On a September 2004 episode of X-Play on the G4 Tech TV cable network, Way of the Samurai 2 was reviewed and given the negative rating of two out of five stars. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, what I found particularly disturbing was this comment: "The open ended gameplay is similar to Grand Theft Auto 3 (GTA3), but at times feels too loose." Why did X-Play decide the two were similar in gameplay?
The foundations of each game are as different as the Eastern and Western hemispheres. GTA3 is a modern day crime story set in the fictional urban city of Liberty City in the United States. The game draws much of its inspirations from fan favorite gangster films like Scarface and Pulp Fiction. Way of the Samurai 2 is set in the late Edo period of old world Japan in the small rural town of Amahara. The game is a credible recreation of the time period with its naturalistic architecture, native costumes, antiqued music and samurai sword martial arts, but it's not meant to be a historical document. Rather the game draws its inspirations from fictional samurai films like The Seven Samurai and Zatoichi.
Both games are violent, but GTA3's brutality centers on driving cars and shooting guns. Life is cheap in GTA3 as murders have little long-term consequence that can be undone by dying and restarting after a quick detour to the hospital. Killing is also a way of life in Way of the Samurai 2, but the game doles out the hurt with the same thoughtful yin-yang, push and parry swordplay pioneered in the first Way of the Samurai title.
Also, like the original, death is finite and ends the game abruptly. Players are further penalized by being stripped of any precious swords, upgrades and techniques obtained during the course of the game that weren't stored away in the Sword Safe. Since all the growth and experience of a character is tied into their sword, the permanent lose of sword can be very traumatizing to gamers who generally expect problems can be undone by restarting the game. The sequel is more forgiving in that players can traditionally restart to a save point upon death (an option that wasn't available in the original), but the lost of progress can still sting.
Way of the Samurai 2 makes several other key updates. The game is still contained in a relatively small rural town, but the scope is substantially larger, with more locations, businesses and non-playing characters for the player to interact with. The game also unfolds over more game days and time periods of the day—allowing for more intricate storylines and character developments. To accommodate the larger space, players travel to different locales by simply selecting marked hotspots on a map of the entire region. In the original game, players had to physically walk from one location to the next. The sequel feels much less immersive at first, having done away with the permanent deaths and extensive foot trekking, but these quickly becomes a necessary concession to accommodate the longer overall length of the game and tedious travel through the significantly larger area.
Another great addition: the random jobs that players can undertake from the three warring factions of the region. Jobs can vary between recovering a stolen item or the more typical assassination variety. Successful completions of jobs gain social favor with one the factions and earn cash to purchase health items, clothing accessories or weapons upgrades. The jobs become repetitive quickly, but it serves its purpose in giving players more activities, making time management more of a consideration for the player and furthering the unpredictability of the game world.
The majority of American-dubbed voice acting is one of the game's low points, but is somewhat tolerable due to the limited audio dialogue reserved for cut-scenes and some of the truly fascinating character motivations and drama that unfolds in the second half of the game. The developments have unexpected twists and emotional depth given the free-form "do as you please" nature of the gameplay, which usually makes compelling drama difficult.
Way of the Samurai 2's strong role-playing element may have warranted the juxtaposition to GTA3, but anything beyond a cursory overview of the gameplay design would have revealed the most significant difference between the two games. GTA3 employs an open mission-based structure where players must complete specific objectives before any progress occurs. In Way of the Samurai 2, the world around the player evolves with or without player participation. Where as the GTA3 universe is predetermined in a linear manner, actions in Way of the Samurai 2 have consequences large and small that can deeply affect the reputation of the player avatar, the characters in the game, and the final outcome of the branching storylines. Players can make many choices through out the game by conversing and interacting with many of the inhabitants of Amahara in different ways. Stealing from merchants will ostracize the player from all commercial establishments. Helping one faction will earn the scorn of the others. Arrive at the scene of a battle too late and central characters that could have used assistance may end up dead. This choose-your-fate quality is what makes Way of the Samurai 2 so refreshingly unique and dynamic compared to a majority of today's games.
Why these two distinctly different games were paired together I think comes down to sheer laziness on the part of X-Play critics. Rather than looking at Way of the Samurai 2 on its own terms and understanding what this game is trying to accomplish, X-Play resorted to the tried-and-true review tactic (popularized in videogame magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly) of comparing the game in question to the most popular title of the day—which happens to be GTA3. While predictable, this technique can still be used effectively with titles that are similar. However when this technique is applied to something that is unique, the results don't add up. Way of the Samurai 2 is a wonderful sequel and powerful drama. To pan the game for not being more like GTA 3 is misguided, disrespectful to the each title's unique contributions, and also speaks volumes of the lack of critical thinking of the X-Play critics and the industry as a whole.