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Shadow Warrior 2 Review

Let's try that wang more time

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I’m not crying. You’re crying.

Alright, alright, I’m crying. But it’s a happy sort of crying. My dearest child, the love of my life, the old-school first-person shooter, is finally beginning to grow up. For far too long it languished at home on the sofa, living in a time warp where it’s always 1996 and the word ‘Doomlike’ is still an accurate descriptor for more or less the entire genre, but over the past few years it’s finally started to go outside, mix with other genres, and produce some more well-rounded works. Only earlier this year we were blessed with the new DOOM, a game that managed—in spite of its token AAA baggage and overtly self-balancing combat—to establish a fresh identity that was both respectful of its forebears and entirely its own. And how about Shadow Warrior? Whatever problems the reboot might’ve had, it showed the telltale signs of a genre taking the first few wary steps out its front door. With Shadow Warrior 2, those steps are now confident strides. Do I approve of all the genres it’s hanging out with late at night? Not really, but at least it’s not mooching around the house all day, stagnating and hiding coloured keycards under the furniture.

Shadow Warrior 2

So once again we put on the trousers of Lo Wang, the smuggest, most perverted dork-turned-billionaire-superhero to ever lay hands on Hanzo steel, whose wisecracks have not by any means been dampened by his failure to stop whatever the heck was going on in the first game. Turns out that the whole demonic invasion thing wasn’t such a big deal after all, and everybody who wasn’t eaten alive or skinned and impaled on a spike just sort of elected to live and let live with the unknowable horrors from beyond the veil. In this new, not-quite-post-apocalyptic world, Wang is still somehow able to live comfortably as a mercenary and/or human smoothie blender, until one day he takes on a job to rescue a Yakuza boss’s daughter and ends up… actually, never mind, it’s not important.

See, the thing about Shadow Warrior 2 is that it is very much a shoot n’ loot. It’s Diablo with double-jumping; Borderlands with bunnyhopping. You take on missions, go into nearby hives of scum and villainy, turn the local inhabitants into many chunks of economy-brand dog food, and then take a breather to sift your half-decent loot from the mountains of garbage you hoovered up in the process. It’s a well-liked gameplay loop, not entirely without good reason, but between long side missions and infrequent storytelling dumps, it’s easy to forget what exactly you’re working towards, or the juddering train of logic that connects it to the people you’re currently slurrifying. But then again, that’s never really been a problem with this sort of game, has it? It doesn’t matter what the story tells you you’re working towards; in reality, you’re saving up for that spicy minigun in the shop, and trying to craft yourself a better elemental damage upgrade. It’s about the loot. It’s about the arduous trails you hike to get your loadout justright, before the next weapon drop lands and upsets everything all over again.

What separates Shadow Warrior 2 from Borderlands, and Diablo, and every other game that upends a filing cabinet full of statistics on you if you so much as mouse-over a new piece of equipment, is that its core combat doesn’t feel like being slowly lobotomised by a man with a potato peeler and a bottomless well of patience. On the contrary, it’s really quite good. If you played the last Shadow Warrior, or any of the Serious Sams, you’ve danced this merry jig before: ricochet around wildly, juke the attacks of the slavering hordes, answer back with whatever part of your arsenal best fits the moment—an answer that may change roughly three or four times a second—and occasionally go ballistic with your trusty katana. Crucially, however, Flying Wild Hog are no longer supplying Lo Wang with weapons that fire puffs of stale air and bits of paper with mediocre thinkpieces on them: they’ve learned to make feedback that feels good, and they want you to know it. A single shotgun blast can send most minor enemies’ pieces raining down over the landscape like jellied pork, and while the game does commit the all-too-common action-RPG sin of telling you an attack is stronger because there’s a bigger number flashing up on-screen, it’ll probably be accompanied by a meaty explosion or the satisfying crack of a rifle barrel at the very least. Levels are packed with environmental clutter that’ll sail gaily through the air at the slightest provocation—to say nothing of the frequent appearances of industry heavyweight Exploding Red Barrel—and overall there’s just enough chaos injected into the old-school run-and-gun routine to make it a hoot again.

