Absolutely refusing to take itself too seriously, and yet packed with seriously action-packed and absolutely top-drawer shooter fun, Shadow Warrior 2 is just shy of being one of best FPS games of the year -- and that's in a year that produced such hits as the Doom reboot. Some of the humor is juvenile and the visuals range from spectacular to unrefined, but for the price, you won't play a better shooter.
Fronted by leading man/martial arts mercenary Lo Wang, the original Shadow Warrior (1997) began life as an Asian-themed Duke Nukem 3D wannabe, but ramping up the offensive humor, sexual references, bad puns and mixing in martial arts movie stereotypes and weapons such as the katana. Flying Wild Hog's reboot in 2013 expanded the story and of course updated the game to expected graphical standards while turning back the clock with its pace, gunplay and game mechanics. The Shadow Warrior reset felt like an old-school shooter with fancy visuals.
Set five years after the events of the previous game, Shadow Warrior 2 once again pits protagonist Lo Wang against the mechanical and demonic forces of the Zilla corporation, in an attempt to return a sassy young woman's spirit -- temporarily housed in Lo Wang's head -- to her corporeal form. The plot is, of course, convoluted and silly in the way that video game stories can often be, but Shadow Warrior 2 embraces the ridiculous and isn't afraid to break the fourth wall or acknowledge the essential absurdity of the story, even while it's happening. In fact, one of Shadow Warrior 2's greatest strengths is the way it unabashedly favors video game conceits over realism. Wang never suffers fall damage, has crazy, gravity-defying abilities, and the environment is absolutely chock-full of exploding barrels, poison-filled canisters, and tanks of gas that will slow enemies. Story and side missions originate at Lo Wang's small hub of shops and NPCs and the game makes it clear when players aren't ready for a specific task. The mission themselves are fairly standard kill and fetch quests, with an army of lower level enemies leading to a boss.
The environments range from natural landscapes and towns with Asian-accented architecture to Tron-esque modern cities or even haunted levels filled with weird monstrosities. Secret areas and hidden items abound and every frame feels like a fan letter to particle effects. The levels themselves are designed for the game's fluid and fun -- and exceptionally fast-paced -- game play. Wang has dozens of effective weapons from which to choose, including pistols, automatic weapons, bladed weapons, grenade launchers, and shotguns, and the whole arsenal can be upgraded and modified through a very deep crafting system. Shadow Warrior 2 accommodates a wide variety of play styles, and the game's broad roster of enemies will demand some dexterity in switching weapons and approaching encounters. Even at the normal level of difficulty, the game is challenging and death means a loss of experience and cash. While the combat is breakneck paced -- it almost felt like Dark Souls after too many cups of coffee -- I found myself longing for a lock-on feature to help target both individual enemies and specific body parts.
There is so much to enjoy about Shadow Warrior 2 that its faults stand out all the more glaringly. NPC character models are kind of bargain-basement and some of the voice acting is misguided. Absolutely awash in bad puns, jokes, sight gags, offensive remarks, stereotypes and occasionally very clever cultural commentary, Shadow Warrior 2's humor is definitely hit-or-miss and some players will find it offensive and often pretty puerile. But this is nature of the franchise. Adding gravitas would have been a mistake.
Considering its mid-tier price point, Shadow Warrior 2 is a pretty astounding value, with a lengthy, breathless, and goofy campaign -- also playable in coop -- that provides an incredible amount of fun for less money than some of its full-priced shooter brethren. Though some of the characters could use a few more pixels and some may take offense at the incessantly jokey dialogue, Shadow Warrior 2 is a pure, old-school FPS that doesn't feel remotely retro.