Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Red Steel Review (minor spoilers)

Disclaimer: The last FPS games I loved were GoldenEye and TimeSplitters 2. I never had an XBox so I haven't played Halo 1 or 2. I also don't have an XBox 360 or gaming PC, so I tend to prefer joypad controls to keyboard and mouse. I find the countless World War II titles littering today's shelves to be somewhat boring. I also don't have my Wii hooked up to a "good" enough TV to care about HD or graphics resolutions (1080p, 780i, HDMI, component… yawn). I care more about good art direction than pixel-perfect photorealism.

Red Steel: a game I bought hoping it would match up to my expectations of GoldenEye, the best console FPS ever and a game whose deathmatch mode I literally played to death, until our N64 controllers' analogue sticks were practically falling out.

My impression of the game having got about halfway through the single-player mode is that it improves a lot once the action reaches Japan, both in terms of graphics and gameplay. The first few LA-set levels seem slightly shoddy compared to later ones, and are decidedly linear. Then you get to Tokyo and you having nice glowing signs, light streaming through windows and bullet holes, more complex levels to explore… It's almost as if the game was originally designed to start out in Japan and the USA levels were added on later without enough time to polish them up to the same standard.

(Either that or the developers focused their attention on the paper screens and neon-soaked streets of Tokyo because they knew that's what they'd be showing off to everyone at E3 and in previews…)

Speaking of neon, as a Japanese speaker I was initially impressed with the attention to detail in the signs and background elements, all in correct Japanese and many of them quite witty (joke company names on signs and the like). However this high standard wasn't maintained throughout as some streets feature signs that have been mirrored, or vertically oriented signs that have been rotated and placed horizontally on buildings. Given the high level of the rest of such parts of the game, one can only assume that this is the fault of a graphics programmer who didn't understand what they were working with. A pedantic point but for a game set in Japan and steeped in that kind of atmosphere, which got so much right, the mistakes stood out even more.

Anyway, getting back on topic: maybe my expectations were lowered by the mixed reviews the game received, but I'm really enjoying it. I think it deserves at least a 7 or 8 out of 10. The controls take a while to get used to but soon become second nature, and I can imagine it will be difficult to go back to dual-analogue.

The sword fight sequences, however, definitely feel tacked on and when they occur right after a checkpoint they can get very annoying to have to play through repeatedly just to get back to the point where you died.

The game was never completely consistent in recognising my slash motions and producing the right move on-screen. It's ironically fitting that the game should place such an emphasis on honour and respect – when a fight can be won at length by wiggling the controllers at random, only players who are honourable enough to "want" a proper fight will have the patience to use the proper moves and combos.

In any case, even given the kind of action movie logic that games of this kind usually subscribe to, it felt stupid to walk around blowing people away with guns, walk into a room where a man is waiting for you with a sword, and be forced to put away the heavy artillery in favour of a blade.

One could argue that you have to be honourable and fight them on their level, or accept their challenge, but even if you do you have the option of being dishonourable and killing them anyway. You should at least sometimes be able to just do an Indiana Jones and pull a gun on the katana-weilding Yakuza and plug them, perhaps at the price of losing some of your respect points. Otherwise it seems like you build up those points by being merciful, but never get to use them. Some kind of system of earning and "spending" respect would have fitted in well with the setting and given the player more freedom to choose their battles. If you built up points through the level by disarming enemies and letting them surrender, you should earn the right to skip the tedious slashfests.

Aside from the sword fighting, my biggest criticism is the lack of multiplayer options. Only having four stages is bizarre given the variety of locations in the main game. Even the four available are a mixed bag. Player characters are limited handful of nondescript bit players (it's as if GoldenEye only let you play as Russian soldiers!). This would not be as much of a sore point if the game didn't have some striking characters in its single player mode, like Mama San Sasori. There is no customisation of weapons or health settings – I would have liked to see a one-shot "Licence To Kill" mode. Speaking of modes, what happened there? Apart from standard and team deathmatch the only other option is not accessible with fewer than four players. Who was able to get their hands on enough remotes and nunchuks for a Killer match??

There was so much potential here to get a great deathmatch game out on the Wii from day one. With Call of Duty 3 lacking any multiplayer at all, it looks like we'll have to wait for Metroid Prime 3 or Virtual Console GoldenEye… wouldn't it be great if they included a Wii Remote/Nunchuk control option in that?

So in conclusion, Red Steel: better than you may have been led to believe but frustratingly short of brilliance. Here's to a much improved sequel!


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