Red Steel 2
Red Steel never happened. Forget that it sold a million copies worldwide: the original game has now been relocated into the same district of let's-forget-it-ever-happened as Tab Clear, Joey's spin-off series and Choco Krispies. Say goodbye, nonsensical yakuza plot and wacky time-stopping powers. The new hotness is Red Steel 2, set in some sort of futuristic wild-west and feudal Tokyo mash-up and featuring a nonsensical samurai plot.
It's a far more conscious and successful stab at the franchise than the original. Part of that is down to the hardware - this is the first third-party game to demand use of the Wii MotionPlus, which means the fully assembled controller has an RRP of 65 GBP - but it's also due to smarter development, less of an emphasis on silly parlour tricks and a clear understanding of where the first game failed. It's not perfect, but when you're embroiled in the middle of a chaotic sequence trying to fend off a herd of enemy mooks you'll definitely find yourself under its spell.
The series has been rebooted with a new cel-shaded aesthetic, which complements a plot where you play as an exiled Stetson-wearing samurai, with belts all over his face and who also happens to be the last surviving protector of the Kusagari clan. He finds himself up against the combined forces of the rival Katakara family and the Jackals, a hired gang of bruisers and ruffians who, by the way, killed the other 32 protectors of his clan. It's admittedly nonsense, right down to the way your sidekicks manage to teleport to your side every five minutes, but it looks pretty - running at 60fps, and clearly understanding that the Wii's technical limitations mean it can't render 'realistic' very well - and lets you see some fairly unique sights, like when you ride a giant, clunking freight elevator through all sorts of feudal Japanese architecture.
It's all just an excuse to swing some swords and shoot some guns, really, so dedicating itself to the Wii MotionPlus has definitely paid off. Although isn't as responsive, both in its input and on-screen feedback, as the swordfighting mini-game in Wii Sports Resort, it's clearly making concessions to incorporate all of the game's many features and, for the most part, it's a compromise that works. It suitably detects strong and weak slashes alongside a completely essential awareness of the z-axis, which means the game can get one over its predecessor by featuring swordplay that is both effective and entertaining.
It starts off fairly basic, with a lengthy series of tutorials interspersed alongside gentle action sequences to guide you through the opening areas. A little waggle serves up a weak attack; a great big hefty swing (it doesn't have to be hard enough to feel like you're going to pop your shoulder out, though I tend to do that anyway) performs a strong one. You can also attack both vertically and horizontally, though I generally found horizontal slashes easier to accurately pull off.
Don't let it fool you: Red Steel 2 will occasionally fudge your attacks. Fighting some giant lumbering brute is made occasionally frustrating when the game interprets your strong attack, needed to break off their armour, as a weak one. Swing with the elbow, the game says, and for the most part it is right, but from time to time you'll find yourself languishing in a spot where the game just won't pull off the right attack - and the more you think about it, the longer it'll take to get you back into your groove.
It also has a habit of getting overwhelming and confused when there's a few too many enemies on screen, the auto-targeting flicking around with a genuine 'Daddy or chips' level of indecision. Luckily you can manually target with a few quick taps of the Z button, although it can take a few seconds for you to properly get your bearings.
But it's easy to let the game off the hook when 9 swings out of 10 come out exactly how you intended, which is impressive considering the range of options and abilities at your disposal. Your moves are beefed up by unlocking 8 'Hidden Arts' and 5 'Kusagari Powers' at various points in the game, as well as by forking over in-game currency, and these open up the gameplay by adding an extra degree of flash and depth. The most common ability, Rush, is pulled off by tapping A (which handles both blocking and dodging) and lunging forward with the Wiimote. You'll fling yourself across the map with your sword held out, which proves to be an effective way of closing ground and getting in the first attack that remains handy for the entire game.
Later on you'll be given abilities like the Matadaor, which lets you sidestep around enemies and slip in a cheeky attack from behind, and the Tiger, which lets you block any in-game attack by pushing both the Nunchuk and Wiimote forward at the same time. The latter is probably the most useful power for the late-game content, where the enemies attack en-masse and with some very nasty attacks. Coupled with the game's multiple finishers - blast away their brains point-blank, stab them through the chest, strike them from above etc. - and it's clear there's a multi-layered combat system which requires at least a couple of hours of studious training to fully get to grips with.
Blocking, for instance, starts easy but gets a bit more complicated over time: simply being able to hold A to deflect enemy bullets and guard against sword strikes rapidly turns into having to hold the Wiimote horizontally to block vertical attacks and vice versa. It's a nice feature when it works, but the generous timing window of the Tiger means you're more than likely to just to spam that instead.
After buying up all the arts and powers, you can also swap your hard-earned cash - barrels don't smash themselves, and the various cash rewards from shooting down shattered 'sheriff stars' can take up to a few seconds to obtain - for the fundamental assortment of damage, accuracy, health, ammo and armour upgrades.
If you get tired of all the swordslinging, squeezing B at any time rattles off a shot from your gun. There's four shooters to unlock over the course of the game, and while the game's focus is ostensibly on the blades the ability to quick-fire your guns allows you to pop out the odd cheeky headshot or disabling knee strike. The auto-aim is implemented exactly right, too, compensating for the occasional twitchiness whilst making you feel responsible for every well-placed snap shot.
Ubisoft are so confident with their fancy control scheme that they've made almost every area in the game a mini-arena, with a prescribed number of enemies piling out - the exact number is always displayed at the top of the screen - to meet their grisly demise. There are a fair few enemies in the game to murder, though most tend to stick to four basic types: little sword guys, big sword guys, agile guys with guns and big hulking guys that have unblockable attacks and need to be attacked from behind. A bit more variety might have been nice, but the upside of the familiarity means you start to develop tried-and-tested patterns for dispatching certain patterns of enemies, which definitely comes in useful later in the game when you have to deal with over ten of them at once.
The game is fashioned around 7 lengthy levels spread across 4 main hub locations, where you accept a handful of missions from a bounty board and go about doing what you're told. Most of the time this involves travelling to a specific point with the option of checking off a few entries in your various scavenger hunts as you progress, though there's a good chance you'll end up avoiding those: there are only so many times you can be asked to turn on some dormant communications towers before you stop caring.
Another reason you might find yourself skipping these quests entirely is because you'll often find yourself completely lost. Bizarrely for a title that has so many item collecting sub-quests and a necessary emphasis on exploring to find its miscellanea, it offers no form of full-sized map for navigating its hub locations, leaving you somewhat frustrated as you try to mentally stitch the whole area together by going to-and-fro in a desperate bid to find and destroy the last wanted poster.
The focus of the game's direction is so clearly on creating a spiffing combat system that crafting an engaging series of levels to use the fancy attacks in seems to have fallen by the wayside. Level design is always functional but rarely displays the same kind of creative spark that can be seen with the combat, which feels like a shame in a game where everything else feels so meticulously thought out, and progressing through repetitive areas wears a bit thin by the ending. It plods to a conclusion when it should be gripping you by the face buckles and shoving you face-first through a saloon door. Also: for a game half-set in the Wild West there is a bizarre, and off-putting, lack of quality saloon doors.
It's good, then; Red Steel 2 is a series of hugely entertaining combat skirmishes linked by some slightly formulaic level design. It's a lot of fun to play, with the steady rhythm of combat proving hugely satisfying, and it's great to see the Wii MotionPlus being used outside of Wii Sports Resort. As one of the few big-budget games on the platform from a third-party developer, and one that's trying to forget its unremarkable predecessor, Red Steel II makes sure to pull out the stops, scrub up well and always be on its best behaviour.
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