More Wang For Your Buck
It’s become standard for big-budget videogames (hell, even quite a few indie games) to introduce themselves to the player with a long series of unskippable logos. I didn’t even realize how used to this practice I was until Shadow Warrior 2 caught me unawares by showing only a brief, entertaining, and entirely skippable intro cinematic and then dropping me directly into the main menu. This, to me, is emblematic of the whole experience – even when it comes to such relatively minor details, Shadow Warrior 2 doesn’t waste a second of your time, providing players with a fast, fluid, and absolutely epic experience worthy of the series’ name.
In case you’re not familiar, the original Shadow Warrior was a 1997 BUILD Engine FPS that was largely forgotten until it got an absolutely phenominal 2013 reboot. Think of it as Doom 4 before we had Doom 4 – a fast-paced and gorily faithful reimagining that kept everything that made 90s shooters so great intact while still feeling fresh and modern. The most brilliant part of the series’ modern iteration is that although it may have loads of exciting and powerful guns to choose from, the real centerpiece is Lo Wang’s katana, which you can use to execute fun, fluid combos and special abilities in the way that first-person melee never, ever does.
I’m happy to say that everything that made 2013’s Shadow Warrior great is still intact, and if anything better than ever. Gameplay is still incredibly fast and exciting, a bloody, pulse-pounding dance of shotgunning an enemy in the head before turning to stab his buddy in the chest and ducking to pull out a rocket launcher and blow up the mob of scorpions coming from over the hill. The new game boasts over 70 ranged and melee weapons, and you’re guaranteed to find something that matches your playstyle, from the massive double-barreled shotgun to the grenade-launching minigun to the fast and lightweight laser rifle to the mighty WARRSAW! chainsaw (a personal favorite.)
Movement – something that’s just as important to good combat as cool guns – has been improved as well. Now in addition to the bog-standard FPS sprint, players have a dash ability that moves you forward incredibly fast in short bursts. Since you never run out of stamina, it can be fun just to use this dash to bunny-hop around the map or to quickly hop in and out of melee range of enemies, but combining it with Lo Wang’s new double jump allows for some really interesting tactics, gliding over rooftops or thick mobs of enemies and changing direction midair to come at them from the side.
And what enemies! Shadow Warrior 2 somehow manages to make cyborgs, demons, and katana-weilding Yakuza all feel like part of the same world, and you’ll be fighting everything from zombie scorpions to giant mechs – possibly in the same level. Despite the procedurally-generated world (more on that in a moment), it felt like every new mission brought new enemies with new challenges. Maybe they turn invisible. Maybe they’re immune to some weapon you’ve been using for everything else. Every mission in Shadow Warrior 2 may be variations on “go to a place and kill everyone there”, but Flying Wild Hog has put enough time and effort into making killing things fun that I never wanted to be doing anything else.
Unfortunately, there are other things you have to do. Specifically: story sections. The story was by far the weakest part of Shadow Warrior 2013, focusing intensely on a mythology as complicated as it was boring, and the sequel’s not any better. Lo Wang himself still manages to be a charismatic and funny protagonist, mainly because despite his constant one-liners and action hero bravado, he somehow comes across as likeable and relatable, rather than arrogant and off-putting. He doesn’t feel like a dour, grandiose Jason Statham character, but like a normal guy whose nine-to-five just happens to include killing demons with a magic sword, frustrated by his jerk boss and just trying to do his best. And as absolutely stupid as the humor of the series is, Jason Liebrecht’s delivery still manages to make me at least crack a smile at even the weakest play on the name “Wang”.
The same cannot be said of the other characters in the game. The plot focuses on Lo Wang once again having to share bodies with another soul, but instead of the lovably campy demon Hoji we get Kamiko, a genius prodigy who mostly just complains bout how old the protagonist is, coming across as incredibly annoying. Beyond the paper-thin characters, cutscenes themselves just seem to drag on and on, especially because Wang seems to feel the need to re-explain Kamiko’s possession to every single character he encounters, causing me at one point to yell “WE GET IT ALREADY” at the screen.
