The 90s were an awesome time for FPS fans, with the likes of Duke Nukem and Blood expertly combining excessive violence and pop culture humour to create hilarious adult-only blasters. Sadly these immensely fun titles haven’t fared well in the sequel stakes - Blood II was a dull and repetitive slog, while the infamous Duke Nukem Forever was unsurprisingly ineffectual given its near-two-decade development cycle.
And so it was with low expectations that we tackled the new 2013 ‘reboot’ of Shadow Warrior, another classic 90s Build Engine blaster that lovingly ripped the piss out of chop-sockey kung fu flicks. We're big fans of the endlessly quotable original, but those games were very much of their time - a time when we were nerdy teens who thought that humping cartoon rabbits was comedy gold.
So, is the new Shadow Warrior another ill-advised rebirth, or a Wangtastic slice of retro action?
A tale of two Wangs
As well as swanky new graphics which look nice and crisp on top resolution, this Shadow Warrior reboot also throws in a typically schlocky story worthy of a classic kung fu b-movie. Rather than the baldy elder Wang who sliced n diced his way through the original, you play as a young and cocky Wang who’s hunting down a legendary sword for his sketchy boss, Zilla. En route he teams up with a cheeky demon called Hoji, and the pair’s adventures take them through ruined villages, spooky cemeteries and more.
Shadow Warrior 2013 also defies its roots by extending each level into an hour-long slogfest, compared to the quick-fire ten-minute efforts of the original. And while the 1997 Shadow Warrior handed you fresh and increasingly destructive weapons every five seconds, the 2013 reboot takes things at a much gentler pace. You typically only find one new weapon per level, which means you’ll be completely reliant on your katana for the first couple of hours (the handgun isn’t strong or quick enough against hordes of bloodthirsty gribblies).
Expert sword handling
Still, this isn’t so much a problem as the katana is bowel-bustingly good fun to wield. Melee combat is notoriously sketchy in many FPS games, but here it suits the fast pace of the action. A tap of the left mouse button swings the blade, while holding down the right mouse button unleashes a devastating power attack, and there’s a host of special moves that can be combined to destroy everything in your path. These generally involve a couple of key presses before swinging, and are pleasingly simple to pull off.
Katana combat is fast and furious, the opposite of a game such as Oblivion’s melee action, and we often found ourselves leaping all over the place while hacking wildly at swarms of enemies. Occasionally these battles descended into blind swinging and panicky jumping, but at least the open environments are well suited to this ‘technique’ - only very occasionally did we find ourselves lodged on a rock or annoyingly-positioned lamppost, unable to escape from the bloodthirsty demonspawn.
Our main complaint is the hit detection, which seems a little off. Quite often we’d be stood right in front of a defenceless enemy, but swinging our sword was about as effective as flicking their nose and going ‘nyah nyah nyahhhh!’ Other times, we seemed to hit them from a clear six or seven feet away. Wang also moves quite fast, which makes precision action a little tricky when you’re right next to your enemy. However, landing a blow is deeply satisfying, and also impressively gory - demons will split in half or shed their limbs with agonised wails when your metal strikes, something that never seems to get old. You can even kick decapitated heads around like footballs, although not with the same gusto that Caleb from Blood manages.
Advance past the first couple of levels and you’ll start to amass a proper arsenal, with the usual machine guns and high-powered explosives present and correct. These add a welcome bit of variety before the swordplay gets too stale, and it’s good fun to quickly switch between guns and katana in the middle of battles. Using a variety of weapons and styles is actively encouraged, in fact, by Shadow Warrior’s karma system. Mix it up and you’ll be rewarded with more karma, handy for boosting your skills.
Wang goes RPG
Shadow Warrior also surprised us with its upgrade system, which allows you to learn new skills and combat combos by finding gold and hidden crystals within each level. The level of customisation is impressively deep - you won’t find Oblivion-style skill trees exactly, But there's enough flexibility to suit your style of play and it's a good encouragement to properly scout around each area.
However, even with this upgrade structure in place, we found that Shadow Warrior began to drag before the end. The levels don’t offer as much variety as we hoped and we soon realised that Shadow Warrior actually reminded us of another FPS arcadey blaster, Serious Sam. Essentially the gameplay boils down to enter arena, kill everything in sight, shift onto next section, repeat. Objectives are rarely more complex than finding a key, and even the enemy AI is distinctly old school, with enemies mostly just rushing at you or blasting endless missiles your way. As long as you're not expecting anything more complex, there's nothing wrong with that. But anyone after exciting plot twists or intelligent enemies should look elsewhere.
Still, at least Wang himself is still in good form, even in his younger guise. He's dumb as two planks but he throws out the occasional witty one-liner and his banter with Hoji is entertaining, reminding us of The Darkness 2. He's also not afraid to belt out the chorus of 'You Got The Touch' when rolling, something we can 100% get behind. In fact, not to spoil anything, but you get to delve a little into Wang’s personal life, and it’s refreshing to see that he’s actually a bit of a nerd at heart. There’s hope for us all yet.
And although this is a very different Wang and a very different Shadow Warrior from the 90s classic, there are plenty of nods back to that game and era. Be it hidden areas containing actual rooms and characters from that game, or the infamous humping rabbits, there’s a reference lurking around most corners.
Although Shadow Warrior is distinctly old-school with its basic AI and 'just kill everything' mentality, the katana combat and tongue-in-cheek humour elevate it above a bog-standard action blaster. It's good fun to play, even if it does outstay its welcome, and Wang fans are bound to get a kick from it.