I’m hesitant to call Shadow Warrior 2 a good game.
In fact, it has all the trappings of a bad one. The game promises a lot and most of it is just fluff. It throws a plethora of design decisions which just don’t gel well. It tries to tell a story that holds promise in concept but drops in execution (and has a horrible ending). Most importantly, it has little if anything to do with the original Shadow Warrior, complete with retconning and a total tonal and genre shift. Gone are the structured changes with concrete character progression and balanced combination of enemies and guns which are designed for particular situations, and instead opts for a gem-based Borderlands style looting system that hinders and slows the experience far too much and far too often for its own good.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a blast with it from beginning to end. The game was fun while I played it, but on the whole the experience was hollow and poorly constructed. As much as I loved it, Shadow Warrior 2 is very much a bad game. All things considered, that’s what makes it so frustrating.
GEMS ARE NOT A WANG’S BEST FRIEND
I’m not talking about piercings here, but let’s back up a bit. Shadow Warrior 2 has a pretty divided community between fans of the first game who wanted to see more of the same as well as the groups who embraced its newfound RPG, shooter-looter mechanics. Personally I’m of the mind that looting in a first person shooter is not something that goes hand in hand, so you could argue that I’m biased against it. However, I was willing to go into Shadow Warrior 2 with an open mind.
The first idea they had was a good one. There are over 70 weapons in the game, most of which require looting or some form of purchase (in game, no microtransactions thank God) for you to obtain if not obtained as part of the story. Despite the finite number of weapons, though, there doesn’t seem to be much variety. Some of them have latent special abilities not present in other weapons, which is fine, but in other cases there are some weapons which are objectively better than another of the same type in every conceivable way.
As a somewhat hilarious example, the Razorback Katana one received as a pre-order DLC (a chainsaw/sword combo that’s as thoroughly impractical as it is infinitely satisfying, messy and fun to use) has an in game counterpart in it that actually looks better than the Razorback and even boasts much higher stats. There’s really no reason to go back to it.
It’s not that I’m salty about my precious pre-order bonus being useless. In fact I’m glad that players who didn’t preorder the game get the chance to run around trying to maintain a modicum of control of it as they swing it in circles in hopes of hitting something. But I can’t help but think why even bother having the Razorback in the first place? Or any of the other weapons that have a better counterpart for that matter. You can’t sell the previous weapons you owned either so all they do us clutter your inventory with things you’re guaranteed to never plan on using again. Already the RPG mechanics are looking pretty poor out of the gate.
And then you get to the gems.
These things are somehow more frequent in this game than the enemies’ blood spatters you leave in your wake. They’re so numerous in fact that I’m not sure the fact that there is no inventory limit is even a good thing. I’ve taken to sorting what’s useful and what’s junk after nearly every battle and after nearly every battle I’d do so for roughly five minutes at a time if not ten. Just to compare the numbers.
This is especially detrimental to the combat system but I wanna talk about that before getting to the meat of it.
CHOP TIL YOU DROP
Aaand before I get into the combat, I wanna preface that with the level design.
Seriously, it matters. Bear with me, I won’t take long.
Shadow Warrior 1 took a classic approach where the player went from point A to point B in order to advance the level. Shadow Warrior 2, on the other hand, doesn’t give a crap how you get where you need to go. Or even where, for that matter. Shadow Warrior 2's levels are randomly generated, taking several different premade “zones” and connecting them / populating them between each mission.
The funny thing is, Shadow Warrior 2's levels are actually better than the first one. It didn’t help that the (reboot) original Shadow Warrior was a series of enclosed, shapeless boxes, of course, but Shadow Warrior 2's level designs (for the predetermined rooms, anyway) are actually exquisite. There is an extreme amount of verticality and general openness to every map, and the detail that goes in each section of every “module” makes the first Shadow Warrior seem like nothing more than pathetic in the level department. The first time you jump in you probably wouldn’t even be aware that the maps are randomly generated. The open nature of the maps are precisely what make the combat so great.
Much like Doom, Shadow Warrior 2 has a lot of climbing, but it takes it a step further by having you fight from the streets, to across rooftops, to inside buildings, and so forth. Whereas the former kept you in well designed arenas, Shadow Warrior 2 puts you in what is technically an “open world” and throws enemies at you which spawn on the map. These enemies chase you relentlessly, and it’s very often that you start losing health or resources and need to back away to find a place to replenish (or just find some explosive barrels to lead them into a trap) which ultimately keeps every fight dynamic.
And the actual combat is a massive improvement over the original. The first was praised for its first person swordplay, although I didn’t find anything particularly special in it. What I did find awesome was the way you can simultaneously cast spells and use attacks without stopping to switch between the two, which is sadly missing from the sequel. However, the general combat system has been greatly smoothed, streamlined, and emphasized.
Nearly every combat maneuver you have has a very heavy “oompf” or “pow” or “VRRRRRRMKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKRNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNSH” (that’s the sound of a chainsaw tearing off bits of demon flesh) to it that really makes the player feel powerful even against bullet spongey bosses and enemies. All the weapon types feel unique in their own way, and there’s plenty of reason to switch between gunslinging and swordplay in ways that was mostly a novelty in the original.
