Way back in early 2007 I reviewed Red Steel, a launch title for the Wii that was the console’s very first FPS. In addition to the shooting, it offered something entirely new—sword combat based on the Wii’s motion controls. It was also the first Wii game to release screenshots; the very first look anyone got of what the Wii was capable of. Naturally, expectations for the game were so unrealistic by the time it launched that it could never hope to reach them. While the original Red Steel sold in excess of one million copies, it was critically panned.
Some of the criticism was deserved, but fell more along the lines of typical launch title jitters. Ubisoft had very little time to make the game and as a result parts of it felt rushed. Red Steel also had the misfortune of blazing trails on the Wii, notably in first person shooter controls, which felt loose and unresponsive in the game. The sword gameplay was rudimentary and cumbersome, and took the most flack from critics expecting a seamless katana simulator.
All things considered, Red Steel was a decent launch title and an effective proof-of-concept. It was a mixture of good ideas and unrealized potential, of ugly rushed corridor levels and breathtaking Japanese environments that are still impressive years later. To this day I regret judging the game so harshly in my original review. Flawed as it was, Red Steel planted the seeds for a new genre that has gone unrealized for over three years…until now.
And that brings us to Red Steel 2. Whether you loved the first game or hated it with a passion, before passing judgment on Red Steel 2 know this first: it is no ordinary sequel. Rather, it is a huge stylistic departure, and a massive evolution in the gameplay of the original. In fact Ubisoft has been very vocal about distancing this sequel from the original, emphasizing just how different and better it is. They aren’t lying. Red Steel 2 improves upon the original in every conceivable way, and by a vast degree.
Red Steel 2 takes the basic premise from the first game—a mixture of sword and gunplay—and places it in an entirely new setting. Scott Munro, Miyu, Sato, Tokai and the admittedly generic Yakuza plot are completely gone. Red Steel 2 takes place in a whole new universe, essentially. Set in an alternate reality near-future, the story happens in the remote town of Caldera in the middle of the Nevada desert. You play as a nameless, lone-wolf protector returning from a five-year banishment. In your absence gangs descended upon Caldera and slaughtered your entire family. You are the last of the Kusagari clan, and it’s time for revenge.
On every level, Red Steel 2 is a nuanced blend of the old west and the Far East. The lone protagonist reflects this in his fighting style—he is both a katana-wielding swordsman and a revolver-packing gunslinger. You begin the game with only your trusty 8-shooter, but only minutes in you recover a blade and put it to good use. This is the biggest departure from the first game; while it was an 80-20 split between gun and sword, the sequel is the reverse. The swordfights in the original were slow, one-on-one and heavily scripted; in Red Steel 2 you can switch between your guns and sword at will, and the action is fast, tense and unrelenting.
The swordplay wouldn’t be possible without the WiiMotion Plus attachment, and the game in fact requires the add-on. It’s really not a hassle because you can buy the game bundled with a MotionPlus for $60, a little pricier than a typical Wii game but the same cost of a standard 360 or PS3 title. As far as I’m concerned it’s worth it to own a MotionPlus for Red Steel 2 alone; the swordplay is just that good.
The controls are actually pretty simple, which makes them flexible and easy to pick up. You move and strafe with the Nunchuk and use the Wii remote for aiming and slashing. You can lock onto enemies and just about any item in the environment with the Z button, which focuses the camera and allows for circle strafing, aiming and sword slashes without disorienting your viewpoint. I took some time to get a handle on the control scheme by exploring and trying out my new sword.The game encourages and rewards that innate desire for vandalism we’ve all had as little kids—that urge to run around and break stuff. The developers have littered the environments with breakable items—boxes, barrels, bamboo, fences, bottles!—and what’s more, all of these things have money in them for buying upgrades. My first night playing I spent a half hour just wandering around smashing and slicing stuff with my sword.
While the sword motion controls aren’t true one-to-one accurate in every respect, they weren’t designed to be; as creative director Jason Vandenberghe said, few people are expert sword fighters. It boils down to this: you can block at any angle, slice in any direction, and stab straight at the screen with reliable responsiveness and accuracy. Red Steel 2 is not a sword fighting simulator, it is a badass simulator. It rolls Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Bruce Lee and Steven Seagal into one silent nameless sword-slinger and then puts you in his armor plated leather duster.
The controls translate into combat beautifully. After only a few minutes you’ll be dicing mooks with fine-tuned precision. Caldera is infested by three enemy factions and all of them want a piece of you. The thuggish Jackals are your typical Road Warrior rejects, slow and clumsy, but after a time you’ll encounter the more disciplined and intimidating Samurai-like Katakara. By the halfway point vicious encounters with ninjas will be a regular occurrence.
Many of the tougher enemies have armor or blocking techniques that easily deflect weak attacks. MotionPlus reads the strength of your swings, so you’ll have to put some elbow grease into your blows if you want to defeat the stronger baddies. Not only do strong attacks shatter armor and destabilize your foes, they also draw a nice splash of blood when they land on an unprotected opponent. You can change the swing strength required to register strong attacks, so you don’t need to hack away like a lumberjack to get the job done. That said, when a ninja’s been stabbing you in the rear for the last 30 seconds, you really want to lay into him to finish him off.
