The game encourages and rewards that innate desire for vandalism we’ve all had as little kids—that urge to run around and break stuff. The developers have littered the environments with breakable items—boxes, barrels, bamboo, fences, bottles!—and what’s more, all of these things have money in them for buying upgrades. My first night playing I spent a half hour just wandering around smashing and slicing stuff with my sword.
While the sword motion controls aren’t true one-to-one accurate in every respect, they weren’t designed to be; as creative director Jason Vandenberghe said, few people are expert sword fighters. It boils down to this: you can block at any angle, slice in any direction, and stab straight at the screen with reliable responsiveness and accuracy. Red Steel 2 is not a sword fighting simulator, it is a badass simulator. It rolls Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Bruce Lee and Steven Seagal into one silent nameless sword-slinger and then puts you in his armor plated leather duster.
The controls translate into combat beautifully. After only a few minutes you’ll be dicing mooks with fine-tuned precision. Caldera is infested by three enemy factions and all of them want a piece of you. The thuggish Jackals are your typical Road Warrior rejects, slow and clumsy, but after a time you’ll encounter the more disciplined and intimidating Samurai-like Katakara. By the halfway point vicious encounters with ninjas will be a regular occurrence.
Many of the tougher enemies have armor or blocking techniques that easily deflect weak attacks. MotionPlus reads the strength of your swings, so you’ll have to put some elbow grease into your blows if you want to defeat the stronger baddies. Not only do strong attacks shatter armor and destabilize your foes, they also draw a nice splash of blood when they land on an unprotected opponent. You can change the swing strength required to register strong attacks, so you don’t need to hack away like a lumberjack to get the job done. That said, when a ninja’s been stabbing you in the rear for the last 30 seconds, you really want to lay into him to finish him off.
Swing strength is important, but don’t confuse Red Steel 2 with a waggle party—customary Wii remote flailing will quickly get you killed on the harder difficulties. A certain level of finesse is required to succeed, and that’s where the sword techniques come in. As you progress you can buy new moves that augment the regular slashing. These are button and gesture combos that deliver fast, crippling attacks when timed properly. The movement you make with the remote, be it a downward lunge, a stab or a horizontal slice, mimics the actions performed on-screen. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s like playing a fighting game in first person and you are chaining gestures instead of button combos.
Your blade is made of a special alloy that allows it to channel chi energy, supplementing your gesture combos with more fantastic attacks. Charging your sword for a few seconds lets you do things like launch enemies into the air, then leap up and slam them back into the ground with shattering force. Other powers include a radial effect shockwave, a balance-breaking, bullet-deflecting parry and shooting energy pulses off the tip of your katana.
Practicing these combos and linking them is well worth the effort, and can turn the sword combat into an incredibly rewarding experience. Eventually you’ll flow through a fight like water, taking on five opponents at once, breaking blocks, tossing your sword into a floored ninja and retrieving it just in time to deliver a surprise backstab to the guy sneaking up on you.
The guns have seen a lot of improvements too, most noticeably in the aiming controls which have been really tightened up since the first game. Red Steel 2 offers the most aiming customization this side of The Conduit, allowing you to choose preset accuracies or tweak response and bounding boxes to your heart’s content. It’s a little strange to have such a better gun experience when the emphasis is clearly on the swordplay, but it’s fair to say the guns have seen streamlining rather than cuts and removals. You can buy only three weapons in addition to your revolver—a double shotgun, tommy gun and lever-action rifle—but you can combine them with the sword combat on the fly and even work them into the combos.
In fact some of the most brutal finishers involve your guns. There’s nothing like weakening a Katakara with a hard slash, then bashing him in the face with the butt of your tommy gun and finishing him off with a quick volley. Putting the nose of your pistol right under the chin of a persistent ninja and pulling the trigger is pretty satisfying too.
You can buy upgrades for your guns, health, armor, Kusagari powers and even your sword. They start out looking primitive but after a few upgrades they’re tricked out with high-tech metal ribbing and glowing emblems. Your sword changes color with upgrades as well, eventually being re-forged from a blood-red metal; Red Steel in the literal sense. It’s a good thing all the extraneous objects in the game bleed money, with hidden emblems and sheriff stars contributing the most cash, because upgrades cost a lot of scratch. You’ll also happen upon safes that must be cracked with a tumbler-unlocking minigame that uses MotionPlus.
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