Let's get this straight: of all the hackandslash games of recent years it's been the Devil May Cry games that have best held my attention. I like their ambivalent tone and their over-designed world: the baroque-modern towns with magic swords and buses. It's a grand contemporary fantasy, and it doesn't falter. It's also a mechanically pleasingly fighting game. Guns and swords: it's all about how the fighting looks, and you have to respect that in a game. Devil May Cry 4 certainly doesn't get shy on that front: savaging multiple enemies with a giant, blazing sword and a gigantic, ammo-free pistol is once again the central beat of the game. The frenzied demon-killing doesn't seem to have lost its touch.
Visually it's impeccable too. The world design is unspeakably lavish, with incredibly intricate fortresses and cityscapes discarded in mere seconds of gameplay. There are some beautiful scenes, typical of this kind of game, where the pacing quietens. Sprinting along a snowy mountainside towards a citadel sees you encounter no monsters, no challenges, as if to let you savour the atmosphere. The final camera sweep in the approach to the colossal castle is a fantastic pay-off to the quiet moments before. I'm a keen subscriber to the Skip-The-Damned-Cutscene school of gaming, but with DMC4 I simply couldn't resist seeing what mad stunts and visual nonsense I was going to be delivered in the video sequences. The opening fight between Nero and Dante is a cinematic showdown worthy of the most insane Kung Fu choreographers.
Of course it's the in-game visuals that really count, and they're generally superb. There are some minor camera annoyances, where the tiniest movements cause it to flick about disjointedly, or simply not show you the monster that the fight-music is telling you is just off-screen, but this never really affects your play for more than a few seconds, at least in the opening few hours of the game. The bosses, once again, are incredible pieces of design. Even the first encounter with generic Balrog type is enough to set your toes tingling with next-generation delight, without ever really pushing things too far. There's never a moment's stutter. It's a game that dwells comfortably within the middle ground of 360's graphical capabilities.
Anyway, I'm not going to bore you with story stuff, suffice to say that our new character, Nero, who is once again rather like Dante and Vergil in both look and attitude, has a bunch of new powers in the form of his Devil Arm. It's not a major progression from the previous games, but the grapple-hook movement and general baddy-beating you can do with it certainly adds another dimension to the swording and shooting. Nero feels quite vicious to play, and you'll want to stay close to enemies at all times. The swordplay feels even more solid than the last game, with charge-up power-ups once again adding to the "Ooh this will sting" anticipation in the fractional seconds before a big fight.
The one thing that bugged me on my first play, and actually, now I think about it, rather annoyed me in previous games, is just how stilted the jumping is. DMC has this kind of hangover from earlier eras - I want to make the killing far more fluid than it is. I know the 'air-combat' stuff is all-important to the stylish death-deliveries, but there's something particularly awkward about it in this instance. A minor quirk, and one that most fans won't even consider, I'm sure, but still it irks.
Word has it that Capcom intended to make DMC4 easier than the previous games, and I think it has. The lower tier "human" difficulty is eminently defeatable. Perhaps it's not challenging enough, especially since there are only two tiers, amounting to "too easy" and "still quite hard". I'm not complaining though, since I've never enjoyed the most frustrating elements of these kinds of games. I wanted to be cowed or worried now and then, but I don't want to get stuck. Ever. This, of course, could be the kind of thing that gets some minor tweaking between now and release. And that's only the fighting: despite motoring through our first impressions code, I don't think there was anything in terms of the puzzles or physical challenges that I felt really annoyed by - and these are usually the static faults of these kinds of games, whatever the difficulty level.
But then there's this other thing that nags me about my first few hours spent with this game. Partly it's my bearded housemate shrieking over my shoulder and saying rude things about Japanese game design, but it's also the quiet comprehension that Devil May Cry 4 is an incredibly adolescent game. I sort of don't want that to sound as pejorative as it does, but hell, this is such a teenage boy fantasy that it is, at times, flesh-cringing in its audacity. The moment when female executive of the Holy Knights, Gloria, shows up on a snowy bridge wearing a strip of cling-film is astonishing. She's made of Japanese gelatinous lady-physics (you know the kind of hyper-elastic bounce I'm talking about) and - I swear to God - there's a Matrix slow-motion shot up the cleft of her exposed arse. I mean seriously boys, there's exploitative attitudes towards women and there's... yeah. Upskirt bullet-time bum zooms.
Oh, sure, what's so great about reality anyway? It's a fair cop. I'm all for escapism. Let's get the hell out of suburbia by any means necessary, if that means tunnelling our way to heroic fantasyland via the TV then so be it. Just be careful where you end up.