The title Soul Calibur V implies succession: more of the same, bigger and better. No real difference. But Soul Calibur V is a surprise, and a radical change for Namco Bandai's venerable fighting series. Everything's as lavish and over-the-top as usual, but the fighting system has been thoroughly reworked. Its biggest influence? Street Fighter IV
This is most obvious in the way Critical Edge moves are now basically Ultra combos. In previous Soul Caliburs the Critical Edge attack was a complicated string of button presses at exactly the right moment, specific to each character. Now, executing a Critical Edge is two fireballs and three buttons for every character, and they can be pulled off whenever your Soul Gauge (more on that later) is half full.
This is a massive change to Soul Calibur's fighting, and it brings good and bad. The ease of using Critical Edge attacks, along with the fact that it's simple to combo them off basic moves, means they're used an awful lot - and getting hit is never fun. But they also act as a rough-and-ready way to mount a comeback, letting players break out and surprise aggressive opponents with huge damage.
On balance the trade-off is worth it. Soul Calibur vets may miss the complexity of the old Critical Edge attacks, but opening up that system to a wider range of abilities can only be a good thing - it makes the big moments more about timing than execution. And naturally it's easy enough to block these attacks if they're used clumsily, and then spank the aggressor.
Which leads into a less obvious but even more substantial change - Soul Calibur V's defensive game has been completely overhauled. The first change is the addition of a quick step triggered by pressing up or down twice - this makes dodging wind-up attacks a lot easier, and is very useful against slow opponents. The basic guard button operates, as always, by being held down to block incoming attacks at the right height. But the old Guard Impact move, a way of either countering or parrying an opponent's attack, has been split into two distinct options.
The new Guard Impact works like Street Fighter IV's focus attack - you press three buttons at once to 'charge' it, and if the opponent attacks the hit is absorbed and returned with interest. This uses 25% of the Soul Gauge but is useful if your opponent's spamming moves. Parrying is tied to the normal guard button, and works by tapping just before impact rather than holding, hence the rather unwieldy in-game term for it, 'Just Guard'.
The timing on these is extremely precise, and the sheer variety of moves and fighting styles in SCV means mastery will be a long time coming - but in the midst of a clumsy attack string they're definitely an option.
It's tempting to see a Street Fighter III influence there, and the shadow of Capcom's series looms large. No wonder - SFIV brought the 2D fighter back to consoles with a bang and won the genre a huge new audience. The changes to the Critical Edge and defensive options give Soul Calibur V's fights an immediacy they've rarely had before, adding a note of unpredictability and making sophisticated counter-play more accessible. This comes from Ryu and co, and combining it with Soul Calibur's different pace is a brave move that's an almost unqualified triumph.