Pistols feel very heavy when fired, machine guns are great at creating distance, shotguns blast even the toughest enemy right onto its back, miniguns tear away a demon’s health like it was tin foil, and rockets just make a general mess of everything in the best possible way. The chainsaws feel like they can savagely tear though anything and more often than not they do. And my absolute favorite, the chainsaw katanas (yes, really) feel appropriately unweildy. Trying to use special attacks with them feels like trying to operate a motorcycle with jet boosters and no steering, and watcing it hit something is as glorious as it is ludicrous. The new Fury Mode, which has been done before in pretty much any other game and basically just powers up your character, feels extremely cathartic, and when fully leveled up makes you feel like an unstoppable killing machine. Largely because you do become an unstoppable killing machine, and the system would very much be a win button if the game wasn’t so thankfully stingy with your ability to recharge it, making it feel all the more special.
Couple that with some impressive gibbing and gore detail (I’m not a fanatic for this stuff, I swear) that really makes your sword cuts feel like they’re actually... you know, cutting stuff, and you have a full arsenal of weapons that just feel right in ways few other games manage.
It’s... Fun! Like, addictingly fun to the point where sometimes I simply ignore missions and focus on chilling and shooting at things for as long as I can before the place becomes a tad empty. To a fan of FPS games, that all sounds like Heaven, right? Well, let me bring you back down to Earth.
ARE YOU READY TO R-P-G?!
The RPG mechanics make all of that ring hollow.
A large part of that has to do with the gem system. Totalbiscuit covered the issues with it in his video, but to summarize, there is literally no reason for them to be there if you’re playing solo. At any given time you can pause the game, unequip the gems you don’t need in the current situation and equip the ones that you do (especially elemental ones) to get the upper hand in a situation, and the overall combat system has such a heavy focus on them that you can basically beat any encounter with a single weapon.
What this means is that now you have a game with primarily busy-work looting that accomplishes nothing but to slow you down, and artificial difficulty which impedes your gameplay.
Enemies are also largely very similar to each other with the exception of stats, and especially buffs. Actually, the game has an impressive amount of enemies, most of which have enormously different functions from each other, but that’s only something I realized in retrospect now that I’m writing this article. They’re so “powered” by RPG mechanics that the only thing that matters about them at all is their buffs.
Very often you’ll come across an enemy that has physical resistance, meaning you have to use elemental ammo against them if you want to do any sort of damage, and the whole thing becomes a surprisingly mundane game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.
Nearly all the enemies in the game are bullet sponges as a result, making all the weapons in your inventory which have quite a kick feel as though they’re not doing anything at all.
Not to mention that at a certain point during your play, you eventually get the ability to recover mana faster than you can use it. Your powers are considerably more devastating this time around, with the ability to go invisible at will and suspend all the enemies around you in mid-air, as well as heal your health bar rapidly. As a result, the game always feels too hard (for the wrong reasons) or too easy after you reach this point.
It also makes the Drop-In/Drop-Out co-op more annoying to find a game in than normal. Players of a much higher or lower level can easily join your game and either massacre everything or take up slots. While you can kick them, this shouldn’t really be a thing. I’m also pretty sure that it had a pretty big impact on the storytelling, as well.
LEGEND OF THE WANG
I didn’t go in expecting much of a story in Shadow Warrior 2, even if the first one was shockingly good for what started out pretty trite. Even still, I had hoped that the presentation would be handled well. Unfortunately they dropped the ball on that front, too.
To say nothing of the ending (or complete lack thereof; not even a cliffhanger, I’m honestly not sure what I watched) which left me thinking “... That’s it?” Shadow Warrior 2 is pretty poorly written.
The setting is pretty fresh. The game takes place on Earth in a sort of post-apocalyptic-but-not-really deal where land is fractured into pieces and society is split into gangs that fight demons as well as each other, but people still live life with a modicum of normalcy. There’s a unique world out there but virtually no world building to speak of except for vague hints about the world in the sidelines of dialogue. If you can really call it dialogue. Pretty much the entirety of any exchange is someone says something serious and Wang immediately follows through with a one liner. Its one sided, out of place, and jarring to listen to. Some of the jokes are really funny (there’s a particularly good one where Wang is assaulted by an incessant barrage of insult that look like they were written by a grade schooler only to completely roll with it that had me spit my coffee), but it’s like throwing darts at a dartboard and hoping one of them stick.
Granted, the first Shadow Warrior has a lot of back and forth between two sarcastic assholes. Granted, it was glorious. But it managed to have plenty of sober moments to go with it, and the banter with Wang and Hoji eventually evolved into a sense of friendship bonded by their mutual distaste for everything. Meanwhile, Wang is just being an asshole to everyone out of a perceived necessity for it, and there’s barely any line from him that isn’t a punch line. Even during a major tragedy in the game, Wang brushes the moment off like it was nothing at all. It’s not so much groan inducing as it is exhausting and makes Wang a considerably unlikable character despite those same qualities making him a great one in the first game.
How does the RPG bit tie in? Well it doesn’t help that all the NPCs are either quest givers or store owners, minimizing your interaction with them to merely an errand boy, so none of them are really fleshed out beyond Kamiko (the disembodied spirit following you in this game) providing exposition behind their backs. On top of which most of the major players are generally terrible people with no redeeming qualities save for Smith who is essentially the flipside of that.
ALL IN ALL, THE EXPERIENCE FELL LIMP
Shadow Warrior 2 is a ton of fun and I’m glad bought it, sure. But the whole time I played it when not in the midst of combat, everything felt off and held together by a thread. It didn’t help that it was such a wide departure from the idea of the original. It goes to show that maybe sticking with a more focused vision isn’t always a bad idea.