At best Red Steel is a rental, if only for curiosity's sake.
The protagonist's hand tilts just as you tilt your hand in real space, holding your pistol with dat gangsta grip. Where you wave, your gun aims. You pull the B-button "trigger" on the Wii remote and gunfire erupts on-screen. It all seems so intuitive and natural. But then you try turn to defend yourself against someone coming from your left, and it happens so slowly that it's as if you're in a restrictive neck brace. You try to combat an enemy with your katana blade with graceful, weaving strikes - only to see single, barbaric swings. And every once in awhile, you'll bump into an enemy that doesn't see you, hear you or fire upon you.
This is what it's like to play the rushed mess that is Ubisoft's Red Steel, the much-hyped and commercially successful launch title for Nintendo's Wii.
Red Steel is primarily a first-person shooter with the occasional one-on-one sword duel thrown in for good measure. You assume the role of Scott, bodyguard and now-fiancée to the daughter of a Japanese mob boss. What was supposed to be a warm dinner with your lady love, Miyu, and her father Sato, ends up being a betrayal by one of Sato's power-hungry underlings. Miyu is taken hostage, Sato is wounded, and you set off to guide Sato to safety before planning just how you're going to complete your rescue mission. You're given the ultimatum to hand over the Katana Giri - a sword and a symbol of power in Sato's clan - if you're to get Miyu back unharmed. So, Sato blesses you with the blade before he succumbs to his wounds.
There you have it - a hero with a gun and sword in hand, and the perfect excuse for Ubisoft to demonstrate what players can do with the revolutionary Wii remote. Sword fighting and gun slinging certainly sounds like - and starts off as, for the opening hour at least - a fun time and a healthy variety of gameplay. Ultimately, though, neither of these experiences make for a compelling game overall. The core mechanics of shooting your gun seem simple enough, with the on-screen reticule responding to your movement as would a laser pointer in a lecture hall. If you've mastered using the remote to navigate through your Wii channels, you'll have no trouble adjusting to firing weapons. Poking the remote forward allows you to zoom in closer for a better shot, and while this takes a few tries to get used to, it ends up being serviceable. Weapons are the standard mundane fare of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, and pack a decently satisfying punch when you fire them. You can also lob or roll grenades with the appropriate pantomime using the nunchuk attachment.
The problems settle in when you need to free-look to face enemies above you, below you, to the left and to the right of you. Turning about is achieved by jamming your aiming reticule towards the edges of the screen in the direction you wish to look, but the maximum turning speed is way too slow to be of optimal use. At its best, the turning speed is familiar to those used to dual-analog first-person shooters. At its worst, the slow turning will reward you by getting you hit a few times before you can even squeeze off a shot. The game seems to try and compensate for this with enemy placement that borders on light-gun-game simple, but this only serves to take away the all-angles excitement that you normally get in shooters - especially when coupled with other problems that drag the gunplay down.
See, the opposition can be downright dumb. The artificial intelligence was hyped to have enemies knocking over tables to take cover. However, practical experience shows that enemies rarely try to sneak off and flank you, or even close in on you. Usage of cover is spontaneous, as you'll often see gunmen stand out in the open firing at you - even as you speedily sidestep towards them for the close-range shotgun blast. Your opponents don't seem to run from grenades as often as they should - though, since your "tossing" motions with the nunchuk might mistakenly result in a grenade being rolled along the ground and vice versa, perhaps you won't end up using grenades enough for this to matter.
At least Ubisoft tries to make up for this by introducing some interesting concepts. You eventually gain the ability to freeze the world around you for a limited amount of time. You can then point and click at spots on the screen that you'll instantly fire upon, in succession, once you unfreeze time. Usually this results in almost guaranteed deaths for your assailants; but if you aim for their weapons instead of their heads, you can coerce them into surrendering with a simple "on your knees" gesture with the remote - earning you "Respect Points". You'll encounter situations where you might miss some of their weapons, and it's a little ridiculous to watch guys slowly surrender as their cohorts continue to fire at you. However, almost every group of thugs has a leader, and if you force the leader to surrender the entire crew follows suit. This is the easiest way to pile up the respect while simultaneously saving yourself ammo and frustration.
The respect points you accumulate can be spent at a dojo in between missions to learn special moves for sword combat. Unfortunately, when you consider the basics of sword combat, these moves are almost pointless. The most obvious gripe with the swordplay is that your blade doesn't respond naturally to your movements. Instead, any quick swipe with the remote results in an on-screen slash aimed in the general direction of your motions. Try slashing left and right rapidly and you'll see your sword awkwardly complete successive right-to-left slashes, which appear choppy and not at all in sync with your movements. You can't stab with your sword either - even though your opponents can - further limiting the amount of moves you can perform. You can parry strikes with your shorter sword by swinging your nunchuk, which does involve some tricky timing and at least adding some challenge to sword battles. However, your movement is locked to left-and-right sidestepping around your opponent, whose strikes are all heavily telegraphed.
