Monday, 9 April 2012

Devil May Cry 4

Devil May Cry 4, with its introduction of a new character and an ending that hinted at further adventures to come, was likely meant to herald the beginning of a healthy new life for the series on next-generation consoles. Despite being a praiseworthy, albeit unadventurous, fourth chapter in Dante’s saga, it seems something didn’t quite go to plan as far as Capcom were concerned. That last line in this re-visited review – “from here, everything is looking very bright indeed” – sounds a tad optimistic now.

Over four years on from Devil May Cry 4’s release, and there still isn’t any hint of a ‘proper’ fifth chapter. Instead, last week saw the European release of the inevitable retro exercise Devil May Cry HD Collection whilst – far more controversially – development duties for a new full-blown DMC game have been handed to Ninja Theory, the developers of the underrated Heavenly Sword and, er, the overrated Enslaved. Set in a “parallel, non-canon” version of the DMC universe, and featuring the sort of self-consciously gritty restyling that tends to be shorthand for a developer unsure of which direction their creation can go next, early reports on DmC: Devil May Cry (because nothing shouts reboot like a minimal title) haven’t been encouraging. But there’s something fascinating about DmC, especially as it’s, by our account, the first big Japanese franchise to be entrusted to a Western studio. That’s one for the future (well, E3 2012).

For now, to celebrate the release of the aforementioned Devil May Cry HD Collection, here’s our 2008 review of DMC4. And to think, Bayonetta was still two years away…

The amount of criticism regularly directed at Devil May Cry 2 even today may seem disproportionate and in no uncertain terms a little picky, but the overwhelmingly negative light in which that 2003 release is still held suggests two things: 1) Devil May Cry is a series that demands an opinion, whether devotional or not, like few others; and 2) the second game remains an albatross hanging around the neck of the franchise, which even the fantastic previous instalment has failed to dislodge completely.

That’s why when in this latest instalment new character Gloria says to Dante “Looks like you’ve got a rep to live up to”, it’s almost as if the developers are not only acknowledging that there’s still some debt to pay, but that there are certain things the player expects from a Devil May Cry game; outrageously flashy action, lots of guns and a nonsensical narrative, to give but three examples. It almost goes without saying that Devil May Cry 4 delivers emphatically on these fronts, despite featuring some disheartening flaws.

New character Nero is central to proceedings in the tricky plot, a naive and eager foil to the brash, cocksure Dante. A convincing relationship of master and apprentice develops between these two as the game progresses, although to explain more would be to potentially spoil moments that are best appreciated when accompanied by the most OTT cut-scenes in the short history of Devil May Cry (and that’s quite an achievement in itself).

That this is the first established Capcom franchise to receive a next-gen makeover meant that the graphics and general presentation were invariably going to be a significant step ahead of what we’d seen before, and sure enough ‘Devil May Cry 4’ positively glistens. The lighting through- out is wonderful, the backgrounds expansive and dramatic (the entire forest sequence being a particular highlight), while in crucial areas such as character animation and bosses, the increased processing power has clearly played an integral role. We can only imagine the delights Resident Evil 5 will offer in twelve months time.

There isn’t anything radical underlining this extra flourish and polish, just Capcom aggressively pushing Devil May Cry 4 towards everything that the series has ever stood for; that fleeting impres- sion of a PlayStation 2 game wrapped in more expensive visuals is quickly replaced with the instant gratification of seeing Dante cut a wall into the shape of a heart using an endless shower of blades, or of watching Nero shatter the armour of flying knights whilst in balletic slow-motion. So far, so thrilling. The major problem though isn’t what Capcom has done with the leap to next-generation, but rather what they haven’t.

The charge often levelled at recent titles such as Call of Duty 4 and Heavenly Sword (to give a more relevant example) is that however enjoyable the games, the overall experiences have been extremely brief, lengthened in these cases by an impeccable online mode and a clever system of unlockable extras. Capcom has rather cynically (or deceptively, if we’re being charitable) attempted to swerve this issue by masking some significant repetition with the otherwise welcome introduction of Dante. It is no exaggeration to say that one-third of the game involves Dante traversing across almost exactly the same route that Nero takes, albeit in the opposite direction. Additionally, though the bosses are all suitably memorable creations, expect to encounter them more than once. Never mind the consistent beauty of the fighting system, such design feels unfairly cheap and draws attention to the potential ideas and environments that could have been explored across such a large portion of the game given more development time.

Just as well then that the mechanics of combat are so finely balanced, for this is truly some of the finest action gaming of recent years. Nero’s new Devil Bringer ability is the most important addition to the already bulging repertoire, allowing him to drag enemies closer as well as frequently swinging them into the path of others. It’s testament to how well the fighting system works though that once play switches to Dante you’re not left hankering for Nero, but are instead fondly recalling the suave carnage of the third game - Dante’s four fighting styles, changeable with the touch of the d-pad, each making a return. The combinational and tactical possibilities are numerous, and it’s this unprecedented depth and flexibility afforded to the player that raises Devil May Cry 4 beyond the more consistently surprising God Of War 2, or the more studious Ninja Gaiden.

The combat system is also the aspect of the game that goes furthest in (almost) justifying the aforementioned recurring mission structure. Devil May Cry has always placed a strong emphasis on style; completing the game for some players is almost a side concern when there are SSS rankings to achieve and air combos to master. The ends are less important than the means used to get there, and within this context Devil May Cry 4 makes perfect sense.

Although true redemption for this most singular of franchises is still tantalisingly out of reach, consider Devil May Cry 4 a devastatingly impressive placeholder, a flamboyant consolidation of everything you ever loved about the series. It’s impossible to ignore, a joy to watch and suggests that finally, after much internal anxiety, it’s time to stop looking back and instead embrace the future of Devil May Cry. And from here, everything is looking very bright indeed.

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