Ubisoft promised the sky for their Wii launch game Red Steel; since nobody had used the Remote before, plenty of gamers drank the kool-aid and had high hopes for its swordplay potential. The concept was interesting, but the execution left a gross aftertaste. It's telling that the idea was never emulated in the way that Excite Truck's motion controls were, not to mention the bajillion times Wii Sports was and continues to be cloned.
That was in 2006. A cursory glance at the calendar tells us it's now 2010, and the butt of our Remotes say that Wii motion control has been juiced up. Ubisoft is back for another stab at the idea with the fidelity boost in tow and the kool-aid is being passed around again, only this time it's quite tasty.
Red Steel 2 is a sequel in a similar vein as a mainline Final Fantasy game: tweaked mechanics in a whole new world. The "realistic" contemporary Japanese environment and Yakuza thugs have been swapped out in favour of the cel-shaded, east-meets-Wild West-buttered-in-French world of Caldera and its battling clans. You play as an outcast member of the Kusagari who returns to Caldera after five years only to find the place crawling with rival clans out for your blood and for your katana. Naturally, you don't plan on giving them either one.
What's great about the game is that it understands the Wii's limitations and builds on its strengths across the board, unlike the first go round where Ubisoft tried to push the console in untested directions. The new visual style allows for a strong caricatured melding of the two distinct cultures, a cocktail of Borderlands and Sukiyaki Western Django with a smattering of XIII mixed in for flavor. It's quite the looker in places, although a lot of the stages are fairly uninteresting courtyards and streets. The areas feel lifeless and hollow, and while the story explains why nobody is around the world doesn't feel like it's lived in; buildings may as well be painted wooden backdrops (and going by the Crate Review System this is possibly the worst game ever made). Things get a bit more varied towards the end, but you'll be slogging your way through quite a lot of similar-looking areas throughout the adventure.
The bland environments clearly aren't the focus here, for that honour belongs to combat. With the addition of the required MotionPlus, the controls skyrocket to the top of the heap in precision. The aiming cursor feels smoother than other Wii first-person games and, finally, lets you aim the pointer off the screen and continue to turn properly. Controls are customisable, with the bounding box size up to you as well as swing sensitivity. Which leads us to the star of the show: the katana. It isn't true 1:1 all the time, which really would have been unnecessary, but the added layer of fidelity essentially kills "waggle" dead.
Each strike now demands a deliberate and forceful motion on your part, and even if it's not true 1:1 all the time your movements feel satisfyingly translated into combat. A range of special moves and finishers are included to mix things up, with results so cool you'll want to master them all. This really is the sword fighting game that Wii owners have been waiting for since the console launched in 2006. Switching between your katana and your guns is as instantaneous as pulling the trigger or swinging the Remote, and the combo system encourages using the whole range of weapons and attacks. Clearing a room full of gunners, ninjas and burly masked dudes with miniguns by flinging them into the air, launching jump strikes, parrying attacks and finishing them off with a close-up blast to the head or katana through the chest, frankly, makes you feel like a badass.
Another contributor to that feeling is the excellent sound. Guns have a nice loud boom to them and the voice acting is, well, cheesy, but it's a Western so it's kind of appropriate. The soundtrack is top notch, mixing Japanese sounds with the spaghetti West in a way that gets the heart pumping when faced with a troop of two or 20 attackers. Ennio Morricone would be proud.
Missions are doled out via bounty boards and the people you work with, with each stage having around a half-dozen main missions and a handful on the side. Each is fairly basic, essentially sending you to either go somewhere and kill rival clansmen or hitting a switch of some sorts, where optional side jobs ask you to destroy things like wanted posters or find X amount of things. The minimap tells you exactly where to go for the main missions, but there's no way to switch focus to a side job and get help finding where those posters are. It may not sound so bad, but when you're looking for small brown posters in a dusty Western town it can be pretty tough. And while the map switches to show the area you're in, there's no way to look at the full stage map to see where you might be missing something; completing side missions comes down to both luck and overly intense searching.
We did come across a few glitches of varying nasty as we sliced our way through to the end. Every so often a crate or other fixture would disappear from sight from certain angles, and we got stuck in doors on more than one occasion. Sometimes enemies froze in place during battle and at one point failed to spawn, making us quit to the menu and restart from a checkpoint bizarrely after that fight. We also experienced a console-locking glitch during a brawl, but after unplugging the power cord and restarting the game that section flowed smoothly. The checkpoint system is good enough so that we didn't have to spend more than a minute getting back to where we were, and you may be lucky enough to not experience a console lock, but we feel these things should be noted.
Once the ten-hour story is over and done with there's little incentive to return. There's a Challenge mode, but all that does is send you through the campaign stages with your equipment to earn medals and more money for upgrades, but by the time you reach the end you'll likely have all the upgrades since cash is so abundant. The obvious arena combat mode is nowhere to be found, nor is there multiplayer. Still, with combat this fun you'll likely want to pop it in from time to time long after the dust has settled.
There's really only one thing you need to know about Red Steel 2, and that is that the sword combat absolutely, positively delivers in every way you want it to. The rest of the game does have some issues and without the stellar controls would have been more of a step sideways rather than forward for the genre, but shooting and slicing dudes is just too much fun to pass up.