Near one corner of South Hall at this year's E3, there was a very special room with an unusual power. Maybe it was the image of the man in a black assassin's outfit that dominated the outer wall, or perhaps there was some kind of bewitching magic in the circular positioning of the numerous viewing stations, but whatever the cause, the room repeatedly beckoned me. With many of the titles shown at E3, I'd go in to the private media rooms, spend some time playing a game with the company representative standing over my shoulder telling me about this feature or that addition, then I'd go on my way, barely thinking of the game again until it was time to gather my thoughts and write a preview. But Ninja Gaiden 3 is not a game that will not go away quietly.
Ninja Gaiden 3 engages your brain from its high moral centers right down to its primitive, animalistic core.
So when I found myself with some free time early one morning, with no immediate appointments and ahead of the crowd that was still filing into the Los Angeles Convention Center, I made a beeline for that special room. With Dual Shock controller in hand, I put on the dark hood of Ryu Hayabusa, who has been the star of the series since the very first Ninja Gaiden, in 1988.
What's different this time around? Well, if you played the last couple of installments, you already expect fast, furious action - jumping, slashing, twirling, stabbing mayhem. That is the series' trademark, and it is even more polished this time. The action draws the camera even further in, zooming in tightly to the kill point, taking you even closer to being the ninja you've always dreamed of being. Ryu glides from one slash to the next as easily as you would walk from one side of your living room to the other, with no discernible pause between steps, no hiccup to distract you from the task at hand. Launch into a combo and you can change your mind at any point - whether you decide to switch targets or you suddenly want to go for something a little fancier to impress the spectator that's come up beside you to see what all the excitement is. Go ahead and try for that flipping jump onto the enemy's head, Ryu will keep up.
It doesn't take that many consecutive attacks to end most enemies, and Ninja Gaiden 3 lets you dispatch them with style. After all, if you're going to be mowing down hordes of villains, a little variety can go a long way. Developer Team Ninja (now without former producer Tomonobu Itagagaki) excels at visual flash bombs and keeping repetitive tasks feeling fresh. Ninja Gaiden 3's more initmate focus engages your brain from its high moral centers right down to its primitive, animalistic core. Enemies seem more real, their deaths more substantial. There are ample opportunities to finish them off with extra flair by following a button prompt, but it is up to you how to best handle the situation.
In order to keep the pace firmly on the Insane setting, there is an option to press in the right analog stick to make Ryu look in the direction he needs to go next. It's easy to get turned around once you start bouncing all over the place on a kill spree, so the R3 function is a welcome way to focus your attention on your next goal while avoiding a gaudy giant arrow or even an intrusive radar system. The HUD fades away when you aren't in battle, helping to keep it all feeling as real as possible while not sacrificing useful information.
If the path leads into a sheer brick wall or other obstacle, there are a couple of new features that should help you get around. First is a slide that will get you under things like parked trailer trucks. Just run at the impasse and press L1 at the right time. Certain walls can be scaled by using Ryu's kunais. It's a little tricky at first as you get the timing down, but it's a simple matter of latching on to the wall and alternately pressing L1 and R1. If there is a sentry posted at the top of the wall, you can also use a kunai to introduce him to a plummeting demise.
Given its 2012 launch date, Ninja Gaiden 3 should be as polished as a fine diamond when it does come out, but what I've seen is pretty much already there. Since Tecmo Koei is promising both co-operative and competitive multiplayer, with up to eight participants, there is probably still a lot to do, but if there is one combatant deadlier than Ryu Hayabusa, it's Team Ninja, so you know the finished product will be killer.
Click the Ninja Gaiden 3 artwork above to see a larger version.