If computer games have failed to be taken seriously, it is largely because of their relative inability to convey emotion. Compared to the character books and films can generate, the frozen faces and soulless gazes prevalent in our virtual worlds are laughably shallow. Even taking into account the finest game screenplays or the rare times when voice acting in interactive entertainment strives to be something more than of passable quality, most of us would struggle to come up with more than a handful of times we could honestly say a game was genuinely touching.
Most of us, however, have not sat down to play Heavenly Sword, a game that employs such high-grade Hollywood production techniques, it could easily convince you that it is a sign of what we can expect to define the future of video games. From the first cut-scene it strikes you. The emotion in the characters' faces is simply superb and, combined with both voice acting and motion-captured physical performances from true legends of Hollywood like Stephen Birkoff, creates some of the most compelling watching seen in any game.
To give you an impression of the sheer quality of Heavenly Sword's production values, it is best to dip into the processes involved. Andy Serkis, who you will know as the man who played both Gollum and King Kong, not only lends his talents to a lead character, but has also directed the actors more familiar with movie sets than mo-cap studios. When Lord of the Rings was created at WETA, voice acting, facial animation and motion-captured body movements were all worked on separately. With Ninja Theory's new action game, for the first time, traditional mo-cap, vocal work and facial mo-cap are all recorded simultaneously, meaning the final animations have an incredible realism, thanks to their status as a direct duplicates of each actor's complete performance.
With four years of development behind Ninja Theory, you can't help but admire their ambition at the start of Heavenly Sword's conception. Predicting what they could have squeezed from the PlayStation 3 at such an early stage must have been near impossible, but the company is an ambitious one, as founding member Nina Kristensen asserts when she says "I would have been disappointed if we hadn't have come up with something we didn't think was pushing what we knew was possible".
Heavenly Sword's bold cut-scenes also slip seamlessly into various parts of the gameplay, extending their reach into the action and interaction. One of the first boss fights pitches you against Roach, the clearly mistreated son of the evil king played by Serkis. As the battle unfolds, the camera occasionally sweeps to the troubled father and son, capturing their relationship in a way that is genuinely touching, engrossing and at times, upsetting. Whether extended play will mean these intrusions on the gameplay will feel like interruptions rather than enhancements is yet to be made clear.
"When we first started talking about the game," said Tameem Antoniades, one of the three founding members of Ninja Theory, "we wanted to create a game that could make you cry as well as make you laugh." Though it is hard to imagine, there are moments in Heavenly Sword that without doubt test your emotional robustness, and in those moments is it apparent that the development team have created something likely to achieve Tameem's goals.
Cut-scenes aside, in game the visuals are outstanding. The view in each level stretches out to a fantastic distance, and throughout the game there are moments when you will clearly see distant walkways and outbuildings that you will find yourself exploring sometime later.
The musical score too, which has been developed by Nitin Sawhney, a drum and bass superstar, movie soundtrack composer, authority on Flamenco guitar and general musical pioneer, has a range and depth that matches its creator. Both the soundtrack and the audio effects are incredibly reactive to on-screen action, and are primed to respond and flex instantaneously as the game twists and turns.
But despite all these hugely impressive big-budget techniques and technical milestones, there's an old gaming adage Heavenly Sword cannot escape. Anyone who has ever rambled enthusiastically about video games has surely said 'good graphics don't necessarily make a good game'. In the case of Heavenly Sword that could certainly still be true, even though it might be a case of 'pioneering graphics, legendary acting, groundbreaking technology and enormous ambition don't necessarily make a good game'.
However, having spent considerable time on several levels of the almost complete game, I can happily inform you that so far the gameplay is feeling great. At its core Heavenly Sword is an acrobatic hack 'n' slash, which means it may still suffer from issues of repetition, but the additional playable character in the form of the rather creepy, catlike Kai, should go some way to bringing variation to the gameplay...
The charismatic lead Nariko, who really looks like she has the personality and sass to become an unofficial mascot of Sony's next-gen machine, is built entirely around melee combat. Her weapon of choice is the blade that gives the game its title, which can divide into sections to allow for various combat stances.
Nariko's standard posture takes the form of the speed stance, with the Heavenly Sword separated into lightweight blades that allow for rapid close quarters combat. The range attack sends the individual blades out on chains, allowing for weak but far-reaching attacks, and the power stance, which sees the sword assembled as one, is used for sluggish but devastating blows.
In addition to the standard combat, some elaborate charged power attacks, and a weighty emphasis on blocking, Kai offers a character with no melee skills at all. However, Kai is nimble and agile, and armed with a crossbow the size of a mini-gun, meaning she can leap to previously inaccessible areas and unleash long-range fury.
Heavenly Sword also features some of the most instinctive and workable Sixaxis control seen on the PS3 so far. After firing one of Kai's bolts, or using Nariko to fling an enemy or fire a fixed canon, tilting the controller in your hands can be used to apply significant after touch, which can be used to guide projectiles both toward their target or through pools of flame.
There is no doubting the staggering level of craftsmanship that has gone into Heavenly Sword, and the results of the development team's labour is breathtaking. With a delivery due at Pro-G's door in the next few weeks, we'll be able to tell you very soon just how Ninja Theory's next-gen action adventure turns out.