Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is ah dammit I ran out of space already with my opening blurb. Believe it!

I hear you. You’re a fan of Naruto. At some point in your life, you’ve taken a pen and drawn whiskers on your face, and thrown a few Jutsu hand-signs that got you attacked by a mob of angry deaf bikers who thought that you were swearing at them.

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Hell, maybe you’ve even got a ninja headband, or a few shuriken lying around waiting to be confiscated by the local authorities. What’s the point of all this then? Simply put, you’re the kind of guy who would easily devour this game.

And why not? On the surface, it’s a Konoha yellow flash of some great-looking visuals, plenty of characters and a storyline that stretches through the chapters that the manga source material and anime series have been pushing out.

It’s also one of the worst sequels in the history of the decade-old franchise.

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Deja Vu No Jutsu

Picking up after the events of the massive fight between Naruto and the Akatsuki ninja Pain, the latest Naruto game takes players from the formulation of the Shinobi Alliance, through to the taming of the Kyuubi tailed beast, and the massive Fourth Ninja World War that primary Antagonist Madara Uchiha wages in an attempt to gain control of the tailed beasts.

If you’re scratching your heads right now, the story is basically 80 000 ninjas made up of colourful solo characters versus bad guy McNasty-pants and his army of cloned plant-people foot soldiers and immortal zombie shinobi.

I believe in Japan, they call that Tuesday.

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So, how does the game play on the surface then, compared to the previous sequel which was clearly just phoning it in when it was released last year? Pretty much exactly the same, and that’s a damn shame. The Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm games have always been about giving players the ability to experience one-on-one combat as one of the unique characters of that world, with a move-set that is shared between characters, who are separated in technique only by their personal secret ninja arts.

But if you happen to have a copy of Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 lying around when you buy this one, you’re about to feel ripped off. Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 must be one of the most eco-friendly games on the market right now, because the recycling of year-old character models and animations is astounding.

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I’m not even joking here. I popped in the discs of the two games, and found there to be little to no variation on many of the character models. Exact same attacks, exact same movements and animations. That’s not just lazy, it’s also disgusting.

It’s still also annoying that the ratio of characters who actually have different combat techniques compared to the usual fisticuffs bunch are severely limited in design. Puppeteers had a tricky, but interesting mode of play that required you to keep an eye on two fighters at the same time, but some how, CyberConnect 2 has nerfed this character type and made them even more terrible to use in combat.

Ranged fighters hurl all manner of projectiles at you while keeping out of fists reach, while…Oh wait, that’s it really. So much for that example.

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Combat has had very little tweaking done to it. It’s still all about the timing, as triggering a substitution jutsu to teleport out of harm’s way and into position to charge up enough chakra to deliver a counter-blow. Combos are still basic and of the button-mashing variety, secret ninja arts are limited to two per character and everyone has access to ninja tools such as explosive tags and ability boosters that don’t really serve much purpose.

But I’ll give Cyber Connect 2 a high-five for some of the animation sequences that play for the ultimate jutsu finishes. They’re gorgeous, flowing and pure violence porn…but with a classy touch. I just wish that they hadn’t focused so damn much on them, to the detriment of the gameplay.

Battle still feature moments where you can summon some tag-team assistance from comrades, depending on their particular skill. Use them enough in a fight, and you’ll build up a gauge that will allow them to lend you a hand during combos and attacks, without you needing to call on them for backup.

One aspect that has changed though, are Awakenings. While the vast majority of theses last-minute, low-health salvation transformation techniques still require characters to be on their last legs before they can be activated, a number of characters can now use them whenever they want in battle, but with the drawback that their chakra gauges will be depleted and reduced after the effect wears off.

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But in return, Awakenings still offer a great deal of power. For some characters, these include increased attack damage and range, as well as instant jutsu techniques at the press of a shoulder button. The latest Naruto game might feel daunting for newcomers, but I’ll give it credit where its due, and admit that the learning curve for this game still sits at Genin level so far. For veterans, they’ll get back into the swing of things in no time.

