In the follow-up to their 2013 reboot, Flying Wild Hog has taken the foul-mouthed ninja Lo Wang in a new direction. Shadow Warrior 2 has more in common with titles like Diablo and Borderlands than it does with other FPS games like Call of Duty. It’s a shift that mostly works in its favor, too, as the gameplay is more engaging and the cooperative experience more rewarding.
At the end of Shadow Warrior, Lo Wang’s actions lead to the Shadow Realm (the realm of demons) and our world to blend together through an event known as “The Collision.” Five years later, demons and monsters now roam free and the foul-mouthed ninja earns his living as a mercenary-for-hire. When a local Yakuza gang tasks him with retrieving an artifact from a ancient temple, Lo Wang once again finds himself embroiled in plots involving the Ancients - the immortal rulers of the Shadow Realm - and his old boss, Orochi Zilla. It is a decidedly “B-movie” kind of story, but, at times, it feels like it would fit alongside the likes of some classic ‘80s action titles like “Big Trouble in Little China.” It never dives deep into the realm of being self-referential or fourth wall breaking, and Lo Wang’s… err, dickish behavior is treated by the rest of the cast as, at best, exhausting, making his constant stream of jokes and one-liners more tolerable (and even funny in parts). While there are familiar faces and a few references to events in the first title, there’s nothing about the the story itself that requires you to have played through it in order to follow what’s happening here.
Whereas the rebooted Shadow Warrior followed the familiar routine of story beat, mission, story beat, new mission in a different area, rinse and repeat, Shadow Warrior 2 dips its toes into the realms of open-world games, RPGs, and loot shooters. After the first couple of intro/tutorial missions you’ll find yourself at Dragon Mountain, which acts as the hub area for the game. There are two NPCs that will sell you upgrades and new weapons, and other characters in the area will hand out the Story and Side missions. Completing these missions will net you rewards like new weapons, skill points, and money, which can be spent to purchase weapons and upgrades from the aforementioned merchant NPCs.
While both the Story and Side missions have set objectives for you to complete, each one will drop you into a fairly open area for you to explore. You can follow the dots on your mini-map to your mission objective, or you can roam around for a bit killing foes and collecting loot. Each mission has a unique boss to discover who drops a unique weapon, gives you a new ability, or both; so it’s worth taking some detours. The only real distinction between the Story and Side missions is your purpose for undertaking whatever tasks you’re assigned.
Side missions are little more than a way for you to acquire new weapons, upgrades, and skill points so you can make Lo Wang “stronger,” in a sense (more on all of that in a bit). Most of the Side missions are just one-offs, though a few have multiple parts, such as having to track down a set of ancient scrolls for an NPC. The Story missions progress the overall narrative but they also act as dividers, in a way, between the game’s different (informal) “acts.” When you choose to start certain Story missions from the mission select screen, you will first see a message stating that completing that mission will prevent you from taking on or completing certain Side missions. In other words, the Story mission will change the hub area in some way such that some NPCs may no longer be available. This kind of gating is a bit odd, but it makes sense when you consider the way the game handles Lo Wang’s progression.
Shadow Warrior's progression system was a more straightforward affair with money being used to buy upgrades for your guns, and “Karma” points and “Ki Crystals” to unlock new abilities. Shadow Warrior 2's progression is a little more modular in nature. There are a total of 70 weapons in the game for you to find and collect. Some of these are given as rewards for completing missions, some you find from killing unique boss enemies, and some are available for purchase from the merchant NPCs.
Every weapon has three upgrade slots that can be used to modify that weapon’s abilities in some interesting ways. For instance, you can turn your regular old pistol into gun that shoots bullets that not only penetrate through enemies, but also poisons them with toxic damage. Or maybe you prefer to go guns akimbo and dual-wield a pair of SMGs that spit fire. There are a lot of ways for you to kit out your gear with the limitless upgrades you’ll find randomly throughout the game (this is where the loot-shooter aspects come into play), but they all fit into one of eight categories: weapon upgrades, fire modes, ammo upgrades, elemental upgrades, armor upgrades, amulets, powers upgrades, and multiplayer upgrades.
Weapon, fire mode, ammo, and elemental upgrades all affect the behavior of whatever weapon into which you slot them as previously described. Armor upgrades will provide passive bonuses, such as increased damage resistance or a damage boost to tougher enemies, while the amulets have much bigger impacts, like increasing the damage you deal with guns at the expense of increasing the cost of your chi powers (i.e., “spells” that heal you or push enemies back or temporarily make you invisible). Powers upgrades boost the effectiveness of your chi powers, such as increasing their duration or decreasing their casting cost, and finally multiplayer upgrades will provide boosts to your co-op partners.
The first time you pick up an upgrade, you get a quick on-screen message that informs you that you can slot it into a weapon to gain some benefits. It doesn’t go on to tell you why you might prefer to choose some upgrades over others, or that there are different quality versions of the upgrades, or even that the elemental damage plays a key role in defeating some enemies as later foes will have certain elemental weaknesses and resistances. It leaves much of that for you to discover and experiment with on your own, which is fine to a degree, but the first couple of hours of the game I spent way more time inside menus than I should have trying to figure some of that out. The fact that you can acquire around 20 or so upgrades per mission doesn’t help, either, as it’s easy to get confounded by the myriad of options before you.
