During my Red Steel presentation, surrounded by over-eager reporters who were either nodding enthusiastically at the lovely French presenter's every breath or staring through the glass cabinet at the front of the room - from which emerged a tantalising blue glow emanating from the front of a tiny little Wii-box - I was struck by what I thought was a rather clever observation. Red Steel's hero is an ordinary Western man who was due to marry the daughter of a prominent Japanese Yakuza member when she is violently kidnapped. Gifted with her dying father's katana, a symbol of leadership and honour amongst even the most modern of Japanese mafia members, he embarks upon a venture into the Japanese underground, a world he has never known before, in order to get her back. Inexpertly wielding his gun, staring puzzledly at his giant shiny sword, the game's Western protagonist abroad reminds me of myself standing there, with a nunchuk in one hand and a remote control in the other, in front of so many other people. I feel completely lost. It's like having to learn gaming all over again, waving about like an idiot and failing to perform the monumental in-game task of opening a door in front of a roomful of judgemental Germans. But then, just as I am forming this tangible parallel between myself and Red Steel's fumbling Yakuza initiate into a prettily-worded analogy for this preview, the Ubisoft presenter goes and points it out to everyone as a vital tenet of Red Steel's design from the very beginning. Damn. I was so sure it was a unique insight.
The fish-out-of water feeling that Red Steel incites, then, is not entirely due to the unfamiliarity of the Wii's control system - it's to do with the setting, too. For a French developer to have a go at portraying Japan at all, let alone the Yakuza cultural underworld, is actually exceptionally brave. It is the only setting in which the gun and the sword could be used together without feeling artificial, and the bright distinctive environments and style lend Red Steel a sense of identity beyond its control system that, so far, third-party Wii games seem to be struggling to find. Considering that this is such an early Wii title, Ubisoft has done exceptionally well on capitalising upon the sense of disorientation that the control method typically instils in first-time players in order to add another layer of depth to Red Steel's character and setting. To see a game whose solid visual and conceptual identity shines through the controversy and uncertainty surrounding the Wii, even at this early stage, is undeniably promising.
But anyway. Back to the game itself. Red Steel, in its current form, is mostly gunplay with a few staged sword duels, although in the final version the player will be able to switch between guns and sword at will. It is also undeniably a concept piece at the moment; the gameplay is much more basic than one would generally expect from an FPS in this day and age, but considering the amount of time it took me to get used even to basic pointing and shooting, I'm rather glad that it didn't overload me with anything more complex. Ubisoft, though, as a brave early adopter of the Wii, has had to undergo much more of a change in thinking in developing the game than I did whilst playing it. Opening a door might sound like a simple matter, but when you consider the different ways in which different players might attempt to do such a thing in-game - twisting the controller like a handle, shoving it forward, pushing gently - you begin to really appreciate the new developmental challenges that accompany a new control system. At the moment, shoving with the nunchuk works best, although a general shake is enough. Reloading is done by pulling the gun hand down to dispose of the empty cartridge (just like "in the movies," apparently), and shooting - well, shooting's self-explanatory. It works exactly like you think it's going to, which doesn't go far towards explaining why it's so difficult to get used to.
'There is a wonderful underlying sense of mayhem in Red Steel, which will almost certainly surface more and more as the game comes closer to completion.'
There is a wonderful underlying sense of mayhem in Red Steel, which will almost certainly surface more and more as the game comes closer to completion. Anything you shoot at explodes satisfyingly, from plates to bags to couches, and though this early build isn't quite up to, say, Stranglehold's glorious wanton destruction, I expect it to get more catastrophic as time goes on. Using the game's slowdown feature, you can stop time with the big 'A' button on the remote and target enemies all at once to disarm or kill them all in one sweep, which is extremely satisfying (even if the accompanying visual effects aren't exactly spectacular). It's the same reflex-based satisfaction that you get from a lightgun game, but one in which you move independently, which gives you far more of a sense of control over the explosive action happening on-screen. The sword-fighting, meanwhile, is altogether less of an impact-piece. Parrying with a twist of the controller is neat, but when you're swinging the sword, you feel as if all you're actually doing is triggering an animation via a gesture, rather than actually controlling it - like gesturing with a mouse in order to perform a quick action in a PC game. Red Steel doesn't mirror your own movement, so if you thrust forward, you'll somehow engage a sweeping downstrike instead. That, though, is really more of a feature than a fault - entirely player-dependent gun aiming is one thing, but unless you're actually a fencer, pulling off accurate sword strikes against skilled AI enemies would be rather more of a challenge.
Broadly, then, Red Steel is looking promising. But in all honestly, looking past the challenges of developing for the Wii and sitting the game next to other games of its sort on different platforms - Stranglehold, say, or Black - it's really very basic. It has a crippling lack of the impressive visual feedback that we've all come to expect from our next-gen first-person shooters these days - giant explosions, destruction effects, loud noises, fleeing enemies, blown-up cars and proper, billowing fire - but that is almost certainly due to the fact that Red Steel is so far from finished (and that Ubisoft originally had to start developing the game with a GameCube dev kit). Shooters are a very visual experience, though, and it would be a great shame if the polish doesn't live up to the attractiveness of the setting, concept and intuitive control.
We are, though, still fish out of water with Red Steel. There are currently no other Wii games like it, nothing to compare it to - the rest are all Nintendo's own efforts or of entirely different genres. You try to draw comparisons with games like Black, but to do so feels faintly like missing the point of the whole thing. Red Steel is certainly nothing to judge the full capabilities of the Wii by, although it is a fine example of its potential. This game is, at present at least, a first step - should it manage to evolve further in terms of refinement and sensory impressiveness before its release, though, it could turn out to be a very fine game indeed.