A skeptical world might not see video games as essential. But we can point to many games that feel worthy of this planet. Games about eating mushrooms, arranging falling blocks, saving the world. However: A first-person shooter with motion-based swordplay?
You'd be right to be skeptical.
More than three years after the release of the first Red Steel, Ubisoft is taking another shot and stab at it with Red Steel 2. The sequel is divorced from its strong-selling but critically-maligned predecessor in all ways but the most basic. Drawing none of the narrative or art-style from its predecessor and led by a new creative director, Red Steel 2 takes the basic concept of Wii-controlled first-person shooting and sword-fighting, adds a required new piece of hardware to the set-up and embarks on something that feels fresh.
But it is a game that needs to feel more than just fresh. Fundamentally, it needs to prove that the concept of Red Steel — in some ways the concept of what many of us thought in 2006 the Wii could do and be — is a good idea for a game like this. That's a lot of pressure on a single-player game, an action adventure that pits the last of a clan of swordsman gunfighters against gangs of ninjas and gunmen, that fuses the Wild West with modern and old Japan, and asks the player to use controls no other game has before.
Hurdles Wii Sports Resort: In retrospect, Nintendo had it easy when making last year's sequel to the generation-defining Wii Sports. That game introduced the world to the MotionPlus, a Wii controller peripheral that adds the sensitivity to the Wii Remote that matches many of the motion-control dreams spun by Nintendo in 2006. Resort was built, though, on the foundation of Wii Sports, as firm and proven ground for a crowd-pleasing experience as there has been. In fact, so successful has it been that Nintendo competitors have been cloning it for years, adding to the collective gamer and game developer vocabulary for what works and what doesn't in the realm of motion-controlled short-session games.
Red Steel 2 had it so much harder, trying to improve on a formula that was deemed broken at best. Shooting in the first Red Steel worked fine thanks to the Wii's reliable pointer-technology that placed a targeting reticule on the screen wherever you aimed the Remote. But swordplay with the Remote was clumsy and imprecise, prone to misinterpreting short jolts of the hand with swings of a sword and not at all providing the player with a feeling of connection between motion controller and televised game. Notice that few games cloned Red Steel, adding nothing to the vocabulary of gamers and game-makers who might want to further explore its fundamentals. From that desert of stalled progress emerges Red Steel 2 which, as I'll explain, works. It makes the player feel physically connected to the world in their TV. It pulls off motion-based swordplay and shooting with very few hitches. It's what that first Red Steel was supposed to be and it feels as novel to control as Wii Sports did in 2006.
The Swordplay: The game is played with a Wii Nunchuck in your left hand and a Wii Remote in the right. Any jolt of your right hand unsheathes the sword. Sword controls aren't 1:1. You don't see the sword move exactly as you swing your arm. But horizontal swings cause horizontal strikes; vertical causes vertical. The MotionPlus helps the Remote discern between weak swings and strong cuts. Playing through the game introduces new moves, including deflection techniques that require the sword to be held upright or sideways as well as a wonderful array of finishing moves that combine a single button tap or analog-stick tilt with specific swings to cause some brutal maneuvers.
As I learned the controls, the moments of misinterpretation dwindled and I could reliably and enjoyably execute a wide range of offensive and defensive maneuvers. Eventually you are engaging in combat against three swordsmen at a time, blocking the leaping chop of one, swinging to stab the guy creeping up behind you, knocking the armor off the third guy and then throwing your sword at him. You are doing this all with pronounced arm movements that essentially match what happens on screen. You feel at times as if you are controlling a cyclone and it feels fantastic.
The Gunplay: It is less surprising that shooting works well in Red Steel 2. Just as Remote-based shooting worked in Metroid Prime 3 and other Wii first-person shooters, it works here. Thanks to MotionPlus the game is less confused when you accidentally point your remote off the TV. One minor drawback is that the transition from pointing and shooting to a vertical sword strike, if done too slowly, will move the reticule and the game's first-person camera angle too far up. The game counteracts this by consistently locking on to enemies as they approach, requring the player to still manually aim, but keeping a player from swinging their camera too far away from the direction of their target. (You can switch locked-on targets with the tap of a button.) The game's four guns are upgradable and increasingly powerful.