Once you get done parsing through all the various upgrades, abilities, and weapons you have at your disposal, you can start to focus on your ideal Lo Wang “build.” If you prefer guns over melee weapons and chi powers, then you can customize your arsenal to suit that and spend your skill points on abilities, such as automatically reloading guns you’re not using, that support this kind of play style. If you want to get up close and personal with your katanas and chainsaws, you can do that, too. Or maybe you prefer to be an elemental powerhouse, using a combination of elemental upgrades and abilities to turn every enemy you encounter into a frozen popsicle or a smoldering pile of ash. Between the upgrades, character abilities, and weapons, there are enough customization options in Shadow Warrior 2 that you have the freedom to engage with the game’s first-person shooter action in whichever way you see fit.
The customization system in Shadow Warrior 2 is a good addition, but it’s one that feels best suited to muck around with much later in the game rather than early on; especially once the game starts throwing in more enemies that deal elemental damage and are weak to certain damage types.
By the latter half of the game, you’ll start to encounter Superior and Elite enemies with far greater frequency. These special foes are the equivalent of rare mob packs and Champions in Diablo III, and even come with special attributes like “fire resistant”, “vital” (meaning they regen health), and “toxic vulnerable.” Generally speaking, these foes will deal elemental damage based on whatever element to which they are resistant, i.e., enemies that are “electric resistant” will deal electric damage. So, not only do you need to be dealing elemental damage to them based on their vulnerability, but you also need to have enough elemental resistance that you mitigate the damage they’re dishing out to you.
As a result, going full-blown melee or guns build may make the game tougher as it means you have to be way more conscious about using the right upgrades and abilities than you would if you took a more balanced approach. Thus for the last few hours of the campaign, I felt like I was being forced into making certain customization options over others in order to compensate for the fact that every pack of enemies was focused solely on attacking me. This is where co-op comes to the rescue.
Up to four players can team up online to go through the entirety of Shadow Warrior 2’s campaign. Each player hears/see themselves as Lo Wang and sees other players as generic ninjas. While the host player is the only one that can interact with the NPCs that give out missions, all players will earn the rewards for completing it (assuming they haven’t completed it before) and the loot that drops during missions is instanced for every player, so you don’t have to worry about fighting over it. Players are also free to join one another’s game regardless of their own personal progress in the campaign, though it doesn’t appear that the campaign progress carries over into the non-host players’ games.
The only aspect that really changes when playing the game cooperatively versus playing solo is the toughness of the monsters; more players means tougher monsters and more of them. It is perhaps the easiest way to handle the increased damage that a group of players can dish out, but it’s handled fairly well. For instance, after I finished the game and had a number of pretty powerful weapons/upgrades at my disposal, I hopped into Nick’s game who was still close to the beginning. Both of us were doing comparable damage to the enemies he was facing so it felt like we were contributing equally instead of me just mowing my way through everything.
Players can also strategize how best to approach each mission and this is where that freedom in your customization really shines. If you prefer melee over gunplay, then you can absolutely choose all the weapons, abilities, and upgrades to min/max that particular playstyle. While that approach may be more difficult in single-player, it becomes perfectly viable with a group of friends to back you up and pull enemies’ attention away from you when you need to heal. A lot of the upgrades that provide boosts but also carry a negative (such as increased reload time or dealing less damage to certain enemies) start to make sense when placed into a cooperative setting where you have buddies that can help cover whatever weaknesses those particular upgrades introduce.
When you’ve successfully conquered all 13 Story missions and 15 Side missions, you and your friends can play through a handful of them in “free-roam” mode (i.e., just wander through that area in search of loot), or you can up the difficulty and start over (keeping all your weapons, upgrades, and abilities) in New Game Plus. My final playthrough time clocked in around 15 hours, which includes going back and replaying some missions in “Free Roam” to see what loot I could get.
Raising the difficulty makes the enemies even tougher, but it also increases the quality of the loot you’ll find. You won’t be able to earn all of the unique mission rewards, such as new abilities and weapons, for completing missions you’ve already done, but you will get money and skill points, so there’s at least some reason to go back through it all again. I would have liked to have seen just a little bit more done with the co-op, such as co-op survival mode or even something like the Rifts in Diablo III. There are story moments when you enter the Shadow Realm so I kept hoping that once the game was done, there would be some new challenge mode that opened up to try and get loot that way.
Nearly 20 years ago when I first snuck downstairs at night to play a demo disc of Shadow Warrior on my parents’ PC, I never would have thought that I’d be playing a sequel to a reboot of that same risque game. I especially wouldn’t have thought that it would incorporate mechanics from one of my favorite RPG titles (Diablo) back then. Flying Wild Hogs has taken the series in an unexpected direction with Shadow Warrior 2, but it’s a direction that really works and helps to set it apart from the reboots/remakes of other titles from that same period (i.e., Duke Nukem and Doom). While the customization and upgrade system may be a bit overwhelming and limting in single-player, it reaches its full potential (as so many things do) when playing with friends.
The Co-Optimus Co-Op review of Shadow Warrior 2 is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided by the publisher for review purposes.