As you play Shadow Warrior 2, one of things you learn is that the absolute batshit over-the-top nonsense isn’t, in fact, nonsense. But who could blame you for thinking this is all just a glut of silly killing? The game seems to say as much. Here, have some guns, it says. Have some spells, have some gear. Oh, have these special melee moves. Now have some burning and freezing and poisoning. Have some more guns. Have even more special melee moves. Have more guns. Have a second kind of chainsaw. Now have some slo-mo fury. The more you play, the more of this stuff spills from the absurd gaping maw of the Shadow Warrior cornucopia. It’s overwhelming in the same sense that a Christmas morning would be overwhelming if you thought you’d opened all your gifts, but you kept finding another one behind the tree.
Oh, look, here’s another one!
But Shadow Warrior isn’t just dumping out a big splashy bucket of stuff, any one of which is as as good as any other. It eventually reveals a pattern. Interlocking systems. Calculated design. Meticulous detail. Shrewdly engineered gameplay. Dare I say cerebral? Well, let’s not get too carried away.
For instance, consider the difference between guns and spells. You might think they’re just different ways to kill monsters. That’s how it would work in any other game. Shoot monsters with guns, but sometimes shoot them with magic missiles. Oops, you’re low on ammo, time to use mana for your magic missiles. Oops, you’re out of mana, time to chew through some ammo. But once you get all the spells in Shadow Warrior 2, you might realize they have a specific role: crowd control. Whereas your guns kill monsters, spells can only knock them back, freeze them, or make them ignore you. To actually kill a monster, you must shoot it. So all your mana management — it’s called chi, but I know mana when I see it — is a facet of crowd control. Shadow Warrior 2 knows a fireball spell is redundant if you’ve already got a flamethrower.
That might not seem like it’s a big deal on its own, but this is a game design brimming with these kinds of carefully considered concepts. These are the cornerstones of good game design. In this year’s Doom reboot, monsters killed with guns spit out little bits of healing candy. As you shoot things, you get the healing candy you needed to stay alive. But then you run out of ammo. So to get ammo, you have to kill monsters with your chainsaw. Then they spit out little packs of ammo. Doom’s gameplay pattern is a cool ebb and flow of gunfights to keep yourself healed up, then chainsaw kills to refill your guns. Therefore your chainsaw fuel is the basis for a dance of gunfire and melee, ranged kills and toe-to-toe kills, healing and resupplying. It’s the smartest thing Doom has done since John Carmack invented the 3D engine.
Shadow Warrior 2 is this sort of design many many times over. And unlike Doom, these systems are 100% under your control, because Shadow Warrior 2’s dirty little secret is that it’s not just a shooter; it’s a shooter built on top of an action RPG. It arguably has more in common with Borderlands, Hellgate: London, or even Diablo III than Doom. Sure, the moment-to-moment silly killing takes a page out of the beloved Doom playbook published in 1993. You’re ultimately playing a game about how gratifying it is to shoot, stab, slash, impale, spindle, fold, and mutilate snarling demons, whirring twirling cybersoldiers, and indignant yakuzas shouting “Fuck you, Wang!” as you gib them. I’d hate to give the impression Shadow Warrior 2 isn’t gloriously, stupidly, festively, spreefully, wetly, madly, deeply a shooter of the first degree. It is. This is the best pure shooter since Painkiller, which was itself the best pure shooter since the 1993 Doom. Shadow Warrior 2 lovingly expresses the pure glee of silly killing.
But it’s also a game that lovingly and skillfully expresses the idea of piecing together a character build. For instance, the guns and swords and whatnot. They are all unique. You will never find a +2 Heavy Assault Rifle of the Jackal. You will instead find (or buy, or be given as a reward) the Overseer, an assault rifle made from demon bones that temporarily gains a 20% damage boost every time it kills something. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. You can’t sell it. You can’t break it down for crafting mats. It is now part of your arsenal in the same way corpse spiders, firebats, and toad plagues are among the skills a witch doctor can choose in Diablo III.
But like every other weapon in Shadow Warrior 2, your Overseer has three slots that will modify it in far more dramatic ways than any mere +2. Make it do fire damage. Make its shots split off into multiple shots. Make it a turret that you deploy. Make it do more damage against elites. Make the shots pierce through to enemies behind your target. Every gun is unique, and can be made uniquer by sorting through the piles of upgrade tokens you’ll find, win, or craft. Yes, I said uniquer. The Overseer is unique when you find it. But my Overseer, which is slotted with an acerbic component, a rarer acerbic essence, and an even rarer soul of vinegary, is uniquer because it does all of its damage as poison, and furthermore reduces the target’s resistance to poison, draws out the effect of the poison, and finally gives an enemy killed by that poison a 20% chance of exploding into a cloud that will poison anything nearby. That’s way uniquer than the normal Overseer. I bet your Overseer doesn’t do that. Now let me tell you about the 46 other uniquer weapons I can chose among after my first playthrough. I’m not exaggerating. After one playthrough, I have 47 unique weapons.
