The months leading up to a console launch are a fascinating time. Hopes are built and dashed, promises made and broken, and expectations run unrealistically high. The anticipation for Nintendo’s Wii, originally harbored only by the Nintendo faithful, then the mainstream gaming press after the explosion of interest at E3, and finally by the common consumer, has been especially enormous. Thusly, hype has also risen to unhealthy highs. Ubisoft’s introductory first-person shooter, Red Steel, is ultimately a victim of this hype. But unrealistic expectations are not Red Steel’s only fault; much of the blame lies with Ubisoft itself. While trying to break new ground on the Wii, Ubisoft overloaded themselves and failed to deliver a satisfying experience.
Don’t perceive Red Steel as a gaming travesty, however. It ranks as at least average, and at best overly ambitious. Its many parts contain a healthy set of good ideas, they just fail to come together into a cohesive whole in the end. I speculate that time ran thin, and everything the developers wanted couldn’t be implemented. But lack of ideas is not Red Steel’s problem—it’s execution.
FPS is an exciting new field for the Wii, because of the gun-like nature of the controller. Pixel-perfect aiming is now a possibility, and even the much-loved staple of keyboard/mouse could be one-upped by the Wii remote. But this genre also brings a multitude of difficult challenges to the Wii that have long been overcome in other interfaces. Ubisoft should have taken attention away from other, more extraneous areas and focused on perfecting the aiming controls.
What we end up with is only a halfway comfortable setup. Red Steel allows the main character’s in-game hand to move and pivot in unison with the player’s movements of the Wii remote. The arm of protagonist Scott Munro can move freely within an invisible “bounding box.” This box takes up most of the screen, but moving the cursor all the way to the edge, outside of the box, moves the view or turns the character. In theory this allows for more precise aiming, much like GoldenEye’s R-trigger aiming on the N64.
In practice this method is frustrating. To stop turning, you must re-center the cursor, often resulting in missing a target through over-compensation. The turning speed is also glacially slow compared to twitch-shooters like TimeSplitters or Quake 4. The bounding box gives a random, “floaty” feel to the control—I was never truly comfortable or confident in my aiming. Zooming was another half-baked concept. You zoom the aim by focusing on an enemy, and pushing the controller forward. The depth sensitivity is so low, however, that you must stab the remote toward the screen, which needless to say ruins aim and makes it even more uncomfortable. All told, it actually took me about 30 minutes to an hour to get acclimated to the game, every time I played. That period decreased as I played more, but it didn’t give me much incentive to play often.
The bounding box is a decent stopgap for FPS, and all of the launch titles for the Wii in that genre use it. Still, it’s only a workaround, and should not become the de-facto standard. Even as the only technique being used right now, I have heard that Red Steel does it the worst. I haven’t played any other Wii FPS, but many impressions of Call of Duty 3 say it handles the best, and even includes a PC-style aiming method where the cursor is locked in the middle of the screen. That kind of precise control should become the standard.
The companion to the gunplay, and one of the game’s big draws, fares about the same. It is, of course, the anticipated sword combat. Being a launch title, Red Steel could not benefit from Nintendo’s recent partnership with AILive, whose “LiveMove” software lets the Wii remote “learn” new motions from simple, repetitive input. So, Ubisoft’s developers had to crunch the difficult vector calculus programming from scratch, and the end result is impressive, as a tech demo.
The combat system works, but is extremely limited. There are eight basic sword swipes, in vertical, horizontal, and diagonal directions. The sword does not mimic every move you make, but does a very general emulation of your moves. Jerking the nunchuk to the side blocks, and the stick strafes. There is some strategy to the fights (you can’t just slash blindly) but it feels more like sparring, not a life or death struggle.
You can also learn a number of “katas,” which are really just movement combos that mix slashes with nunchuk jabs and jerks. I only learned one and it served me just fine; most of the others are too complicated to pull off easily during the actual game. The swordplay works within its simple confines and is an enticing taste of what’s to come. I hope we see the inevitable Jedi simulator before too long, as it’d be a figurative money tree for Lucasarts.
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