Demons, in Shadow Warrior 2 [official site], appear to be made of jelly. I’m carving one particularly big bastard open like a Christmas turkey and the segments that slide away are like the gelatinous gloop and gristle sliding from a tin of cheap dogfood. They wibble and wobble, quivering beneath the teeth of my chainsaw. They fold and flop, eventually disintegrating.
The ultraviolence is more over the top than in the game’s predecessor, but it’s nothing new. That’s just about the only place that the sequel takes the “more of the same” approach though. Almost everything has changed.
I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Flying Wild Hog’s Shadow Warrior reboot which reached into my chest and claimed my heart in 2013. I can’t remember having my expectations exceeded by a game quite so much since I started writing about the things on a daily basis. Maybe my crappy superpower is to expect the worst when it comes to remakes of nineties first-person shooters because the brilliance of DOOM shocked me as well, but Shadow Warrior is still the greatest surprise.
And now it’s as if the sequel wants to pull the rug out from beneath me all over again. Shadow Warrior, both the original and the reboot, followed fairly traditional singleplayer FPS patterns. Levels that are mostly linear, enemies with their own distinct attacks and weaknesses, weapons that escalate in power as the story plays out. A few secrets and easter eggs. Sprinkle some toilet humour and better-than-average melee combat on top and you have the original game.
Where the reboot excelled was in recognising that the melee combat could become the central system, with unlockable abilities linked to simple inputs based around sidesteps and dashes performed with the sword in hand. That, along with hordes of enemies marching toward the slaughter, made for an enjoyable experience, heavy on the hack and slash, and light on the shooting.
Shadow Warrior 2 is like first-person Diablo, with randomised levels, stitched together from hand-crafted sections, groups of enemies with minibosses leading them, and all kinds of loot to gather. There are also petrified demon cocks to retrieve from chests, complete with withered ballsacks that look like dehydrated Maltesers, but what little I saw of the story was a paper-thin backdrop to the new banquet of demon-dissection.
Structurally, the game is now based around a hub from which 1-4 players can select missions and upgrade their abilities and gear. There are more than 70 weapons to find, including swords, a chainsaw and all manner of guns and magical apparatus. You can modify them as well, fusing loot items to them in order to grant new abilities or buff existing ones. I made an uzi that fired frozen bullets and came in handy against a boss who was vulnerable to ice and accidentally created what I think was a rocket launcher that fired poisonous clouds. Whatever was happening, the demons didn’t like it and there were lots of green fumes.
The session I played was chaotic. We were a team of four and there was barely a moment when at least one of us wasn’t stumbling across a new mob of monsters to slice and dice. There’s no need to kill everything in a level, given that you have a specific target and can always revisit should you want to gather more loot, but combat is so enjoyable that I found it hard to tear myself away before I’d torn everything into bits.
Using sword-based abilities is as intuitive as in the previous game, with movement in any direction right before an attack unleashing different moves. A plunging strike was my favourite, which combined with the double jump to allow for extravagant superhero landings that end with a shower of gore. And the gore really is spectacularly gruesome, the track of your blade leaving cuts in enemy models precisely where it lands. There’s a sort of Force Push ability that can be used to break perforated enemies apart, scattering their gibs across the level.
And then there’s the chainsaw. “Our chainsaw doesn’t run out of fuel,” a member of the development team comments when I first find it. “You never have to stop.” Holding down the right mouse button allows you to control the angle and position of the blade so that you can play like a kid with a sparkler, drawing patterns, or tracing your initials into an enemy’s hide. I didn’t quite manage to sign an autograph but I reckon I could with a bit more practice, and a big enough demon as a canvas.
There are some big ‘uns, mind, even in the portion of the game I saw. And there are some big ‘uns that split into several little ‘uns when you chop ‘em in half, and some of those tiddlers turn back into big bastards when you kill ‘em a second time. I couldn’t possibly pretend to summarise even half of what I saw because there was no time to take notes and some enemies were pulped into juice before I even got a chance to shake them by the hand, but I vividly remember something that looked like a giant inside-out gorilla and some furious giant snakes.
I can’t possibly judge whether or not the new structure works. Does Shadow Warrior need to have all of this ARPG like looting and questing, with random mobs of minibosses and their minions? Absolutely not. Another linear story-driven FPS game would have been a treat, particularly if it had expanded on the combat system from Flying Wild Hog’s first stab at the setting. But is it better to have something expansive and altogether more experimental? I think it probably is, provided there’s not too much necessary repetition to build better weapons.
The improvements to the combat system are fantastic though, even if they’re mainly to movement rather than shooting and slicing. Having the freedom to skip across rooftops using a combination of dashes and doublejumps, and to dive into a crowd of enemies spinning like a blender’s blades, is simplicity itself. Given that I spent the vast majority of my time in the first game using the sword, I’m not sure that I need seventy weapons and I can’t imagine I’ll be spending a lot of time upgrading the guns, but I guess somebody wants them. And it’ll probably be necessary - or at least convenient - to have specialised weapons for bosses with certain immunities or weaknesses.
If that forces me to sheathe my blade from time to time, I might grumble momentarily. And while I'd like to play with friends, I hope the design supports solo play just as well as cooperative. I had a brief dash through a level alone and all seemed well but the satisfaction of a team selecting varied weapons to deal maximum damage to a horde will be missed. But with that chainsaw grumbling away and an endless army of demons to slay, Shadow Warrior 2 looks like it’ll succeed when it comes to stylish and silly otherworldly slaughter even if the new structure ends up feeling a little loose.
Shadow Warrior 2 is due for release later this year.