As a fan of the series, you'll bet I picked up my copy the first day it launched. Upon installation, you'll find a nice little box that'll catch you up on the story so far through some scrolling text. You won't see all of it before it finishes, but if you so choose you can continue to read on after installing. My first impressions of the game were honestly a bit lackluster. Yet, the longer I had the game, the more I grew to appreciate it. It may not be the perfect Naruto game I was hoping it would be. What we do have however, is a great party game to play with friends alongside a wonderfully immersive campaign.
You'll find when starting up the game, that if you've played any of the other Ninja Storm games in the series, you'll unlock free battle characters from the start. This gave me a great amount of playable characters right off the bat, but almost felt a bit too much. There are other characters to unlock, but most of them were already there because of my saves from previous entries. I'm the type of person who generally likes to have unlockable characters, but I do know that some would prefer to have them right off the bat. I suppose in a sense, they gave something that either side of that fence can enjoy.
My first instinct was to head into free battle. A mode which naturally lets you fight against friends or computers, pick your character or team, and go at it. Upon playing a few matches, I really couldn't tell much difference from Generations, the previous game in the franchise. Gradually though, I found that quite a few characters have been tweaked. Most notably through their awakened forms. Some of which have access to completely new moves, and even instant awakening (the ability to go into your awakened form immediately with the flick of the right stick.) Some characters have these tweaks, some do not. It's a matter of testing them out to see for yourself. This brings me to my two main issues with free battle. The loading times between battles vary. Sometimes it takes a long time just to start. With the new features added, it has also introduced a good bit of frame rate issues. There are times when the screen is covered in attacks, and the game slows down to Matrix levels of slo-mo. I've had this go on for more than seven seconds straight in a battle. It shouldn't be a deterrent, because the game is a lot of fun. It's just a warning for those that really have issues with that.
Speaking of new mechanics, they've added a few new things that really do shake things up a bit. You can now hold down the melee button to charge up and rush your enemy. If this hits, you can then use any available team members to jump in and set up an attack for you. It's really neat, and if you can do it right, you'll be able to get a rather sizable combo going. Then we have stages with ring outs. This is hit and miss. It's nice that they've included it, and it does add to the tension of combat. However, the animation when getting knocked out is sometimes ridiculously poor. The character will be stiff as a board at times flying into the background, which just looks bad. It's a great mechanic, and the fact that you have to break through a barrier to get a ring out is nice considering you don't have to worry right off the bat about them. Team members this time around are more effective. You can use them to take attacks for you, or throw you back into the stage if you're about to have a ring out. It offers up a lot of new opportunities to do interesting things, and I'm sure will give people who are very serious about the game a lot of new ways to combo things.
Now, let's get to the story, which is what the series is so well known for. The opening scene I'm sure most have either seen or played the demo. It gives us a glimpse back to the attack by the Nine Tails (or Kyuubi if you're so inclined). The game starts things off extremely well, giving one of the most memorable boss fights in the series' history. It also introduces the new story mechanic which lets you choose either "Hero" or "Legend" paths for each boss fight. They differ a bit, and Legend tends to be the harder of the two difficulties. However, they don't change anything other than the fight itself. It does nothing for the actual story. You will get more points for your ninja tool sets depending on which you go with. Though this is a little irrelevant, as you'll get points for both either way. It also introduces smaller scenes that can be activated by doing certain things. For instance, in the Minato versus Masked Man battle in the prologue. You can dash towards him to activate a scene where you'll enter into a quick time event. It's neat, and it adds a little extra on top of already great fights. After the dramatic opening scene, things slow down a bit. You're put into Naruto's ninja world which you are allowed to explore. It's a really beautiful place, but I found that if you're only going through the story, most of the areas are not even visited by the time the credits roll. You'll have to go there yourself and explore if you want to see most of the ninja world. It's not massive, but it's pretty sizable.
CyberConnect2 has done a wonderful job once again of faithfully recreating scenes from the manga and anime. While still adding a bit of their own flavor to spice things up a bit. The boss battles are outstanding, and surprisingly the multi-person battles are quite fun. In fact, I'd found myself wishing they'd added more into the game. It's not 100% flawless with its execution, but for something that seemed like quite a change up from the usual one on one battles, they did very well with it. Unfortunately, there are key boss battles missing from the story. I will say I was very disappointed with the ones they left out. They're still in the game as regular battles, but could have been so much more. The things that can be done between the story mode missions are somewhat fun, but rather forgettable. I found myself not wanting to do all the side missions this time around, although they're there for those who would like to give them a try. Once you've beaten the story mode, you'll find that there really aren't many reasons to go back into the ninja world other than attempting to get the fragments for the extra chapter. You will find that in the story mode, you have a "Ninja Timeline", which will allow you to go back and play any boss or battle again. It even goes all the way back to the beginning of the series. Allowing you to go through each and every fight in Naruto history. Which is once again, pretty cool for them to do. Although it doesn't add much that you can't do in free battles yourself. Which brings me to my last thought on the story mode. The ending, without presenting spoilers was not what it should have been. The last battle was as epic as it was difficult. What happens after the battle is very different from the actual story however. It's done in such a way, that I'm not sure how they are going to continue it in the next game. It felt a bit rushed, and it seemed tacked on as well. They had already gone past the anime series in terms of material, so I don't understand why they didn't just go a little further and find a better way to end the game. Either way, the story mode is one that you'll definitely want to play through. It's fantastically well done aside from the issues mentioned above. You'll undoubtedly have a great time going through it.
Moving onto the online portion of the game, I'm going to go ahead and say that it works. Just, not particularly that well. There are a ton of options to customize your profile (which is a ninja card in this series). You're allowed to change the picture, along with two titles. The titles can be mixed and matched to give you things like "The Angry Ninja" or "Masterful Sage". (Not actually sure if these are in the game, those are merely examples.) There are a lot to pick from, and even more variety in terms of the pictures on your card. I believe there are 1,000 you can choose from. Which gives a wonderfully varied experience. When you finally get to play online though, the game is still plagued with some slightly lacking net code. You'll get battles that work just fine. However, you'll also be getting ones that lag quite badly. In a game as fast paced as the Naruto Storm series, even a split second of lag can mean the difference in battle. I've seen the game go as far as stopping for a few seconds before starting again. Sure, every online game is going to have some lag here and there. This one has it a bit too often though I'm afraid.
In closing, Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is a fine addition to the series. It adds a lot of fun new things to the game, but it simply felt rushed to me. There were a few characters that they heavily focused on in trailers, yet didn't include in the roster. They left out key boss battles, and there are some issues with frame rates. The longer I spend with the game, the more I find myself liking it despite these things. It's a wonderfully created and also incomplete ninja war. If they'd taken a few extra months to fix these issues, it could have been the perfect storm. As it stands though, it's still a great game, and one that any Naruto fan should have in their collection. Even those that don't know a thing about the series can easily pick it up and have a lot of fun though.