Even by Capcom's legendary standards, the Japanese veteran is taking its sweet time getting Devil May Cry 4 out of the door. Following on from the E3 2005 teaser video, we got to play the game in Tokyo last September - normally a sure sign that game's a few months off. And then, last month we got the chance to play an even more fleshed out demo at its annual Gamer's Day in San Francisco. Surely the game must be out soon? Not so. Fans have a further nine months to wait until it finally emerges sometime in "Q1 2008", our Capcom rep regretfully informs us.
Hopefully the lengthening development cycle will be worth the wait. The last game, 2005's Dante's Awakening, was, after all, the best game in the series to date, and beloved by the hardcore for its varied, flexible and punishing combat system. But as great a game as it was, after three games in little over three years, it felt like a good time to put the series out to pasture. The arrival of next generation consoles would Capcom the perfect chance to reinvent the series, and come back with a game that will not only keep the die-hards happy, but attract a whole new audience too.
It's a shame, then to find that the 30 minute demo demonstrates precious little in the way of new ideas or a meaningful progression for Devil May Cry. At best, the game is an impressive refinement of what was already in evidence last time around, but mostly it just screams "more of the same" throughout, as if Capcom is content to stick to the tried and trusted formula and give it a delicious high def makeover. Is that really enough to get us palpitating with excitement?
Devil May not be much different to last time
Objectively, there are no major changes in literally anything we came across in the demo, from the delightful gothic art style to the often unhelpful camera system to the well-honed combat mechanics. In much the same way as Capcom stuck doggedly to the same gameplay template in Resident Evil for almost eight years before finally freshening it up, Devil May Cry is heading down that same tried and trusted path. By the time the game hits the shelves in 2008, the series will be heading for its seventh year in existence: a sobering thought.
Nevertheless, Capcom producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi was on hand during the unapologetically bombastic demonstration to run through the new fighting styles, and some of the new weapons which will feature in the game. In case you've missed the ongoing coverage of the game to date, the main character goes by the name of 'Nero', although at first glance you'd be forgiven in thinking it was Dante. To all intents and purposes, it may as well be Dante, mind you, because the look, feel and move set is consistent with our platinum blonde devil hunter.
But, as they say, the devil is in the detail, and the real DMC buffs will notice the new lead character only uses a single revolver (called the Blue Rose, fact fiends) instead of the usual dual wield. On his back, the traditional gigantic sword (the Red Queen) makes an appearance, and can be powered up in the usual way via the collection of the red orbs which spew forth from the souls of your slain enemies.
More interesting is the unique new power Nero harbours in his right arm, the Devil Bringer, a technique that allows him to grab enemies from afar and launch them. With three major weapons available at once, Capcom has managed to offer even more combat flexibility without disrupting the fluidity of how the game feels when you play it. Unlike last time out, you can switch between fighting styles on the fly, so there's hopefully no sense of missing out on any element of what the game offers.
Devil May have pretensions to being a superhero
The first major new power we saw during the demo is Snatch, which basically allows Nero to reach out further away than usual and take out enemies with the usual stylish aplomb. Another new athletic technique which you gain within the first few minutes is Hellbound, which enables the main man to leap vast distances by grabbing hold of glowing orbs floating in mid-air. As a result, the game looks and feels more akin to a dark superhero adventure, with an even greater degree of improbable athleticism and supercool swordplay, gun pyrotechnics and frantic close quarters melee mayhem. As ever, you can't deny the spectacle is another feast of balletic brilliance.
Equally undeniable is how architecturally stunning the whole game world looks in high definition. Remember how much of a technical leap DMC 1 was when it first came on the scene in late 2001, at a time when developers were really struggling to get the most out of the console? DMC 4 does a similar job of creating picture postcard environments, only with added next gen sheen, luscious lighting effects and the benefit of pin sharp resolution. As per usual it's a Gothic overload, with intricate architecture, and moody, discordant tones echoing around the magnificent locations as you run and leap to the next face-off with a rag-tag gang of hades minions. Emerging out onto a harbour at sunset is a moment evidently designed to remind you that this is a new generation of technology. The sunlit reflections and the water effects bathe the scene in a rich golden glow, and as Nero strides purposefully across the pier, and launches himself across large gap with his Hellbound leap, the panning, swooping camera angles do their bit to heighten drama and tension. The gothic ballet never lets up.
