There's a couple of games you can count on having a yearly iteration over the past decade. Madden, Call of Duty, the Atelier games from NIS, and the Naruto games all have had a steady stream of titles make their way to gamers, some with greater changes than others. The Naruto franchise has had its share of ups and downs with their yearly titles, and their last game, Ultimate Ninja Storm: Generations, while good, ran out of steam quickly. So what has Namco Bandai and Cyber2Connect done to improve Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3? Not a whole lot, but a couple of minor tweaks have certainly made things interesting again. But is it enough to justify the yearly update outside of a larger roster? I guess that depends on how much Naruto you need in your life.
Boasting the largest roster to date, there's over 80 characters to choose from when you want to battle online or battle locally with friends. A great deal of these characters have been present in past games, as have the 40 stages that are present. Odds are that if you had a character that you enjoyed in the past then they will be present here, though they may need to be unlocked via the main story mode. Want a team of the kids before the show took its serious and mature turn? That's perfectly possible. Want a team of nothing but Naruto? It's kind of impractical and not really viable for a competitive match but sure knock yourself out.
Gameplay remains largely unchanged in the multiplayer modes, with a couple of tweaks being made to the support system, allowing for characters to operate more on a Marvel vs Capcom 3 system where they are either offensive in nature, defensive, or balanced. This allows them to do stuff like throw some chakra shuriken or take blows for you when an ultimate jutsu is fired off. Adding specific characters to a support team can also affect the team's overall dynamic and power, giving them an edge in battle. These changes actually add a great deal of depth to combat and I'm pretty surprised by this one addition. The bulk of the changes to this game actually come from an area I found faulty in the last game, the story mode.
The story this time follows the Five Kage/Fourth Great Ninja War arc, Sasuke's gone rogue and it's Naruto versus the rest of the world to try and reach him before he is lost forever. Meanwhile you've got another member of Sasuke's Uchiha clan running around making trouble for each nation. His name is Madara and his plans are nothing short of world domination through the power of the Nine Tails Fox that Naruto carries within him, along with every other Jinchuriki out there. It's as anime as all get out, but the presentation is excellent as always. Cyber2Connect has really outdone themselves in terms of how good this game looks. The story mode this time has a bit more activity in-between fights, allowing players to do some exploring to find items like blueprints and consumables that can be used in combat. It's a bit bare bones, but a lot better than just moving from cut-scene to cut-scene like in Generations. It's nice to have that break every now and again, especially during exposition heavy sections of the game, like the close and start to chapters.
One of the major new changes to the story mode introduces the Mob Battles, which closely resemble segments of the Dynasty Warriors franchise. Hordes of enemies that need to be plowed through, as they lamely attempt to stop your progress. These battles can get a little out of hand at time, but through judicious use of the new dash mechanic and burst meter you'll be cutting down enemies in no time. The giant boss battles that were absent from Generations have also made a return, which is a nice thing to bring back, as it provided a nice break from the standard combat. And for those that have found the previous games to be too easy, there is the Legend or Hero mode, that allows you to make a decision at key points in the story that allow you to shape the story in different ways in exchange for a spike in difficulty.
The work the Cyber2Connect has put into the visuals of this series continues to get better and better. Their efforts with 2012's Asura's Wrath showed what they could do when getting out of the comfort levels of the Naruto games, and it looks like they brought back some of what they learned with that game to Ultimate Ninja Storm 3. The game looks absolutely stunning, with some great animation and some of the best cel-shading in the medium. It's really surprising that outside of the minor aliasing, this game could be a spot on replacement for the show's visuals. I keep making a point of this because I'm that impressed by what I've seen, and really, no one does it better with these types of visuals than Cyber2Connect. The audio is also spot on from the show, which is to be expected, and like always, there's dual audio, allowing players to enjoy this game with a dub, or in Japanese. It's interesting to see how far the industry has come in this regard, back in 2008 with Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, the Japanese audio track was a DLC offering, and wasn't present from the get-go.
At this point I think we're at a wall, what more could be done to make this franchise feel fresh and worth the yearly trip to the game store? My biggest problem with Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 was I am still getting that 'been there, done that' feeling when I play. The computer isn't particularly challenging through the campaign, and a lot of the same tactics work without much deviation. If you want fights that are actually going to test you, then get your personal card set up and get some online matches under your belt. But there isn't much that compels me to drop Super Street Fighter 4, or any of the other fighting games I've dumped a great deal of time in to in exchange for Ultimate Ninja Storm 3.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 feels like a 'Best Hits' version of the long running franchise, 'Now That's What I Call Naruto' as it were. It's doesn't feel like there hasn't been much forward progress however, and even though some old mechanics that worked were brought back, I don't feel like the game has benefited that much by their return. Sure the giant boss battles are cool, but why were they even removed in the first place? Just to put them back in so they could be a bullet point? Those of you out there that love Naruto games aren't going to find much wrong with Ultimate Ninja Storm 3, but for the casual player like me, while I can see what all the fuss is about I just don't think I need to come back year after year. Here's to hoping that Namco Bandai and Cyber2Connect can really shake up things in the future. Cyber2Connect really shook things up for me with Asura's Wrath, so hopefully more of that departure's influence can find its way to future Naruto titles, otherwise it might be time to take a break for a year or two.