The Peculiar Progression: Red Steel 2 brings the player through a variety of old-West-meets-old-Japan levels, from one dusty town to some dusty temples to another dusty town. You take missions from a board full of bounties, mixing major goals involving boss battles or reaching new areas with some simpler collection or kill-count quests. In the process of unfolding the adventure, the game spaces the shops where you buy upgrades far apart and doesn't offer everything at every shop. As a result, your guns stay weak for a while, even as you earn cash that you can spend upgrading your sword moves. This makes the player focus on swordplay. By the time the gun shops are available again, it's hard to want to switch to using guns, but the gun upgrades eventually make it tempting. By pacing the access to upgrades like this, Red Steel 2's developers ensure that players experience both the shooting and swinging elements of its core gameplay. It is for this reason alone that I didn't use my machine gun on every ninja
The Borderlands Look: Red Steel 2 takes place in a cartoon-outlined Western setting. The comic book look resembles that of Western-themed Borderlands, a similarity that echoes even more loudly with every ca-ching of the money you're constantly collecting from the enemies you kill and boxes your forcefully open. The Wii does this graphics style superbly and is helped by the strong art direction form Ubisoft, which places Japanese temples and modern Japanese vending machines amidst the tumbleweed towns of a sci-fi Old West. The sky you see from the orange plateau where you play looks lovely. The chunky locomotives and complicated radio towers are memorable landmarks. This landscape is creative and looks great.
The Music: Red Steel 2's music may offer a nice mellow western twang during the game's more exploration-oriented moments, but the soundtrack is at its best when its drums beat through a tense 1-on-20 swordfight. It provides a thrilling pulse to the combat.
Emptiness: I'm not sure if it's the silence of our hero, the intentionally desolate feel of this game's towns, the shallowness of this game's extras (no multiplayer, just time-based challenges), but this game feels a bit lonely. It works for building mood but it doesn't work in a game that otherwise feels so progressive to feel so disconnected from other gamers, be it through lack of multiplayer or any other online connectivity.
Sandwich Incompatibility: There is a chance that, should you pause Red Steel 2 in order to eat a sandwich, the game will not work when you return to it. An idle Wii Remote powers down and disengages from the Wii. This seems to disengage the MotionPlus in some way that caused, oddly, my Nunchuck to be calibrated wrong any time I resumed my game from an idle Remote. Using the game's MotionPlus recalibration option from the pause menu didn't help. Only after my hero's death and a checkpoint restart would I be okay. So don't pause Red Steel 2 to eat a sandwich unless you want trouble.
In the same month that Red Steel 2 reaches Wii owners, Sony has loudly proclaimed that its Wii-style Move controller is the device that will enable the best motion-controlled gaming experiences that appeal to fans of so-called hardcore games. But you don't need a Move to feel just how impressive and involved an action game can be when controlled by your motions. Red Steel 2, a game any PS3 owner ought to hope comes to the Move, shows that Sony's console wasn't essential to make this happen. Ubisoft is on a streak of sequels-as-atonement that began with Assassin's Creed II. It has now built not just one of the Wii's best games and not just one of the most radically improved sequels in many years but a motion-controlled game with previously unfelt depth of control and excitement of action. To understand how well motion-gaming can feel, Red Steel 2 is a must play. This is a 2006 Wii promise delivered.
Red Steel 2 was developed and published by Ubisoft for the Wii on March 23. Retails for $49.99 USD (or for $10 more with a bundled MotionPlus) A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the sort of short campaign (8-10 hours maybe?) and now believe that the game's stab-the-guy-behind-you move could be the 2010 video game Move of the Year.
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