Release Date: November 19, 2006
The most disappointing thing about Red Steel, I think, is simply that we were all expecting something a little bit different.
When Red Steel was announced, reactions were rather mixed, to say the least. Fans expected a sword-fighting FPS game with the Wii controller that would exactly mimic the movements of their hands and body. Further expectations were driven by Ubisoft's promotional videos, which showed lots of pointing at the screen and casually firing to drop enemies. The general aura of expectation was something along the lines of one part Die By The Sword to two parts Time Crisis, only in virtual reality. I think rainbows and lasers might also have been anticipated, because this is the Internet we're talking about.
What we got is actually more like the old Jedi Knight PC game. Shooting people and aiming the camera is a little less intuitive than early speculation would have suggested, and the swordfighting is based on quick flicks of the wrist and psychological anticipation of the next slash or thrust by your enemy.
Enough with the speculation already. Forget all the pre-release hype. What is Red Steel really all about?
Red Steel is, in fact, what happens when you give a French development team some programming tools and tell them to make an American-style FPS about an American guy fighting Japanese people with Japanese swords, occasionally in Japan. Give it a healthy dose of '80s action movie logic, and you have Red Steel.
Red Steel begins with just such a scene of action movie logic. You, Scott (or "Scott-san"), are a bodyguard-slash-lover to a young Asian woman named Miyu. On the way to meet her father, she's promptly kidnapped by the ever-popular Rival Gang Members and dragged off to serve as a plot token for the rest of the game. Your quest is, of course, to go and rescue your girlfriend from these Rival Gang Members. Tale as old as time, this one is. Now the thought process is pretty easy to see here; dealing with the Yakuza gives you plenty of excuses to shoot people in the head or push steel through their bodies. However, this is surprisingly not the focus of Red Steel's gameplay at all. You will be blazing away with guns a large amount of the time, yes, but what you're really trying to do is earn Respect.
You get Respect by not killing people.
This flies totally in the face of video game logic, but hear me out.
Every time you decide not to stab someone to death when you have them helpless, or when you pull off a really sweet move and shoot the gun out of their hand, you earn a little bit more Respect. This can be traded in for new sword moves and used to unlock missions against the Yakuza later on. So you see, by choosing not to shoot or stab one man, you can open up new and exciting ways to blow them away later on!
About that whole shooting people thing ... it's done pretty well. The Wiimote is absolutely not as responsive as I would've liked it to be right out of the box, but the game itself has adjustable sensitivity, as does the Wiimote itself. The controls are more reminiscent of a mouse-and-keyboard setup than a light gun, and that works well enough once you adjust to it. Firing is instinctively easy to grasp, and the game makes it a bit easier by giving you a Zelda-esqe lock-on command. This, combined with strafing (via the Nunchuk in your other hand), really do make fighting gangsters as easy as aiming and shooting. It's just that aiming is done by moving a dot, not by pointing at stuff. As long as you remember that, things are fine. You do not have to sight down the remote; doing so will only screw you up.
Now, there is one glitch in the whole pointing thing and that comes with where exactly you're pointing. If at any time the on-screen cursor leaves the edge of the screen, Scott-san will begin to stare at the ceiling, the floor, or his own arm while spinning wildly in circles like your six-year-old sister. This behavior is stupid, and it will get you shot repeatedly while you attempt to urge Red Steel into noticing you're pointing at the screen again. I'm not sure why this happens, but it's wrong.
Occasionally after you've cleared out a room using the awesome power of guns, you'll have to draw swords and fight it out in an old-fashioned duel. Stopping to engage in swordplay instead of shotgunning hopeful duelists to get them out of the way is another good example of that action movie logic I talked about earlier. In any case, the swordplay can actually best be summed up by the advice in the game manual. The manual advises you "use bold, decisive strokes," and if you're the least bit timid in your actions with the remote, you're going to be hacked to pieces. Using the left hand to block incoming strikes and the right hand to chop with the katana just plain feels right. Thanks to the much-maligned "gesture system," in which the game picks up on the start of a movement and carries out a pre-animated movement based on what it reads, you can pull off some rather nasty-looking combos as well.
Also, if you're really good with your dodging and weaving, you can attack the enemy's sword instead of his body and break that. Your own weapons are unbreakable, because they are your weapons, but making people surrender because you cut their sword in half is simply cooler than slashing them all up.
So we have shooting and slicing. What's left? The level design is what's left, and boy, there's rather a bit of it. For the most part, Red Steel has a simple repeating pattern, the same pattern which was used to great effect in shooters of the mid-'90s. You'll go through a hallway into a large room filled with debris of some sort. Popular choices for clutter include boxes, cars, barrels, shelves and forklifts. There'll be five to eight guys in that room, and you'll shoot at each other for a while. Then you'll collect the ammo from the encounter and head down the connecting hallway into the next room. Sometimes you'll detour into a loose hub of rooms in search of a key or switch, which will open the next set of rooms.
It's better than I'm making it sound because of the action movie influence. Two simple rules apply to the world of Red Steel: If it exists, it will explode; and everybody in the universe owns a gun. It's weirdly hilarious to walk into a repair garage or a sauna and suddenly everyone whips out Uzis and the air fills with lead and random junk flies off shelves because all the equipment in the room is shooting sparks and flame everywhere. (Kinda makes you wonder where exactly you keep an Uzi when the only thing you're wearing is a loose towel wrapped around the waist. That's just one of life's little mysteries, isn't it?) Combine the sudden frenzy of violence with the loose physics system (people happily fly through glass windows when you shotgun them) and the sometimes smart/sometimes not A.I. of the game (exploding cover is bad), and you have yourself a good time for a few hours.
I say that the level design is mostly formulaic. There is one level that marks a major turning point for the game. Scott is captured by an evil arcade owner and forced to run through his Warehouse o' Fun. For one level, you're racing through penguin-infested movie sets and prop rooms fighting pink-haired transvestites, guys in Godzilla costumes, and Power Rangers. For one level, Red Steel becomes the best damn first-person shooter ever made. Then it's back to the formula, except with more clever designs than the warehouse box worlds you see in the first part of the title. It's like two different teams made halves of the game.
The only thing left to discuss is multiplayer, which is again a mixed bag of old stale ideas and new interesting ones. There are about four multiplayer maps and a handful of modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch, and the most interesting mode, "Killer." Unfortunately, "Killer" is only available if you happen to have four people around who want to play, but the idea is worth developing. During each round, your Wiimote rings like a telephone. Listen to the speaker, and it'll tell you your private goal for the match, whether it's to shoot someone, protect someone from being killed, be the last man standing or off someone in particular with a certain designated weapon. This idea deserves to be in a game more people will play.
The thing about Red Steel is that it's difficult to say if you should play it or not. Do you have a great nostalgia for first-person shooters of the early '90s? Do you really want to play through an early '80s action movie? Can you handle occasionally getting trapped in a Death Spin while being shot to death from enemies at which you can't quite manage to aim? If you can tolerate these things, Red Steel will reward you with improbable scenarios and enjoyably destructive firefights. If you demand your A.I. to be spot-on and choose cover that isn't made up of boxes of grenades, or if you get annoyed easily by not quite having the timing right to trigger pre-recorded sword combos, then maybe you should sit out this rather imperfect – but fun – FPS for the Wii after all.
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