Shadow Warrior 2

Speaking of mixing up the routine, one of Shadow Warrior 2’s more radical departures from the norm is its level design. Rather than plunging you into an old-school semi-linear hand-crafted level for every mission, the game instead takes the trendy option of procedurally generating a big non-linear map, putting the objective at the far end from you, and just letting you loose in it, to freely wander or make a beeline for the target as you please. Considering how often I’ve griped about procedural level generation in first-person shooters before, it works better than you might think—mostly because everything looks so homogeneous that it’s nigh impossible to tell if you’ve been somewhere before—but it’s not without its downsides. Because the level design has to hold up no matter where you’re coming from or what weapons you have to hand, it’s all very directionless and generic; good enough for any fight, full of vertical opportunities and nicely structured arenas, but no good at enforcing any particular kindof fight. The result is an encounter experience as one-note as a toddler clanging a soup ladle against a saucepan; as tailor-made as a sackcloth poncho. It still works, provided you don’t mind relying on the minimap’s trail of breadcrumbs for navigation, but it grows tiresome sooner, and—outside of the occasional boss fight—it leaves very few surprises up the combat’s sleeve.

Fortunately, as we already know, it’s all about the loot. Shadow Warrior 2 knows how to keep you coming back, you hopeless novelty-addicted consumer drone: with a seemingly bottomless supply of murderous toys, pulled fresh from the doodles on the inner leaf of a bored twelve year-old’s maths textbook. Though virtually every weapon in the game can be pigeonholed into one of the handful of archetypal categories—swords, pistols, shotguns, machine-guns, things that go “boom”, things that go “ratatatat-tat”, things that go “vrrrrrrrrrr” and slowly separate a demon’s head from all the bits that the head needs to function—the overwhelming majority of them are creatively designed enough to make them both visually and functionally distinguishable from their peers. You can, if it really tickles your fancy, obsess over comparing lists of statistics and DPS values to work out whether the submachine gun you were just awarded is marginally more powerful than the one you’re currently cradling, but for the rest of us, there’s a far easier selection process: does its special gimmick sound fun? Does it feel satisfying when you’re firing it wildly around the hub at vending machines and parked cars? Congratulations, feel free to use it without the looming threat of punishment for not optimising your loadout. Shadow Warrior 2 doesn’t care. Shadow Warrior 2 will cut you some slack. Shadow Warrior 2 is here to party.

Well, most of the time. In order to better fine-tune and play around with your arsenal, the game has an upgrade system not entirely unlike Diablo's gems, allowing you to freely socket upgrades into your weapons (and remove them, too) to tweak their behaviour and effects. There's room for some truly inventive experimentation here, especially with fire mode and ammo upgrades—which can, among other things, grant you remote detonation, dual-wielding, charged shots and guided projectiles—but mostly the upgrades seem to be there so that we can have some good old-fashioned tedious loot management. Upgrades get foisted upon you at every twist and turn, spewing indiscriminately forth from chests and recently-slaughtered enemies like free stationary at a university open day, so every mission or so gets bookended by a lengthy categorisation session where you sift through your collection and work out what's worth keeping. You can, of course, sell everything that doesn't have special utility without so much as a second glance—and if you're more interested in trying new experiences than squeezing more damage out of the ones you have, that's probably the smart money—but once you pass a certain point in the game, the crafting bench begins to look very beguiling indeed. "You've been using those blue-tier upgrades for a long time, you know," it whispers sensually. "Come over here and let's see what we can make of them."

Shadow Warrior 2

Don't listen to it. Shadow Warrior 2's crafting system is a frustratingly opaque black hole that will swallow your money, your time, and your youthful optimism alike. The basic premise is simple enough—three upgrades of a given same tier go in, one upgrade of the next tier comes out—but exactly how, if at all, you meaningfully affect the crafting bench’s output so you get something useful out of it is left as an exercise to the player. Higher tier upgrades tend to have more positive effects attached to them—a crucial quality, since every weapon has only three upgrade slots—but the overwhelming majority of them also come with one or two debilitating negative effects that frequently make them even less attractive than the base components that formed them. Is this ten percent bonus firing rate and elemental resistance worth the seven percent decreased damage to Elite-class enemies? Frankly, I’d rather sell the damn thing than waste more than a few seconds pondering that kind of trade-off. Even if you only ever feed the bench upgrades that you had no intention of ever using, you’re still pulling the lever on a slot machine where anything other than the jackpot just drops a dead sopping-wet rat in the coin chute. I’m sure someonecould make use of this rat, but I am not that person, and neither are the clearly perplexed casino staff.

Perhaps I could find somebody to share it with online, but let’s be frank here: if you’re playing Shadow Warrior 2 online and it’s not with your friends, what are you even doing? The game more than holds up as a solo experience, and the lack of meaningful cooperation means that unless you have a room full of people to yell at over Discord you might as well not bother. Nevertheless, after gathering up the last lingering shreds of my professionalism, I gave the multiplayer a few tries, and got more or less the exact experience I expected: uncommunicative players storming ahead on a beeline to the objective, adding nothing to the game besides latency and an extra dollop of confusion in the heat of the moment. Perhaps, if you’re in the upper echelons of players and you can’t start the day without a quick nightmare-mode dungeon run, you might have a much more cohesive, tense experience, but mostly it’s a feature that can be safely skipped over.

