Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review: Ninja Gaiden 3; hey guys, it's not that bad (PS3)

It's been hard not to notice the wave of negative publicity that came with the release of Ninja Gaiden 3. After playing the game the only conclusion I can make is that the problem with Ninja Gaiden 3 is no more than its name. Were this any other franchise, it would sail by fine, if not become lauded for its cinematic hyperviolence.

But no, because Ninja Gaiden has the (justifiable) reputation for being an intelligent and difficult action game series people had very different expectations from this game. Ninja Gaiden 3 is neither intelligent nor difficult. Ironically it's at its most enjoyable when the difficulty setting is as low as possible and played after a really hard day at work.

That's because Ninja Gaiden 3 is visceral. With a capital V. The vicious combat is the entirety of this game and those rare moments between combat set pieces are there simply to provide save game points and a brief moment to catch the breath before the next set piece. They're big, spectacular set pieces, filled with gore, slow motion slice-and-dice, and swearing. There's a vague sense of horror about the game's scenario itself but for the most part you're not going to have the time to sit and reflect on it, not when there's people to stick sharp things into.

This new Ryu is a world-class athlete, capable of some of the flashiest swordplay we've ever seen in video games. The sword he wields punches through virtual flesh with real impact and he slides, dives and jumps about the place like he's a figure skater on ice. He needs to be, as a typical melee has him facing off against ten or so enemies. A simple-to-execute combo system occasionally degenerates into button mashing, but blood flying around the place and the occasional quick time leading to some especially brutal executions help to retain a level of interest in the same way that Michael Bay films are at their best when there's no talking and lots of explosions.

Now I loathe Michael Bay and everything he stands for, but Ninja Gaiden 3 captured my interest for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while it's not especially challenging, it is empowering. I don't think I've come across a game that makes players feel quite as superhumanly powerful as this game. Sometimes it’s nice just to kick back and play around, and Ninja Gaiden 3 does that nicely.

Secondly, the game progresses at such a breakneck pace that it hides many of its faults by simply running past them at a sprinters pace. The first level, for instance, had a foggy sequence that was just brutally cheap. But less than a minute later I was out of the fog and back slaughtering the goons with clear vision. This works in the reverse too - the clever set pieces I enjoyed were over far too quickly, but the pacing of Ninja Gaiden matches the energy of the combat completely, and it's a real adrenaline rush of a game.

Thirdly, I loved the movement of the game. It sounds small, but movement when done right can have a primal effect on the audience. Think about how impactful a well-made ballet can be, or how flashy the good hip hop dancers are. There's a poetry to Ryu's movement that has a similar impact. He dances around his enemies with such elegance, and the punctures them with such an aggressive flick of his wrists that there is a definite dance-like quality to his movements. It's primal and it's thrilling to behold when it really clicks into gear.

What I liked most about the game is how clear its vision was. It wanted to be an action game, and it fought hard to be the action game. The camera is hyperkinectic, swirling around the battlefield to capture the best possible angles of Ryu disemboweling his enemies. There's a bow, but the autoaim is so generous that as long as the enemy is in the general direction, he's going to be targeted. It's possible to take enemies down using the bow without even taking the time to figure out where they are. The environments are entirely linear and small in scope to funnel players to the next engagement and to limit the time they'll have to realise how empty those environments are. It's refreshing to come across a game that deliberately simplifies things down to the most basic of elements.

When it's all in motion, Ninja Gaiden 3 is a darkly beautiful game. The splashes of red and tearing flesh is expertly rendered. Ryu is an impressively built hero. The boss battles are real highlights of explosions, firepower and energy. Yes, the multiplayer is weak but here’s an idea: don’t play the multiplayer.

On the higher difficulty settings, there's a couple of little frustrations that creep in. The camera is a bigger enemy than the virtual people with guns, for instance, and the bosses have a nasty habit of knowing some very cheap tricks. The easy mode, however, is a real destressor. It might be as different from the previous Ninja Gaiden games as possible, and perhaps that's all Team Ninja's new director, Yosuke Hayashi, wanted to do to separate his own style from his predecessor's legacy. It's a shame Tecmo Koei kept the Ninja Gaiden name, though, because it's the wrong association to make. Big action and spectacle such as this deserves better than the disappointment of fans going in expecting something different.






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