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GENRE: Adventure
October 29, 2002
Shenmue II


 Written by Ryan Smotherman  on November 11, 2002

Full Review: Sega's most ambitious project ever finally continues in the states, and being backed by the most powerful console in existence doesn't hurt things much.

Sega's Shenmue series is possibly the most misunderstood titles in gaming history. It has been a massive undertaking from day one; developer AM2 and their famed producer and legendary game designer, Yu Suzuki, spent millions of dollars and countless hours perfecting a game that would supposedly ?revolutionize? the gaming world. Unfortunately, when the title finally made it's way onto U.S. shores, debuting as the Dreamcast's premiere system seller in November of 2000, there was an unexpected backlash ? to put it frankly, many people hated it. Shenmue's gameplay system, dubbed F.R.E.E (Full Realized Eyes Entertainment) by AM2, gave gamers a variety of gameplay styles and tons of interaction, but ultimately it was brought down by too many boring and tedious moments. Those who stuck with it, though, found Shenmue to be one of the most engrossing games around, and for that reason alone, they'll keep coming back for more.

Which brings Shenmue II into light. The sequel, and continuation of the original story, has taken a while to finally reach us here in the West. A few months after the first title released Sega announced their decision to abandon the rigid hardware environment and focus only on software. This move left Shenmue II to be the Dreamcast's last great title, and a gift to the gamers who stuck around and supported Sega through the good and bad. However, Microsoft's Xbox was just on the horizon, and in their need for exclusive titles, Microsoft struck a deal with Sega to make Shenmue II exclusive in the U.S., only on the Xbox. In turn, canceling the Dreamcast version and forcing Shenmue fans to wait another whole year for the much anticipated sequel. Which is why I'm here today; Shenmue II just recently hit the Xbox in full-force, and I'm here to tell you if it has been worth the wait.

Honestly, with me being the huge Shenmue fan that I am, I in fact imported, and reviewed,
the Dreamcast version back in January of this year, giving me good insight on how this Xbox incarnation stacks up. And for the most part, Shenmue II is by and large a direct port of the Dreamcast version, with it's fare share of minor modifications and enhancements, and still a damn fine game to boot.

For those few who are unfamiliar with the Shenmue storyline, I'll do a quick summary. In essence, Shenmue is a story of honor, growth, and courage. The game takes place in 1986 Japan and centers around one Ryo Hazuki, a teenage Japanese martial artist whose father is brutally murdered in front of him by an evil man known as Lan Di, who is after magical mirrors that will give it's user unimaginable powers. This sets off Ryo's path of revenge, as he tries to track down Lan Di and make him pay for his crimes. That's basically the gist of it, and if you want to see the entire original in action, the game is complete with a ?bonus? DVD entitled Shenmue: The Movie, which sums up the original in a very lengthy retrospective. Towards the end of the movie you'll see Ryo continuing his journey as the leaves a ship for Hong Kong, China, and this is where we pick things up?

Upon booting up the game and starting a new adventure, you'll find yourself witnessing an incredible introduction, as Ryo's ship makes it's way into the docks of Hong Kong, and things get started. The game is a third-person based adventure, and something that you'll immediately have to get used to is the control scheme. Ryo's walking movements are fairly slow and choppy at first, but with time it will become second nature. The directional pad controls Ryo's movements, pressing forward makes him walk, pushing left turns him to the left and pushing right turns him to the right, respectively. Also, pressing backwards does an immediate 180-degree turn, which can be extremely useful in certain situations. The face buttons function as follows ? A is your interaction button that you use to talk to people, X is mainly used to open up your journal, which is constantly updated as your adventure goes along, and it is also used for opening doors and whatnot when the option presents itself. Y is also a conversation button much in the same vein as A, but you use this one to ask about the various ways of making money; for example, you can ask where the closest pawn shop is, where's a good place to get a part-time job, and/or where's the nearest place to gamble. And when you're not around people the Y button is used to open up your menu screen; here you'll be able to save and look at maps, along with a variety of other things.. The B button is used as the basic cancel status, while the back button opens up the help menu to aid you during certain situations, and the L-trigger allows you to look from the first-person view, while the R-trigger makes Ryo run. The two analog sticks are both used for looking around, and finishing things off, the black and white buttons both take advantage of two brand new additions to the game. The black button allows you to take snapshots during any scene in the game (very cool, but does take up a lot of memory), and the white button, when pressed, changes the actual color of the entire game, from the standard look to black and white. Both of these additions don't really bring anything major to the game, but are cool nonetheless.

