When Red Steel launched way back in December 2006 it promised so much, with its mix of bullets and blades and intuitive motion controls, but was clearly rushed to meet the Wii's launch date and ended up a disappointment in many gamers' eyes. A few months after release, the development team sat down to create the game they had always intended, and on Friday I was invited to Ubisoft's Paris headquarters to play an early version of Red Steel 2.
After a genuinely impressive opening sequence that sees your nameless hero dragged through the desert behind a motorbike that serves to introduce the new Wild West setting, I was left in a small room and given a revolver (in the game, not in real life, thankfully...) I tried out a few different sensitivities, with the highest setting having a particularly small bounding box which made aiming every bit as accurate as you'd expect. Later on it made swordplay tricky, but the medium sensitivity setting was more than responsive enough.
The start of the level introduced elements that'll be familiar to anyone who's played Metroid, with red hinges on doors and windows that need to be blasted to progress further. There's no need for lock-on as the Remote is accurate enough, and soon I'd progressed to the next room, a collection of physical challenges: two jumps and a climb. These were all easily traversed with a context-sensitive push of the Z button when prompted onscreen, and I easily scrabbled up walls and leapt over pits with no more effort than a push of Z. One thing that was nice to see was the way objectives and directions were subtly demarcated - the wall that needed climbing was covered in scuff marks leading upwards, rather than a huge arrow proclaiming "up"!
After getting attuned to the controls I headed into my first fight, armed just with a gun. The enemies are remarkably resilient to bullets even on the standard difficulty, and although it wasn't present in the build I played I was assured that body part-specific damage would appear in the finished game, with enemies stunned by headshots and knocked back with shots to the chest, for example.
Having dispatched the few enemies with the limited bullets on offer, I was reunited with my katana, and soon set about trying the fabled realism of MotionPlus. Holding A sets you up for a parry, but outside of combat it's used to move your blade around, which gives you a very pleasing feel as you twist and move the Wii Remote and see the sword replicate your movements. From watching the other players this was everyone's natural instinct, and it's clearly had a lot of work put into it as it mimicked my movements beautifully.
The next area was a small training section, with wooden dummies to attack with the katana. It was fantastic to see such accuracy with the blade - a strong downward slice would cleave the dummy in two and see it fall to the ground, whereas a high horizontal slash could cut its head clean off. Even moving the Remote around the screen and slashing from below was picked up without difficulty by MotionPlus, something that was never possible beforehand.
Another element made possible by MotionPlus is the measurement of your attack's strength, with different colours marking your slashes - white for gentle, yellow for medium and a large red flash for a strong attack, with the strongest swipes necessary to remove armour from some of the harder enemies before you can take them down with your gun or sword. Even the gentlest attacks feel fantastic, as you knock on enemies' heads with absolute precision of power and placement - it's not just about swinging as hard as you can the whole time: in fact, enemies are quick to counterattack if you swing too often. These counters are surrounded by electric blue flashes, alerting you to the possibility of a counterattack of your own, as swiping to meet your enemy's sword will stagger them, opening them up to a strong attack or combo.
The combos themselves are nowhere near as unwieldy or unreliable as those seen in the first game: gone are the katas, replaced by a much more versatile combo system that chains together several small moves to allow much greater freedom. One of the skills you unlock is a juggle move that sends your opponent high into the sky, and you can then follow up with gunshots, an aerial dash to jump or wait for them to fall down and attack them then. In the air, for example, you can slash them gently to land a few hits or bash them down to Earth with a huge swipe before drawing your gun and burying a few bullets in their torsos. It's a hugely satisfying system that certainly has elements of the first-person brawler that the game's Creative Director Jason Vandenburghe mentioned in his presentation.
Once I'd despatched a few more of the heavily-armoured troopers I was met by one of the game's mini-bosses, at this stage simply called "Heavy". An angry chap with a huge hammer, he's a classic video game boss: armoured at the front, vulnerable at the back, requiring quick dodges and parries to avoid his attacks before slashing him from behind to deplete his health bar. Once his energy bar was low enough, a simple push of up on the analogue stick and the A-button unleashed a critical move that finished him off, spelling the end of the demo.
One of the things that struck me in the playable demo is the quality of the graphics. Cel-shading may not be as big a deal nowadays as it was a few years ago, but here the style excels with a solid framerate and some impressive details such as dust blown across the landscape, plenty of destructible elements and bullet tracers. Running at a solid 60fps on a huge HDTV, it stood out as one of the most graphically impressive Wii games I've seen in a long time, and certainly shows that the game's experienced Wii development team have got much more out of the sequel than its predecessor did.
Even in this early version, the AI showed some clever tricks, whipping out their swords at close range and circling around you to attack from all angles. With the change from one-on-one swordfights to larger battles, Ubisoft have implemented a strong auto-lock system that centres your view on the next enemy once you've defeated your target. There's also an indicator in the corners to warn you of impending attacks from behind, flashing yellow when someone's about to land a blow. Even quite early on in this demo the fights can get quite intense, but having this danger indicator present means you can be much more aware of the enemies around you, giving you a fighting chance.
MotionPlus was a much more noticeable addition than I found in Virtua Tennis, with the realisation of holding a sword extremely impressive. It's easy to spend ages inspecting your blade just because you can, and its accuracy in the parry system makes the battles all the more satisfying: it truly is your sword, and it's remarkably engaging as you really get into the battles and the power of the sword in your hand. The transition from the prequel's one-on-one fights to this title's skirmishes could hardly have worked out better, with the game now playing more like a fantastic third person title viewed through your hero's eyes.
One of the many small touches that brought a smile to my face was the ability to crack safes by holding the Wii Remote to your ear and twisting it slowly to listen for a different sound from the Remote's speaker, locking it in with a press of C. It was a great showcase for how sensitive and versatile the Remote and MotionPlus can be in the hands of experienced developers.
Developers and publishers often say that their sequels are "truly the game the first title should have been", but for once that is genuinely true about Red Steel 2. The guns are as accessible as ever, but the extra freedom afforded by MotionPlus has given the swordplay the accuracy, speed and physical feel its prequel lacked. The new Western setting, vastly improved graphics and more fluid gameplay left me thoroughly impressed and dying to play more.
With Metroid Prime Trilogy, the Conduit and Red Steel 2 all released this year, finally the Wii has realised its early first-person potential, and nobody is doing more to push the console than Ubisoft's talented and experienced team.
I'd like to extend a huge thanks to everyone from Ubisoft for making this community day possible. Stay tuned to Nintendo Life for more exclusive Red Steel 2 content, including interviews with the game's Creative Director and Lead Game Designer in the coming days.