A New Chapter
Shenmue 2 is probably the best swansong the Dreamcast could hope for. The eagerly anticipated second chapter to Yu Suzuki's magnum opus pushes Sega's final console to the very brink of its capabilities. The most endearing thing about the Shenmue story, for me at least, is the fact that you're never completely sure of your position in the big picture. The beautifully rendered intro sequence merely hints at the direction of the story, and the sense of being led towards something bigger than what we're immediately presented with is forever there. Yes, Shenmue 2 is extremely impressive, at least technically, but does it live up to the previous instalments ability to fascinate, intrigue, and make off with our breath? The game proper obviously picks up where the predecessor left off, as Ryo arrives in Hong Kong in pursuit of his father's murderer and the truth behind the events that led to his death. Your starting task is to simply locate an address, and so as you begin to wander about the harbour it becomes your primary objective to interrogate as many locals as possible. So far, so familiar, apart from the fact that the dialogue is in Japenese. Having English subtitles and Japenese speech is far preferable to the mediocre job the Western voice actors did in Shenmue, and it lends a tremendous amount to the atmosphere.
It's All In The Details
Of course, Shenmue 2's basic mechanics are the same as its predecessor and after all, we weren't expecting a first person shooter. Graphically, the game surpassed my expectations right from the very beginning. Everything is texturally sharper, characters, buildings and props are more intricately modelled, and the locations are astoundingly huge and complex. The markets are buzzing with locals and the towns feel properly populated. AM2's achievement here is just mind-blowing from the outset. The improvements do take their toll on the Dreamcast and the framerate can occasionally drop to a crawl for a moment, yet this is forgivable due to the sheer scale and beauty you're presented with. You can only begin to imagine what this will look like on the Xbox. The control system and interface have undergone subtle changes. Maps can be purchased and locations subsequently bookmarked in order to aid your progression around the massive street networks. The locals can also come in handy when trying to locate certain destinations, and some will show you the way when quizzed. Gone is the tedious wait for time-based events to happen as well. If you have an appointment at a certain time and you arrive early, the game will give the helpful option of skipping ahead to the appropriate time, instead of having you spend your day wandering the streets. The game wastes no time in dropping you straight into the story, but the overall progression is still very linear. Your main tasks are usually split into smaller chunks, which almost feel like short missions, and this gives you the impression of being occasionally sidetracked from the main storyline, and lends an air of freedom that was not generally apparent in Shenmue.
Things start out extremely slowly, and remain that way for the majority of the first disc. The original dragged its feet in a similar fashion, but Shenmue 2 really is a toughie to get into, as you'll spend the first day or so of gameplay time trudging about asking questions and undoubtedly getting lost in the labyrinthine streets. The snails pace is very occasionally peppered with short bouts of action and Quick Timer Events, but these do little to excite when contrasted against the drudgery you're forced to endure for the most part. While the action sequences are few and far between to start with, when you do get to indulge in some button-bashing it can be extremely good fun. The QTE's are a lot less forgiving this time around and require some split-second timing on your part if you're to succeed. Unlike last time, it's not essential that you complete every QTE, and the failure of certain events means that instead of retrying until you get it right, you're made to fulfil your task through further investigation and interrogation. You will, of course, be required to partake in some boisterous fisticuffs at times and, as before, it's superb fun. The fighting system is intuitive and easy to pick up, and with practice you can usually dispatch miscreants with relative ease. However, a certain level of character development is mandatory for later in the game, and learning new moves (there are many ways to do this, including learning them from other characters and purchasing move scrolls) becomes essential.
A Tough Nut
Besides your main quest, there's plenty to keep you otherwise occupied. Usually the extra-curricular activities involve either losing or making money. You can gamble in street games, pawn off your toy collection (Shenmue 2 even imports your collection from the first game should you have your save file handy), enjoy a relaxing spot of arm-wrestling and pay a visit to the arcade should you ever get bored of, you know, avenging your father's death. It's also advisable, but not essential, for you to find Ryo a job. There are plenty of opportunities to make a steady wage during the game, but none are quite as fun as the forklift driving in the first chapter. The problem is, nothing seems to be quite as special as it was the first time around. That sense of awe and wonder just doesn't hit you with Shenmue 2. Sure, it's an extremely technically impressive game, and there's some decent advancements within the game dynamic, but it's essentially just what we were expecting and secretly I wish it wasn't. There's no surprise, no intrigue, and the proceedings are slightly tainted with a 'here we go again' atmosphere. Have no doubt that once you're into Shenmue 2, you're going to be in there for a good while. This game is absolutely enormous, dwarfing the previous chapter beyond all possible comprehension, and once it gets going it's a decent improvement. However, the difficulty of actually getting into the game in the first place is a concern, and newcomers will undoubtedly be completely turned off from the start. Every Dreamcast owner should at least give it a try, but just be prepared to make a commitment.