Flying Wild Hog have a major problem for Shadow Warrior 3. Between their first Shadow Warrior (itself a remake of the 1997 original) and this sequel, they’ve run dangerously close to exhausting every possible pun on protagonist Lo Wang’s name. If we don’t act now to preserve the dwindling supplies of Wang jokes, any follow-up to Shadow Warrior 2 could be in serious trouble. Remember: when you find yourself in possession of a fresh Wang, always act responsibly.
If there does turn out to be another game after this one (fairly likely), it’s anybody’s guess what direction it might take. Flying Wild Hog’s remake was a melee-and-guns FPS along broadly traditional (that is to say quite linear) shooter lines. Shadow Warrior 2 keeps the first-person perspective and the blood-drenched combat (with, of course, a few additions and changes), but this time houses it inside an optionally co-operative, loot-driven structure with a dash of procedural level generation. It’s gone a little bit Borderlands, basically.
It’s not a bad plan to change things up for a sequel, especially when the initial game was already a remake to some degree. As you’d probably expect, altering how the game slots together and adding more of a loot incentive brings both some benefits and some drawbacks.
Shadow Warrior 2 now has weapons galore. Seventy is the official count; found through killing stage bosses, story progression, and purchasable in the Dragon Mountain hub stores. This large collection of guns and swords is an example of the game getting variety and quantity just about right. They all have unique weapon models and – as much as is possible when you’re considering the differences between six different types of shotgun – enough little specialisations to justify their inclusion.
For melee purposes, you don’t just have Wang’s dependable Lil’ Wang sword at your disposal, but a series of force-shock-firing blades, bestial talons, whirling ninja-star type things, dual katanas, and ever more pointy objects. The guns aren’t just standard edition revolvers either, but magical Chi-essence infused future-tech, and Videodrome-esque bio-mechanical demon pistols that shriek with the pain of bound souls when fired. It’s less of an arsenal, more of a menagerie. The novelty isn’t endless, but the drive to seek out and test new weapons lasts for the bulk of Shadow Warrior 2’s 10-15 hour length (dependent on skill and difficulty).
The same can’t be said for the game’s shower of collectible loot goodies, which pop out of almost every slain foe with an abundance that becomes a little wearying. Each gun and sword (or sword-like thing) has three gem upgrade slots, which can add things like elemental damage or life draining properties. There’s an achievement for collecting 500 of them. You will easily get this achievement in one run. Shadow Warrior 2 has no good way of sorting or displaying a lot of these different add-ons, opting instead for ‘a big jumbled list’.
Some of the upgrades you pick up are actually worthwhile, useful, and enjoyable. There are a handful of weapon mods that can give certain types of firearm or melee slicer alternative modes of fire, like a special charged shot, blasting two sets of ammo at once, or allowing a dual wield (though these could just as easily have been built-in to certain weapons).
The armour/talisman/amulet options are theoretically fine too, but could (and probably should) have just been amalgamated under one category and reduced in number. In short, when Shadow Warrior 2 is doing loot upgrades like it does weapons (relatively numerous, but varied and unique), it’s okay. When it’s encouraging you to trawl through a spreadsheet to find the gem that’s +5.8 Chi recovery on every hit versus +5.6 Chi recovery, it’s incredibly tedious and bordering on parody.
Maybe it is parody to some degree, because something of a secret saving grace to this absurdly multi-layered loot nightmare is that you can ignore a great deal of it. Slap a few life-recovery upgrades on things, choose a couple of weapon mods that look fun, and then swear to only ever revisit that part of the UI every other mission to see if you’ve picked up an obvious high-level gem to stick on a favourite death-stick.
It’s kind of a shame to largely brush off something that seems like it’s trying hard to be integral to the game (there’s even a semi-pointless crafting system to dump excess gems into, for god’s sake), but it’s for a worthy cause. Less time spent worrying about min-maxing your Wang means more time engaging in Shadow Warrior 2’s towering strength: turning Yakuza and demons and demon Yakuza into tiny chunks of flesh-meat.
