The Shenmue series is easily the most ambitious franchise Sega has ever developed. Originally slated for release on Sega's Saturn hardware, the project was shifted over to the more powerful Dreamcast console and released in the US in November 1999. Developed by Sega's revered AM2 team, the game was the brainchild of Yu Suzuki, whose resume includes influential gaming classics such as Outrun, After Burner, Space Harrier, Virtua Racing, and the Virtua Fighter series. Shenmue marked another unique entry on Suzuki's resume thanks to the game's impressive scope and unique gameplay, which blended elements of a traditional RPG with those of 3D action adventure and fighting games. Originally intended to be a lengthy series whose story would be told over the course of several installments, things changed rather drastically when Sega and the Dreamcast's fortunes took a turn for the worse during the console war. By the time the second installment in the series was slated to hit Japan, Sega had announced its withdrawal from hardware development and its new role as a third-party developer. Fans of the series wondered where future games would end up following Shenmue II's release on the Dreamcast.
Unfortunately, US fans got a rude surprise and a hint on where the series was headed when Shenmue II's US release on the Dreamcast was canceled and the title was announced as an Xbox exclusive at last year's Tokyo Game Show. Though this move was seen as a swift punch to the gut for die-hard Sega and Dreamcast fans, the move to the Xbox was ultimately a promising one. The game's ambitious scope and realism, which pushed the Dreamcast hardware to its limits, seemed to be a better fit for the raw power of Microsoft's fledgling console. In the time that has passed since the announcement of Shenmue II for the Xbox, we've gotten brief tastes of how the game is coming together on Microsoft's console but haven't had a chance to have a proper sit-down with it until now. We recently got hold of a 90-percent-complete build of the game and have been racing around China to see how it has been coming together on the Xbox.
For those unfamiliar with the game's plot, Shenmue II continues the story of main character Ryo Hazuki's quest to track down his father's murderer, a mysterious man called Lan Di. Ryo's investigation into his father's death has involved him in a greater mystery revolving around two ancient artifacts, the phoenix and dragon mirrors, and an old prophecy. At the end of the original Shenmue, Ryo's search had led him to set off for China, hot on the trail of Lan Di and in search of the truth behind his father's murder and its tie to the phoenix mirror. Shenmue II picks up where the first game ended, with the opening sequence detailing Ryo's freighter pulling into a Hong Kong harbor. You'll take control of Ryo as he steps off the ship. Armed with only an address and the name of a friendly contact, Lishao Tao, Ryo sets off an epic quest that will send him throughout China.
If you played the Dreamcast version of Shenmue II released in Japan and Europe, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the Xbox version. The game's structure is linear but extremely open-ended in terms of your options, and the gameplay is a variation on the standard third-person action game with some RPG and fighting gameplay elements thrown in for good measure. Exploration and interaction with other characters are prominent parts of the experience, but you'll also encounter a number of traditional 3D fighting sequences and quick time events, which are timed sequences that require you to quickly match onscreen commands with controller inputs. You'll usually have a set objective to complete but will be free to take your time getting to it in most cases. The game provides a wealth of diversions in the form of minigames that range from working a job to gambling to playing arcade games such as Space Harrier and Outrun. While it may sound like Shenmue II is very similar to its predecessor, the sequel's pacing has been improved quite a bit in an effort to keep the action brisk and the slow stretches to a minimum.
Same World, Different Console
Controlling Ryo should be familiar to Shenmue vets and accessible to newcomers. You'll move him with the D pad and use the right analog stick to look around. The left trigger will switch you to a first-person "look" mode, while the right trigger will let you run. The Xbox controller's face buttons will serve a variety of context-sensitive purposes that are represented by onscreen icons. You'll be able to check your diary, go through your inventory, mark points on your area map to highlight important locations, and initiate conversations with people, to name just a few of the various button functions. In addition, the white button will cycle through five filters, such as a sepia and black-and-white tones, that will let you change the game's graphics on the fly. Finally, the black button will let you take "snapshots" at any point during the game. Our build of the game let us take up to 126 shots that we could look at whenever we wanted.
Graphically, Shenmue II is looking good, but clearly not up to par with our Xbox games. To be fair, it is looking a bit better than when we saw it at E3 and X02, and the Dreamcast game has been enhanced a bit in the translation, but nothing has been completely remodeled to allow for significantly higher polygon counts, which is a shame. The color is a bit richer in the Xbox version, and mip mapping has been implemented with mixed results. The mip mapping keeps the game from looking as shimmery the Dreamcast version and smoothes over the low-polygon elements, but it also makes the Xbox version look like a movie shot in soft focus. In spite of these shortcomings, however, Shenmue II does impress in certain areas. The various cities you'll be exploring are massive and highly detailed, and the number of bodies populating the cities is also very high as well. The NPCs aren't generally as detailed as the lead characters, but they still look good. Hopefully the developers will be able to tighten up the game's graphics a bit before its release.
Shenmue II's sound is about as uneven as its graphics. On the plus side of things, the game's ambient sound and soundtrack are extremely well done and do an excellent job of pulling you into the game. Every location you'll visit will feature distinctive background noise that's appropriate to the setting. The game's soundtrack will feature key tunes from the original game's score and new pieces that reflect the Chinese locations. However, there are a few rough spots in the game's audio. The game will support Dolby 5.1 only in its cutscenes, which is disappointing, and the voice acting featured in the game isn't going to win any awards. While we appreciate that Ryo and the gang are a chatty bunch, some of the voice acting can be cringe-inducing. Fortunately, you'll be able to turn off the voice and play through the game with text.
Judging from what we've played so far, Shenmue II is shaping up to be an uneven but satisfying experience. While we would have liked to have seen the graphics and sound take better advantage of the Xbox hardware, the game still looks good. According to Microsoft, the graphics are still coming together, so there's a chance the game may still see some improvement. The addition of the filters and snapshots is an interesting extra, albeit one that doesn't enhance the experience much. Fortunately, the overall game experience looks as though it should be as solid as it was on the Dreamcast. Shenmue II is slated to ship this November for the Xbox.