Red Steel was… fine. As a first-person shooter on the Wii, especially a launch title, I was surprised by how competent it was; the system’s unique controller really was a good match for the genre! Moving my avatar with the Nunchuk and aiming at the screen with the Wii Remote was accurate, responsive, and most importantly, fun! Now, this setup wouldn’t be suitable for every FPS, but for a single-player campaign, or even the split-screen multiplayer Red Steel offered, it was pretty good. Red Steel also had sword fighting, and you’d think the Wii Remote would be a perfect match for swordplay… but it wasn’t, at least as implemented. Half the time, it seemed like my swings weren’t recognized accurately. And when they were, well wouldn’t you know it, the enemy blocked my attacks! Sword fighting was a real bummer, and dampened my enthusiasm for the game. Still, when I finished the campaign, I wanted to give the sequel a whirl.
HOLY SHIT Red Steel 2 was so much better! Which… is the basic goal of any sequel, right – to improve upon its predecessor – but Ubisoft Paris really knocked it out of the park with this one! To be fair, this game had one major advantage: the Wii MotionPlus. This accessory, released in June 2009, improved the motion control capabilities of the Wii Remote, resulting in more accurate movement recognition and quicker representation on-screen. In short, it does what you thought the Wii Remote would. I don’t want to say the swing detection was perfect but if it wasn’t, it was damn close; my actions were essentially replicated one-to-one on-screen. Sword combat was fast-paced, with a variety of rewarding combos and opponents that called for their use. Firearms were still present, and effective, but clearly deemphasized. Although the entirety of this game was played from the first-person perspective, it didn’t feel like an FPS with swordfights, as Red Steel did. Instead, this seemed like a first-person hack and slash adventure, with the ability to use guns.
With Red Steel 2, the developers adopted a more open-ended design philosophy to combat encounters. In the first game, whether I’d use a firearm or sword in an encounter had already been decided upon without my input. Eighty to ninety percent of the campaign played like a traditional first-person shooter, and the use of my avatar’s sword wasn’t allowed. Conversely, the remaining ten to twenty percent of the campaign took place across one-on-one swordfights requiring the use of a sword. In some cases, I could’ve easily shot my opponent from afar and avoided an unenjoyable swordfight, as I’m sure Scott Evil would’ve. But instead, I was playing as Scott Monroe, who saw fit to participate, presumably to respect an unspecified yakuza code of honor. There were no such limitations in this game; I was free to use either in combat, even alternating between the two.
In most skirmishes, I faced off against about a half-dozen opponents. Sometimes I’d be able to walk up on them from behind and start hacking and slashing right away, but more commonly they’d notice me from afar and open fire. Returning fire was an option, but not near as fun as engaging them in sword combat. To safely close the gap, I parried bullets by holding the A button. Doing so prompted my avatar to hold his sword in a defensive position, and temporarily become a Jedi. Parrying enemy sword attacks was a little more involved, since I had to position the sword to deflect horizontal or vertical attacks. The game utilized a lock-on system, so I was undoubtedly already targeting someone when the gunfire began. It only took a press of the C button to change targets, but occasionally it’d switch to a non-obvious target. Like, don’t select the enemy twiddling his thumbs out of the fray, pick the dude about to cut me up! Ultimately, targeting mishaps were little cause for concern. Once I got close to an enemy, they were done for.
This game recognized my swings every which way, and replicated them on-screen with impressive levels of gradation; attacking at a sixty degree angle looked different than attacking at a seventy degree angle, for instance. This is basic stuff, but nonetheless a marked improvement over the first game, which simplified my swings into vertical or horizontal attacks. Red Steel 2 also did a much better job of distinguishing between movements preparing for a swing, and my swing itself; I can’t recall a time where winding up to swing the Wii Remote registered as a false positive. And new to this entry, my attacks were differentiated between heavy and light versions, based on whether or not I swung wide. All these factors contributed to a base level competency in the swordplay that made it enjoyable from the get go. But there was more to sword fighting than simple swings.
Unlocked through narrative progression, or just outright purchased, there were about a dozen special moves that expanded my combat repertoire. These allowed me to inflict major damage on my opponents through simple actions, like tapping the A button to dash to the side and then swinging horizontally. If an enemy wasn’t vanquished, more than likely they’d be debilitated, and prone to a snappy finisher. It was a pretty diverse movepool. There were a number of attacks – Hidden Moves in the game’s lingo – that made use of horizontal and vertical swings, in addition to stabs. Another subset, Kusagari Powers, were more broad, and more impressive. A ground pounding area of effect attack belonged to this subset, as did another that launched an enemy into the sky, at which point I could dash up after them and wail on them for a second or two.
