Unlike most media outlets it would seem, yours truly and COE's Jarrod Nichol exchanged several "This is it?..." glances as we watched the Red Steel 2 demonstration at Ubisoft's E3 2009 press conference. Now ironically we're sure that the finished product will be leagues better than the Wii launch title, but will it meet the much higher current-day standard for Wii shooters? Metroid Prime did, as has The Conduit. Can Ubisoft answer their call?
Perception varied amongst the hardcore, but most would agree that Red Steel controlled like ass. You could eventually feel comfortable with the design, but that required self-inflicted force, like a child resentfully eating broccoli because he/she knows their favorite ice cream is on the horizon. RS's loose, floaty gun mechanics and other strange concepts weren't the necessary factors for a revolutionary console FPS formula. Need I also mention the less-than-spectacular sword-fighting? You were compelled to pity your opponents because they did all the work moving around and such as you just stood there swinging.
Red Steel 2 is a radical departure from the Japanese Yakuza atmosphere we all remember. Instead of expanding the former mute protagonist's story, an unattractive possibility altogether, Ubisoft has turned the clocks way back to the Wild West. Think of the popular anime Trigun, add a razor-sharp katana to Vash the Stampede's arsenal, and you have RS2. I don't know our new character's name or anything about his motivations, but the red trench outfit and cowboy hat certainly make him unique, and unquestionably sweaty.
Unfortunately, COE's Justin Simson predicted that the stunning pre-E3 trailers wouldn't reflect the real-time visuals whatsoever, and he was right on the money. Ubisoft did this with the first game; showing extremely polished screenshots and trailers that rivaled even early Xbox 360 shooters. Well not only does the pretty that we saw prior to our LA trip have no presence in the sequel, but the quality doesn't appear as improved as it could be. The E3 demo looked good, and nothing more. I can be fair in saying that a Wild West theme isn't exactly the most provocative, but that shouldn't excuse unexciting environments and generic enemies. Previous Wii shooters, even The Conduit, suffered similarly to an extent, but subsequent AAA efforts are always scrutinized to a higher standard, and Ubi knows that. It's also bizarre to see an attempt to mix the art of swordplay (samurais) with the cowboys and indians era. I've never pictured a Japanese swordsman walking down the dirt road of a western shanty town, have you? I also question the company's insistence on sticking with the name Red Steel when nothing resembling the bodily liquid ever shows on-screen. I understand the desire to maintain brand recognition, but I wouldn't want to keep any ties with a crap launch game, regardless of its over million sales numbers. Ubisoft claimed to have returned to the drawing board for this project, so what have they been doing?
If it isn't perfectly obvious, I'm a hard skeptic about Red Steel 2 resulting in much of a step above its predecessor. The game controls very well, but the fun I've had with shooters like Metroid and Conduit just wasn't there. At least controlling the lead character's gun view feels a lot more natural and precise. I experienced no difficulty moving about, aiming the revolver and capping whatever I saw fit. However, the balance between using the gun and katana just feels off. I encountered moments when both were necessary, but for the most I could eliminate foes effortlessly with either. Usually choice is anything but bad, yet here it's confusing, not to mention I believe a third person view would increase the immerse of the action. Witnessing the game from our hero's eyes the whole time sort of ruinates the beat'em-up potential that I think many of us were expecting based on the trailers. Rather than heading into battle God of War-style and ripping enemies apart, you're forced to deal with one hostile at a time, and it feels extremely limiting. Why the team hasn't looked to franchises like Devil May Cry and even BloodRayne for inspiration bewilders this author.
In retrospect, what we have to look forward to is moving from corridor to corridor and choosing whether to shoot the crap out of foes or opt for the ol' slice 'n dice. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but methinks that eliminates the potential intimacy Red Steel 2 could have. Can the MotionPlus-only sword fighting save the day? Who knows.
What concerns me is how little the device appears to influence the gameplay. In both the E3 trailer and on-strange demonstration, the most apparent use of MotionPlus was being able to twist your wrist to manipulate the katana. Rather than wielding a secondary parry blade to ward off attacks and knock opponents off-balance, we instead hold up the new guy's sword and block in vertical and horizontal fashion. That's cool and all, but we saw very little else in terms of how sword fighting hashes out. You still do the exact same first-person swiping that occurred in Red Steel. It feels more precise thanks to the added IR tracking, just not a whole lot different. Just because you're not standing in one place the entire time now doesn't change the formula drastically. If anything, it only makes keeping tabs on everyone else a pain in the butt. Since your focus is so one-on-one, cheap shots from behind and the side are a constant factor. The new attacks and combos are neat, but feel less substantial in first person because your blows usually connect with only one enemy. Combine that with a low challenge, and you begin to suffer boredom. Don't take me as Chicken Little on this though; I'm not claiming the sky is going to fall on the game, but the demo didn't put me at ease with the improvements I've sought. The package could blow me away for all I know, but that wasn't the case at E3.
As for the topic of likely highest concern, 1:1 gesturing, Red Steel 2 looks to be delivering. While it's more or less understood by now that true 1:1 is impossible without further 3D space detection, I was satisfied with my motions translating on-screen. The game runs at a smooth 60 frames, which certainly helps, and the engine detected my angles very well as I made quick, successive swipes. For the future, I'm praying for more tactile feedback to make motion gameplay feel more like it's actually happening, but I'm happy to take this.
I don't know how Red Steel 2 will deliver at this point. It won't be bad, but the action simply felt too soulless at E3. The improved engine works out for the player this time, but how that manages in the end, I can't say. It's a shame too; I wanted to be blown away by the risky direction Ubisoft has taken the franchise. In the same accord, I believe the game has suffered due to all the bouncing around it's done amongst Ubi's various studios. Indecision is lethal to any game's development, as we certainly saw with Too Human. Hopefully the final product surprises me, but I have only so much optimism left in the tank when it comes to Wii-exclusive Ubisoft software. If Red Steel 2 isn't a hit, we can all surely expect an influx of Babiez, Horsez, Dogz, Catz and all other sorts of crap that I do not wish to Imagine. As if saving face for Wii wasn't annoying enough...