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Three years ago, Flying Wild Hog brought Shadow Warrior to the present day, creating a satisfying amalgam of modern and classic first-person elements. The same things that we credit this year’s Doom for doing were all accomplished by Lo Wang’s first journey: no chest-high cover to hide behind, no regenerating health, no linear corridors, and refreshingly chunky ultraviolence.
Shadow Warrior 2 attempts to implement “2016 back of the box features” that at first glance seem like they would benefit the game, but instead lead to an unfocused homogeneity with two thousand too many dick jokes. Good thing it’s still fun as hell to slice and dice demons.
Shadow Warrior 2 (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Developer: Flying Wild Hog
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: October 13, 2016
Shadow Warrior 2 doesn’t waste any time getting started. Five years after the events of the first game, Lo Wang finds himself in almost identical circumstances, surrounded by demons and mythical beings who want him to cut shit to pieces. In the beginning, Flying Wild Hog seems to have taken complaints about the first game’s mostly dumb-as-hell humor to heart. When Wang’s killing demons and improvising a version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and painting a temple Demon Red (my favorite crayon), it’s hard not to smile. Minutes later, we’re back to a litany of un-funny dick jokes.
Instead of sticking to one-liners, it isn’t long before Wang has another companion’s soul inside his head so they can go back and forth. This attempt to retain the same dynamic as the first one mostly falls flat, providing a “straight man” character that doesn’t add much to the plot except more inane dialogue. It’s a shame because while the first game wasn’t going to win any writing awards, the story of being trapped between the machinations of what amounted to gods at least kept the stakes high.
But you’re not playing Shadow Warrior 2 for the plot. You’re here to shoot, slice, and soar around beautifully-rendered landscapes, right?
On that front, I mostly had a blast. The procedural gore system that enables Wang to dismember his enemies is almost as visceral visceral visceral let’s retire this word tactile and gratifying as it was before, with a few caveats. Melee weapons are still the star of the show here. Whether it’s a katana, a chainsaw hewn from demon-flesh, or the severed claws of one of your enemies, dashing in and cutting up shambling monsters is a treat. A group of creatures standing around becomes a huge meat piñata, ready for you to spill their guts and stuff them in your pockets.
Even on higher difficulties, it always seems like a safe bet to run into the thick of the crowd and become a whirling dervish and unleash carnage all around you. The only downside is that most enemies are bullet-and-blade-sponges, sucking up entirely too much damage. I could actually feel my left mouse button getting squishier during my playthrough, as most fights don’t demand strategy and instead require a constant click-click-click. This does get repetitive rather quickly, as each encounter plays out largely the same.
Of course, blades are only part of the equation. This game is not shy about giving you guns to play with every twenty minutes or so. I was especially partial to placing holes in the chests of opponents with shotgun blasts, and even within that subset of weapons there was large variety to choose from: auto, sawn-off, plasma, and the like. In addition to there being so many to play with, you can also upgrade them with gems that drop from those meat piñatas. This Diablo-style loot system is one of the main new features, and it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
There are entirely too many upgrades dropping per encounter. In a lightning-fast game like this, spending too much time in a menu slotting gems is anathema to pacing. On average, about twenty gems dropped per minute, and they were usually only small upgrades that are kind of trash. It doesn’t help that the user interface just misses intuitive and so you’ll waste even more time trying to make your weapon the best it can be. I do like that this is going for a Borderlands type of system with weapon variation and instead of giving you two million generic guns you can customize them the way you’d like. With upwards of 50 weapons, you can really have your own personal arsenal. Plus, there are a few upgrades that meaningfully change the functionality of your weapons, such as being able to dual-wield, use rocket launchers as turrets, shoot twice as much ammo for double damage and the like. These ones are more of a thrill to get instead of an extra 5% reload speed.
Hands-down my favorite aspect of Shadow Warrior 2 is the incredible sense of mobility that Wang possesses. With a double jump, an unlimited amount of dashes and air-dashes, and an already high movement speed that can be increased as you level up, you can practically fly across levels with some practice. Zipping to and fro never stops being fun, and helps with some major flaws in level design.
While the first game wasn’t exactly linear and had some backtracking, this one goes for a quest-based structure. Main quests are pre-built affairs, but side quests are procedurally generated in a way that becomes tiresome. The maps are gigantic and mostly devoid of reasons to explore. Sure, they’re littered with chests, money, and monsters to slay, but they have this empty feeling that I noticed very quickly in my full 12-hour playthrough. At first I explored every last inch to get everything, but I soon realized that randomized loot wasn’t worth poring over. There’s a sort-of hidden boss in every level, and once you kill them and get a new weapon, you might as well rush to the objective and finish it. I ended up with so much extra money it was a little ridiculous anyway.
Fortunately, even though there’s an inherent repetition in the levels, they’re all gorgeous. Rainslicked futuristic cityscapes and temples all look incredible, especially when the weather gets crazy and whips foliage around all willy-nilly. Even when there were loads of enemies on the screen and I was cutting them into pieces, I never saw any slowdown with my GTX 1070. I was at above 100 frames per second the entire time, which felt especially nice with the amount of chaos that was always present.
Perhaps the reason most people will be playing this is the new four-player co-op. I spent a few hours in this mode, and it exacerbates the aforementioned issues like loot drops and repetitive combat. Like most cooperative games, Shadow Warrior 2‘s solution to multiplayer balance is to give enemies more health, which makes each battle far too long. Loot drops become even more frequent, and they don’t seem to be much better. The inherent joy of playing with buddies is there, and it is fun to build your characters differently. I stuck with melee and put my skill points (which you place in trading cards that you find throughout quests) into becoming more resistant to damage. One friend focused on making his Chi abilities like blasts, enemy holds, and blade beams stronger. Another wanted his elemental guns to be as toxic as possible. There’s a lot of wiggle room to tailor your experience how you want, which I appreciate.
I did encounter my fair share of bugs throughout. One side quest led me up stairs that then mysteriously sealed themselves shut with a weird glitchy texture, forcing me to restart the mission. One valley I went into straight-up wasn’t rendered, so I could see through the world into the deep void of code. Some weapon descriptions had placeholders, but those can be easily fixed. Most of these were inoffensive, but they do paint an unfinished portrait.
Shadow Warrior 2 is in no way a bad game, and I found myself grinning through a lot of it. I’d groan at Wang begging to cut off a penis immediately afterwards, but some people will probably get a laugh out of that. Definite flaws and a laser focus on making the game a more universally sellable experience hurt it, but if you want to shoot shit while shooting the shit with some buddies, you could do a lot worse.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]