There's always been something satisfying about hitting things with other things. When I was a nipper, a stout stick and a collection of other, slightly less sturdy things to clatter with it was pretty much the height of sophisticated entertainment. These days I tend to keep the urge to batter random objects mostly under wraps, but when the opportunity arises to do it in a socially acceptable environment, I am totally there - wrists cocked and feet planted.
The original Red Steel, then, should have been my dream game. Ubisoft's Wii launch title was the sort of thing most of us had been hoping for since we first heard about motion control. Swordfighting, surely, was what the Wii was invented to do. Sadly though, the game struggled with the new control concept and how to get the most out of the Wii's graphics tech, and while it wasn't what you'd call a bad game, high expectations were not met.
Red Steel 2, from what I've played of it on the Eurogamer Expo show floor, seems to have addressed pretty much all these issues, as well as adding interest in the form of a classy new setting and a less gritty, almost manga-styled approach to its storytelling. Right from the engaging, cel-shaded intro sequence, it's clear that Red Steel 2 is a different prospect to its predecessor. It's dropped the original's pretense of seriousness, embracing a stylised take on a steampunk Wild West populated with Japanese pop culture references and crazed, larger-than-life bandits.
As a MotionPlus exclusive, Red Steel 2 has a distinct advantage over the original in terms of its swordplay accuracy - something which is readily apparent. Both horizontal and vertical slashes feel more responsive and a much wider array of moves is available for our faceless cowboy. Stabs are now part of the swordplay repertoire, as is a powerful circular sweep which clears a bit of breathing space when surrounded. Blocks can be aligned to incoming blows, performed by holding the A button whilst positioning the Wiimote. The big step up though, combat-wise, is the introduction of force-sensitive moves. Swing harder, hit harder.
It's a brilliantly simple concept, and immediately adds an extra layer of control, interaction and gusto to proceedings, encouraging a much more involved style of play and punishing lame wrist-flapping. It doesn't mean you'll need to be much of an athlete to play, as the strength of your swings is limited, but it is incredibly satisfying to follow a flurry of swift strikes with a real haymaker. It managed to make me feel like a bit of a samurai (which bit, etc), and that's no mean feat.
There's a practical application to all this macho posturing too. Certain enemies are armoured, meaning you'll need to shatter their plate with a hefty swing before you can start dealing damage. This will normally put them on their arses, too - something I tend to follow up with a comedy poke to the sex eggs while they're prostrate.
Enemies can be targeted with Z, which locks you on to them visually to circle-strafe with the nunchuk's analogue stick. Hitting Z again switches your target. This doesn't work perfectly yet - more than a couple of enemies in proximity will still be a bit of a pain to cycle through - but when an enemy out of shot is about to attack you're prompted, and if you press Z quickly you spin around in time to block. Taking on a bunch of foes this way feels slick and skilful, blades clattering away as you spin and parry, bad guys barrelling backwards as you lay the smack down. Pretty ninja, cowboy.
The other half of the combat, the gunplay, is satisfyingly accurate as well. I suspect there's some aiming assistance going on behind the scenes on the 'normal' difficulty, but not so much that you don't feel responsible for the occasional snap headshot. It's perfectly possible to take down a lot of the enemies from a distance with your hefty revolver, and it obviously has uses which the sword does not, but there hasn't been the progression in firearms that there has been with melee. That doesn't mean it's bad - far from it - but the fact that nearly all of us take accurate shooting for granted means it doesn't shine in comparison with swordplay.
What you can play on Eurogamer Expo show floor this week is essentially a brief introduction to controls and combat, but it certainly does the job of intriguing and engaging. How well the gameplay will hold up in the face of repetition remains something of a concern, but it looks like it's safe to say that what you can expect is a generational leap over the achievements of the original. Just remember to wear your wrist straps.
Red Steel 2 is expected for Wii in February 2010.