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.
While it promised to revolutionize FPS on the Wii, Red Steel only gives us a glimpse of the raw potential in the genre. I think Metroid Prime 3: Corruption will be the one to set the bar, and luckily we don’t have very long to wait for it.
Getting past the controls, I discovered that Red Steel is an extraordinarily…average game. Unlike titles such as True Crime New York City, which are excellent games hampered by bad control and technical issues, Red Steel’s gameplay is cookie-cutter in most respects. It has the same high budget, yet dry feeling as most of its kind: drab shooters stamped out by a big publisher. There is nothing very creative in how it plays, and it feels like EA’s 007 shooters that tried desperately to emulate GoldenEye but came off flat and impersonal. There is no blood to speak of, and while it is not necessary for a good shooter, if you’re going to name your game Red Steel, I expect to see a little, well, red. The appearanca of the levels themselves is all very polished, but never really piqued my interest. Characters run together into a mishmash of stereotypical Japanese gangsters. The main protagonist, Scott Munro, manages to have even less personality than the empty-headed Gordon Freeman, which is really saying something.
The plot, which was touted heavily as “a foreigner’s perspective of Japan,” is less of a wondrous “looking in,” and more of a collection of Yakuza movie stereotypes. There are common tropes and clichés but Red Steel’s Japan is not terribly different than its early American levels—there is no signature Japanese “quirk,” so to speak. There are neon signs resplendent with kana, a goofy parlor hall, pachinko machines, and a fish market. The brief dojo level and the assault on it later was probably the most thrilling part of the game. The story is mostly forgettable, and you’ll probably want to forget it to; it’s told entirely through flat, “comic style” cutscenes that can’t be skipped, even after you’ve beaten the level. I am noticing a disturbing trend in the industry toward this falsely creative comic approach to storytelling, and I’d rather see a poorly textured and animated polygon model act out a scene than a mostly flat picture. In short, Red Steel’s story is about as generic, innovation-free and Americanized as you can get, which is interesting because Ubisoft is a French developer.
The overall presentation follows the same tired path. This game was the first Wii title to have screenshots shown publicly, and those early images were water in the scorching desert of pre-release drought. They were also pretty, and the final product does not disappoint on pure technical standards. Poly counts are high, most textures are crisp (the underground parlor level was inexplicably ugly) and most of the game is dripping with gorgeous bloom lighting. And that’s where the beauty ends. This game is attractive at a distance, but up close it has no personality. There are no clever details like in GoldenEye, no signature charm like Prince of Persia, not even the juggernaut, unsubtle onslaught of Doom 3. Red Steel shows a tiny bit of the Wii’s graphical capability, and with this taste I can tell the hardware is capable of much more from a more creative developer. It demonstrates what developers can do on Wii, but inserts no “Kilroy was here” that you find in many other games.
Music is spared some of the mediocrity that plagues the visuals. Veteran game composer Tom Salta scored the game, and did a mostly superb job of it. Each level’s accompanying piece is appropriate, and the dynamic fight music blends well with the overarching themes. Red Steel’s music is the only aspect that doesn’t suffer from the generic Japanese stereotyping, or at least it does it well. Distinctly Asian elements permeate the more Eastern environments, while the industrial areas are heavy with beats and percussion. But one note of negativity—why, why oh why was there J-Pop in this game? I have nothing against J-Pop or its fans, but it really doesn’t belongin a shooter.
Everything else is decidedly ho-hum. Sound effects are canned, and voice acting is irritating. The samples of Japanese speech sound authentic, but if I could understand Japanese I’m sure the dialogue would be just as campy as the English. Hearing “stop you bastard!” shouted by the same squeaky-voiced thug a dozen times in one level is enough to make anyone hit the power button. The gun reload sounds emanating from the Wii remote’s speaker was novel, but the speaker quality itself is so low that it doesn’t seem worth it anyway.
The first impression of Red Steel’s single player game is not a good one, and its lasting flavor is disappointingly bland. The story mode is at its finest when the music, action and controls are all working in unison. It’s just a shame that this was a very rare occasion.
A lack of polish on a solo campaign is usually evidence of a healthy multiplayer…which is not the case with Red Steel. Save for a few small innovations, Red Steel’s multi is “tack-on” incarnate. I am almost sure that this mode was added in the late stages of development, because of the lack of thought and depth. Ubisoft may not have gotten the controls down to a T, but that’s no excuse for a stripped down deathmatch mode.
There are only three modes: standard versus, team versus, and killer. The lack of old reliable capture the flag is a sin, but killer almost makes up for it. In fact, killer mode makes up for most of the multi shortcomings. In killer, the Wii remote speaker rings like a cell phone. The player with the ringing Wiimote holds the controller to their ear, and the game gives them special instructions. These commands can be anything from killing someone with a specific gun, to staying alive until the time runs out. “Mystery players” and “mystery guns” are special because they grant more points and accomplish the killer goals, and the Wiimote vibrates when you select the right weapon or approach the right character. With four players, this surprisingly creative mode makes the whole multiplayer worth the price, despite the limited weapon selection, absence of sword combat and only four playable maps.
I wish I could say that Red Steel is more than the sum of its parts, but then I’d be lying. The multitude of good concepts is ruined by their halfhearted delivery, the result of a tight time budget I’m sure. Hampered by mediocrity and some obnoxious physics and clipping bugs, the single player mode leaves the player frustrated but oddly wanting more—just better than what they’ve already experienced. The multiplayer, while a nice addition, confuses me because I can’t see why a decade later so few games manage to do better than GoldenEye. Red Steel is the very definition of an average launch title: good intentions, rushed execution.
But to end on a more positive note, it seems that Ubisoft may have gotten all of their experimentation done with Red Steel. A sequel is in the works, with some supposed RPG elements and deeper sword combat. It’s just a shame that I had to pay $50 for an experiment. Give Red Steel a rent, and when you’ve beaten it, imagine the possibilities a year or two down the road.