Version tested: Xbox 360
My living room is full of twenty-something gamers, and they're watching a friend play through the first level of Ninja Gaiden 2. The air is filled with laughter - hooting, cackling, whooping laughter, punctuated with sharp intakes of breath and observations that, well, everything looks like it hurts. Really quite a lot.
Ninja Gaiden 2 is a spectacle. Its predecessor has come to be remembered for a steep but perfectly pitched difficulty curve - but firing up NG2 for the first time is a reminder of just how cinematic and exciting the whole thing is, too. With Ninja Gaiden, we came for the eye-catching, beautiful combat, and stayed for the challenge. Ninja Gaiden 2 ramps up the first part of that formula to a whole new level.
Graphically, of course, it's a stunner, but it's the battle animation and choreography that really pulls in your attention. Ryu's adventure this time around is a far more brutal and violent than his last outing, which featured the occasional decapitation (excised from the European release, you may recall) as a finishing move. Here, the bloodlust goes into overdrive - and with it, Team Ninja's brilliant, over-the-top battle animations.
In NG2, limbs and heads are severed and tossed around like confetti at a wedding. A fairly wide selection of your basic attacks have the ability to sever arms, legs and even heads, assuming you hit them unguarded and at the right time. Every other attack simply sends huge spouts of blood-splatter across the playing area - and even your non-bladed weapons have the ability to cripple, except that instead of cleanly lopping off an arm, they smash the offending limb (or head) into chunky giblets, leaving thick lumps of ichor on the surrounding walls and floor.
Adding to the ludicrous level of comic-book violence is the fact that your relentless foes aren't that bothered by losing limbs. Enemies without arms are restricted in the attacks they can make, but they'll still have a bloody good go; those without legs crawl across the floor and try to grab you for a suicidal bomb attack. To despatch them, you simply press Y in their vicinity. That'll perform a brutal finishing move (usually involving plenty more smashed or sliced limbs) on the nearest crippled enemy, and it's these moves which are likely to generate the loudest cackles and sharpest intakes of breath.
That, then, is the immediate hook of the game - and it's brilliant. No other action game comes close to Ninja Gaiden 2 for looks, for animation or for ferocity. NG2 doesn't even need a map to guide you around, because the section you're looking for is clearly signposted by the absence of blood, gore and limbless torsos, which are strewn and caked all over everywhere you've been. Even the solid and enjoyable Devil May Cry 4 doesn't have the mesmerising quality that watching someone play NG2 exerts. The problem, sadly, arises when you actually pick up the controller yourself.
Ninja Gaiden has always been a harsh mistress, and we've loved her for it. Ninja Gaiden Black, which is probably the high point of the series so far (the PS3's Sigma being essentially the same game), is hard as nails, demanding that you develop superb reaction times, a stunning mastery of Ryu's moves and a perfect understanding of your enemies' animations and abilities as you progress. For many players, it's simply too hard. The popular view around these parts, however, is that NGB isn't too hard, it's just right - as long as you're willing to put in the time and effort.
But Ninja Gaiden 2 strays from the path. Perhaps mindful of the series' reputation for difficulty, Team Ninja ramped up the difficulty level once again - and torn by the conflicting need to provide accessibility for less dedicated players, it's seriously messed up the balance. NG2 regularly stops being challenging and becomes impossible.
Where Ninja Gaiden balanced frustration with satisfaction, giving you a glow of accomplishment when you finally mastered a tricky section, NG2 breaks the equation on a regular basis. It spawns enemies on top of you - occasionally blinking them into existence right in front of your astonished face. It bombards you with unblockable, long-range attacks - and then restricts your movements, limiting your ability to dodge. It throws exploding kunai at you the second you walk through a door, from enemies you can't even see yet. It tantalises with the possibility of clever solutions or stealth (you are a bloody ninja, after all), allowing you to shoot out searchlights, and then instantly respawns the searchlights and bombards you with long-range rockets again.
These situations aren't something that you pass through by getting better at Ninja Gaiden 2. The game isn't challenging you to improve your skills or work out a cunning solution. It's just kicking your arse until you get lucky. Perhaps the AI will slip up and decide it can't see you, or it can't be bothered attacking you for a few seconds, or you'll score a somewhat random limb-removal against a tough foe and get to finish him off with the Y button.
