I've never rammed a samurai sword through the middle of someone's chest, but I imagine that it might be quite fun. Actually, I'll clarify that comment: it might be fun if the person in question was a proper evil sort, and if you were doing it in self defence, but even then the whole experience would probably be more scary than fun. And oh lord, think of the guilt you'd feel afterwards: you've taken the life of another human being! You pushed a sharpened length of metal through the chest of a fellow homo sapien, and you watched as the crimson gore gushed out of the hole, as his eyes faded in death. Weeks, nay months later, you'll awake in the dead of night, tears streaming down your cheeks and onto your Transformers: The Movie duvet cover. What have you done? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?
Red Steel 2 may just be the most enjoyable pointy stick simulator we've ever seen. It takes all the good stuff from every over-the-top sword-fighting movie you've ever seen - the speed, the stylish flourishes, the thrilling clash of metal on metal - and it mulches it up with a weird east-meets-west setting, a snazzy art style and a highly intuitive set of controls. It's a violent game, to the extent that you spend most of your time making holes in people with a massive blade, but there's no blood. This means that you can spend more time celebrating your gung-ho samurai antics, and less time weeping onto your Transformers: The Movie duvet cover. I had an utter blast with the game at the close of gamescom in Cologne last year, so I was more than up for a second helping when Ubisoft invited me to its London showcase last month.
When you take away the comic book setting and the fact that you're using the Wii remote as a giant sword, Red Steel 2 seems to be built around lots of very familiar elements. Aside from the more linear, dungeon-like sections, most of the game's levels are designed around open hub areas which open up over time as you complete missions. Between assignments you'll trash the scenery to find hidden currency, head to the dojo area where you can buy upgrades for your weapons and learn new moves under the tutelage of a grumpy swordmaster; once you've finished tooling up, you'll grab a mission from the noticeboard and head back out into the fray. It's a conventional, unremarkable setup - and yet that's absolutely fine, because all you'll care about is getting back into the action.
I can't stress enough how pleasing it is to find a first-person Wii game where the controls make sense right from the get-go. The teething period is minimal, and within minutes of the start of play you'll feel at home running about, jabbing at people with your shiny chopper. As I've said before, the MotionPlus controls aren't in exact 1:1 correlation with your arm movements, but they do respond in a way that feels surprisingly close - and ensures that close combat is an instantly gratifying experience. Jab you arm forward and you'll stab at your foe; wind back for an almighty chop, and you'll unleash a slice that roughly matches the angle of your arm movement. To block, you simply hold the sword straight in front of you in a vertical or horizontal position. All these movements feel highly natural, and as a result of this achievement it's rather easy to lose yourself in the action at hand. In short, you feel like a sword-flashing badass.
Aside from your beloved katana, you've also got a sidearm at your disposal that can be switched to at any time by simply hitting B - the same button that acts as the trigger. On the other hand if you've got your gun out you can revert to the sword by simply swiping with the remote. It's another simple design touch, one that makes it neatly easy to set up combos using both weapons: you might put a bullet in someone's head to dizzy them, then dash in to follow up with close combat. Alternatively you might use the gun for crowd control, slowing several members of a group while you focus on their isolated comrade. You'll need these tactics, too: My hands-on demo last month was culled from a very early part of the story, but even here it didn't take long before the game was throwing in six or seven bad guys at once.
Indeed, if the opening levels are anything to go by, Red Steel 2 will be constantly throwing new things at you. The missions in the test build tended to last around 10 minutes each, and as I mentioned before I swiftly fell into the habit of checking back with the store and trainer to see if there were any new tricks to learn. New moves are sensibly taught to you via simple watch-and-copy drills conducted against a stuffed dummy. Learning through repetition is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but amusingly Ubisoft has thrown in another safe guard to ensure that male players at least will pay attention: while a new move is being explained, an FMV window pops up to show a video demo by a girl in a skimpy top; doubtless this will encourage teenage gamers to make the appropriate hand gestures.
Like the overall design, the missions I undertook were largely quite simple and familiar affairs - go here to kill X, activate control panel Y, find and destroy all of item Z. Despite the unremarkable nature of these tasks, the accompanying battles were a constant pleasure. New moves and enemy types seem to pop up frequently: At the start of the demo I was pre-occupied with dishing out show-boating finishing moves, which require you to whittle down a foe's health before performing a particular slash, indicated by a small icon that appears over their head. No sooner had I gotten used to this then the game was teaching me about a new set of heavy enemies who must have their armour smashed off before you can get to the squishy bits inside. As soon as I was used to them, I encountered a mini-boss with a massive hammer: to deal with him you have to nimbly hop around to his back and stab at his weak spot.
Enemies like these who pop up as special encounters early on will eventually become common or garden foes. My previous hands-on with this game was taken from a much later part of the story, and unless Ubi has decided to tone things down a bit, you can expect to be given a real challenge as you progress further into the campaign. Your health bar is fully recharged between fights, so you only ever have to worry about making it out of the current battle alive - but this can get surprisingly tricky, even with the help of an on-screen counter to track how many foes you have left. I frequently found that my biggest enemy was actually my own desire to show off. Instead of calmly dealing with the situation, using the lock-on system to single out one threat at a time, I'd look for opportunities to do something flashy - shooting a warrior out of the air as they leapt towards me, or slowly weakening someone with gunshots to the knee so that I could follow up with an execution - driving my sword deep into his torso.
This drive to show off is undeniably a good sign: when you get that kind of vibe, it usually suggests that the developer is doing something right. Strangely, Red Steel 2's biggest threat may be its own predecessor: the first game was an early disappointment for the Wii, a great concept that failed to fulfil its potential, and it's quite possible that some gamers will be approaching this sequel with caution as a result. Still, ten minutes with the new game should be more than enough to convince even the most sceptical of gamers, so let's hope that the public gives Ubi another bite of the apple - because this time, it looks like it's delivered the real deal.
Red Steel 2 will be released on Wii on March 26.