Preview: Ninja Gaiden II for X-Box 360
How do you make what is possibly the greatest 3D fighting game engine ever seen, and then get the camera utterly, utterly wrong? Ask Team Ninja. In Ninja Gaiden II it has produced a masterpiece of flowing and vicious combat that is - though not ruined - severely hampered by the most basic of design flaws.
In their own ways, both of those aspects are incredible. Levels move from big fight to big fight, each one held in differently proportioned locations and with a subtly different blend of enemies. Every one its own challenge, every one a little design lesson of its own.
Enemies have more guard bypasses than the original (some of which are so brutal they'll remove more than half of your health), move around you more intelligently and attack without mercy. If you get caught out and don't respond quickly, Ryu will be dispatched within a few seconds in a swift combination of attacks from multiple foes.
Getting surrounded by more than two or three (which happens easily with the sheer force of numbers NGII throws at you) will almost certainly see you losing a great deal of health, if not collapsing in a bloody heap.
Just as well that Ryu's been in training. He's much more effective than his previous incarnations, possessed of a dizzying range of stylish, efficient and very fast offensive capabilities that allow him to negotiate small spaces quickly. This stops foes getting an easy bead as well as allowing you to position forward strikes into the groups you'll be facing.
There has never been anything quite like it in the genre. You can obliterate huge numbers of enemies in almost no time at all, cut through defenses with ease, and you will look magnificent while you're doing it. The hybrid aesthetic - high-tech Technicolor Japan mixed with muted feudalist Japan - might sound dissonant but looks sharply coherent. In fact, in the hands of a skilled player NGII looks nothing less than exhilarating, and occasionally surpasses any martial arts movie you might care to name.
And this is why the camera is such a surprisingly big issue. This isn't a problem with it getting caught on a corner occasionally, nor the odd confusing switch of perspective. It is a constant problem: obscuring foes, breaking up combos, losing track of Ryu, and flicking back and forth between positions.
In part it's the fault of the cramped and narrow environments that make up a significant portion of the game. In part it's a problem with opponents that move so quickly and attack from any angle so they can only be tracked manually. But overall it's thoroughly disappointing: the very second battle of the game takes place on a narrow, descending ramp, and in the course of this fight the camera will do everything but show you the fight as it needs to be seen - getting stuck, losing sight of Ryu in the midst of the group, and occasionally flipping views back and forth in the space of a few seconds.
It's not the only issue with NGII, but it's really the only important one. Other irritants largely come down to personal preference: the increasing dependence on demons and other magical foes (in short, distance attacks) as the stages wear on, the rather anodyne puzzles, the usual ineffectiveness of your shuriken.
In comparison to the deadly and graceful human opponents, the lumbering purple and blue demons that turn up seem a little like low-quality Shrek rejects. Added to that, the bosses for the first three stages present no challenge on the highest difficulty setting available on the preview code, each one falling relatively easily - compensated for in one case by its spectacle and, for once, a camera that fixes on a practical and panoramic view of the fight. Then, weirdly, there are some illusion-shattering advertising hoardings plastered throughout the locations (it's certainly... interesting to see Xbox 360 advertised in an Xbox 360-exclusive game).
These are all worth mentioning, but they don't significantly affect the joy of the combat. Its depth is increased by the much-talked-about gore: lopping off a limb opens up an instant kill, usually a decapitation. Easy to achieve one-on-one, of course, but much more difficult in a crowded area: you'll frequently end up with injured enemies in among a group - a dangerous situation, because certain disabilities provoke a very damaging suicide attack. Button-mashing never got you anywhere in Ninja Gaiden anyway, but the necessity for a moment of calm timing in the midst of battles completely rules it out, since the instant kills can't be triggered by hammering.
It's worth reiterating that, even at preview stage, the action at the core of NGII stands up to the best in the genre. So if there's any serious development left to go on the project, we have to pray that it's directed towards the camera, because it's currently holding back such immense potential. If not, then Ninja Gaiden II will remain a trial for the dedicated player - and not in the way that Team Ninja wants it to be.
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