But as glorious as the game looks throughout, it's one of those elements of the game that you quickly tune out from. More likely, once you're engaged in furious blade swinging combat you'll be reminded of the irksome frustration of the way 'dramatic' camera angles never seem to prioritise the player's viewpoint, and at times can make it a real pain in the arse to see what you're facing at crucial moments. If you're hoping that DMC 4 will fix these series bugbears, then think again - the game hasn't changed one iota in that respect. It's also a game world lacking a sense of interactivity. The scenery might look beautiful, for example, but there's no sense of being able to wreak havoc on it and smash it to bits - apart from, say, during a boss encounter when it suits the game to do so.
Devil May give you a different path to walk down
For now, the main purpose of the demo is to show off some locations and a range of the new moves available to Nero. So, as well as Snatch, we get to try out Buster, a move that allows you to grab and throw enemies on the ground, as well as Streak and High Roller - the former of which is similar to Stinger if you know your DMCs. Meanwhile, one fiendish new gun move, Exceed, allows you to literally rev your sword like a chainsaw with the analogue R2 trigger, an effect that produces a roaring sound effect and makes us wish that Sony would hurry up and put rumble back in the SixAxis. A little on-screen dial (like a rev counter) lets the player know how much power they can deal on their foe, and well-timed revs appear to be the key to ramping up the power to the max before you finally unleash hell.
Typically, anything that looks like it might involve puzzling in DMC 4 is solved with angry, brute force. For example, a location that could have been in any Resident Evil game shows an uncooperative machine which would lower the bridge were it working properly. Normally, you'd expect, perhaps, to go on an object hunt and come back once you've located the three emblems, scattered around in improbable parts of a dusty mansion. Here, the solution is to just whack it hard. Job done. As chucklesome as such moments are, it does highlight an issue with DMC's dedication to relentless combat. While God of War and even Onimusha have an ebb and flow to the gameplay, DMC's focus is pure combat, almost to a fault. If that's what you want, though, you won't be disappointed.
Devil May have ice bound levels and enemies from time to time
Unsurprisingly, the game's pace doesn't let up at all, and we move on to a snow bound level, on a full moonlit mountain top that harks back to when Capcom very first showed off the game in 2005. We witness a building utterly collapsing, a large creature emerge, with three-blades where hands should arguably be. Known as 'The Frost', we have to dodge his freeze attacks repeatedly, and counter when the opportunity arises. Using the devil bringer to swing enemy around, you have to run near them, hammer circle button and choose which direction to throw them, which results in an awful lot of painful-looking aerial throws.
Shortly after that, we get to meet the inevitable boss. Known to his friends as Berial, and probably slightly uncomplimentary names to his foes, this gigantic, screen-filling demon arrives in a ball of flames, sporting huge horns, a throaty deep voice, and stands menacingly on four legs. Just like Dante, Nero's a cocky wise-cracking sonofagun, and quips: "How curious, fire's bad for the complexion, I burn easily". As their sword tips touch, fiery hell breaks loose, and you're tasked with trying to dodge his rather painful looking attacks with a mixture of stick-based roll evades, plenty of jumping and a little prior knowledge of his lumbering movements and attack patterns. Standing in front of Berial seems to be a one way ticket to Singe City, so working your way around the rear, jumping up and slashing repeatedly eventually removes his flame coat for a brief period. At that point, you can use you Buster attack and drag his flame grilled face down on to the ground, and slash a bit more to chop his rather intimidating health bar down.
Problematically, he gets rather more annoyed the closer he gets to his death, so you have to hope that all the buildings that Berial smashes into give you enough health orbs to make up for the damage you incur. As you'd expect from a DMC game, it's by no means an easy encounter, so expect plenty of button mashing angst before it all falls into place.
Devil May include Dante as a playable character
Enough about Nero, what happened to Dante? Well, he is in the game, and will be a playable character at some stage, though how fits into the storyline isn't clear yet, but appears to be an enemy of Nero at some point before being available to play. We've also been told that DMC 4 is set between 1 and 2, and Dante will come complete with his traditional gun and sword attacks. Whether there will be a co-op mode remains to be seen.
Like a lot of games we've seen on the new consoles, Devil May Cry 4 represents a series evolution rather than anything truly new. For many, that will be more than enough to generate excitement - after all, we're talking about one of the most stylish, intense combat action games around. For many, though, sticking to an ageing formula will be perceived as a missed opportunity to take the series into a bold new direction - or at the very least fix some of the basics like the camera system. Whatever your standpoint, it still feels like a solid entertaining revision to the series, if not an especially surprising one. Let's hope Capcom has a few up its sleeve when it releases the game early next year.