There’s this thing some people have called a penis, and Shadow Warrior 2 wants to make sure you know it. There are so many dick jokes that the supporting characters ask, 'What's up with the dick jokes?' But without pause, Shadow Warrior 2 takes every opportunity to elevate aimless, crass humor above its acrobatic first person shooting, wildly diverse weapons, hilarious precision gore system, RPG-lite loot hooks, procedurally generated levels, and open ended four-player co-op capable campaign. It's a shame really, because systemically, Shadow Warrior 2 is one of the most joyful and expressive FPS games of the year. But thematically, I wish I could kick it in the teeth.
In a rare moment of silence from Wang, the chatty protagonist, I swing a chainsaw skyward and grind a cybernetic ninja into two long vertical pieces. The halves fly upward from the chainsaw’s momentum, so I swing horizontally, quartering the poor cyborg. For fun, I whip out an automatic shotgun (called the Boner) and shoot the pieces out of the air like meat pigeons. My head swings back and I cackle. This physical comedy, the procedural gore that slices and explodes enemies exactly where they’re hit, is Shadow Warrior 2’s best joke. Shotguns leave gaping holes in enemies, katanas can disarm gun-wielding demons (literally), and nail guns do exactly what they’re designed to. It’s grotesque slapstick shooter comedy better than it’s ever been, undermined by an irritating desire to be clever and edgy.
Vulgarity and edgy humor aren't inherently bad, but Shadow Warrior 2 uses it without purpose. Early on, I found a gun called the Genocider, which is where the joke begins and ends. It’s an indistinct weapon, utilitarian and mechanical, and that’s it. The ‘joke’ is the word genocide, the intentional mass murder of an entire race or nation. It's not a lovely historical slideshow to conjure. Later on, a character mistakes Wang’s monologue about a small woman inside him—a spirit that takes up residency in his head and acts as a guide—as him coming out as transgender. The subject and butt of the joke, the difficult transition process, isn't placed in an amusing light—it's just pointed at as if to say, hey, transgender people, right? It nests the act of coming out in the tension of the joke, coloring it as something to be uneasy about. (What year is it?) And then it's back to dick jokes.
Doom, a similar shooter, gets away with its exaggerated premise by keeping it simple: Hell spits out some demons, caricatures of evil that don't do a lot of talking. They’re red and bad and you have to shoot them. There’s no time for talk.
Luckily, shooting demons isn’t a problem for Shadow Warrior 2. The combat and movement place an emphasis on acrobatics with a double jump and dash moveset that, when used in combination, let me nearly achieve flight. With the ability to equip eight weapons at a time, switching between a chainsaw katana, an acidic grenade launcher, and an LMG shaped like a penis (surprise) midair is a breeze, and makes for plenty of action movie encounters. There’s even a button dedicated to making you fall faster for no other reason than to make you feel like a swift, experienced interdimensional ninja.
The combat is an empty canvas where I’m still finding new methods for painting a demon and robot massacre.
The 70 available weapons aren’t the same six viewmodels with random stats. They’re all uniquely designed—there are elegant recreations of realistic firearms, weapons made entirely from bones, and varnished brass steampunk contraptions. Some drop at specific story beats, but the rest drop as loot with scaled stats. Each weapon can also slot three gems that modify certain stats like its elemental damage type, how much damage it does to specific enemies, reload speeds, alternate firing modes, and so on. Weapons still offer a ton to poke and prod at halfway into my second playthrough, and used in tandem with magic abilities (healing, force push, AoE shadow spike impalement) the combat is an empty canvas where I’m still finding new methods for painting a demon and robot massacre. A quartered spider here, a smoking flesh wizard husk there—watch out, Rembrant.
As I developed my art, exploding mob after mob in a shower of gems and guns and ammo and collectibles, the loot systems quickly lost their allure and mystery. There’s such a glut of the stuff it becomes a chore to navigate the clumsy menus every time a new gem or gun drops so I can try them out. But it’s pretty easy to ignore the RPG systems for long periods and still skirt by on the normal and hard difficulties, especially with some co-op friends.
Environments, as beautiful as they are, also lose their meaning quickly. The level design feels mushier than a purely authored shooter, in large part because the procedural levels are so open and aimless, but as good-looking conduits for combat, they work just fine. Chainsawing the leg off a massive mech against the neon backdrop of a cyberpunk metropolis or blowing holes in bipedal hammerhead shark demons in a craggy mountain village is more than enough set-dressing for me.
No matter how repetitive the environments and loot-tinkering get, Shadow Warrior 2 stays a rewarding slapstick comedy thanks to its thrilling open-ended combat. It’s like the FPS embodiment of a dive bar, a place to kick back and tear up some demonic bad guy fodder with some friends. The drink selection is great, but the jukebox is too damn loud and only plays hair metal one-hit-wonders. If you can tolerate the baseless, dated humor, then Shadow Warrior 2 is an easy recommendation, but it’s a shame the excellent combat and deep customization systems need a caveat at all.