Shadow Warrior 2 [official site] could have gone horribly wrong. The 2013 reboot succeeded because it took the principles of a nineties FPS and dragged them kicking and bleeding into the twenty-first century, adding superb melee combat controls, a well thought-out upgrade system, but sticking with linear levels packed with easter eggs and secrets. It was the best of the old and the best of the new.
For their sequel, Flying Wild Hog have kept the fundamentals but built an entirely different game atop them. Part Borderlands, part interactive chainsaw massacre, it throws everything at the wall and hopes there’s enough blood to make most of it stick.
And stick it does. Shadow Warrior 2 isn’t an unqualified success but its big gamble pays off handsomely.
That gamble is to trust that the movement and combat of the first game were strong enough to support a loot-laden first-person ARPG setup. The structure creaks occasionally, particularly when there’s so much loot in your trousers that it all becomes a little meaningless, but it’s such an impressively strange thing to have built that I half-expected the whole thing to topple over and smash to bits.
You’re still moving through a series of missions, visiting environments that range from demon- and drug-ravaged suburbs to cyberpunk citadels and rabbit-infested forests. The main difference, initially, is that you have a hub to visit between missions, with a couple of shops to trade in (one for guns, one for melee weapons) and questgivers to natter with. Some missions are optional and while there is a linear story to follow, you can sometimes choose to visit one area before another.
Oh, and the maps are procedural, to an extent. You might not even know if you hadn’t been told. There’s enough of a core to each area that they all feel crafted, it’s the things around that core that are reconfigured every time you visit. A street and its buildings might be slightly longer or have a different junction at the end, or a bridge or cave entrance might be in a different position, or not there at all. This stitching together of parts does tend to lead to large, open spaces, with few tunnels and corridors. That’s in service to the new tricks Wang (and whatever other characters you create for co-op play) has to play with though.
You can’t fly in Shadow Warrior 2 but you can come pretty damn close. Double jumping is in from the start and the dash/dodge on the shift key can be used in mid-air to propel you in any direction. There’s even a button for accelerated falling (there’s no fall damage) so you can pull off the kind of hero landing that movie Deadpool made a mockery of. And speaking of Deadpool, the baddies sure do enjoy dressing like him.
As soon as you start slicing and shooting, you’ll see the other big change from the previous game. Loot. Almost every chest you open and enemy that you kill drops loads of the stuff, from medikits to cash and bullets. Most importantly, they drop upgrades in various forms. Some are attached to weapons to change their statistics and others buff your armour or abilities. They’re like Diablo’s gems, plugging into items to change or improve their qualities. You can fit three to a weapon and they’re recyclable so you can experiment with them without being punished.
Customisable weapons then. I thought they might make the game too busy, introducing a preparation phase before the slaughter can begin. There’s an element of that, given that bosses and minibosses alike have specific immunities, resistances and vulnerabilities. I’ve been forced to retreat in order to reshuffle my upgrade combinations and make a truly killer weapon, and other times I’ve died and respawned multiple times (there’s a punishment for doing so, but it’s not particularly harsh) before throwing my hands in the air and admitting I’m going to have to retool my favourite chainsaw.
Picking a favourite weapon is almost impossible. I mean, it should be the chainsaw, right? That thing has the most hideously, brutally, brilliant control scheme I’ve ever seen on a bladed weapon in a game. You can wave it around vaguely using the left mouse button but hold down the right button and you get fine control so you can cut enemies every which way. They slide apart exactly where a blade or bullets hits them, and carry on fighting with all kinds of holes in them and pieces missing. If you like gore, Shadow Warrior 2 delivers in spades. And buckets.
I’ve been distracted by dismemberment, sorry. Weapons. The problem with the weapons is that there are too many of them. You can fill your mousewheel and number keys with a full arsenal fairly quickly, but you’ll find more and more as you progress. The sheer variety plus the configurable nature of each one left me overfaced, like a dog that eats so much kibble it starts to feel queasy, then vomits and then eats that vomit. I didn’t stop playing or fiddling with my new guns and blades, you see, but I didn’t really know what to do with them all.
Eventually, I settled on five weapons at a time, occasionally switching one of my selection out for a new one. Two blades, three guns. That worked for me, in terms of being able to easily select what I needed when it was needed, and left me not quite as overwhelmed as I’d been previously.
There are loads of skills to collect as well and diary entries and letters and folktales and fortune cookies. I’ve even been replaying parts of the game to listen to conversations I missed the first time around – those conversations take place between Wang and the new occupant of his brain, a hostage he rescues at the beginning of the game. Her soul is transplanted into Wang for safekeeping and they bicker and squabble.
The humour doesn’t always land for me but I like that Lo Wang’s jokes fall flat in the game as much as they do in my living room. It’s a good setup, surrounding him with straight men and women, and dropping the most serious and stuck-up of the lot in his head is a better play than pairing him up with a trickster demon as in the previous game. It allows Wang to be an obnoxious little shit with a sweet protective side that occasionally comes out, and gives his companion space to groan at his bad jokes, slap down his worst tendencies, and put him in his place from time to time. She’s not held up as the bright side of the twosome though, coming across as arrogant and a little too in love with the power trips of the villainous corporation at the heart of the whole mess.
I’m done with the story but I really want to jump back in and replay with some friends in co-op. Heck, I’d quite happily keep replaying areas and trying to get some ridiculously overpowered weaponry. There’s a wealth of things to do, even when that first playthrough is complete. It feels like a starter before the main course.
Even after playing at E3, and enjoying what I’d played, I wasn’t convinced the looting and weapon-crafting and -switching would hold up over five, ten, fifteen or twenty hours. I do think it all becomes a little too noisy at times and when there’s so much stuff happening in my inventory and on the battlefield, I have a tendency to stop caring about any of it. This is a full frontal assault on the senses and sometimes I wished it would slow down or take a break from the constant loot drops. That feeling never lasted more than the span between one mob of enemies and the next though. Flying Wild Hog have made an exceptional game and all of quibbles fade away when I’m in the thick of the action, slicing and dicing.
I don’t know how much credit Devolver deserve, though I suspect at least of a nod of appreciation should be aimed in their direction. The role of a publisher varies from one project to the next, and indeed from one publisher to the next. Shadow Warrior 2 feels like a game that could only be released by a publisher willing to trust in a developer’s wild ideas rather than asking for more of the same. If Shadow Warrior 2 had been more of the same, it might not have had quite as many rough edges, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as exciting.
In the year of a brilliantly revived DOOM, Shadow Warrior 2 is the great alternative FPS. It’s approach to combat is similarly kinetic but instead of DOOM’s constant forward momentum, here you’re jumping, dodging and dashing in every direction. The placement of those health, ki and ammo restoration points around the maps makes entire areas feel like an arena that you can pinball around, leading enemies on a merry chase from one set of explosives and elemental traps to the next.
It’s DOOM without the claustrophobia. A Serious Sam + Borderlands cocktail with weighty, thumping, exciting, speedy combat. Diablo in first-person, with wide open spaces, packs of enemies, giant bosses and more weapons than you can shake a wang at. Shadow Warrior 2 is anarchic, excessive, ridiculous, occasionally spectacular and almost entirely wonderful.