Actual gameplay has never been the strong point in Shenmue. While it comes in 3 different forms, a huge majority of that is spent wandering around in the Free Quest mode, talking to the natives and ultimately progressing the story. The premise itself is fairly basic ? you'll get a clue, and then proceed to ask people about it till you are lead into the right direction. Once one task is completed another quickly presents itself and the process starts over again. Thankfully, while them might sound mundane, it's actually pretty satisfying and is shakin' up a bit by cutscenes and different events, not to mention the QTE and Free Battle sequences, which I'll touch on here in a minute. It's not all good however, just as in the first, there are many tedious moments that seem pointless and for the most part just drag the game out. Two examples that first come to mind are when you have to carry an object from point A to B, which takes places in a part-time job where you have to move crates, and in a portion of the game where you have to move books outside to let them get some fresh air. They both involve mindless pressing of the directional pad, and it becomes very aggravating very quickly. But asides from these annoying moments, which actually aren't as rampant as in the first, you'll most likely find a lot to like about the game, and for those finally returning to the world of Shenmue, there a tons of improvements to touch upon.

If there was one thing the original had going for it, it's the fact that it was quite a large game. And you'll be happy to know that Shenmue II absolutely crushes the original in this department. Quite honestly, next to Morrowind, this is one of the biggest land environments I've ever had the pleasure exploring in (and it seemingly gets bigger the further along you get). The game is separated into a wide assortment of provinces that are all interconnected to one another, which is a very helpful thing throughout the game. For instance, if you're looking for a certain place of business, it'll be located in one of many Quarters; once you get there it's all about asking a local where the place is. With such a huge increase in size, AM2 was smart to include a map of each section in the game. For a mere 10 yen you'll be able to pick up a helpful map that you can even place different colored markers on to point out places of interest. The streets are littered with hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of different Chinese folk, all of which can be interacted with. This coupled with the sheer size of the environments gives the game an incredibly epic feel.

Like in the first, Shenmue II uses an actual time system that takes you through entire days, from 8 o'clock in the morn, till you decide to hit the sack. Roughly, one second in real life goes through one minute of Shenmue, making the days seem a good length. This also means that businesses won't always be open, introducing us to Shenmue II's wait feature. In the first if say you had an appointment somewhere tomorrow at noon, you'd have a lot of time to kill till then. But this go around the game will automatically ask if you wish to wait till a certain time, and it will instantly progress time till then. Leaving out you sitting there doing nothing for hours and keeping you into the storyline.

As promised, I'm finally at the part where I discuss the QTEs and Free Battle mode; first, the QTEs, or Quick Timer Events. QTE's take place at certain set point throughout the game, and for the most part only happen when you are required to chase someone or get into a fight. In essence, these just test your reflexes, as it flashes either a direction or button (and sometimes both) on the screen and you must press it quickly within the allotted time frame. Fail too many times and you'll probably have to start the sequence over, but hit the button in time and you are in for quite a treat, as they're as flashy as they are simple. In chase scenes Ryo will barely dodge obstacles and make incredible maneuvers in his effort to catch his opponent, while during QTE inspired fight scenes he'll bust out some incredibly cool looking moves, taking out this foes with much style. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you mess up Ryo might end up running into something, or someone, during a chase sequence, and will even take a beating during the fight scenes. For being so relatively simple in nature, the QTEs are extremely satisfying and some of the more fun things you'll do in the game. Not to mention the fact that it's a very welcome break from talking to people over and over again.

