November 20, 2006 - At first glance, Ubisoft's ambitious first-person shooter, Red Steel, would seem to have it all. Not only has the game been built from the ground-up for Nintendo's new generation console - a selling point in and of itself for most fans - but it features a decidedly "grown up" storyline in addition to both pointer-enhanced sword and gunplay. It also proudly displays what are undeniably some of the best graphics to grace Wii in time for system launch. But at least in this case, first impressions are deceptive, for what you see with Red Steel is not exactly what you get. The game's very title, for example, is misleading as it suggests that the experience within is gory, which it isn't. Although Red Steel's hero wields a sharp katana sword and regularly duels with foes, there is no legitimate blood in the game. The much bigger problem with the project, however, is that it utilizes the Wii remote and nunchuk but does not introduce control mechanics that feel in any way better than a dual-analog configuration. In fact, compared to a traditional console first-person shooter like TimeSplitters, Red Steel's controls are a positive step backward. And yet, despite this would-be crippling issue the title still has its moments due in large to sheer gameplay variety and overall presentation.
In Red Steel, you take on the role of Scott-san, an unwitting hero thrust into the underworld of the Yakuza when his fiancée is kidnapped and her father killed. Armed with an ancient katana blade and an impressive variety of guns, Scott travels from Los Angeles to Japan to save the girl and simultaneously deal out a helping of cold revenge. Ubisoft has chosen to tell the storyline through a series of stylized cutouts with basic animations - the aim, we think, is to present a traditional Japanese look. These sequences, however, are muddied by stills that appear compressed, which is disappointing because they therefore standout from the game engine itself, which generally displays clean, clear worlds. Furthermore, the major Japanese characters in the game are voiced by actors who sound like they are faking the accents and are also exaggerating their deliveries. Even so, the music composition by Tom Salta is very well done, adding atmosphere and setting the mood for each cinematic.
Red Steel's gameplay mechanics are ambitious and flawed. To its credit, Ubisoft has really tried to make use of Wii's strengths - namely, its Wii remote and nunchuk attachment. The game has clearly been specifically designed and built around these controllers, in fact. The nunchuk's analog stick is utilized to strafe your character forward, backward, left and right as he moves through the environments, freeing up the Wii remote for turning and aiming. And it works… kind of. The process of aiming is made particularly easy with the Wii-mote because all you have to do to precisely target enemies is point and shoot. Although you cannot look down the virtual barrel of your controller, the Wii remote does enable the speed and accuracy of a light gun and if Red Steel were on rails it would undoubtedly be a much better game.
Any hopes you might still hold for controls that simulate a mouse and keyboard or, for that matter, deliver a greater sense of reliability than a dual-analog, should be put to rest. In Red Steel, the process of turning is disappointingly slow and clunky - a truth that does not mesh with the game's fast-paced formula. As a result, you will oftentimes struggle to correctly turn toward an enemy as you take damage. In addition, this is the only Wii launch game whose controls seem to occasionally glitch out for no obvious reason; one second your reticule is on-screen and everything responding and in the next it has jumped around several inches or more without any input. We tested it on multiple systems using a variety of different controllers and we even turned all the lights off in the room just to be safe, but the results were unfortunately the same.
Still, the very strange part about this game is that despite this crippling issue - is there anything more important to the success of Wii games than control? - Red Steel is sometimes still fun. Perhaps we're being forgiving because just about every other facet of the experience is well done. Visually speaking, Ubisoft seems to be one of the only third party developers that cares to use the added horsepower of Nintendo's new hardware and has in some ways created an impressive world because of it. The visuals are generally crisp and clean, the art style varied, and some of the technical effects, from particle explosions to in-game light sources, are especially pleasing on the eyes. The title also runs in progressive-scan and 16:9 widescreen modes, so if you've got component cables, use them. Also, Red Steel's musical compositions, which regularly feature choir backgrounds and orchestral quality instruments, are outstanding. And on top of everything else, there is a lot of variety here, whether you're sniping enemies from afar or battling them in a sword duel, whose control mechanics - although not one-to-one, as hoped - are adequately implemented.
The game also presents some very interesting environments and items. You will fight in traditional Japanese dojos and run-down neon-filled cities. You will use shotguns, sniper rifles, and grenades. To throw the latter, you can use your nunchuk - simply hold down the D-Pad on the Wii-remote and make an arching, throwing gesture with the nunchuk. It responds every time, in our experience, and the functionality is more immersive than pressing a button. You can slow time to target multiple enemies at once with pinpoint accuracy, a challenge made easier with the Wii remote. And you can slash horizontally or vertically with your sword during duels. You can also dodge, or exact damaging hammer and scorpion attacks. There is no denying that some thought has gone into the design process. Ubisoft has even included a robust multiplayer mode that could have proven enjoyable were it not for the aforementioned control issues and archaic split-screen nature.
When we first started playing the title, we were prepared to score it in the low 5s because of the controls. Defenders may claim that the Wii is unable to simulate a faster, quicker aiming mechanic, which is untrue. Activision's Call of Duty 3 looks like a mess compared to Ubisoft's effort, but it is still the better shooter because its controls are much more responsive. Even with that being true, the more we played Red Steel, the more we found ourselves noticing its strengths and coming to grips, literally, with its weaknesses. And we think that there will be a lot of gamers who will completely ignore any control drawbacks and focus on the prettier visuals and varied play. But these people will be kidding themselves, for although Red Steel was born to use Wii's controller, it rarely uses it in a satisfyingly intuitive manner.
Red Steel doesn't live up to the hype. It nails everything except gameplay control, which is absolutely and indisputably the most important factor. It's especially unfortunate because the game's aiming sensitivity is fine. When your screen is still, you can easily target and pick off enemies – you'll be able to unleash head-shot after head-shot, to be sure. The problem is that you can't turn from left to right without dragging your screen there with the reticule, which is ridiculous. It's either an oversight or a terrible design choice, but either way it profoundly interrupts the fast-paced action that bombards players from beginning to end. It might seem like a simple thing. You might be telling yourself that you can live with it. And if you have never played a first-person shooter before, you actually might be able to do just that. If, on the other hand, you grew up with FPSs and have come to expect a certain level of responsiveness, you're going to find it missing from Red Steel – and it's sorely missed.
All of the above considered, the game is not a train wreck, either. Actually, I found myself having fun as I made my way through many of the levels despite the frustrating controls. Ubisoft has, to its credit, presented some interesting gameplay mechanics complemented by a variety of unique and varied levels and weapons. The shooter is probably much deeper than you think in this regard and it deserves recognition for that accomplishment.
I've given Red Still a 6.0, which by IGN's own description is passable. In our description for this score, we write, "Games in this range have more blemishes than strengths, but still might be worth a look." In contrast, Red Steel has a great deal more strengths than it does weaknesses, but its one weakness is a whopper. A few of you will be able to overlook that whopper, but the majority of us won't.