MONTHLY MUSINGS #1
As the exclusive that was supposed to prove the Wii's capability for revolutionising traditional game genres, with even Nintendo stating that theirs was the perfect system for FPS', the legacy of the original Red Steel
is one of anger, disappointment and mockery. Far from quelling old-school gamers' doubts, it was a fall on the crucial first hurdle that Nintendo's reputation still has not recovered from.
Yet now that the dust has settled and the anger subsided, returning to the game proves a surprising experience. Not because it's an especially good game, or even any less broken than all those torrid reviews and the message board vitriol claimed it to be, but what it proves to be is a potentially excellent game constantly pulled back down by the consequences of having to rush the game onto shelves for launch. Ubisoft and Nintendo alike had so heavily advertised the game as being the big third-party launch title that to delay it by so long as to address its many faults, tidy up its graphics and bring stability to all those clearly unfinished features, would have been a PR disaster. It was a classic dilemma: wait until the game was in a fit state to ship and have a mockery made of all those claims of it being your perfect launch title, or get it onto shelves on cue and risk taking the hit in the hope that other games (Twilight Princess
perhaps) can absorb the damage? The latter option was chosen and it was a decision which, perhaps more than any other, has defined the shape of this gaming generation.
Researching some of the literature surrounding the game before its release makes for interesting reading, especially on the original intentions of some of the features which would go on to feel so haphazard (also how far from reality those pre-release 'screenshots' ended up being – see if you can guess which one attached to this post isn't real). The presence of an enemy team leader in gunfights, for example, was originally harder to spot (in the 'final' game, he's marked out with a conspicuous white orb above his head) but disarming him would mean any surviving goons would switch to your side for a little while. It's a novel idea, if potentially better in theory than implementation, which hints at the high ambitions the Ubisoft Paris development team had for their game. It also makes the mundane placeholder feature we ended up with (make the team leader surrender and his group follow suit, ending the fight prematurely and getting some 'respect' points) all the more disappointing.
The system of choosing between whether to execute or reprieve a beaten boss in a swordfight was also originally intended to have much greater consequences than simply handing over a few more of those abundant 'respect' points. Were a conquered boss' life spared, there was to be the possibility that he would join your side and give you access to hidden paths and weapons caches later on in the mission. However, the possibility was also to exist that he would be sour at his defeat and go running back to the enemy faction, making you deal with greater enemy resistance later on. Executing him was to be the safe middle option.
Traces of these ideas can be found still lingering in the game: after beating treacherous club owner Harry in a duel, he shows you a secret passage and a weapons stash. Unfortunately, as with all of the bosses relevant to the game's story, the game makes the choice between killing or reprieving for you. It's not much of a stretch to see these as the points where the multiple paths mooted in the game's promotion were originally to have split up. The truncated echoes of these mechanics probably only remain in the game because they were so heavily talked-up in the pre-release press (the 'feature' is still on the game's Wikipedia page despite not being in the game). The respect system was supposed to be a dynamic variant that changed the experience of playing by the decisions you made and how well you achieved a samurai's balance between power and compassion. Instead, it ended up as yet another flimsily disguised currency for buying new moves.
But for all the compromises that clearly had to be made in getting the game out on time, there are still some features in the game which went largely overlooked by critics and gamers, yet are inventive and well-implemented. While the multiple paths system went forgotten during missions, the middle chapter of the game is based at the hub of Harry's Bar where the player is able to take on assignments from mob bosses in the order of their choice. It's a small but tidily formed illusion of freedom which makes the game feel slightly more amenable to the player personalising their experience.
The possibilities for destruction in each level are also set astonishingly high, with virtually every object in the game ready to explode or smash at the first hint of a bullet. The quality of the visuals may be deeply inconsistent (the environments usually look terrific, though the characters populating them are buggy and seem to be made of over-warmed rubber) but the colourful spectacle on show during gunfights – taking advantage of the fact that Wii owners were unlikely to be acquainted with IR aiming, inaccurate bullets would almost always hit something ready to blow up – is taken to thrilling heights which even offer some neat tactical possibilities. Low on ammo? A well-placed bullet into the right bit of scenery can clear several foes at once. Along with the excitement of the new degrees of precision that the Wii remote offered above the instantly defunct twin analogue aiming (although criticism was rightly levelled at the lethargic turning speed and twitchy cursor, if you don't mute the remote speaker), the game's gunplay is rarely less than a joy to behold as much as play.
It's also worth mentioning, albeit under the caveat that the number of well-noted bugs and faults in the game's core mechanics make this something of a relative measure, that the game improves immensely after the dreadful first story chapter. Once the game is happy to assume that players have assimilated the basic gameplay mechanics of gunplay and swordfighting, it increases the challenge and the complexity of the environments that it expects you to navigate. Early missions drag you through a succession of empty hotel corridors and brown warehouses (the nadir being an utterly dispiriting drudge through a rubbish-burning factory), featuring sniper sections with impossibly accurate and near-invisible enemies and swordfights which can be beaten with wild flailing.
Once you reach the open mission select at Harry's Bar, things take a significant upturn. Warehouses are replaced by Japanese garden battlegrounds, Tokyo city streets, temples and geisha-influenced strip clubs. Tetsuo's Games, a mission set in a deranged indoor theme park full of UFOs and ski slopes and Power Rangers, is dripping with the kind of tension, atmosphere and personality that any number of better games struggle to achieve.
Once enemies start parrying your aimless waggles, the swordfighting becomes more about timing and reading your opponents' moves than a test of how fast your wrist can move (not much of a challenge for the male teenage audience the game was pitched to). The special moves to break your opponents' sword are far too effective (enemies rarely dodge them) but they add a second layer to the fighting system. Yes, the Wii remote remains inconsistent in reading the direction of your sword swipes, but this is mostly mitigated for by the fact that your main task is finding openings rather than pulling off moves with any great exactitude.
If I haven't gone into much detail about the many bugs and flaws that constantly undermine the game's many laudable elements, it's because they've been so well documented in any number of reviews that I don't feel there's much I have to add to them. Red Steel
whispers promises of good times to come in your ear one moment, only to slap you in the face the next. Its frustrations are the consequence as much of what the game could have been as what it actually is. Red Steel 2
is a glorious achievement which rights all the wrongs of its predecessor and feels like the game-changer that should have happened four years previously, yet continues to struggle with the original game's legacy. The name, poisonous amongst gamers, is frequently cited as a reason for the low early sales numbers, while on a personal level I have to confess to the unfashionable disappointment that it seemed so keen to disown the series' first entry. Fatally flawed as it was, I would have loved to see how the game could have turned out if its development team had enjoyed the time needed to fulfil their ambitions and iron out the faults. As things stand, more than any other game this generation Red Steel
deserves an A for ambition and an E for... oh, you know.
LOOK WHO CAME: