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Listen: All the things you liked about this year’s Doom reboot? Yeah, Shadow Warrior did them first, back in 2013. Breakneck pacing, high-powered melee weapons that encouraged you to always stay moving, tons of gore, and uncompromising violence.
Oh, except Shadow Warrior did all that and included a veritable encyclopedia full of dick jokes.
So in a post-Doom world, there was maybe no game I anticipated more for 2016 than Shadow Warrior 2. I needed more over-the-top corridor shooting. I craved Wang.
But Shadow Warrior 2 is a very different type of game, and it took me completely by surprise. Despite Flying Wild Hog touting “more open” levels, I still anticipated maybe a slightly-less-linear corridor shooter. Like…well, like Doom actually—paths ever-branching and then intertwining, but ultimately leading towards the same exit and objective.
Shadow Warrior 2 shares more with Diablo, actually. Perhaps we should’ve seen this coming—after all, the main back-of-the-box features in Shadow Warrior 2 are an ever-growing list of loot and procedurally-generated levels. Definitely sounds like Diablo.
It still took me by surprise though. The tight, everything-in-its-place design of Shadow Warrior has been replaced by sprawling levels full of generic monster encounters, chests to open, explodey barrels to explode, et cetera.
The series loses something in the process. It no longer feels like the fast-paced ‘90s shooter Shadow Warrior tried to emulate back in 2013. In that game you could see the hand of the designer. You learned where there were likely to be encounters based on the pacing and the level architecture. You sought out secrets, and there was a certain logic to their placement. It was a maze shooter for the 21st century.
Shadow Warrior 2 lacks that hand-crafted feel. Levels feel a bit more generic, a bit less “designed.” You start to recognize certain pieces of the environment—the more elaborate they are, the easier it is to identify them when you come across them a second time in some later level. Encounters are slapped all over the place, throwing mobs of enemies at you in larger and larger waves.
The puzzle piece nature of procedural generation is, once again, a curse as much a blessing. Even with “infinite variations,” the basic shape of those variations still becomes staid. You see the seams, you notice the limitations.
And so for those coming to Shadow Warrior 2 hoping for more-of-the-same, for another tight corridor shooter, it’s going to take some getting used to. The 2013 Shadow Warrior tells one unbroken story from start to finish, the last cutscene of one level essentially leaving you at the start of the next for the duration of Wang’s entire journey.
Here, the story feels disjointed. We once again pick back up with protagonist Lo Wang, who’s been brought into the employ of Yakuza boss Mamushi Heika. She needs him to track down her granddaughter, Kamiko, and bring her safely home. Wang fails of course, and thus starts another larger-than-life story wrapping in equal parts mythology and stereotypes. And dick jokes.
The sequel isn’t quite as larger-than-life as the last game though, and that’s a shame. Where Shadow Warrior had you literally trying to murder the gods, Shadow Warrior 2 is mostly about picking up Wang’s mess. It’s much more banal, the preponderance of go-here-kill-this missions made worse because they’re coming from characters who show up with barely any context and depart the same way.
And instead of one unbroken chain, Wang’s story is now picked up piecemeal from other characters in a “quest” system that feels entirely unnecessary and isn’t nearly as freeform as it pretends to be. You might as well just go do the sidequests because…well, why not? There are only four or five per story section, and skipping them just makes the game shorter. (It’s only twelve hours even if you do literally every mission. Hardly a marathon.)
Side quests are the weakest part of the game though—not just because they disrupt the story but because they mostly involve going to a huge, wide-open area, ignoring 90 percent of it, following a line straight to your objective, and murdering a few people/creatures/demons along the way.
And this is really Shadow Warrior 2’s problem. The levels are huge, but there’s no incentive to explore. With Diablo or Borderlands or (changing genres here) any RPG, there’s always that chance you might find an amazing item hidden away somewhere.
In Shadow Warrior 2, each level contains a single unique, named enemy that nets you a bonus achievement upon death, plus—the best part of the game—a new weapon. Most of the time you encounter said enemy on the way to your objective, and then are free to head straight to the end. That’s it!
Going off the beaten path? Not worth your time, unless you want to grind enemies or are excited to open hundreds of chests full of interchangeable (read: boring) stat-boosting items, money, and ammo. In fact, I’d posit if you spend too much time exploring each level you’ll make yourself miserable. I played the first few hours like I might’ve played the previous Shadow Warrior—looking in every nook and cranny, trying to uncover secrets, trying to find anything useful.
Don’t. It’s a complete waste. Get in, kill the semi-hidden enemy, accomplish the objective, get out.
It takes some time to adapt, certainly. There’s so much space! So much stuff to explore! Why wouldn’t you want to go rooting through all of it? But there’s simply nothing out there. Shadow Warrior 2 might not be a linear Doom-esque corridor shooter, but at best it’s a not-so-linear-but-still-pretty-linear-because-the-alternative-is-boring shooter.
And that’s a shame because it detracts from Shadow Warrior 2’s strengths—namely, murder. Shadow Warrior 2’s story is weak, its pacing is all over the place, but I can almost forgive it because combat is a damned good time. You can double-jump, you can dash (both on the ground and in the air), you can summon spikes out of the ground to impale your enemies, you can use your chainsaw to systematically remove demon limbs, you can spin in a circle and lop off six robot heads in one stroke of your sword.
By game’s end my arsenal included a dual-bladed chainsaw made of demon skin, a shotgun that looked like an old blunderbuss and lit enemies on fire, a glove that shot a beam of lava, two claws I chopped off a demon, a pair of scimitars, and like two dozen other weapons hanging out in my inventory. Excellent.
If you just want a game that lets you mindlessly kill lots of things, I don’t think Shadow Warrior 2 is half bad. The enemy roster can get a bit thin, especially since some of them are re-skins from other in-game factions, but there are a ton of enemies and a bunch of places to kill them.
I’m disappointed, though. I had a decent enough time, but bigger isn’t always better. The sequel’s lost the tightness, the Wang-to-the-wall absurdity that defined Shadow Warrior, and improvements to combat plus a raft of new visual gags (check out the night sky) don’t make up for how flaccid and aimless the game feels for much of its 12-hour running time.