So how about that story then? That should at least count for something, right? After all, minus the ridiculous anime and the fact that the manga comics break up climatic fights for pointless origin stories, it’s still a pretty gripping tale of good versus evil, amirite?

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Welcome to the version of that story that will require some Edo Tensai no jutsu to get through then. Graphically speaking, nothing much has changed with this installment of the game. However, it’s the animation of those visuals that have improved dramatically.

They’re hip, vibrant and energetic cut-scenes between battles, and they’re also rarer than an Uchiha who hasn’t activated emo no jutsu. While there are some phenomenal animations that put the anime to shame, moments that extend into massive gameplay events as well, they’re separated by moments of  exposition that go on and on and on and on…

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It’s just posing no Jutsu, with characters rambling on making the story a contrived and preachy effort,  hamstrung as they are by several edits which water down several events and make them have less of an impact. Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 may have been a lacklustre experience last year, but at least Cyber Connect 2 had the decency to go and stay close to the storyline.

Toss in a sandbox mode which serves no real purpose other than to be linear bridges to cut-scenes, and you’ve got a bland product overall. And then we’ve got the return of boss fights, which for the most part, still fail to live up the standard set in the first game.

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They’re few and far between, with a majority of them focusing on taking down or taming the nine-tailed demon fox that is a catalyst for many of the events in the history of the series. Make no mistake, on a visual level, they’re absolutely fantastic, but combined with the tedious story structure that drags on for hours and the low level of input needed makes for a disappointing experience.

Not to mention that the shortcuts that affect the bulk of the story, extend to the actual ending itself; something which has yet to play out in the actual source material. Prepare yourself for a whopper of a lukewarm ending, Naruto fans.

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Which is all the more disheartening when after ten or so hours of gameplay and cut-scenes, you find yourself in a King Kong sized battle where you have to smack down a gigantic demon-stealing statue that throws lightning at you; or control the five greatest shinobi leaders in a fight to end all fights against an immortal legend who just happens to be able to summon asteroids and wrap himself in a  gigantic demonic aura monster of mass destruction.

Again, Japanese Tuesday.

Interspersed with these moments and vanilla fights, are fighting sequences that pit your fighter against many. Think Tekken Force, but with ninjutsu. I like the idea of this extension to the game mechanics, but it can feel clumsy and chaotic, and is obviously in need of some fine-tuning. It’s also an event that only happens at most about four times throughout the whole game.

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As clumsy as it is, I liked that bit of experimentation. But that’s just what it was, as the segments you play through in this mode, feel like beta appetisers for the main event. I’ll admit, that the gameplay in the final battle of the game takes all these factors present and condenses them into one epic showdown, but at the same time, it’s as if Cyber Connect 2 forgot to structure an entire game around this event.

I also don’t see much of a reason to revisit these events once the end credits roll. That kind of replayability is usually reserved for the free battle mode. Pickings are light here once again, with players having access to vanilla modes, practice sessions and customizable tournaments.

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Online still has some glaring issues with lag, although I will admit that I was playing on a 2 meg uncapped line. But compared to my experiences last year with the first sequel in which I played online with a 1 meg line, I can barely notice a difference in quality between the two.

At the end of the day, the third Ultimate Storm game is one flashy title in the series, albeit one without any real substance at all. Gameplay development has come to a standstill, and somewhere along the path, Cyber Connect 2 has lost their ninja way, putting too much effort into polishing up the same turd from last year.

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Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm 3
Summary
After a stellar effort with the second Ultimate Storm game in 2010, Cyber Connect hasn't just gone downhill with a second lackluster sequel. They've gone into terminal velocity with a game that puts visuals ahead of gameplay, something that they can't even manage to pull off properly.
5.5
Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 was reviewed on Xbox 360

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Darryn Bonthuys

Something wrong gentlemen? You come here prepared to read the words of a madman, and instead found a lunatic obsessed with comics, Batman and Raul Julia's M Bison performance in the 1994 Street Fighter movie? Fine! Keep your bio! In fact, now might be a good time to pray to it!

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