'Soul Caliber II' tops the fighting-game heap

Fans of "Soul Caliber," one of the all-time best fighting games, should be dancing in the streets.

The original, which made its debut on the late and not very lamented Dreamcast four years ago, is still beloved. Now, "Soul Caliber II," available from Namco for PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox, will reach a far wider audience and the applause will be heard across the country.

The latest version -- I played mine on the Xbox -- is evolutionary, on the theory that, as with Mother Nature, it's not smart to fool with excellence.

However, the improvements have made a great game better, and if you like hand-to-hand combat with weapons, this is the game you have to have.

For starters, "Soul Caliber II" offers a vast array of playing modes. Start with Practice to work on your stabbing, slashing and slugging skills. Then move on to Arcade, two-player, Time Attack, Survival, Team Battle and the excellent Weapon Master.

In Weapon Master, my personal favorite, you're on a quest to find the "Soul" sword. As you progress, battles become increasingly difficult and handicaps further hinder you. In one case, you have to fight on a wind-swept platform, trying to defeat your opponent while avoiding being hurled into space.

While "Soul Caliber II" is not hard to learn, it's far harder to master. Poking buttons can get you only so far; to dominate, you have to understand strategy and learn a variety of moves and combos.

You also have to learn each fighter's quirks, foibles and defensive skills. Learning to roll, sidestep, defend against attacks and quickly respond with your own assault will get you farther than simply mashing buttons and hoping for the best.

Some of the characters have changed or have been dumped, while a few new ones are available. You can play now as cartoon character Spawn; you can even try your luck as Link from the "Legend of Zelda" series.

Graphics get a solid A. The fighters are beautifully crafted, they move smoothly and appear as realistic as the characters in any fighting game ever. The venue backgrounds are spectacular, with tons of detail and excellent use of color and texture.

Sound gets a B. The lack of a blaring rock soundtrack may be seen as a drawback to some, but I liked the less jarring music selected for the game. Sound effects are excellent. My big problem was with the voice acting; the voices themselves are fine, but what the characters are saying is repetitive -- and most of it makes absolutely no sense. Fortunately, hitting Start will get you past most of the jabber and on to the combat.

Control gets an A. Fighting games are hands-down the hardest games to play really well, because there are so many combinations to learn and you have very little time to choose an attack and summon it. You also need to decide where the attack is aimed -- high, midsection or low -- and come up with both a defense and a counter aiming at the opposite part of your opponent's anatomy. That said, the controls work well, and you always get what you ask for.

"Soul Caliber II" gets an A for all-around excellence. For my money, it's the best fighting game on the market.