The Stage of History--especially this chapter--wasn't always this shaky and unreliable
Before we actually start talking about SoulCalibur II HD Online, I have to say that it's been kind of a weird week for me in terms of gaming. Not only have I been living off my review copy of SCII HD, but I also finally started seriously playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, so I've been feeling some major ten-years-ago-glued-to-my-GameCube deja vu.
Taken circa 2004. It's, uh... somewhere in there, I just don't want to reach my hand in and get swallowed by the maelstrom of cords
Standing tall as one of the most beloved fighting games of the sixth console generation, SoulCalibur II released simultaneously across the PS2, GC, and Xbox in 2003, each version with a unique console-exclusive character. Back when Namco Bandai announced that SCII would be getting an HD upgrade, I looked forward to getting back into a fighting game I had practically lived off of.
Good news first: SoulCalibur II HD Online is more or less the same game we played ten years ago. It's still a fast, fierce, and technical fighter that I strongly feel is the high point of the series--I fell out of love with the series at SoulCalibur III and played the last two as more of a formality than anything else. SoulCalibur II still sports a bevy of modes apart from the standard Arcade, Versus, Time Attack, Survival, and Practice, and gives players a chance to unlock an arsenal of unique and fun weapons with the quest- and objective-based Weapon Master Mode.
But now, the other shoe has to drop: SoulCalibur II HD Online is unforgivably laggy, has unreliable and poorly-designed online, and tends to freeze in weird spots while you're in menus or playing a match. There's also no Japanese-language option, which is actually a problem for me because I swear to God if I hear Xianghua say "just kidding" with her barely-repressed Flatbush accent again, I'm gonna scream.
Playing offline, a fighting game--especially a prettied-up redo of a ten-year-old fighter--shouldn't stall or freeze randomly in a match. It gets worse playing online, even on Xbox Live, which still gives me great online play for Dead or Alive 4 (a 360 launch title!). Playing against friends who live in or near California, the connection was mostly fine with minor hiccups here and there, but playing across the country, or even across the globe (I played a series of matches against a guy in the UK), gameplay slows to a crawl and it basically becomes a turn-based fighting game. Good luck pulling off reversals or guard impacts when you can watch each frame go by in slow-motion, and maybe the game will have read your input. Even with a steady connection, not all your inputs are read, so you'll just have to hope for the best if you want to try buffering a combo. It's really disappointing, especially with the flawlessly beautiful online (and overall functionality) of Tekken Tag Tournament 2--hell, I didn't care for SoulCalibur V, but at least it, too, had working online and smooth gameplay.
An ancient IGN screenshot shows that the game's cleaned up okay in HD
Let's also talk about an elephant in the room: yeah, there is no Link in either the PS3 or 360 version, and as of this time, there's no Wii U version planned. While you do get the hilarious and competitively-viable Heihachi, '90s eXtReMe superhero Spawn and lameass Todd McFarlane creation Necrid also return to the Stage of History. Personally, I hated Link in the GameCube SoulCalibur II, what with his three projectiles (one AoE, two unblockable!) and general ridiculousness even though he was bottom-tier, so I am not at all sad to see him gone, but I know a lot of people loved playing as the elf, and so that will obviously factor into how interested people will be about this game.
SoulCalibur II HD Online feels rushed, like everything was thrown together to get the game out for download, but not all of the screws have been tightened up. Hopefully, Namco Bandai will throw a patch onto this and clean up these problems, but for now, this version does not do justice to the classic. Need a solid 3D fighter with reliable online, and doesn't break while you're playing it offline? Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown are available at insanely good prices, and if you're looking for an updated classic, Darkstalkers Resurrection, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition and Guilty Gear XX Accent Core+ are all available cross-platform. That said, even with all my complaints, I can still sit down and play (and really enjoy) Weapon Master Mode for hours on end, so it's not all bad.
+ A fighting classic returns, just as ferocious and smart as it was in 2003
+ Weapon Master Mode is one of the more addicting single-player additions to a fighting game
+/- The gameplay mostly works offline, but it still intermittently freezes, lags, suddenly loads, and drops inputs
+/- No Link. I was fine with it, but I know a lot of people won't be
- Online is awful, which is especially bad in light of TTT2 and SCV's stellar online
- How hard was it to include the Japanese language track? Were there legal reasons behind its exclusion?