E3 06: Heavenly Sword - hands on

Busting skulls is fun enough, but when you're playing as an impossibly attractive warrior woman, equipped with a holy-but-cursed sword, it gets even better. We rushed our eager eyes straight to this medieval basher as soon as the E3 doors blew open.

The playable scene drops you into a gladiator-style arena. The mysterious, big boss man keeps sending waves of soldiers into the pit, each differently armored and ready to cut you down. But you've got a bevy of combos to bust out, all of which are contextual and change animations based on how you end them.

You have quick and heavy attacks, an action game standard. What made Sword incessantly heart-pounding were the other ways to attack using the L1 and R1 buttons. Holding L1 switches you to a long-range stance - your weapons fling around on chains, slicing anything in their path. Holding R1 changes to power attacks, where you whip out a massive, two-handed assault. The best part? You can switch between these stances mid-combo, offering multiple possibilities for dismemberment. The same goes for close-quarters throwing - depending on where you are, you may whip your legs around the dude's neck and flip him, or jump behind and hip-toss him into a table.

In addition to your plentiful combos, there's also a slick counter system used to quickly parry incoming attacks. Each time a weapon strikes, there's a brief spark - the sooner you hit the triangle button, the more devastating the counter. If you time it perfect, it's a one-hit kill. Bloody brilliant.

During the final battle with Main Mysterious Man, you're given the chance to pull off an amazing finishing move. This plays out with quick button presses, almost like an interactive cinema. First your character hurls the guy into the air. Then you pound on the X button to run up the wall, then follow a series of directional commands. As you do this, she delivers blow after fatal blow, until the guy falls back to the arena, busted.

It was just one level, but if the whole game maintains this level of excitement, Heavenly Sword could rival next God of War II.

May 10, 2006