Red Steel 2 – hands-on

Catch any good action game having a mid-beating breather and it’ll tell you that flash is meaningless without functionality. Look past the sparks and screams and Red Steel’s outlandish moves bring all kinds of strategies to the table. Take ‘the Rush’. Triggered by holding A and stabbing forward, this lurching thrust violently pokes belly buttons. It not only turns an outy into an inny, it’s also an escape strategy, carving a corridor through circling vultures. Likewise, the swirling 360 Storm is a reverse stab into any chump sneaking up behind.

Most sword techniques double as finishing moves if executed in the correct context. Perform the Rush on a stunned opponent and you’ll dash in to grind your sword under his ribs. The Guillotine – an aerial chop and (as the American creative director jokes) the one concession to the French devs – lets you kebab grounded foes to the floor. Worked into grand combos they’re pace-quickening tactics; apply them to a group of stunned men and the sight of a blade methodically stabbing each one to death seems almost cruel.

Bloodless it may be, but Red Steel 2 still feels ferocious. Red stuff or not, gouging a stomach is gouging a stomach. Cel-shading blurs the lines, too. Powerful slashes tear colour across the screen – it could almost be a bloody geyser gushing from the target. Weighty hits are emphasised with a gutsy sound mix you wouldn’t mess with. Red Steel composer Tom Salta cracks out his bom-bom-bomming Japanese drums; swords shriek and crackle with energy; the lowliest pistol explodes like a nuke.

Let the blood/ink settle and you go shopping. Hey, even mysterious strangers need retail therapy. Red Steel 2 develops the first game’s hint of a hub system with levels branching out from safe houses. Stages echo Metroid Prime’s networks of rooms linked with corridors (and long door-opening animations to hide the load). At the heart of each is a shop/forge that allows exchanging nasty poking techniques for your hard-stabbed greenbacks. Yes, the more brutal your takedowns are, the more money spills from their pockets.

Safe houses dish out missions and most play out in the sizeable hubs. Bandits need pacifying, beacons reactivating and trucks exploderising. To spice up the linear hub design – step back and they’re clearly fight arenas connected by doors – the devs decorate them as they see fit. On one run-through a stage is flooded with hammer-wielding bandits; next time there’s a fleet of trucks to detonate. Just as repetition sets in you wave goodbye and make the one-way trip to the next area.

Levels also lead to self-contained offshoots. The team refers to these prongs as dungeons, but only for want of a better word. Linear in design, they see some old cliches surface (hit two switches to activate a door), but they also enable scenarios not possible in freeform hubs. One bathhouse stage slowly floods with steam, for example, hiding wannabe assassins until the moment they strike. Another plonks the Swordsman on an industrial elevator as flying robo-drones attack – a rare bit of straight FPS-ery.

Only one scene jars with the others: a quick-time event. Only it’s not a real quick-time event, but a pre-rendered cinematic (complete with cruddy video artifacts) with button cues on top. Come on, Ubisoft, we’re not stupid – Dragon’s Lair by any other name would smell just as stinky. The moment in question sees the Swordsman get hit by a truck then struggle to cling on and climb in. Red Steel 2 ably nails first-person physicality elsewhere, so why does it resort to cheap video tricks?

And we have a few questions regarding difficulty. Maybe we hoarded gold a little too efficiently and bought enough moves to outpace the difficulty curve, but our three hours were a bit of a pushover. That said, we played on lazy-boy setting with the swing sensitivity set at ‘relaxed’ (letting us dish out thwacks with minimal flail) – and we’ve yet to try ‘Ninja’ difficulty. Can Red Steel 2 dredge up a challenge worthy of the power it puts in your hands?

Our upcoming review will fill in the gaps, but until then, one thing’s for sure: violent without being violent, an FPS that’s not an FPS, Red Steel 2 defies expectations.

Mar 3, 2010