Furthermore, every sword battle is pre-scripted. You can't whip out your sword whenever you feel like it, and you can't choose to end the duel dishonorably by whipping out your pistol. The ultimate result is less a graceful samurai battle and more a fixed, timing-based, bludgeoning affair that resembles a poor man's Punch-Out!! more than it does Samurai Shodown. At least for a short while, it can be sort of fun to swing around the Wii remote for a few battles before the limitations turn the experience into monotony. And, upon winning a sword battle, you're able to choose to forego striking the killing blow, earning even more respect points for showing mercy.
But are special moves and combos even worth spending the effort to compile respect points for? Pulled off with either a simultaneous swipe of your nunchuk and remote, or a series of individual slashes in alternating directions, these attacks require such precise timing and motions that you'll be hard pressed to successfully hit your enemies during their small windows of vulnerability. You're better off just flailing away with generic swipes. Sure, special moves cause a little more damage and earn you even more respect points - but the aggravation really just isn't worth it. Worse, completing the purchase of these moves at the dojo requires you to "learn" them by successfully performing them three times. There is no way to "cancel" your purchase, so with some of the moves being almost impossible to pull off even once, you might find yourself either sitting there for minutes on end or rolling your eyes as you reset your Wii.
Laughable bugs round out the rushed gameplay experience. On several occasions you might find yourself walking in on enemies with their arms outstretched still in their "Vitruvian Man" positions, a pose used for all 3D character models during the development process. Whether the positioning of these enemies was unfinished or the game forgot to "turn them on", the result is just sloppy. In other instances, enemies won't even detect you - even when you're clearly in their line of sight. Yet another bug has an enemy cycle through his "ready to fire" and "idle stance" poses until you take a potshot at him. Don't be surprised if an enemy all of a sudden stops firing at you and freezes in his current pose, his weapon completely disappears from the screen, and your shots simply pass through him as through thin air. Another lovely defect results in a schizophrenic aiming reticule, as if the Wii remote's IR sensors are being confused by multiple lights.
The aesthetic presentation seems equally rushed, marked by inconsistencies in both sound and visuals. The music in the game is decent enough, with an eclectic mix of Oriental instruments and urban beats. Yet, the dialogue and voice acting is poor enough to have come from a low-budget Power Rangers rip-off. You're called a "Murderer!!!" by groups of henchmen trying to gun you down, as if you're the only one with a mean streak. An overweight thug with jheri-curls and gold chains accosts you with a baseball bat, telling you that he'll "teach you to respect private property" in a voice that can be only described as Keanu Reeves after graduating finishing school. The Keanu Wannabe returns to voice another "gangsta" thug's line, "Give me a good old-fashioned gangster movie! Not this wire-fu crap!" You learn your time-freezing ability from a man who tells you that "Ninjas can stop time! Really! It's true!" as if trying to win a "pirates versus ninjas" debate. The gems keep coming, and the camp is endless.
The visuals are a mixed bag as well; to be fair, it should be said that the best of the visuals are truly beautiful. They are arguably the best part of the game. Most notable is the dojo environment - while walking the path leading to the entrance, look down and you'll see sharp and detailed ground textures with shining stones composing the walkway. Just inside the dojo doors, look to the right and you'll see martial arts students perform katas through a glass window - complete with convincing glass-ripple effects. In warehouses, you can see the sunlight streaming through the windows, illuminating the floors with subtle hints of light bloom. Look carefully and you'll notice heat waves and depth-of-field effects in some spots. It also bears mentioning that exploding forklifts look cool, basking the screen in a cathartic, orange glow. But all of these fine qualities are juxtaposed against mostly-generic looking enemies, almost all of whom have this strange glossy sheen about them. For every sharp, detailed texture in the game, there must be tens of muddy, splotchy ones. You might also notice that the game is completely devoid of the titular "red". Finish this bloodless game and you'll have wielded one of the cleanest katana blades in all of history. Finally, watch out for the glitchy rag-doll physics that leave some enemy corpses twitching uncontrollably - sometimes in mid-air. It's an inconsistent visual experience that, while decent overall, further adds to this game's unpolished nature.
The multiplayer in Red Steel continues the trend of potentially innovative ideas that get mired in clumsy execution. In this case, all of the awkwardness stems from the core gameplay itself. Your simple deathmatch options are enhanced by some intriguing modes that include listening to your Wii remote speaker to "pick up missions" as if answering your cell phone - never mind that your opponents can clearly hear what's being dictated to you. There's no sword fighting either, which is a blessing or a curse depending on how you see it. On the one hand, it strips multiplayer of one of this game's key "features". On the other hand, you can rest assured that you won't be emulating the ridiculous Red Steel advertisements that depict four friends wildly waving their arms about. Whether or not the multiplayer will add any substantial amount of play time to the approximately eight hour single-player campaign depends on how much you can tolerate the game's mechanical shortcomings.
Red Steel ends up being an over-hyped disappointment that wastes its potential. There are novel ideas that could shine with proper execution, and given more time, perhaps Ubisoft can craft a much more polished sequel. The game at least looks alright on the whole, and taken in spurts, downing enemies can provide some minimal amount cathartic fun as long as you don't think too hard about its warts. But that's the problem - the issues and sloppy overall execution can simply be too overbearing to be ignored, and ultimately Red Steel is a treasure trove of missed opportunities that is good for a curious rental at best.