That said, the game itself seems almost as bored of its story as we are. Every single cutscene is skippable, a fact that is always displayed in giant white text at the bottom of the screen. If I hadn’t been playing the game for review, I would have availed myself of this feature at every opportunity, and I highly suggest you do the same. I promise you won’t miss anything of value. However, the prominence of the “Any Key to Skip” text begs the question: why include such long cutscenes in the first place? Who was the one employee at Flying Wild Hog who just couldn’t let go of their crappy Big Trouble In Little China fan fiction?
At least the story can be skipped. The same cannot be said of what will surely be Shadow Warrior 2’s most controversial design decision. See, while the first game was a fairly standard FPS – a linear sequence of increasingly difficult levels traversed with increasingly powerful weapons – the sequel has decided to be more Borderlands than Blood, introducing action RPG elements such as loot drops, equipment loadouts, and randomly-generated levels. The original game’s upgrade system has been expanded into an enormous menu of options which are acquired either through random drops or purchased from shops in the hub world, including everything from new Chi abilities to passive improvements to Lo Wang to weapon upgrades and more.
I expect these changes will rub a lot of old-school gamers the wrong way. Personally? I think it mostly works. The passive skills are fun and unobtrusive, as I usually waited to allocate skill points in-between missions (pro tip: max out the ability to automatically pick up items from farther away as soon as possible, ’cause picking up piles of loot one object at a time gets real tedious real fast.)
And while I’ve criticized procedurally-generated levels for first person shooters in the past, arguing that careful and intelligent level design can’t be replaced with tons of dudes in a generic room (a premise I still stand behind), Shadow Warrior 2 somehow manages to make them work. Enemies and minibosses still feel fresh and aren’t repeated often, difficulty scales nicely with challenge, and all the levels feel fun and rewarding to explore. Only once did I notice a room that I’d encountered in a previous level. Flying Wild Hog has clearly put time and thought into their level generation, and that means it delivers on something so many other games have only promised: it really will be a new, fun experience every time you play. I’ve already played through the campaign once (100-percenting it will only take you 10-15 hours), and I can’t wait to play it again, knowing that it will be just as fun but also entirely fresh.
At the same time, nothing brings gameplay to a screeching halt like having to open a series of menus, something that’s absolutely disastrous for a game that’s all about moving as fast as possible. The hundreds of weapon upgrades and amulets I picked up all seemed to blend together, and I didn’t care enough to check through every single one. Even though Shadow Warrior 2 is clearly emulating games like Borderlands, it fails to copy some of those games’ basic functionality – namely, a button that automatically equips you with the best gear, or an easy way to compare two similar items without scrolling to one, trying to quickly memorize its stats, and scrolling to the other. The only time I bothered with weapon upgrades was to equip an elemental damage type (fire, electricity, etc.) when encountering a miniboss that was weak to that type. That means that when I saw a big, exciting boss monster, my first instinct wasn’t to jump in and start slicing but to pause the game and navigate through a menu, killing the pace of gameplay.
Furthermore, the game is currently riddled with technical issues. When the game runs, it does so beautifully, rendering the truly gorgeous backgrounds at high framerates without much difficulty. No, framerates won’t dip – the game will just freeze entirely instead or, in one case, crash completely. I’d saved recently enough that I didn’t have to make up too much progress, but it’s still frustrating. However, the most common problem I encountered was audio stuttering, causing characters to sa-sa-sa-sa-say the same syllable over and over again, which certainly doesn’t do the lousy writing any favors.
Please understand: if I sound overly critical, it’s all coming from a place of love. If pressed, I’d probably say that Shadow Warrior 2013 was better, if only because it was a more tightly focused experience. But Shadow Warrior 2 is still the only game I’ve ever played that let me fly through the air to cut an invisible cyborg in half with a flaming poisoning chainsaw sword, and every part of that sentence is incredible. Those who, like me, have been wanting more of the series’ fast-paced over-the-top action will absolutely not be disappointed, and its innovations make it a great place to start for those new to the series, too. Plus, now you can play with friends, making the whole an even more entertaining experience as you work as a team to take down even larger hordes of monsters.
As our hero himself says, the Way of the Wang is sometimes long. And hard. But all the more rewarding for it.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Devolver Digital; Developer: Flying Wild Hog; Players: 1-4; Released: October 13, 2016 ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Shadow Warrior 2 given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.