I'm sold on FPS Wii controls. I just wish there was a better game with which to use them.
Red Steel doesn't feel like a complete game. It may be because the controls are harder to pick up on compared to other Wii launch games. It might be because of the buggy character animations and rushed cut-scenes. Whatever the reason, Red Steel can't help but be labeled a disappointment, even though the final product is still a somewhat decent Wii launch title...for people skilled enough to master it.
One of the things Red Steel gets right—eventually—is the shooting controls. Once you get used to it, it's remarkably easy to tag multiple people in the head very quickly, so much so that you'll prefer to use pistols over automatic rifles. The A Button, when held down, centers the camera on an enemy and automatically tracks his movement, meaning you don't need to move all over the place to keep him in your sights. If you have a steady hand you can kill half a dozen guys with as many bullets. Shooting at bad guys is the best part of the game, and I definitely prefer using the Wii remote to shoot people over a dual analog controller.
By design, most of the gun battles take place in corridors, hallways, and open warehouse areas, like a shooting gallery that shoots back. The deeper you get into the game, the more enemies you'll encounter, and the more accurate they will be. A run-and-gun style will get you cut down in an instant, so the use of cover is essential. You'll be crouching (Z Button) behind objects almost as much as you'll be reloading (shaking the nunchuck). The pointer aiming combined with A Button tracking makes it simple to pop out of cover, head shot someone, and then duck back to safety. When you're overwhelmed with enemies or you spot the boss of a room, entering focus mode (A & C Buttons) will freeze time, giving you a chance to shoot the guns out of their hands. That will knock them off balance, and by motioning your gun up and down, they'll hit the floor and surrender.
Focus is handy for getting through rooms quickly, but it's a feature that can be easily abused. Shooting at enemies fills up a meter which determines how long you can remain in focus mode. Because the aiming controls work so well, you can enter focus mode and shoot the boss's gun to make him surrender, all in the span of a second or two. The meter bonus you get for doing this puts back a lot of the meter you lost in disarming him in the first place. Basically, you can get through most of the large battles by doing this, and still have meter left over for when you get into a tight spot. It turns most parts of the game into a shooting gallery that doesn't shoot back, which is not as fun.
The shooting gallery design leads into the underlying problem with the game's controls. There's an immense learning curve for basic actions like moving, aiming, shooting, and slashing with your sword. For instance, at the times times where I had to get up close and personal with a yakuza member, making the large movements needed to get my aiming cursor on him totally screwed me up. I wound up spinning around and flailing my arm like a mad man. It appears that the game cannot accommodate gun combat at point blank range; and it's clear that the game's levels were designed to keep enemies far away from you to avoid this situation. (You do have a melee attack with the sword, but it's very slow coming out.) Turning in place isn't something you'd want to do in a hurry either. If you do it with too quick of a motion, the game will lose track of the controller and put the camera into a tailspin.
As such, the first two or three hours of the game made for one of the most disorienting gaming experiences I've ever had. I had to stop for a break a few times to make sure my lunch stayed down. It's understandable that the beginnings of the game are supposed to be of the tutorial type, and Red Steel's first couple of levels serve that purpose. But when it takes almost half of the game to fully adjust to how the controller works, that's a signal that the controls could have been more forgiving. Even after getting used to it, there were still plenty of moments where I found myself fighting the controls. Red Steel will take all of your gaming skills to wrangle the basics; if you're not experienced in the ways of gaming, you may never feel comfortable with how the game works.
The control problems are magnified during sword fights. Like you'd expect, the first handful of one-on-one encounters are designed to be easy. When using simple sword motions that aren't time-critical, the controls work well enough for you to get by. High levels of attention and reaction are needed to get through these fights, and you actually have a lot of options for disabling the opponent. You can slice up your foe until he submits, or you can break his sword by attacking it with a nunchuck shake after a successful dodge (C Button and left/right on the stick). Dodging is the only way to avoid damage from a heavy attack; though you can try and block it (twist the nunchuck), you'll still get hit with some damage. Towards the end of the game the difficulty ramps up tremendously, turning the battles into slugfests. Randomly swinging your sword will get it parried, so instead you need to dodge and look for an opportunity to deal back some damage. The best way to do that is with special moves and combos you pick up on your journey.
Here is where the sword fights take a turn for the worse. Combos and specials are essential for winning the advanced sword fights, but they never work when you need them to. It took me at least 10 minutes to “learn" one sword combo in particular, and while doing so it seemed that no matter what I tried, the game would not recognize a certain vertical controller movement. If the sword controls don't work well in training when there's plenty of time to think about your actions, you can forget about them working in combat, when you only have one chance. Because of how annoying and frustrating they are, you'll groan most times you begin a face-off. The sword fights happen at pre-determined locations along your travels, but to me they felt like the ubiquitous random battle in an RPG. I wound up exclusively using the only sword combo I could pull off with ease, one that's a simple right/left/right swiping motion. It was the weakest of the bunch, too, so I had to deal with some long and boring battles that just kept coming in certain missions.
You could make the argument that it's a little unfair to come down on the control scheme and learning curve so much. It's one of the first FPS games to use the pointer, and it uses the controller to act as a sword, also a first. Had the other Wii launch games been as unintuitive, that would be a sound argument. Of all the Wii games I've played, Red Steel is the least helpful of the bunch when it came to helping me learn the controls. It offered absolutely no help on what I was doing wrong or what I should have been doing to make it work right, as do some other Wii games (like Madden 07). Alas, I was left to figure out how the controls worked on my own, and even after completing the game I have still yet to get any sword combo down at a rate of 100%.
As if Ubisoft was adding insult to injury, many other parts of the game seem to be rushed and unpolished, especially the graphics. Though the game looks very nice in places where a lot of light is present and in certain other outdoor locales, the majority of the scenery is a washed-out, blurry mess. Character models are just a step above the basic level, and animation is glitchy and jerky. Models in gameplay cut-scenes have a noticeable white glow around them, making them look pasted into the frame. Scenes between levels use a poorly presented hand-drawn comic book style, which clashes with the rest of the game. Subtitles for those sequences are actually cut off at the bottom when running the game in 16:9 widescreen mode. High-end GC games can do better than some of the things I've seen in done in Red Steel; there should be no excuse for the mediocrity, considering this is a top-tier development team working in a familiar hardware environment.
Red Steel also comes with split-screen multiplayer. Unfortunately, it's very weak. It's not online—no launch game is, and it's not a strike against the game — but at the very least they could have included some multiplayer bots. Just having four people shooting it up in four maps and three modes is not enough compared to other modern offline multiplayer offerings. Ubisoft could have provided a wireless LAN mode to offer more, but it's not there. As it stands, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about multiplayer, other than it's another mode you can spend time with if you have extra controllers and friends to take advantage of it.
In my opinion, swords and guns don't mix. The overall gameplay in Red Steel would have been much better if it had just focused on the shooting part and dumped the swordplay. Most of the game's controls are not very intuitive. There's nothing special about the game's story or its gameplay, either. The only thing that makes Red Steel worth it is how great the aiming and shooting system is. The gun controls lived up to my expectations, but it took a lot of time for that to happen. It's enough to make Red Steel worth playing, but the rest of the game has so many problems that it might not be worth it to you. It's a promising start for FPS games with the Wii controller. Now all we need is a game that is as well-crafted as the remote.