I wound up utilizing nearly every move with regularity, which kept combat fresh through my nine-hour playthrough. That said, by the time I unlocked everything, I definitely had a go-to combo. I’d start off ready to counter an enemy, which would briefly stun them. Then, I’d quickly get in a heavy horizontal swing, a vertical swing, and finally a brutal dash revolver finisher. My avatar would dash around the target, lodge the revolver to their head, and… well, you know the rest (this was a Teen rated game, but with some minor tweaks, it’d easily earn a Mature rating). It was a fast process – roughly five seconds – and seamless; the movements I had to chain together felt natural, and pulling it off really made me feel like a badass! I could repeat these steps for lesser enemies and get into a nice rhythm, but occasionally stronger foes had specific weaknesses that needed to be exploited. Maybe they were more adept at blocking attacks, or maybe it was one of the few boss fights, which were extremely tough. Whatever the case was, I no doubt had a move in my arsenal.
Besides looking cool and feeling good, performing special moves increased my cash on hand – drastically so when pulling off finishers. The money I earned, or found by destroying hundreds of crates, tables, and other objects strewn about, was used to acquire more special moves, firearms, and upgrade just about everything. The game did a poor job of letting me know I could purchase upgrades, in the sense that it didn’t even bother to tell me; I found out by wandering around safe houses and just navigating menus. Besides the standard revolver, I also obtained a shotgun, rifle, and machine gun. I rarely used any of them. It’s not that they weren’t effective, or didn’t function well; they just weren’t as fun as dashing around and slicing up a group of thugs. Once I got started with the sword, it was clear this was a hack and slash game that just happened to have guns.
So as described, the structural changes to combat from Red Steel to Red Steel 2 were major. The developers transitioned from regimented either/or combat scenarios regarding the use of firearms and swords, to more of a “Have It Your Way” structure, where I was free to proceed as I desired. This wasn’t the only major alteration, though. Stage design was similarly open-ended and narrative progression, while ultimately linear, occurred in such a way that it imparted the illusion of autonomy.
I’d consider the stage design, and narrative progression, of the first game a prime example of a conventional, narrative-driven first-person shooter. A story unfolded across a series of stages, with cutscenes and dialogue propelling my avatar forward. With few exceptions, these stages were straightforward affairs, with a clear beginning and ending, essentially unconnected from each other. This game wasn’t much different, but exhibited the influence of the Metroid Prime series. Stages this time around were much larger, entire towns, and freely navigable, pursuant to my credentials. There were plenty of nooks and crannies to rummage through and backtracking was relied upon heavily, since I spent about an hour in each, completing jobs related to the overarching quest in one way or another.
Dressed like Carmen Sandiego, my avatar, referred to solely as the hero, was the last member of the Kusagari Clan, a band of samurai-like warriors entrusted with protecting the city of Caldera. Located in the middle of the Nevada Desert, sometime in the future, Caldera blended futuristic technology, Wild West aesthetics, and Japanese architecture; it was an intriguing setting to be sure. He had a few allies in town who lent a hand by doling out formulaic tasks. Whenever I reached a new region, they’d inevitably offer jobs to activate communication towers, or eliminate roving gangs. I could complete jobs like these at my leisure while exploring, and often I had two or three active at a time. Besides these optional jobs, there were more important ones necessary to advancing the story. These played out more like a traditional stage, where I spent about twenty minutes working towards a big-picture goal in a linear fashion.
Whereas the first game utilized a realistic visual style, this entry was done up with striking cel-shaded graphics. I’m a sucker for games of this ilk, so it’s no surprise that I thought this one looks absolutely stunning; backtracking wasn’t a bore when the world looked so cool! All the while, Tom Salta’s score reinforced the alternate Wild West setting. Like his soundtrack for the first game, this one also blended cultures. Songs like “Kusagari Blues” were evocative of classic western films, and set the stage for a frontier wanderer. Many tracks featured familiar western guitar flourishes and tense tones, accentuated with a variety of traditional Japanese instruments, like “Caldera Trap.” Others still, such as “Roofs at Night,” escalated their background ambiance into full bore drum and bass territory when things got hairy. Rollicking, western-tinged up tempo action pieces topped my list of favorites, particularly “Let’s Dance” and “Vultures’ Prayer.” I came away from this soundtrack as I did last time: surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
While they belong to the same series, and share a handful of core traits, the two Red Steel games are quite different. The first was a traditional story-driven first-person shooter, most notable for its motion controls and awful sword combat. On the whole, it was enjoyable and worth a look, at least. On the other hand, I’d say the follow-up is a must-play on the system. It too, was a story-driven first-person shooter, although its linearity was subtly masked by a series of large, open levels. And, at least in my playthrough, the combat featured a role reversal. This time around, the sword was fun to use, thanks to the accuracy afforded by the Wii MotionPlus. With the improved motion controls and fast-paced, varied combat, it became more of a first-person hack and slash adventure, than first-person shooter. Red Steel 2 is unlike a lot of other games, and it’s one of the best on the Wii.