)

Score: 6 (out of 10)

Putting together a sequel to a hit videogame is tricky business. Play it safe and give people more of the same, and it ends up feeling stale. But try to innovate too much, and you dilute what made the game great to begin with.

Soul Calibur III somehow manages to make both mistakes. The sequel offers game play that's embarrassingly similar to 2003's exemplary fighter, camouflaged by the addition of a few new modes that range from half-assed to just plain asinine. Add a computer opponent who punishes you for having the gall to want to play, and you end up with the weakest game in the series so far.

First, the good news. Aside from some nasty slowdowns here and there, the graphics are excellent. Particularly impressive are the arenas: From a raised platform over an ancient Egyptian valley to a wrecked pirate ship in the middle of a storm at sea, there's enough eye candy here to induce hyperglycemia.

The game also has a mind-boggling number of modes, characters, and items to unlock with repeated play -- well over 1,000 in all. It's safe to say that all but the most obsessive players will tire of the game long before they've unlocked even half the bonuses.

The best new feature is the Custom Character Creation mode, which lets you play dress-up with the fighting-game equivalent of a Barbie doll. Using items you buy in the game's shops, you can design a fighter down to the smallest detail -- even sock color. It's gimmicky, with no real game play to it, but it's surprisingly easy to spend hours deciding what eye patch looks best on "Trampzilla," your scantily clad purple-haired ninja whore.

This feature alone would make the game a must-buy if you could take your creations online . . . but you can't. As a result, it's a nice diversion that loses appeal, once you've done your share of dabbling.

From there, Soul Calibur III falls on its own sword.

For one thing, the game plays almost identically to Soul Calibur II. Which is to say that it plays beautifully, but it's hard to escape the feeling you've been sold the same game with a new coat of paint.

The new mode, "Chronicles of the Sword," is like playing Risk with mittens on. You move characters around a map and capture strongholds, deciding battles in the game's normal fighting mode. But frequent load times make the already slow game even more tedious, and the utter lack of strategy in this so-called strategy game defeats its purpose. It's the same old fighting game, just with a pretty map.

But SC3's biggest problem is its difficulty, with a computer that goes after you as if it's a pit bull and you're raw meat. After getting thrown to the ground and beaten to death for the umpteenth time, you'll start asking profound game-theory questions like "Isn't this supposed to be fun?"

Sure, there are some gamers who will love the level of challenge offered here. But the rest of us just aren't ready to quit our jobs, shave our heads, and devote our lives to the game, just to say we unlocked every mustache in create-a-character.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: Soul Calibur II is a better game overall, just as pretty, and -- most notably -- $30 cheaper. Leave this mess of a rehash on the shelf.

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