Call it a shame, call it wonderful or call it inevitable. But if you've counted on "SoulCalibur" to give you a comprehensive single-player fighting game experience that's accessible to all, your calls to "SoulCalibur V" might go unanswered.

It's a sign of the times. Since "Street Fighter IV" revitalized the genre, fighting games have become kings of the mountain in attracting high-level players and packing ballroom arenas and online lobbies with those bent on challenging or even simply watching them play. It's a serious business, and "SoulCalibur V" feels like Namco's attempt to reposition the series as one to be coveted rather than mocked by that crowd.

Whether "SoulCalibur V" succeeds at that is a question only that crowd can definitely answer. But the strides it makes toward that end at least give it a chance, even if they feel like me-too mechanics instead of innovations.

To wit, the most plate-shifting change to the fighting system, the Critical Edge, is "SoulCalibur V's" answer to "Street Fighter IV's" Ultra Combo: You fill up a Critical Gauge meter, pull off nearly the same stick/button combo, and unleash an attack that's visually spectacular and devastating to your opponent's health.

Fortunately, the Critical Gauge feeds into other, easier maneuvers, as well, including Brave Edge attacks (slightly more powerful versions of regular moves) and parrying. The inability to parry at will without cost means you'll have to time your blocks and pick your spots to fight defensively -- no curling into a ball allowed.

Along with the need to manage the Critical Gauge for maximum effectiveness, "SoulCalibur V" places a premium on fighting smart instead of mashing buttons. That's a pillar of any respectable fighting game. But if you're accustomed to mashing buttons, take heed: Unless you're playing against like-minded friends or the A.I. on its easiest setting, you will be punished.

As should be expected with the shifting mind-set, "SoulCalibur V" is plenty capable in competitive play. The lag that tarnished "SoulCalibur IV's" online component is gone, and the new offerings -- spectator mode, the ability to watch other players' replays -- are obvious concessions to those who want to study how others play.

If, however, you play "SoulCalibur" to get away from the competitive scene to which the new game caters, you might be dismayed to discover how costly that groveling was to its single-player offerings.

In particular, the abundance of match variants and challenge missions that made the series a must-play even when its only multiplayer offering was two players on the same couch? It's nowhere to be found in "SoulCalibur V," which includes a standard arcade mode, an even more standard quick battle mode and a completely substandard story mode as its prime single-player offerings.

Unless you're willing to bite the bullet, make like Namco and join the competitive fray, that's not a lot of return on your $60 investment.