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Mark of the Ninja (Xbox 360) artwork

Mark of the Ninja (Xbox 360) review

"It hasn't so much as reinvented the stealth genre, as it has made more or less every other entry look extremely stupid for doing it wrong."

It's been quite a while since I've found myself as taken with a game as I have been with Mark of the Ninja.

This is good news for the ninja, an occupation probably sick to the back teeth of how misinterpreted they continue to be in the word of video games. I'm looking at you, Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi; fantastic games though you often are, you represent the stealthy ninja as one man armies who stroll nonchalantly through huge ranks of enemy brazenly. Joe Musashi has no idea what to do with a patch of shadows, and Ryu Hayabusa would probably throw a hissy fit if he was fighting any less than a dozen heavily armed foes. Mark of the Ninja's unnamed protagonist laughs in their faces the way a true ninja should; from an unseen air vent by their feet or dangling upside-down from a chandelier whilst they mince about beneath him.

It's not even until some way into the first level that he collects his first weapon. He awakens to find his hidden village under attack from a small army of heavily armed mercs, and has to slink past them, delving further into the desecrated shrine to try and find answers. He'll need to vanish into the foreground, and cling to ceilings whilst patrols stroll past, and ensure he doesn't make too much noise when within hearing distance. His footsteps echo, rats and ravens can be startled and dropping from heights causes clatter, sending little visible shockwaves out into the world. Controlling these goes a long way towards keeping you alive and alluding the various guards. Then you get a grappling hook that allows you to latch on to vents and perches, doubling your scope to avoid unwanted contact. Then you get a sword, and, should you chose, everything changes.

Mainly because Mark of the Ninja is an effortlessly tight game, with very little for me to complain about. Every action, every consequence, can be turned to your advantage. Being too loud doesn't always mean detection; maybe you spend a few seconds throwing bamboo darts at all the lights to destroy enemy visibility, and then intentionally create a little pocket of sound. The alerted guard, armed with his assault rifle and flashlight will approach it cautiously, flicking his beam back and forth to try and unearth any possible danger. You could use this time to slink away, undetected with the guard none the wiser. Or you could use the distraction to get behind him, and slit his throat.

But, then, what to do with the body you just created? If another guard finds it, they’ll want to check their comrade and, upon finding a corpse, raise the alarms. So, you could hide it, drag it or drop it into an air vent to ensure it’ll never be found, or just graft it into the shadows and hope. Or, use it as bait, perhaps drawing a guard in to check on his vitals, and then slaughter him as he radios for help. Or, be sadistic. Throw the corpse at his former allies, scaring them out of their wits and forcing them to spray the area with panic fire, mowing down any other guards that might get in the way.

Invest in further skills, and you can eventually learn how to hang dead bodies from strategic lampposts, just to ensure anyone who sees this will never sleep a peaceful night again. Entire rooms can be cleared by just scaring the living shit out of one guard, then watching the panic spread like an epidemic, then being more than a little smug at all the bonus points you receive as your enemies all mow each other down in their fear-tainted reactions. More or less any action you undertake has a specific allocation of points just waiting for you to discover, such as finishing a level without alerting anyone. Or sneaking past sentries and leaving them alive. In that, Mark of the Ninja is almost two games in how radically different you need to set yourself up to suit your preferred gaming style; the idea of leaving anyone alive throughout the game felt alien to me, so I spread chaos and panic around whenever I could. Then I returned to the game almost immediately after completion to see how many levels I could pass through without spilling a single drop of blood. The experience was very different; instead of looking for ways to get in on wholesale slaughter, I started plotting intricate pathways that would see me slip through guard nets, past sniffer-dogs and out-fox laser grids and motion detectors.

By meeting certain challenges and criteria throughout the missions, you can start to expand on your basic equipment to further enhance your gaming style. In a cool nod to Metal Gear Solid, (a series that could really learn from the no-nonsense, high-punishment stealth implementation of this title) you can purchase a single cardboard box to hide under, and, while it won’t fool the patrolling sniffer dogs, bored guardsman will stroll right past it. However, upgrade those fully, and it stops being a clever little nod, and becomes an instrument of mass destruction, letting you drag unwary victims within and killing them in private. Smoke bombs, ravenous clouds of insects, flash grenades and poison-tipped darts can all become part of your arsenal at one point or another, as well as changing outfits and skill sets to your liking, all keeping in time with the game’s over-branching plot of mystical tattoos that grant your ninja extraordinary powers, with the ever-so-slight drawback of turning him slowly insane.

As such, the game’s conclusion is perhaps a little on the obvious side, but no less well executed. It doesn't offer up the obvious black or white endings, but muddies everything together into similar shades of grey, offering up introspection on many of the choices you've made along the way. But what’s most laudable is how it humanises the nameless ninja, stopping him from being just another voiceless killing machine, giving him slowly escalating scope that expands outside of ‘kill armed dudes inside shrine’, sending him to modernised medieval strongholds, sand-blown deserts and the heart of a urban metropolis, all presented in stark black, whites and reds.

For the most part, detection means death; you have a sword, and they have fully automatic assault rifles and body armour. Tripped alarms can mean anything from being gang-rushed by riot-shielded troops with flare guns, to missile launchers sliding out of the walls to one-shot kill the hell out of you. Mark of the Ninja punishes mistakes soullessly, but it rewards skill and guile, ruffling your hair affectionately as you learn to slip behind your better-armed foes for the kill, as you distract them from afar and move on unnoticed. You fight from the shadows; either staying there so long you vanish like a ghost, or popping out only long enough to leave a surprised looking corpse. It hasn't so much as reinvented the stealth genre, as it has made more or less every other entry look extremely stupid for doing it wrong.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (December 29, 2012)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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