Shenmue II impressions, media

[09.09.01] » Excuse me. I'm looking for Shenmue II impressions and screenshots - do you know where they usually hang out?

   After a development cycle that extends all the way back to the days of the Sega Saturn, Shenmue II has finally arrived in Japan. Fans who have been following the rocky progression of Yu Suzuki's magnum opus may remember that parts of Shenmue II were originally to be included in the first game, but were pushed back to the second due to time constraints. The move may have relegated the first installment to a prologue, but the sequel seems to be all the better for it. In the brief time we've spent with the game, Shenmue II looks to deliver on the promise of the ambitious, yet flawed, first game. Check out our impressions below, and be sure to take a look at our extensive gallery of screens from the first few hours.

    The game begins right where the first chapter ended, with Ryo Hazuki bound for Hong Kong in pursuit of his father's murderer with only a letter of introduction and a huge assortment of Sega-related trinkets to his name. When beginning the game, players are given the option of loading the final save from Shenmue I. Not only will this set the time frame to match with the previous ending, but Ryo will also retain his full compliment of items and fighting moves. If you don't have the save file, however, the game gives a set of default items and moves. For those who never played the first game, the fourth disc also offers a ten-minute recap of the events leading up to Ryo's departure.

   AM2 has made much of Shenmue II's size in comparison to the first game, measuring it at about ten times the scale. As Ryo first steps off the ship in the small harbor town of Aberdeen, it's easy to believe. Aberdeen, the first of the game's four major locals, is almost as big as the whole of the first game. The second, Wan Chai, utterly dwarfs Shenmue's tiny Yokosuka. The first game's greatest asset was the way it recreated a tiny Japanese town in minute, almost obsessive detail. Shenmue II brings that level of detail to a much, much larger area. While Aberdeen is a sleepy harbor town, the city of Wan Chai is divided into over a dozen districts, each of which is as large as one of major areas from the first game. Shops, apartment building, parks, temples, even an entertainment district are all rendered with a high level of detail and interactivity, and the city feels like a living world. As you wander around the many streets of Wan Chai, it's difficult not to get the same "stranger in a strange land" feeling that Ryo must be having. Unlike the first game, the whole of these first two areas opens up almost immediately and you can spend an hour simply running around and still not see it all.

    Shenmue II's bustling locales also have a much higher population. Improvements to AM2's basic engine mean that many more people can be displayed at once, but at a price. While the graphics overall are as good or better than the first game, they do suffer from a large amount of slow down when many characters are on screen at once and, more glaringly, pop-in. The residents of Shenmue II often fade in and out of view, almost at random. Some won't appear until you're almost on top of them; others fade in and out of view even while you're standing still. It distracts from the game's staunch realism, but doesn't really affect the actual gameplay much. Loading, however, is much improved. The game dynamically loads interiors as you approach them, so there is never much of a wait when entering a building or shop. Load times between the major areas are relatively unchanged from the first game.

    Ryo's first task in this brave new world is to find lodging. Master Chen, the helpful old man from the first game, gave Ryo the address of a guesthouse in Wan Chai, and finding this fills up the first hour of the game. Fortunately, the game keeps even this small undertaking from being boring. Ryo soon meets up with Joy, a redheaded biker girl who seems intent on helping him, and runs afoul of the local gang, who decidedly are not. After exploring Aberdeen, Ryo gets set up at the Come Over Guest House, which serves are his base of operations and save point. In the morning, Joy sets Ryo up with a job loading boxes at the local pier.

    With hotel bills to pay and informants to bribe and no Ine-san to supply a daily allowance, earning money is a much more important task than in the first game. Thankfully, the game doesn't tie you down to one method of earning extra cash. Using the Y button when talking to people will now cause Ryo to ask about job prospects nearby. Along with odd jobs and menial labor, Ryo can also supplement his income with gambling (both slots and back alley dice games), arm wrestling competitions, and even street fighting.

    But the greatest improvement is in the area of the first game's biggest flaw: pacing. Shenmue I started at a snail's pace and even its climactic chapter was interrupted by a week of forklift driving. While the opening of Shenmue II isn't quite non-stop action, it does offer tasks more engaging that combing the town looking for the bar where the sailors hang out. The core of the gameplay still has Ryo searching out a particular person, place, of piece of information, but it seems to proceed much more rapidly than the first game. But the FREE exploration is more heavily broken up by scripted events this time; Ryo's first few hours in Aberdeen involve him in a well-directed QTE chase, a free battle with the Heavens Gang, and an arm wrestling match, where he's introduced to the crowd as "Samurai Boy Ryo Hazuki."

    More importantly, the townspeople are immeasurably more helpful than the first game's often surly NPCs. Not only does it seem that a lot more people will have the information you're looking for, many will go above and beyond the call of duty to get you to your destination. Most will at least physically point Ryo in the right direction; the camera will pan toward his destination and he'll be facing that way when the conversation ends. A few will even lead Ryo to what he's looking for using the game's new "follow" camera. When following an NPC, the camera switches to a first-person view and Ryo will automatically trail behind until he reaches his destination. One helpful character in the first few hours even draws Ryo a small map with explicit directions, which can then be accessed with the X button. The world of Shenmue II is vast, but it's almost impossible to get lost; maps can be bought in each area for $10 HK, and a new automap now tracks Ryo's location in the corner of the screen.

   While the Dreamcast still has a few notable titles coming in Japan after Shenmue II, the game's arrival will more or less be the system's last hurrah in America. Fortunately, it looks like Suzuki's last game for the system will come a lot closer to the lofty goals he announced before the Dreamcast even launched. If the rest of the game can live up to the impressive first hours, the console's swan song should be a truly epic finale for a great system.

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