Keeping to Tradition
Flashback to April 2006, the month that the first in game screens were shown off for a Wii game, in the form of Ubisoft’s hard boiled, Yakuza-themed action title Red Steel. A console supposedly lacking in the power stakes defied critics with clean, crisp, sharp images which silenced many of the Wii naysayers. More promisingly were the few gameplay ideas that leaked to the internet. Namely, sword fighting with the Wii-remote and a refined control scheme incorporating the nunchuck and wii-mote to rival mouse and keyboard. Coupled with the fancy gameplay videos of young, fashionable people doing all sorts of amazingly cool things, the rumors and screenshots left gamers frothing at the mouth in anticipation for Wii launch day. Red Steel had gone from relative unknown to system seller overnight.
Could Red Steel live up to the hype? Would it deliver the ninja slicing and dicing that so many hoped for? Would it re-design the landscape of the FPS? Is Jade Goody an elegant, classy lady? Hell no! The only thing that Red Steel delivered was the age old tradition of a developer with no clue as to what they’re doing using hype as a smokescreen to conceal a game flawed in practically every department.
Things don’t get off too a good start with the menus being obnoxiously confusing. The icons on the main title screen are represented with flashing neon Japanese lights; drag the option you desire into an overgrown TV screen, then further tweak with the wii-mote, and you’ll know you’ve done something, though you’ll still have no clue to as to what you just altered.
Red Steel then bombards us with some of the most amateurishly embarrassing presentation seen in a modern game. The menus while being horribly awkward are also unforgivably bland, with none of the flair or panache one would expect from a game so desperate to ape the balletic violence of any given John Woo flick. Surely some Momoyama-influenced art design couldn’t have been too much to ask for.
The inescapable cut scenes are typically for an FPS presented in the static first person view during levels, without the option of skipping the cringe-worthy dialogue. Half Life introduced the concept, and nearly every FPS has ripped it off since. It was novel in 1998, and it can still be great if done properly; Red Steel, however, can’t even manage that. As for the panel cutaway scenes supposedly meant to be super slick and to immerse us further into the Japanese underworld, well, to put it bluntly, any 12-year-old with Photoshop could have done better. They’re simply terrible.
Worryingly and somewhat disturbingly, the voice acting and spoken dialogue borders on racist. The overacted speech sequences and the heavy stereotyping can at times make you wonder if Ubisoft Paris drew on the characterization of the Japanese in South Park as a reference point. To rub salt in the already deep wounds, the gangsters who run the seedy Fast and the Furious-like garage can only muster threats of “Get the moron, kill the jerk.” Not only does this sound utterly unbelievable, but it’s also patronizingly PC. Where’s the grit, the dirt? This is the mob we’re meant to be dealing with, not Screech and Zack from Saved By The Bell.
Five minutes into Red Steel, what becomes all too apparent is that visually, it could easily have been achieved on the Playstation 2. While the stylized route that Ubisoft Paris has opted for should be applauded, the graphics show a distinct lack of effort. While pretty in places, marrying traditional Japanese décor with a contemporary twist, they barely scratch the surface of top tier GameCube games.
And yet, despite the title and cover artwork, there is not a single drop of the red stuff, another illogical design flaw and an apparent attempt by Ubisoft to acquire a lower age rating for the ‘Nintendo kids.’ And what’s with the giant borders? It’s not as if there can be some technical excuse justifying them. More likely the developers believed that it would create a more cinematic effect—the problem is, it doesn’t, and can actually lead to your death on a few occasions.
Surely, then, the much hyped revolutionary control scheme can breathe life into this soulless, empty shell of a game, right? Alarmingly clear from the opening tutorial is that movement is unacceptably sluggish, aiming, turning and strafing all make you feel as if you’re controlling a giant mech as oppose to a smooth, suave, sophisticated ninja killer. This is criminal when one considers the freedom and fluidity the Wii-mote can offer. Your retinal continually moves all over the screen as oppose to staying locked in the center, which makes learning the already complex controls even more of a chore. Aiming is made even more difficult due to your gun constantly being held at an angle, again the presumption being to make things seem “cool”, though “desperate” seems more appropriate.
And then, there are the controls. The nunchuck has four different actions assigned to it on top of moving and strafing. The Wii-mote acts as a physical gun and can be just as clunky as the nunchuck. Using the Wii-mote to zoom in and out on a sniper has already become a nuisance and one that could have been better assigned to a button press. Not only are the motion sensoring capabilities of the wii-mote and nunchuck overused, the buttons are also poorly utilized, as the ‘1’ and ‘2’ buttons are made surplus. Considering how cumbersome and unresponsive grenade throwing or just interacting with your environment (a feature assigned to the nunchuck) is, it begs belief that those buttons went unused.
Gunplay boils down to firing as much as possible, with no lateral thinking or requirement for tactical play. Enemies charge at you, or just present themselves to be shot at. Often you can walk straight up to them and they still won’t know you’re there. Your health recharges automatically (as opposed to, say, acquiring med packs). The only time you’ll be killed during gunfights then is when you’re overrun with re-spawning enemies, or trying to escape a barrage of bullets. But since movement is so slow even after adjusting the settings, you’ll soon find that hiding behind scenery or trying to flank your opponents becomes a task not worth the effort.
Thus, the last bastion of hope for Red Steel is the swordfighting; the Wii-mote should be perfect, with its design and accurate movements able to capture all manners of slashing and slicing. Yet, the biggest selling point of Red Steel is also its biggest handicap. The movements of your arms are not actually mimicked on screen; instead, your movements are acted giving you the illusion of swordplay, when in reality all you’re doing is initializing button presses. There’s also no duel wielding neither—the Wii-mote is used for attack while the nunchuck acts as a shield—and yet another opportunity goes begging.
To make matters worse, the sword fights are entirely scripted. Not just in the nature in which you confront them, but also when they happen. Those hoping to slice through Yakuza at will, will be left crushed when they realize that the game decides when and if you fight with the sword. Not only are the swordfights inescapable but they’re also entirely illogical. Having just blasted through 30 enemies with your shotgun, you’re suddenly forced to defend yourself with a puny Katana, when surely, using your Uzi would be far more effective.
Keeping with whole illogical mentality, Red Steel incorporates an RPG-lite system. One acquires “Respect points” by making enemies submit in gun/sword fights, or by performing moves learnt at the Dojo in battle (not to mention that those moves are impossible to learn due to the unresponsive sword controls, making it dangerous to use them anyway). Earn 1,000 points and you’ll increase ranks and be awarded with titles like “Warrior”. To play later levels you must have achieved certain levels, and if you haven’t, then you’ve no choice but to play through earlier levels, which can take a full hour or so to pass. What’s worse is that the RPG system plays no relevance in the actual gameplay at all, only managing to hinder your progress.
Yet despite all of this, Red Steel has become one of the best selling Wii titles at launch. Worryingly, there’s already been an unconfirmed talk of a sequel on the back of retail success—hopefully the developers will go some way to address the above issues with any sequels, as opposed to relying on the success of the original to sell copies. For now, however, this will be Red Steel‘s legacy, keeping with the tradition of console launch titles by bringing no new ides to the table, yet relying on hype and hysteria to sell thousands; it seems that some traditions just aren’t meant to be broken.