Combat in Shadow Warrior 2 is immensely satisfying. Wang has the ability to perform a rapid, short-distance dash, double jump, and can avoid all fall damage right from the start. You can transition one into the other, dashing across gaps at the apex of a double-jump, say, which means Wang always has the advantage of movement and traversal over prospective enemies. There’s an ordinary sprint move (double tapping W by default), but you’ll never actually use it since dashing everywhere is so effective.
Level construction supports the movement options to an extent, though not as much as the system perhaps deserves. Main and side missions consist of a mixture of procedural landscapes and hand-created arenas, so when the opportunity presents itself it’s possible to open a combat encounter (also often procedurally conjured) with a sniped shot or a leap from above. With so many ways to deliver death at close-range it doesn’t feel right to rely on distant sniping, but it’s always useful to have a long-range, charged rocket blast as your opening gambit; and the vertical traversal aids this approach.
Once you’re in close, Shadow Warrior 2 offers an embarrassment of choices. Your collection of swords have an inherent range of Vortex (wide, sweeping spin), Sting (powerful stab), and Force Slash (charged Chi attack) to deploy with straightforward mouse and keyboard combos. On top of that, it’s possible to develop a range of Chi-based skills; abilities that enable Wang to vanish for periods of time, impale foes on earthen spikes, or Chi-blast people away in the manner of Dark Messiah’s infamously sturdy boot.
The ridiculous number of ways you have to mess with hapless opponents reminds me of that Arkane title. But while the combat in Shadow Warrior 2 has a certain weight and impact to it too, it’s not the heavier parry-and-counter style found in Dark Messiah. There is a melee parry key (which, brilliantly, serves as a ‘clean your blade’ animation outside of combat), but Shadow Warrior 2 thrives as a game where you’re in near-constant motion rather than tarrying to slog it out one on one. Combat with multiple, equal-sized foes is by far the most satisfying, allowing you to dart about, vanish, taunt, slash, harry, and ultimately vapourise through systematic locational damage (or crazed flailing, your choice), numerically superior forces.
Outside of boss fights, which add enough interesting special attack patterns (and special music) to keep you on the balls of Wang’s feet, the times when you’re up against one (or maybe two) larger demons or mechs can feel a bit less interesting. That’s because many of the fun tricks either don’t work against them or require a skill investment to give them a chance of working, so you’re likely to be falling back on just shooting them or repeatedly left-clicking your sword in the vague area of what might be a face. Gunshots are suitably hefty in this game (again, blasting through numerous, lower health foes feels tremendous), but feel inherently less effective when you’re chipping away at a fat health bar.
That’s something you’ll experience as soon as you notice that ‘Normal’ difficulty is actually a bit of an ego-massage, and bump it up to Hard (or ‘Who Wants Wang?’) Doing so ups the tension, and makes dying an actual possibility, but the bullet-sponge behemoths also get spongier.
It’s telling that the parts of Shadow Warrior 2 that were designed by hand, such as recurring areas like the Yakuza mansion and Xing’s broadcast studio, feel like some of the better places to play through. Likewise, when the enemy encounters feel a bit more ‘planned’ (set-pieces and the like), they tend to be slightly more engaging than coming across random packs of roaming creatures. The more procedural parts fill out the gaps in levels relatively well (to the extent I wasn’t always sure which parts were by design and which were welcome happenstance), but feel much looser in nature.
This more randomised aspect, and the hard lean towards knockabout co-op fun, has also had a damaging effect on the game’s story. Several strands are a disjointed mess, with some characters appearing with no introduction and offering you missions that have basically no incentive besides ‘you are a videogame man who takes missions’, and aspects of dialogue making no sense in the context of the tasks you’ve just accomplished. I’m fairly certain at least one side mission is in entirely the wrong portion of the game, because it contains information (presented as new) that Wang learned ages ago. The ending, too, is abrupt and disappointing.
