Booting up Red Steel 2, I had no idea just what Ubisoft Paris had in store for me. I knew the series was changing directions, from a present-day tale of gangsters to a cel-shaded Western-themed alternate universe. Little did I know that I would be playing a digital amalgamation of Toshirô Mifune and Clint Eastwood in an Eastern-inspired Borderlands–esque world. More than that, I had no idea that the Motion Sensor Plus would come so close to providing the kind of experience the system has been promising but yet to deliver. A few missteps shy of being a must, Red Steel 2 is a fantastic and unique shooter-fighter hybrid that deserves a spin in every gamer’s Wii.
As the katana- and revolver-wielding nameless Hero, you are the last protector of the Kusagari Clan and will have to strafe, counter, and blast your way through violent gangs and rival clans. It’s a messy business – not literally, as the game is “T” and there isn’t a drop of blood in sight – that requires mastery of the sword and a sharpshooter’s eye. Using the remote and the required Motion Sensor Plus to aim, attack, and turn, the nunchuk to move and switch targets, and both for lethal combos, Red Steel 2 manages to be as much of a fighter as a shooter.
The motion tracking isn’t dead-on, but it is much improved over its predecessor as well as nearly every other action title on the Wii. Having the cursor lag when quickly turning or switching targets can be vexing, but the experience is like little else when everything syncs up. As you progress, your sensei, Jin, teaches you new moves and combos. The training is effective if a little weird, with a workout video-like insert of a woman demonstrating the required steps. The moves are pulled off with the remote and nunchuk as a Street Fighter move is with the directional pad and face buttons; for example, to do a 360-degree slash, you tap the Z button and swing the remote horizontally. Most moves also double as cool finishers when an opponent is near death or trying to sneak up from behind, ranging from an oh-so-cool backwards blind stand to rushing up, grabbing the back of their head, and firing up as you pull them forward. A dash system also helps to dodge and link moves together, with one particularly cool scenario being the ability to fling someone into the air and either shoot them as they stumble about, let them fall, or dash up and finish the combo in mid air. There is also a block, a more involved block for strong attacks, and a counter attack that parries with a charged response. Whenever it all comes together, it’s unbelievably cool.
It’s not all slashing, though. The Hero will be given access to numerous weapons throughout his journey. The revolver is the standard piece, accompanied by the twin-barrel shotgun, the johnnygun machinegun, and the sidewinder rifle. Each weapon, like the moves, can be upgraded within designated safe houses that are run by allies. The allies are an odd bunch, a mixture of personalities from spaghetti westerns and samurai films, with a dash of modernity that doesn’t always mesh but manages to fit the world’s strange post-apocalyptic Little Tokyo-in-Nevada vibe. They will offer up ways to improve the weapons’ firing rate, accuracy, and clip size, along with new pieces of armor and armor upgrades. The dojo offers new moves, Kusagari-specific attacks, and katana upgrades. Paying for all of this will come from coins and gold bricks that are earned through missions and gathered from busted-up objects; strangely, objects always respawn, and quickly, letting you farm small areas for lots of loot. The safe houses also have job boards where you can pick up a few side quests to do alongside the story.
Unfortunately, many of the quests are pretty lackluster. The world is broken up into small hubs that host their own missions, with each hub consisting of a handful of areas. In-between ambushes, you will destroy wanted posters, turn on towers to reestablish communications, destroy a set number of squads, or find stolen gold. Since roaming gangs have driven off, killed, or scared everyone, the areas are completely desolate. That is pretty interesting at first, with nothing but garbage blowing in the wind and an occasional patrol to dispatch, but it soon gives the game an unfinished feel, as you zip along flipping switching, shooting locks open, and pressing buttons in a dead city. The game’s usage of the remote does help to make the mundane tasks a bit more interesting, having to turn it and hold for some locks while safes require listening for a clicking noise before pressing A; the latter could be tricky, requiring some finagling for the sensor to read correctly, but it was worth the effort to feel like an old-timey robber. I think a more interesting general approach would’ve been to have you be a true wandering samurai gunslinger, meeting challenges in towns and accepting bounties. The game already does such a great job setting Hero up as one, and making you actually feel like one, that it would’ve been great to see that approach taken all the way.
I think one of the problems is that such a well-developed combat system has eluded developers for so long that, once they have one, what do they do with it? After creating a compelling and mysterious world, then what? Suddenly, the worry now is trying to mesh the two together in a way that compliments each other. That’s the feeling I got throughout Red Steel 2, the uncertainty of how to proceed when you’ve actually managed to produce such an outstanding foundation.
One prime example of the visible difficulties in making everything gel is the encounter rate and type. Fights aren’t as common as you’d think, but when they break out, you could be facing waves of up to 11 enemies. Even with ammo upgrades, your guns are more for the long-range enemies, the ones with guns themselves, as the melee-centric foes tend to be armored or able to block bullets. The game’s auto targeting system is good but still has problems, which appear whenever you have to avoid one closing enemy while dodging gunfire and trying to mind others running in. If you dodge too far, the lock is lost and you might find yourself targeting an enemy on the other side of the screen and not the one that is running headlong, sword up; strangely, manually switching targets can often have the same result, with the less threatening enemy being targeted over the one that should be given priority. The entire system is dependent on smooth encounters, with the expectation that players will focus on an enemy, dodge and dash to take out sudden threats, and then reengage before being swamped. Needless to say, encounters don’t always work out that way. Sometimes you walk away from a fight feeling like you stepped out of Yojimbo while other times you felt as if you almost drowned, after having flailed your arms like a lunatic.
Trying to peg down an appropriate encounter type and rate must have been difficult. While playing, I found that four or five low-level enemies with one or two mid or one high was just right. This gives you the chance to feel like a true badass when taking on a group of lower-level thugs, dazzling them with your linked combos, and then squaring off in true duels without worry of bullets chipping away life or higher-level enemies pouncing from the flank. Despite there being moves to accommodate for most situations and a variety of defensive maneuvers, things quickly devolve into frantic slashes whenever things get too hairy, as I swung like a wild man at anything and everything.
Too many high-level enemies can also destroy your elbow. I think that’s one side effect that no one was anticipating: pain. The idea of blocking, slashing, and countering all sound great, and it largely is, but it can also be an incredible workout on your arm. The biggest culprit is the strong attack, necessary to shatter the heavy armor of tougher opponents, which require repeated wide swings. I work out regularly and still found myself wincing and taking frequent breaks. And if you keep an eye out, you can see the enemy giving you breaks as well, holding off attacks or jumping about in the background before engaging, which might look strange but was definitely appreciated by my joints. This isn’t really a fault of the game – swords are meant to be swung, after all – but more of a warning: take frequent breaks and strap up.
I don’t want this review to sound overly negative. The game is a lot of fun and often exhilarating, but most of the complaints stem from the fact that the rest of the game isn’t up to the amazing combat system. And the fact that the rest comes so close, with an interesting world, loads of style, great music, a nice weapon selection and upgrade system, only drives the point home. The world simply wasn’t injected with enough life, made worse by repetitive missions and enemy types. Fortunately, the game wraps up before it becomes tedious, but it has potential for so much more.
After a string of good fights, Red Steel 2 is an experience like no other and manage to elicit a level of excitement few other games have. For the first time, motion control weapon-based combat feels right; the kind of feeling that so many developers have promised and so many games have failed to deliver. The rest of the game has a hard time living up to the level of the combat system, despite a great look and interesting setting, with barren cities, repetitive missions, and some dull foes. It’s definitely worth playing, though, if only to score just one of the game’s extremely satisfying combos.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)