Regrettably, Shenmue II's Free Battle mode isn't quite as satisfying. Like the QTEs, these take place at set points throughout the game, and usually require you to take on multiple opponents at one time. This mode is set in a full 3D fighting environment, which gives you good room to manage the fight that is at hand. Though, the system is a little too clunky for my taste, and is nothing akin to AM2's classic Virtua Fighter series. Ryo can lay punches with the X button, kick with A, dodge/block with Y, throw with B, and finally, like in the regular Free Quest, the R-trigger makes Ryo run. It's obvious that great effort was given into this mode, as a ton of different attacks and techniques are available, not to mention a wide assortment of brutal combos. But honestly, it's difficult to pull off a lot of the moves, and if you do your chances of actually hitting your enemies isn't all that good, as they're very good at dodging and blocking. However, I wouldn't say this mode is necessarily bad; it's just strictly average. Though, many people will probably find a lot to like about it, and throughout the game you'll be taught new moves from various people that you can take into battle with you.

While not a focal point in the meat of the game, various mini-games and playable arcade ports of classic Sega games have always brought the series much attention, and Shenmue II really takes this to the next level. Tired of the main quest and looking for a quick break? Well, take at trip to the arcade and hop on one of Sega's classic creations, including Space Harrier, Hang On, and the newly added Afterburner. A slew of different mini-games are also available, and they usually come in the gambling form, but don't expect anything too in-depth.

Overall, like it's predecessor, Shenmue II's merits lie mainly in its aesthetic qualities. While the 3 gameplay modes offer a lot of fun, they are by no means groundbreaking, and you'll find that the storyline and engrossing atmosphere is what will really keep you around to the end. I mean, no one can deny that the hundreds of non-playable characters, the massive, sprawling environments, and the ability to interact with just about anything in the game, are where the Shenmue titles really shine.

Visually speaking, Shenmue II on the Xbox gets the job done? but just barely. At the time of Shenmue's release on the Dreamcast, it was regarded as one of the best looking games ever, and for the most part, this is what kept most gamers playing ? they wanted to see what graphical beauty was hidden around the next corner. Though, nowadays, with the Xboxes and super PCs of the world, it's getting harder and harder to exploit this feeling in current games, especially with a game that is more or less a direct port of the original Dreamcast version. While the overall look is much cleaner, the Xbox is certainly capable of more. Like in the DC version, a lot of the texture work is a bit blurry when you get in close on it, but from a distance things look pretty good. The environments are especially beautiful, both in-door and outdoor ? featuring nice details and well crafted areas. Likewise, Ryo's actual character model looks much better this time around, although, the other characters throughout still look just as bad as they did in the DC games. Characters still look as if they have things like muscles and wrinkles painted on, instead of it actually looking like a real extension of their body that is supposed to move realistically. And if you run into someone who's teeth are showing, don't expect them to move independently from their lips. Furthermore, don't anticipate seeing any special Xbox related goodies, such as the use of bump mapping or the vertex shaders. Though the Xbox's added power did fix the massive slowdown problems that plagued the DC version, which is a huge plus. If anything, overall Shenmue II proves just how powerful the Dreamcast was, as even today the visuals still look pretty good running on the Xbox.

One of the supposed major additions to the Xbox version of the game is the added English voice acting, which wasn't present in the DC version (for obvious reasons). If you played the original, things will be very familiar in this department ? does the word atrocious ring a bell? Like in the first, Shenmue II's voice acting is uninspired and laughably bad, and don't even get me started on the horribly written script. But then again, this won't be Shenmue without that, eh? Thankfully, this is usually only a problem in the less important characters, as the main protagonist, Ryo, and the many antagonists actually sound pretty decent. Completing the package is the same Asian inspired, orchestrated tunes that fans know and love, and also, the cutscenes have been redone to take full advantage of 5.1 Dolby surround sound.

Bottom Line
The bottom line is this ? if you're a fan of the original Dreamcast title and have yet to play the sequel, this is an absolute must own. Taking it even further, if you fit into that category and don't own an Xbox, it's about time you pick one up. Shenmue II offers fans more of the same, with a plethora of worthwhile additions. On the other hand, if you've never played Shenmue, this would be a great place to start, and the added Shenmue movie also makes sure you don't miss anything. But be forewarned, this is a game that requires much patience, and for those without that, you should look elsewhere. As it stands, though, Shenmue II is a very solid adventure title for the Xbox, even if it doesn't take full advantage of it's graphical and audio capabilities -- but then again, we'll leave that for Shenmue III, won't we?

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