The original Red Steel was the very definition of failed potential: it had Yakuza, big guns and flashy swords, and at the time it seemed as if the Wii would be the perfect console for FPS titles. Unfortunately the final game fell short of its initial promise - in fact, it plummeted down the Chasm of Hype and burst upon the Pointed Rocks of Bitter Disappointment. In short, it was a complete mess, and while other releases have managed far better stabs at providing a decent FPS experience on the Wii, it's fair to say that the console is still awaiting its definitive killer app in this genre.
With Red Steel 2, there's a good chance that wait may finally be over. This turned out to be the last game I saw at this year's gamescom, but it certainly ensured that I left the event in fine spirits. It's still got guns and swords, but this time the Yakuza appear to have been swapped for high-tech cowboys. If you've seen any clips from the game, you'll already know that it boasts a natty cel-shaded art style and that it runs at 60 frames per second - slicker than a buttered eel on a water slide. All of these things are cause for celebration, but by far the best thing about Red Steel 2 is the fact that it handles like a dream - resulting in the most satisfying use of MotionPlus I've seen to date.
The demo on offer in Germany last month was a fairly slender thing, clocking in at around fifteen minutes, but that didn't stop it from packing quite a punch. According to creative director Jason Vandenberghe, roughly 50 per cent of the journalists who tried the game had their arses handed to them in a cel-shaded party bag. The code that Ubisoft showed at E3 was taken from an early stage of the story, while this interlude was culled from the middle of the game. And by this point in the story, the bad guys have started to call in some serious ball-breakers: ninjas with guns.
My play-through began with a video of the Swordsman, our hero, riding a speeding train as he followed a key villain. Things didn't go according to plan, and the choo-choo wound up taking a one-way trip into a ravine. Undeterred, our lone warrior pushed on and pursued his quarry to a nearby mining town, where he once again found himself under attack. At first the only threat came from the low-level thugs shown at E3, and these amateur henchmen provided the perfect opportunity to sample the game's revamped controls.
Before the advent of MotionPlus, Wii games tended to encourage small, subtle hand movements. Sure, you could play Wii Tennis like the real sport, but most of the time you'd do better with restrained flicks of the Remote. Now it seems that things have changed: Vandenberghe advised me to use wide arm movements as I swung my "sword", and to be honest, he didn't have to tell me twice. Slashes to the left and right will elicit an appropriate response on-screen, while thrusting the remote forward will unleash a nasty looking stab. There isn't quite a 1:1 ratio between your movements and the game's reaction, but it's pretty close - and in general the melee combat feels gloriously real. Blocking is a simple matter of holding the controller laterally in front of you. The A button lets you dash towards an enemy or out of harm's way, while tapping B once will automatically switch you over to the Swordsman's firearms. Tap again and you'll fire away; make a swipe with the remote and you'll revert to your blade. It's a neat system that allows you to switch tactics in a split second.
Following the good example set by The Conduit, there's a detailed set of options for customising the sensitivity of your aiming controls. I didn't get to tinker with these in Germany, but even under the default setup the game seemed to handle extremely well: movement is casually driven by the Nunchuck thumbstick, leaving you to focus more fully on gun and swordplay with the Remote. In addition to the basic thrusts and slashes, The Swordsman also has a few special abilities up his sleeve. If you hit Z at exactly the same time you make a swipe, you'll perform a 360 degree attack that's very useful for keeping crowds at bay. You can also throw out an energy wave that knocks back enemies and briefly stuns them - to do this you charge A and B together, then make a frisbee-like motion with the Remote.
The first set of enemies proved to be fairly easy to dispatch via frantic slicing, but things got considerably harder once the ninjas started showing up. The whole mini-level essentially served as an introduction to these harder bad guys: initially the bouncy blaggards showed up one at a time, but once I'd killed a couple of them they started attacking in groups of two or three. The ninjas came in two flavours, stabby and shooty, and each required a different set of tactics. The slash-happy goons would block any sword that came their way, so to take them down you had to get past their guard: the knock-back attack worked well here, but you could also flank them with quick dashes and cut them down from behind, or simply shoot them as they jumped through the air. The uzi-toting foes were easier to kill but could quickly deplete your health, so for them the priority lay with getting in close and cutting them down swiftly.
When you have to deal with both of these enemies at once, Red Steel 2 can be quite a challenge. By the end of the demo I found myself close to death, with a final trio of masked assassins attempting to shish-kebab my colon. It's possible to one-hit kill the ninjas if you attack them with the right move, but under the stress of the situation, with enemies all around me, my strategies were probably a bit amateurish. I eventually whittled my opponents down to one last attacker, but his speed got the better of me and my play-test ended in failure.
Still, I wasn't too disappointed. As brief as the demo was, my ten minutes with Red Steel 2 were possibly the most fun I've had with an FPS on the Wii. The swordplay is immensely fun, the controls are responsive and the sci-fi Western setting looks brilliant. The game has now been pushed back to early next year, but it's certainly been added to my list of titles to watch. The predecessor may have screwed the proverbial pooch, but with this sequel Ubisoft should redeem itself in triumphant style.
Red Steel 2 will be released in early 2010, exclusively on Wii.