2013’s Shadow Warrior, a reboot for the 1997 3D Realms franchise, has garnered something of a reputation as a surprise – and, in some ways, cult – classic. Arriving within the launch windows of both the Xbox One and PS4, people were drawn to a game that was unabashedly “old school” in its sensibilities, harking back to a time and place when Duke Nukem was good and all manner of similarly goofy FPS titles, such as Rise of the Triad and Blood (ask your dad or…well, me, I suppose, but I won’t appreciate it), roamed the plains of PC gaming.
And I hated it.
I mean…I admired its balls, sure. I admired its sense of humour. I admired its focus on a tight, somewhat traditional approach to the FPS genre. The problem was that my admiration was pretty surface level. I respected what Flying Wild Hog was going for, but everything about its execution felt old-fashioned, rather than old school. Yes, any game that attempts to inject humour garners my interest, but on too many occasions, it felt childish. So much so that I almost cringed into my own arsehole at points. More damningly though, playing Shadow Warrior felt too much like playing a game from 1997, warts and all, when it actually should have felt like playing a game with a 1997 aesthetic, but all the modern mechanics we’ve come to expect from FPS titles in the 2010s.
So, when I heard they were releasing Shadow Warrior 2, I wasn’t exactly surprised (it sold pretty well) but I also wasn’t enthused. So, imagine my disbelief to discover that Shadow Warrior 2 is not only a huge improvement over its predecessor, but might sit alongside this year’s DOOM reboot as the most pleasant surprise of the year. Shadow Warrior 2 feels altogether a game that’s much more comfortable in its own skin – that, like the DOOM reboot actually, exudes a brash confidence that many other FPS titles could do with adopting.
The first thing to say that, if you were a fan of the first game, you have nothing to fear here, as Shadow Warrior 2 is a game that builds upon the things that did work about the first game. The stellar melee combat survives and, in fact, has been made even better. This is, in no small part, thanks to the addition of several new weapons. The trusty single sword set-up from Shadow Warrior is still present and correct, but you’ll barely use it past the first couple of missions, as you get your hands on a variety of dual-wield blades, most of which come with different abilities beyond just hacking enemies up with them. For instance, there are dual-wield katanas which, in addition to dealing pretty decent close-combat damage, also fire Sonic Boom-esque (Street Fighter Guile Sonic Boom, not Sega abomination Sonic Boom) projectiles, allowing you to fight tougher enemies at a distance.
Likewise, there’s a much larger selection of guns to play with this time around. Whilst many of the more standard ones – the starting pistol and assault rifle, for example – still feel quite weedy, many of the new additions are great fun, particularly the pun-tastic DeVolt nail gun (as soon as you see the design of the gun, you’ll understand). More importantly, that greater variety will encourage you to try different approaches, thus adding to the replay value of the game.
Stealing a trick from many an action RPG, you’re also able to infuse your weapons with various gems and artefacts that you pick up along your travels, providing those weapons with even more abilities, such as an increased chance of critical hits or a quicker recharge time for any secondary abilities it may have. Shadow Warrior 2 also adopts another recent phenomenon in games, namely the card system. By finding or buying cards and levelling them up with Karma points, you can improve returning protagonist Wang himself by increasing his health and his chi (essentially a form of magic that allows him to do things such as summon deadly spikes from the ground, activate a “force push”-like move, or self-regenerate health), as well as adding special combat moves to his arsenal.
In another move away from the linearity of Shadow Warrior, Shadow Warrior 2 adopts another RPG-style gimmick with the introduction of a central hub where all quest givers are located and, subsequently, from which all missions are given. You’ll also find Larry the shopkeeper there for all your buying and selling needs, and your home – the…umm…Wang Cave. Look, not every joke in the game is a home run, alright? In fact, the Wang Cave delivered my biggest disappointment to date with the game, as my delight at seeing arcade machines for the likes of Hard Reset was quickly crushed upon the realisation that there was no playable element to them. I realise that may have been a bit much to expect, but a guy can dream, right?
Speaking of Wang, the Wang Cave, “You Got Wang” etc, it would be remiss of me not to mention dialogue and the game’s sense of humour, and I’m pleased to say that this is another area in which Shadow Warrior 2 has improved immensely. In the first game, it all just felt incredibly one-note. Call it maturity or better writing or increased confidence or whatever, but here it just works. Everything flows much better and while there are still a ton of dick jokes, they are no longer the sole focus of the game’s funny side, with the spiky but quickly-burgeoning relationship between Wang and his right-hand woman, Kamiko, providing many of the more memorable exchanges.
To top it all, Shadow Warrior 2 looks fantastic. Admittedly, I’m playing this with Ultra settings on a pretty beefy PC, but that shouldn’t detract from a game that is light years ahead of its predecessor, which often showed its seams too readily and, as a result, looked fairly budget at times. No such issues here, with every locale having a coherence sadly missing from the first game, as well as a ton of lovely wee touches added on top. More impressively, the framerate never dips, even during frequent points at which you’re faced with a large number of enemies and the whole screen looks like a firework show gone wrong (in a good way). If I had one complaint, and it’s a nitpicky one, it’s that I hoped that more of the environment would be destructible – I’m not expecting Battlefield levels, but there were definitely things I looked at and thought “that must be destructible”, only to find nothing happening when I smacked it around (I told you it was nitpicky).
Basically, I can’t imagine that any game between now and the end of the year will surprise me more than Shadow Warrior 2. It’s dumb, smart and fun in all the right ways and marries it with a vastly improved combat system to deliver one of the best games of the year. In the end-of-year madness that is the October release schedule, you could do a lot worse than choose this over some bigger-name franchises. I thought DOOM was going to walk away with the title of 2016’s best single player FPS. Now? Well, let’s just say that I’m leaning towards Wang…