A character build isn’t just guns. Use your skill points to activate and then upgrade special powers, which you can also find, buy, or be given as rewards. You start with a few obvious choices at the beginning of the game. Have more hitpoints, regenerate mana more quickly, or increase xp. But the same absurd gaping maw of the Shadow Warrior cornucopia will constantly spill out new powers. Soon enough, there will be literally dozens of tempting places to spend a precious skill point. This is no skill tree. It’s a skill plantation. Now add crazy amulets and armor upgrades to round out the dizzying array of choices.
Some of the weapons have inherent powers that have a chance to trigger (or “proc”, as MMO nerds call it for some reason I still haven’t figure out). When you reload the Einhander submachine gun, it has a 20% chance to load a clip with extra rounds in it. Hey, I got a message on the side of the screen that the ability fired and now my clip has 90 rounds instead of 60. How useful! But do I want that or the Eternal Infinitor? When you reload the Infinitor, it has a 100% chance to load a free clip. As in, a clip that doesn’t use any of your ammo reserve. Hence the name, Eternal Infinitor. You’d think the choice is obvious, but the Infinitor can only slot common upgrades. I haven’t slotted a common upgrade since, gosh, the first few hours of the game. Common upgrades used to be vendor trash or stuff I’d throw into crafting to upgrade to better rarities at a 3-to-1 exchange rate. Now I need some of them for my Infinitor. Shadow Warrior 2 constantly evolves, re-invents, and develops itself.
In fact, given the amount of time I’ve spent in the weapons, upgrades, and skills screens, given the time I’ve spent building, tweaking, comparing, mixing, and simply considering my options, I’m going to stand by the word cerebral. Shadow Warrior 2 might have the delight of a Doom, but underneath it has the brainy tactical detail of any Diablo. And the co-op multiplayer, by the way. You can join someone else’s game, or leave your game open for others to join, and up to four of you can play any and all of the content. Since the leveling isn’t like the usual leveling, low levels can easily play with high levels (your level is nothing more than a measure of how many skill points you have to spend).
It’s a bit odd that the latest patch added harder difficulty levels, labeled “insanity levels”, but there’s no information about what they do or what the incentive is to play them. Because otherwise, the risk/reward ratio is clearly spelled out for each of the original difficulties. Do I earn more xp? Do I get better loot? Do monsters hit harder? For a game with so much explicit detail, this endgame addition feels pretty half-assed. Similarly, you can earn a resource called orbs. They’re the main reward for replaying the game. I’ve got 150 or so. What do they do?
They just sit there. The part that uses them hasn’t been added yet. It’s supposedly some sort of endgame loot or crafting or some such thing, but right now, it just feels like so many wooden nickels.
I can imagine some folks might grouse about missions reusing the same maps. Given that much of the content is the character builds, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Furthermore, they’re enormous maps and you can freely range across them with your ninja jumping and dashing (for a Japanese game, Shadow Warrior 2 sure is wuxia!). A countryside with caverns and villages and nary a loading screen between them. The vertical expanse of Zilla City, which has distinct locations like the media center and the labs. The obligatory hellscapes. This isn’t quite the open world of Borderlands, but not for lack of real estate. What keeps it from being an open-world game is developer Flying Wild Hog’s clear intent that you get to the silly killing as quickly as possible. Shadow Warrior 2 is a game with a relentless focus doesn’t allow for padding. Once you’ve considered your options on the weapon and skill and upgrade screens, it’s immediately a crazy splash of euphoric nonsense featuring all those tailored guns and special melee moves and crowd control spells. Things poisoned, burning, blasted onto their backs, sliced in half, grabbing you with their tongues, turning invisible to sneak up on you, morphing into crazy bigger things, getting arms chopped off, flinching, roaring, erupting in gouts of strawberry jamblood. Wang hollering along at choice times. “Yippie kay-yay, motherfucker!” he let loose at one point. It was the only time I heard it in a couple dozen hours of playing. It was perfect. I haven’t giggled this much since Painkiller.
The difficulty level is what you make of it, which directly influences your experience points and the rarity of upgrades you find. Most of the missions are merely excuses for you to range back and forth across the maps, although you’re welcome to free roam; Shadow Warrior 2 will obligingly stock the maps with stuff for you to kill. The conceit is that you’re a dumbass ninja unwillingly hosting a woman’s soul in his body. She’s not happy about it either. Imagine if Master Chief and Cortana didn’t like each other. And if Master Chief was an unabashed idiot named Lo Wang who said things like, “The Way of the Wang is long.” Pause. The joke’s not over. Leaving it there could be construed as subtle. “And hard.” Ah, there’s the joke, made even dumber by being called out. But the joke’s still not over. Pause. “And ribbed for her pleasure.” Being cerebral doesn’t preclude being stupid.
Flying Wild Hog has been heading here for quite a while. Hard Reset and the first Shadow Warrior (well, the second first Shadow Warrior given that these are “remakes” of a 1997 game) were promising for their gluts of silly killing, rendered admirably with their own engine. But who knew what they could accomplish once they built the silly killing on a brainy action RPG foundation? For its exuberance, intelligence, and absolute batshit over-the-top nonsense, Shadow Warrior 2 is the reason I play shooters.