This isn't to say that Ninja Gaiden 2 never gets it right. There are lengthy sections in the game - entire sprawling levels, in some cases - which capture the beautiful challenge and satisfaction of the previous game. Up against ninja-type enemies, or even some of the better-designed demons, the game flows like liquid silk. Every weapon becomes a joy to use, with its own strengths and weaknesses to master, and every encounter becomes a delicious trial of your reflexes, skill, timing and positioning.
In a sense, it's the knowledge that Team Ninja knows how to do this right that makes it so frustrating when it goes wrong. Some lengthy sections of truly excellent play, combined with genuinely great boss battles - which are still spikes in the difficulty curve, but encourage you to grit your teeth and try again rather than howl in frustration and smash your 360 pad - just make it even more painful when it all goes to pot.
The designers are extremely random in terms of putting save-points directly before or after bosses, although at least they have the decency to auto-restart you at the beginning of a boss battle if you die during one. But one encounter, where you fight two bosses in a row with no intermediate save point, perfectly sums up the overall problem. Upon defeating the second boss (one of the game's cheapest, with lots of phases where you're expected to dodge bombardments of projectiles covering most of the play area), you get the final animation - sinking your scythe into its unprotected skull. For most of the game, this means the battle is over. In this specific battle, however, the boss explodes, and if you don't have enough health to survive it, or can't turn and block in time (which didn't seem to block all the damage anyway), you die and have to do the entire battle again.
Cheap? They'd turn their noses up at this in the game design Poundsaver, frankly. What makes it even worse is that there are tons of other bosses who explode at the end, but Ryu calmly walks away from those without any interaction from you.
The balance of the game, of course, ultimately comes down to opinion. It's our view that NG2 regularly fails to provide the same level of combat challenge that NG did, instead stooping to cheap shots at the player's health bar in order to create the artificial impression of difficulty. There will undoubtedly be huge NG fans who disagree, and we should add that even if we think this drops the game's quality well below that of its predecessor, it's still hugely compelling to play, as long as you've got a fairly dogged persistence and high tolerance for frustration.
What aren't a matter of opinion, however, are the technical flaws. Frame-rate is a persistent issue, and while a little slowdown can actually look quite cool in places, it's not so great when it prevents you from pulling off a move in combat or just makes the whole display laggy. This is especially noticeable if you're running in 1080p - we had to drop our 360's display back to 1080i to get the game to run at an acceptable frame-rate, and this on a brand new 360 running a boxed copy of the PAL release. There are other minor bugs, too. We occasionally got stuck on the legs of the larger boss creatures, and couldn't move around until the boss moved and we popped out.
The biggest issue, though, is one that's been around since the first Ninja Gaiden on Xbox and hasn't improved in all that time: the camera. NG2's camera is awful - really, speechlessly awful. It's manually controlled with the right thumb-stick, while the right trigger provides you with the ability to centre it behind you, but in a game this fast and intense, the fact that the camera has no intelligence of its own is as crippling to you as Ryu's limb-severing attacks are to his enemies. It'll happily sit there showing you the wall next to you while a boss pounds on you from off-screen, and it makes the game's otherwise-excellent platforming sections (a huge improvement on the previous game's, with definite cues from Prince of Persia) very painful at times. Worst of all, it's not just bad, it's buggy and bad; on several occasions it became stuck behind scenery and showed us a close-up of a wall while we got smashed into kibbles.
All of which is mainly depressing because Ninja Gaiden 2 is still a good game. It's beautiful, cinematic and full of fantastically detailed enemies, gorgeous animations and incredibly fast, exciting combat. But while it's good, it's not quite great. It's marred by technical problems and Team Ninja's previously perfect balancing act just isn't in evidence in major sections. There's too much trial-and-error gameplay, too many cheap shots, and not enough real challenge. There's a difference between kicking your arse until you learn from it, and kicking your arse until you get lucky, and Ninja Gaiden 2 fails that crucial test all too often.
None of which is to say that you shouldn't go out and buy the most balletic, explosive combat game we've seen in years - especially if you were a fan of the last one. Just don't expect it to be as good as its predecessor, allow for the fact that sometimes you're going to have to grit your teeth and accept that some bits just aren't fun - and always remember, if you have to throw a controller, your sofa's cushions make a better target than your TV.
7 / 10
Ninja Gaiden 2 is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 on 6th June.