Swing strength is important, but don’t confuse Red Steel 2 with a waggle party—customary Wii remote flailing will quickly get you killed on the harder difficulties. A certain level of finesse is required to succeed, and that’s where the sword techniques come in. As you progress you can buy new moves that augment the regular slashing. These are button and gesture combos that deliver fast, crippling attacks when timed properly. The movement you make with the remote, be it a downward lunge, a stab or a horizontal slice, mimics the actions performed on-screen. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s like playing a fighting game in first person and you are chaining gestures instead of button combos.
Your blade is made of a special alloy that allows it to channel chi energy, supplementing your gesture combos with more fantastic attacks. Charging your sword for a few seconds lets you do things like launch enemies into the air, then leap up and slam them back into the ground with shattering force. Other powers include a radial effect shockwave, a balance-breaking, bullet-deflecting parry and shooting energy pulses off the tip of your katana.
Practicing these combos and linking them is well worth the effort, and can turn the sword combat into an incredibly rewarding experience. Eventually you’ll flow through a fight like water, taking on five opponents at once, breaking blocks, tossing your sword into a floored ninja and retrieving it just in time to deliver a surprise backstab to the guy sneaking up on you.
The guns have seen a lot of improvements too, most noticeably in the aiming controls which have been really tightened up since the first game. Red Steel 2 offers the most aiming customization this side of The Conduit, allowing you to choose preset accuracies or tweak response and bounding boxes to your heart’s content. It’s a little strange to have such a better gun experience when the emphasis is clearly on the swordplay, but it’s fair to say the guns have seen streamlining rather than cuts and removals. You can buy only three weapons in addition to your revolver—a double shotgun, tommy gun and lever-action rifle—but you can combine them with the sword combat on the fly and even work them into the combos.
In fact some of the most brutal finishers involve your guns. There’s nothing like weakening a Katakara with a hard slash, then bashing him in the face with the butt of your tommy gun and finishing him off with a quick volley. Putting the nose of your pistol right under the chin of a persistent ninja and pulling the trigger is pretty satisfying too.
You can buy upgrades for your guns, health, armor, Kusagari powers and even your sword. They start out looking primitive but after a few upgrades they’re tricked out with high-tech metal ribbing and glowing emblems. Your sword changes color with upgrades as well, eventually being re-forged from a blood-red metal; Red Steel in the literal sense. It’s a good thing all the extraneous objects in the game bleed money, with hidden emblems and sheriff stars contributing the most cash, because upgrades cost a lot of scratch. You’ll also happen upon safes that must be cracked with a tumbler-unlocking minigame that uses MotionPlus.All of this gun and sword business wouldn’t mean a thing without solid level design, and thankfully Red Steel 2 has one of the most compelling game worlds I’ve visited. Each main area has a large hub world where the game’s main characters set up shop and assign you missions. Some are generic quests that pop up in each chapter, while in others you must explore unique areas that branch off of the hub. I’ll say this much—I haven’t enjoyed a sewer, mine or train level in years and Red Steel 2’s were some of the best parts of the game.
A few of the side missions tend to repeat too often, though. The primary objective-based quests are all focused and a joy to play through, but hunting down wanted posters or powering up radio towers three times in a row gets a little tedious. Then again you don’t have to do these side quests because they only give you money, and there are numerous other ways to get cash in the game. These extra missions just made me retread the levels a few too many times.
The exploration is similar to the Metroid Prime series, but what sets Red Steel 2 apart from Retro’s trilogy is the more constant emphasis on action, and its unique, superb art direction. Caldera is an almost seamless mix of the old west and feudal Japan, dressed up in the advanced yet makeshift utilitarian tech you’d expect in Bioshock’s Rapture. You get the feeling that some catastrophic economic collapse took place, setting the world back to frontier sensibilities but with modern technology and multicultural influences. The graphics are highly stylized and partially cel-shaded, similar to Borderlands. Red Steel 2 looks fresh and great all the way through.
The sound design is equally good. Tom Salta scored the first game and provides the music for the sequel, but aside from including a few residual musical cues and sound effects, Salta gave Red Steel 2 its own distinct aural personality. The east-meets-old-west theme is just as present in the music; you’ll be listening to something that sounds like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and it’ll transition right into some Japanese woodwinds. Of course the best music is saved for the intense battles, where you’ll get a surprisingly rousing synthesis of fiddles, trumpets, lutes and Asian drums.
Red Steel 2 is easily 12 hours long, 15 to 20 if you finish all the side missions and hunt down all the secret items and upgrades. Even though it’s a decently long experience it felt like it was over far too soon, and this is where one of my few complaints arises. Red Steel 2 ends very abruptly. I don’t want to spoil anything, and the story certainly has a badass conclusion, but it’s all climax and no denouement. There isn’t much closure for the supporting characters after the hero has taken his revenge, so the very classical narrative leaves you wanting more.
However, in terms of gameplay, pacing, art direction and controls, Red Steel 2 is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had on a console. It’s a bit lean on extra content—there’s only a challenge mode when I would’ve liked a standalone training dojo or endurance arena—but the main quest is so thoroughly fun and satisfying from beginning to end that I can’t help but love it.
If you are a gamer, you need to play Red Steel 2. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Wii fan or if your Wii has been collecting dust for a year; heck, it might be the reason you need if you still haven’t bought a Wii. If you like action games then you should play Red Steel 2, simple as that. It delivers on the promise that the original game only hinted at and offers a fast, frenetic and truly immersive experience that you can’t find anywhere else.