It's always nice to be surprised, unless it's by the taxman or an open manhole. And although Ninja Gaiden has always looked good, actually sitting down and playing the game this month has nonetheless been a spectacularly pleasant surprise indeed.
Put simply, it looks brilliant, and not since Prince of Persia have we seen a game so given to great gravity-defying action.
Playing as a ninja - one Rya Hayabusa - you'd expect to be able to do many things mere mortals can't, but the degree of physical freedom Ninja Gaiden gives you is simply dizzying. If a gap's too large to jump over, you can simply run along the wall to your side to span the gap. Similarly, you can sprint a short way vertically up a sheer cliff-face, before jumping upwards to hang with your fingertips off a ledge above. You can also catapult yourself backwards at the top of your climb to reach a platform behind, wall-jump like Mario, if Mario were a black-clad assassin, and... well, you get the idea. You can do a lot and it's all beautifully executed.
Otherwise, the game is all about hacking down hordes of enemies, and combined with this freedom of movement, combat is exhilaratingly intense and gymnastic. Rya automatically locks on to the nearest enemy and you've got a wide range of attacks at your disposal - you can even fling shuriken. And it's all very bloody too, with decapitations aplenty and liberal buckets of ketchup splurting forth.
Plainly, Ninja Gaiden is looking set to be gaming of the very highest order. We've got some issues with the slightly wayward camera at the moment, but otherwise it's top-notch stuff.
Ninja Gaiden will be released for Xbox in May