Platforms: PS3 (reviewed) | Xbox 360
Publishers: Namco Bandai
With its epic ninja battles, vibrant art style, and heroic narrative, Naruto has proven the basis for some cracking arena battlers, with the interactive portions of the series always managing to change things up just enough to keep fans entertained and newcomers curious.
Perhaps the most striking difference between Generations and its predecessors is that the singleplayer mode has become far more streamlined in a sense. The hub world of previous titles is gone, replaced by a branching story mode that bears more similarities with the arcade modes of its peers.
Telling the tale of the friendship, and then rivalry, of Naruto Uzumaki and Sasuke Uchiha over the years, the story skips around the various ninjas that follow the two leads, introducing us to further characters, and unlocking more of the extensive, 72-strong roster. Gorgeously rendered anime cutscenes from Studio Pierrot, and dramatic narration over painted stills, deliver a sense of the chaos and the emotion and the story's core. A far cry from the likes of SoulCalibur in terms of storytelling in fighting games, Generations manages to make us care.
That said, even though much of the hideous filler of previous games - the endless fetch quests, and other mind-numbingly repetitive side missions - have been axed, it's hard not to feel a twinge of regret that the developers didn't look to tweak and improve the open world, keeping its unique charms and sometimes-diverse gameplay blips, rathe than getting rid of it completely. The new approach works, but it rather provokes a large "what if?", but if you've played your way through the story modes of previous games a dozen times, this change of approach might prove refreshing.
Controller in hand, though, Generations proves to be strikingly familiar. The quick-paced arena combat we've come to know and love is relatively untouched. A truly accessible fighting series, Generations proves to be just as friendly to the newcomer as previous games. You won't need to memorise swathes of button combinations, or grind your thumbs to a pulp as you sweep that left stick back and forth, there's none of that.
Combat in the Naruto series has always been predicated on timing. The face buttons map to individual functions - attacking, dashing, flinging shuriken, and using Chakra. Combining Chakra with any of the other three buttons leads to an enhanced ability, imbuing whatever action you choose with light, and potentially unleashing some aesthetically dazzling special moves.
If there is a criticism to be made, it's that the battles all play out in a rather similar fashion, with attack and defence crucial considerations. The key to victory is knowing when to deploy you Substitutions - rapid evasion techniques that carry you out of harm's way, and quickly restored for a counter attack on a vulnerable foe. In Generations, these Substitutions are limited for the first time, with a specific, segmented bar that refills automatically proving the key component for defence. This means that victory is usually found in manipulating the battle to exhaust your opponents' Substitutions, and then capitalising on their weakness quickly before they have a charge to recharge.
Other little things have been altered too. Awakenings kick in when a player is on their last legs, issuing a final charge of power in the hopes of possibly turning the tide, it's a nice feature and one that might well serve to aid the less experienced. Furthermore, the window for deploying a Substitution appears to have been widened, with an eye perhaps towards increased accessibility. Precise timing seems to have been thrown out of the window, resulting in battles that often drag towards the middle as both combatants circle one another warily, whilst waiting for their bars to refill.
That the relatively simple battle mechanics make for some epic encounters of nail-biting action might seem surprising. However, there is a fluidity and grace to the fights in this game that comes with patience and a certain consideration for strategy. It's all about knowing when to attack, when to evade, when to use up some of that Chakra bar to best effect. It's a game that button mashers will probably enjoy, but only if you can learn to button mash at the right times.
Picking up the basics is easy, but it is a bit of a shame that there's no fleshed-out tutorial to take you through the special moves and the tactics of battle. There's the most basic of command lists in the training mode menu, but most of the flashy stuff - special attacks, combo moves, using support characters to enhance and extend my attacks - isn't really covered.
Online, we haven't had any issues with Generations, with minimal lag, swift matchmaking, and the ability to spectate if you're playing in a group. There's the usual array of casual and ranked matches, but with the added bonus of four and eight-player tournaments and Endless Assaults. Furthermore, the "Ninja Info Card Battle" incorporates a trading card minigame into proceedings, allowing players to indulge in a game using cards with attribute boosts. Win the game, and you win the boosts on your card, adding a little spice to proceedings.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations does enough to warrant a look from series fans, with some interesting tweaks to the combat that throws an angle of resource management into the mix. The revamped Story mode will probably prove a little like Marmite, with some loving it, and some fans not, but there's a lot of fun to be had here, even if we could have done with perhaps a little more gameplay diversity.
- Gorgeous aesthetics capture the essence of the manga and anime superbly
- Combat tweaks are welcome
- Robust online
- Could use more depth
- The 72 characters all play rather similarly
- Streamlined story might put some off
The Short Version: Although not the most nuanced or deep fighter out there, the Ninja Storm games have always had heart, and Generations is no exception. A moving story, some subtle combat tweaks, a large roster, and robust online features make this title a strong choice for both series fans and newcomers alike.