In defiance of my earlier statement, though, let’s revisit the storytelling. Shadow Warrior 2 certainly likes to: every mission is preceded by a chatty cutscene that cannot be sped up, only skipped completely, and you’ll frequently find snippets of written lore buried in the post-battle loot pile, presumably dropped by the more bookish demons when you give them the last wedgie they’ll ever know. By the time you stop and take stock of your codex you’re likely to have amassed quite a library, and while it’s all very well saying “it’s optional, don’t touch it if you don’t like it”, the truth is that I would, in fact, rather like to know what’s going on. I’m just not interested enough to willingly throw another wrench in the gears of the pacing of a game that already has you sorting little coloured orbs as an interlude between every mission.

Shadow Warrior 2

On the other hand, there’s the dialogues between Lo Wang and Kamiko, his new support character: a sassy lady who lives in his head and has to wear a skintight jumpsuit with glowy bits all over it for reasons that are never really explained. What? Who’s drawing parallels? Anyway, while Wang and Kamiko’s conversations certainly make for better storytelling vehicles than a thousand disparate journal entries, they suffer a little from the characters themselves never really growing from their starting positions. Lo Wang is… well, Lo Wang: an arrogant egotistical mercenary with a sense of humour plumbing the Deadpool depths. Kamiko is the one person in the universe who doesn’t put up with his nonsense. Token character conflict happens, which is at least fun for highlighting that Lo Wang is the only character in the game capable of cracking a joke, but after twenty hours or so, they’re still treading the same ground. Wang tells a wang gag. Kamiko yells at him. Wang deliberately rewords her message to another character. Kamiko yells at him some more. They exchange witty insults. Wang reminds Kamiko she’s reliant on him helping her out, and their relationship drops back down from ‘antagonistic’ to a nice safe ‘begrudging’. Well, it’s better than an awkward inexplicably-blossoming romance, I suppose.

Shadow Warrior 2 is, put bluntly, a mess. It’s uncoordinated, unpolished, chaotic and confusing, and I mean that all in the most positive way possible. It’s a giant Katamari of guns, swords and dildos loosely bound together with rubber bands, rolling down the street in a shameless display of sniggering juvenile excess, and frankly that’s all it needs to be. It only knows one note, but it plays it so well, and with so many tiny variations, that you can’t help coming back to give it another whirl. It’s not smart, or nuanced, or tightly designed, and it’s certainly going to need a few patches somewhere down the line—I’m still haunted by the time I was chased around the map by an enemy’s invincible disembodied leg—but the combat is a laugh and it drops a new toy in your lap often enough to avoid becoming repetitive, though I could do without Wang spouting the same one-liner for the seventeenth time today. In growing out of its old-school roots, Shadow Warrior 2 might not have the same audience any more, but it has established an identity far more unique and entertaining than its predecessor.

Our ratings for Shadow Warrior 2 on PC out of 100 (Ratings FAQ)
There are some pretty significant lapses in polish here and there, not least in the animation department, but the environments are gorgeous and the guns kick like overcaffeinated mules so hey, they nailed the important bits.
It’s not smart, it’s not subtle, and it treads the same ground in more ways than one, but in the world of anarchic high-speed first-person action you’d be hard-pressed to find a game with more satisfying core combat.
Single Player
The story doesn’t matter, which is fortunate because I sincerely doubt anybody cares enough to be invested in it. Nevertheless, the dialogue has its moments.
Options for finding a match are on the thin side—no ping meters, no region filtering, that sort of thing—but playing with strangers is a daft idea anyway. The browser seems pretty lively if that’s your thing, though.
(Show PC Specs)
CPU: Intel i7-6700K
GPU: Nvidia GTX 1080
OS: Windows 7 Premium 64-bit
PC Specs

A host of fairly trivial bugs undermine the experience a little, but other than one crash it was all smooth sailing
The McDonalds ball pit of first-person shooters: disorganized, colourful, daft, and a surprisingly good time considering its limited avenues of entertainment. Shadow Warrior 2 is well worth your attention.
Shadow Warrior 2
Shadow Warrior 2 box art Platform:
Our Review of Shadow Warrior 2
The Verdict:
Game Ranking
Shadow Warrior 2 is ranked #406 out of 1872 total reviewed games. It is ranked #29 out of 138 games reviewed in 2016.
405. Overwatch
406. Shadow Warrior 2
407. Pony Island
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