Team Ninja main man Tomonobu Itagaki reckons Ninja Gaiden II will be "the world's premier action game", and as hyperbolic as that sounds, there's a good chance it will be. The brand's certainly built on firm foundations - back in March 2004, Tom reckoned the Xbox original was "one of the finest action games ever made". But that was then, and plenty of challengers have come along since that have been even more spectacular - not to mention far more accessible. Ninja Gaiden could give most hardcore gamers a bloody nose at ten paces.
Just a year ago, of course, we got back up to speed with the revised PS3 version, Ninja Gaiden Sigma, which was a good excuse to start preparing a mental wish-list of improvements for the pending sequel if nothing else. Although remarkably solid in the combat stakes, it was painfully obvious that Team Ninja had plenty of niggles to address if it wanted to win back its crown, such as needlessly respawning enemies, regular loading pauses between areas and an irritating save-game system that could leave you high and dry at inopportune moments.
Thankfully, it's evident within minutes that most minor issues have been dealt with, and the promise is of a far more entertaining and accessible sequel, without diluting what made it so beloved of action gamers in the first place. Blessed with a feature-complete preview build, we rattled through almost half of the game's eight chapters and came away impressed in almost every area.
The first thing that hits you about Ninja Gaiden II is the level of polish lavished upon it. When we last saw the game at the Tokyo Game Show, we expressed some concerns that the game didn't quite look at strikingly beautiful as, say, Devil May Cry 4. Since that time, Team Ninja has evidently gone to town with the 360's hardware, creating one of the most assured, confident action games seen to date. Often, a 50" 1080p panel can expose high-definition titles, but Ninja Gaiden II appears to be designed to exploit such treatment. Boasting incredibly sharp textures, vivid and atmospheric backdrops, and frenetic, pinball-like action that barely flinches no matter what chaos is unfolding on the screen, it's every bit as in-your-face as the trailers and controlled demos suggested it would be. As you might expect from a studio with so many visually opulent games under its belt, technical excellence is almost a given - but what about the rest of it?
Once again starring leather-clad ninja warrior Ryu Hayabusa, the game kicks off as it means to go on - at a hundred miles an hour with a blizzard of severed limbs. Set high up in the night-time Tokyo metropolis, you battle Black Spider clan minions five at a time down walkways and corridors, with the neon glow of the skyscrapers and city streets below providing a stark contrast to the serene opening of the previous Ninja Gaiden. With no tutorial to speak of, you learn basic moves such as Reverse Wind, Technique of Shadowless Footsteps, and The Furious Wind Technique on the job. Based around a few simple button combinations, you'll have a firm grasp of wall-running, light/heavy attacks, blocks and dashes quickly. For the most part, the combat centres around the Y and B buttons (for heavy and light attacks respectively) with the left trigger providing the essential blocking ability, and A to jump.
Soon after you've mastered the basics and marveled at how Ryu's Dragon Sword slices through flesh and bone like a hot knife through butter, your move-set is embellished with more gory, death-dealing tricks. The first NINPO attack, The Art of Inferno, gets added to your arsenal, and becomes accessible via the intuitive d-pad selection system. Once activated with Y or B, it acts as a good old-fashioned smart-bomb attack, where you switch to a first-person perspective and have a few seconds to move left or right to change the direction of the blast and set everyone on fire.