This is rather a shame, because the cast of characters (many of whom return from Shadow Warrior) are bizarre enough to deserve better than being relegated to NPC mission vendors half the time. The incredibly self-aware and knowingly idiotic dialogue can carry the plot across plenty of bumps, but Shadow Warrior 2 stumbles here too, at times seemingly afflicted by the same disease which convinced writers of The Simpsons that everybody loved Homer the most when he was an utter prick. Unless you’re Larry David, it’s almost impossible to pull off a successful comedy where everybody is an arsehole.
Fortunately that’s not a terminal affliction. Wang has enough solid one-liners (and, during one particularly moving scene, a fine line in parody Beatles tributes to his pal Gozu) to keep the dumb humour on course and backing out of some ill-advised avenues. It’s alright to reference Die Hard, but that’s an incredibly tight, one-man-against-the-world action film that only serves to remind how baggy, and tonally inconsistent, Shadow Warrior 2’s narrative is by comparison.
Of course if you’re playing in co-op you may just be skipping merrily through the game’s cut-scenes and paying them no heed, so none of this story stuff will even matter. In an effort to touch Wangs (it had to happen eventually), I recruited fellow ninja warrior Tim McDonald for a bit of collaborative sanguine decorating. Our experience wasn’t exactly great, but may have been down to the transatlantic split (I’m in the US, he’s on the Isle of Man) or rubbish Isle of Man internet.
Perhaps not the latter though, because it seemed to run better when Tim was hosting. When I hosted, he had major lag and some weird FPS drops (which do appear to be a problem reported by several players). In the reverse situation, I had some lag and found that damage took a while to register on monsters I was striking. It felt more playable overall, though nowhere near ideal. When playing in co-op, the host retains all story progress, and the co-op-ee keeps any skill points and weapons found, and so on.
While the co-op experience wasn’t what it might have been (and, again, distance could be a big factor there), Shadow Warrior 2 is generally a really refreshing PC release. Outside of some dubious character models it looks terrific, yet doesn’t seem to require mega-hardware to sustain a lovely 60fps. My 4GB 380X card could handle most of the prettiness without too many concessions (I think I turned down shadows, foliage and particle effects to get 1080p/60fps), and there’s a bountiful set of scaling options to play with in order to get the performance you desire. The FOV setting gets quite fish-eye-lense at the higher numbers (beyond about 80-85), though luckily this was a game where keeping it in the 75 range didn’t cause me any motion sickness.
Some of the menu UI decisions regarding loot organisation are not the best, but in most areas the game is sensible about its control mapping. Even though there’s an (optional) weapon wheel, Shadow Warrior 2 feels properly designed around a keyboard and mouse.
The game’s repeated get out of jail card for its flaws is that it can justifiably claim a lot of them don’t matter. You don’t like scores of upgrade gem drops? Doesn’t matter, just ignore most of those and pop a high-damage elemental thing on a couple of guns or swords. The story is disjointed and the dialogue is not always as cheesy-funny as it should be? Well hey, you’re not here for narrative revelations. Look here, Shadow Warrior 2 seems to say, what you want is movement-centric melee and FPS combat that encourages you to dance through foes with the bloody grace of a homicidal ballerina. Sometimes you might want to do that with some friends. That’s the offer.
It’s an enticing one. Even though I have misgivings about the impact the procedural levels and loot structure have had on mission design, story, and progression, Flying Wild Hog’s central combat system atones for an awful lot of minor complaints. For as often as I’ve wished that a given encounter in a scantly penned mission felt less random, I’ve gleefully carved, and Chi-skilled, and explosive-shotgun-ammoed my way through a dozen more. If this team don’t end up making Shadow Warrior 3, the least we can hope for is that they’re head-hunted to handle the core combat mechanics in another title.