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Hands-on: ‘Shadow Warrior 2’

'Shadow Warrior 2' is Like 'Doom' with friends -- and swords

This year, game fans got a trip back to 1993 with Id Software’s Doom, which aimed to resurrect the fast-paced, demon-slaying shooter franchise by marrying old-school design with modern improvements and sensibilities.

There’s another franchise that has had the same idea, though: Shadow Warrior. At E3 2016, developer Flying Wild Hog debuted its follow-up to the 2013 reboot of the 1997 franchise, and probably the easiest (and most reductive) way to describe it is “like Doom.” This year’s Doom was pretty damn good. In Shadow Warrior 2, you get a sword.

The art of demon-slaying

Much like Doom, there are huge monstrous creatures that need killing in Shadow Warrior 2, and the gameplay is as quick and free-form as in Id’s title. Instead of the dusty red landscapes and industrial interiors of a Mars base, though, Shadow Warrior 2’s demo is all lushly colored villages.

The delight in the game, much like in Doom, is using everything in your arsenal to your perfect advantage.

In the demo at E3, players could quickly flip between more standard types of weapons — machine guns, chain guns, shotguns — and protagonist’s Lo Wang’s katana, which was handy for close kills and pulling off a number of different awesome moves. Which way you swing the sword affects how it’s used, and Wang can do spiffy things like spin-cuts to slash through multiple baddies at once.

What’s striking about Shadow Warrior 2 is how fast everything moves. Being good at the game is about chaining cool things together. As demons storm toward you, you might dash to the left to avoid their attacks, laying into them with your shotgun before switching to the sword to dart in and land some killing blows. As pieces of the demons fall off in extremely satisfying heaps of gore, you can summon magical spikes to impale reinforcements as they rush forward, before pulling out your bigger guns to cut the immobilized monsters down.

The delight in the game, much like in Doom, is using everything in your arsenal to your perfect advantage. Shadow Warrior 2 carries a lot of interesting RPG-like elements, such as items you can add to your weapons to change their effects, so players can spend a lot of time getting their arsenal just right. Bullets that freeze enemies or poison them let you deck out your guns for different situations or just to add a little edge to your demon-ravaging capabilities.

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And then there are magic abilities for healing and other buffs, as well as the many weapons that you can customize for all seasons. All of it gives you the ability to go nuts with specialization — especially when you play with friends.

Friends that slice together

The big focus at E3 was in trying Shadow Warrior 2 with other players, turning the fast-paced, demon-shredding gameplay into a concert affair. The game supports as many as four players working together, which can often lead to some absolute chaos in the best way possible. As players zip around the battlefield, spiking enemies and slicing away, it’s possible to work together to become a super-efficient four-person killing machine.

Shadow Warrior 2’s levels are surprisingly open, which also plays well into bringing three extra fighters with you to decimate the opposition. Flying Wild Hog has added a lot to players’ traversal abilities too, which means you can cut through levels and over buildings to get to objectives, but — even better — to change up how you deal with enemies. Traversal means you can kick through a window into a building, climb a staircase to the second floor, and rain havoc down on enemies outside from an elevated position. Or you can just jump your way to a wall and climb to the rooftops, supporting teammates as they run around on the ground.

And the combination of those elements is really where Shadow Warrior 2 shines. Each level is procedurally generated — meaning it’s built by the game on the fly from a series of pieces, randomizing things like building placement and enemy encounters. That means that every run through Shadow Warrior 2 should be different, at least outside of moments that matter to the plot, requiring players to react, and adapt, to whatever they encounter.

The upshot is that you have plenty of tools to ravage your way through unholy terrors.

Chainsaws and catchphrases

The latter part of Shadow Warrior 2’s E3 demo ratchets up the mayhem to another level. As our group wrecked demon horde after demon horde, we came across a new weapon: a big, ridiculous chainsaw.

It pretty much became the go-to weapon for the remainder of the level. Players can swing the chainsaw like a blade, or just level it, wading through enemies and cutting them apart. It’s a devastating weapon that leaves demons in chunks, and it’s very much in line with Shadow Warrior 2’s tone.

You spend the game ravaging bad guys into their component parts, and you can expect the low-brow humor and glee that comes from cutting off demon limbs to extend to the story. Shadow Warrior 2’s writing is full of jokes, chief among them some about male genitalia, starting with Wang’s name. It’s the kind of childish humor that works perfectly with the game’s subject matter, and gives the whole game a giddy bit of levity to go with all the chopping, exploding, and slashing.

The E3 demo ends with a boss fight, as one might expect. Encounters throughout the game scale up with the number of players you bring with you, to help keep the challenge up. That means baiting and dodging the big boss creature to cover each other and avoid getting wrecked by him in the meantime. Shadow Warrior 2 seems to handle all this upscaling pretty deftly, and working together and complementing the team (at least as much as possible in a demo of a game some of the participants had never played before) makes for an exciting and deep experience.

With Doom receiving acclaim from both critics and players, it’s clear shooter fans are excited for games that trade the modern, ubiquitous trappings of things like taking cover and carefully picking targets for faster, more intense action. Shadow Warrior 2 hits the same kind of notes and carries the same kind of speed, but with a deeper approach. Fans of Id Software’s franchise revival will find a lot they’ll enjoy in Shadow Warrior 2 when it’s released later this year on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.