It's not often I chide a game for not being violent enough, but Red Steel has placed me in the odd position of having to do just that. It's not that games need to be gory to hold their audience's attention, it's simply that when a game centres itself around extremely violent action, removing the consequences of that action only serves to make it feel hollow and pointless. Slashing swords that don't draw blood, finishing strokes that don't decapitate an opponent, headshots that make a disturbing SPLAT sound effect with no visual accompaniment...The game Red Steel features no actual red steel, and the only blood appears on the box art. Decieving an audience is never a great place to start.
A hybrid first-person shooter/slasher, Red Steel tells the story of a personality-free bodyguard who travels through the seamy underbelly of the world of Japanese organized crime to save his girlfriend from the clutches of the nefarious Yakuza. He accomplishes this by alternately shooting and stabbing the hundreds of people who stand between him and the woman who appears briefly at the beginning of the game. The player is given no say in whether they'll be shooting or slashing. In the first of the game's odd touches, it's a gunfighting game almost all of the time, except for every once and a while when an enemy pulls out a blade and it goes into swordfighting mode. Just why the main character is obliged to take part in this fight, rather than just gunning down his opponent Indiana Jones-style, is the least of the game's bizarre problems.
Beyond the advantages afforded by the game's control scheme, which I'll address momentarily, Red Steel doesn't excel in any particular areas. The graphics are nothing special, the level design is entirely linear, almost completely non-interactive, and the villains, while fairly good at ducking behind cover and popping out to shoot, have a bad habit of doing little else. No, beyond a number of frustrating bugs that caused me to restart a few levels, there isn't much in the game that reaches the front or back end of the bell curve—even its attempts at innovation land with something of a middling thud. Chief among those is, of course, the swordfighting.
As I've noted time and again, swordfighting is something of a holy grail in videogame design. It seems like the most exciting thing imaginable, and countless games have been devoted to it, but it's such a complex, physical action that no game has ever really managed to capture that thrill. Red Steel tries its level best, and it halfway succeeds, but that halfway just isn't enough. Whenever a swordfight begins, the player is asked to hold their two hands apart to represent two blades. The Wiimote acts as a longsword, and the nunchuk a smaller secondary blade for parrying. The player swings the Wiimote to slash the blade in four directions, shakes the nunchuk to block strikes, or presses a button and moves the thumbstick to dodge more powerful attacks.
It's not a bad setup in theory, and I'd be lying if I said that swinging my arms around and interacting with the television wasn't far more immersive than any other swordfighting game I've ever played, but there just isn't enough depth to the fighting to be entertaining over the length of the game. There's no creativity or improvisation allowed in the fighting—the only way to attack with more than one (fairly slow) strike at a time is to use one of four pre-programmed combo moves that consists of a series of slashes. This gives the dozens of swordfights over the course of the game a very repetitive feeling, one that isn't helped by the awful enemy AI. Each swordfighting opponent attacks in a set pattern with very little variety, making it simple for even the most inexperienced player to follow the pattern and beat even the bosses on their first attempt.
I'm not exactly sure why the swordfighting was advertised as the game's focus and main selling point, when it's the shooting that really stands out. Having literally struggled for years against analog sticks, wrestling for headshot, relying on auto-aim to slog my way through shooters, the Wiimote is something of a revelation. Aiming the controller at the screen makes a small white dot appear, and moving the controller slightly makes the dot move around. The only drawback is that it's too easy to use.
Shooting is so precise I was able to breeze my way through the game with ridiculous accuracy levels—in fact, it would have been all headshots if the game didn't allow me to do the one thing I like more than shooting people in the face: shooting guns out of their hands and asking them politely to surrender. The only thing that didn't work well is the 'move the Wiimote towards the screen to zoom' mechanic. Leaning forward while playing is needlessly awkward, and the lightest twitch of the hand can make the zoom level change, which gets disorienting very fast. Luckily, there's maybe three times in the game where the player is required to snipe anyone, and the rest of the time the fantastic accuracy allowed me to just muddle through with pistols.
Although it acts as a wonderful selling point for anyone considering developing an FPS for the Wii, Red Steel is too much of an unsatisfying tease to succeed as much else. It's entirely possible that the game was changed because someone at UbiSoft felt the game might sell more copies with a T rating rather than an M, or perhaps Nintendo is to blame, and they've secretly gone back to the bizarre puritanical practices that rendered the SNES version of Mortal Kombat such a lamentable mess. Whatever the cause, I hope that, if nothing else, Red Steel shows people that simply removing a little blood and gore from a game doesn't make it any more acceptable to the people out there who rail against violent video games. This is a game about killing people. Is it less objectionable because the people don't bleed or scream or explode into little chunks? No. Just less honest.