The soul still burns
Namco really knows how to add value to a coin-op conversion. Arcade games are only meant to keep you dropping quarters for a few minutes, so many of them suffer from a general lack of breadth when they come home. This is not the case here. Arcade mode is but a tiny taste of what you get. The arcade's 16 characters have been rounded out to 20 and there are now roughly two dozen play modes plus a museum mode. According to the records section, I spent upward of twenty hours unlocking everything. While I did get sidetracked doing the wrong thing several times, that's pretty good for a fighting game.
Graphics are quite good by PS2 standards. The character models are nice, but the main strength is the animation, which is both smooth and flashy. It's one of the best games to just watch around. Luckily, a mode is included to make the CPU fight both sides of a battle. Support for widescreen TVs is included.
There are two big strengths of the game. Obviously, the fighting system makes or breaks any fighting game and this one is far more intuitive than most in the genre. If you want a low horizontal slash, you press some combination of down and horizontal attack and so on. The combo are fairly natural and don't require memorization of long sequences for the most part. Success is more about knowing how to take advantage of the situations that present themselves than pulling off long strings or difficult timings.
The other great feature is weapon master mode. Here, you get to travel around and fight various battles with extra conditions, such as an enemy who constantly regains health, a restriction that you must not fall down, a short time limit, a match that can only be won by ring out, and so on. In this mode, you earn extra weapons for each character, and there are a lot with 10 for each of the twenty characters. This is also where you unlock extra characters and stages and various museum bits like artwork, videos and the theater modes.
The game is a whole lot like the first Soul Calibur. That was an excellent game, so this isn't all that bad, but nothing much has changed except a graphical overhaul, a few new characters and stages and the additions of walls to some of the arenas. Annoyingly, Siegfried, who was my favorite character in the previous installment, is the only one not to return. Nightmare is pretty similar, but slower and missing a couple moves I was fond of.
There is no attempt to balance the weapon master mode weapons. While they are mostly balanced with other weapons of the same column, some have huge advantages over others. This means you will only ever use two or three weapons per character.
With this many play modes, they can't all be gold and a few definitely aren't. For instance deathmatch mode, in which you must land the first blow on your opponent, isn't really suited to the fighting system at all. The no-recharge survival is quite easy if you use a weapon with a large life drain. Astaroth's ultimate weapon is in this category.
The fighting seems to overemphasize dodging. It seems constantly stepping sideways and tapping attack, while counterable by an experienced player, will usually whip the CPU, even on higher difficulties.
The PS2 is the weakest of the three versions. It suffers from rather long load times, I believe about 30 seconds before most matches and the graphics, while good by PS2 standards, just don't have the resolution, lighting and texture effects seen on Xbox, making the characters look more plasticy. Heihachi also just isn't as cool or fit as well as Link on the GameCube.
There are three characters unlocked in weapon master mode that were added for the US release: Lizardman, Berserker and Assassin. While it's great to have them, they seem to only have a half-assed implementation. They can only be used in a couple modes.and are excluded even from arcade mode They have no endings, no gallery artwork, no extra weapons, not even a move list for practice mode. While it's great to have them for playing vs mode and team matches, I would rather have gotten a full treatment.
The Bottom Line
Don't let the minor flaws scare you off. This the the fighting game to get for PS2, especially if you don't have much experience in the genre. It's far more accessible than most. If you have a GameCube or Xbox, I recommend those versions more, but this will do quite nicely. Just don't expect to learn anything about real weapon techniques.