Version tested: Xbox 360
It's almost three years since the last Devil May Cry, with its self-consciously angsty Emo shapes. Despite its awful music and dialogue, we were happy to dish out 8/10 for what was one of the best hackandslash fighting systems around. It wasn't a big step up, but it didn't need to be. It just needed better balance, and to make us forget about the awful second instalment. Refining the 2001 original into something truly fleshed out and compelling, it did the job.
That said, a lot's happened in the last three years, not least the arrival of next generation consoles with a larger, unforgiving audience, and some serious competition from two God of War games - all of which may have had some bearing on how DMC4 has turned out, whatever Hiroyuki Kobayashi says. The Capcom of old was happy to back a single-platform release, start the game's difficulty on 'hard' and expect players to admire its work, but this one has to retain its loyal following while opening DMC to a wider audience.
The first step was the most obvious: make it a multiformat title from launch day - a concept to which Capcom's been strangely resistant. Second sensible decision: make it accessible from the start rather than beating players around the head. It might irk the hardcore to see their beloved series being compromised, but Capcom's decision to offer 'Human' or 'Devil Hunter' difficulty from the off - and, gasp, a tutorial - is the sign of a developer chasing and trying to retain an audience in a mature way. All too aware of shortening attention spans, DMC4 is eminently playable even if you're a self-confessed button-masher, yet pretty challenging for series veterans, with a further four difficulties to unlock for the truly committed.
So yeah, times change. It's easier from the off, and the move-set is less convoluted, but the payback is that the learning curve is smoother, and the game allows you to make (and alter) upgrade choices without giving you the impression these are bad decisions. Someone at Capcom has gone through series conventions with a big red pen, and made sure that a whole host of things that patently weren't fun were kicked out. You can't help love them for bits like 'Auto Skill Up', which selects upgrades for you but still gives you the option of tinkering with them if you change your mind. If you want to admit you're a ham-fisted, combo-fearing 'Novice', it'll select the moves best suited to hammering the buttons. If you're rather more proficient with your finger gymnastics, then you can go for a more demanding set of moves. The best thing about this approach is that there's always the option to cash in old upgrades and try something else (check out some combat footage from early on in the game on EGTV).
As you'll no doubt be aware from the endless previews and trailers over the past 30-odd months, DMC4 is the real sequel to the 2001 original - in chronological terms, at least. The big news is that surly newcomer Nero is the lead character, although he appears to go to the same barber and tailor as Dante. The game starts with the cocksure Dante bursting into a church and killing the leader of religious group The Order of the Sword. This prompts the incredulous Nero to give chase and seek revenge.
Like Dante, Nero is blessed with angst, and a nice line in grumpy quips. Just like all the other DMC games, the result is unbearably, self-consciously serious narrative interludes with chiselled looks, intricate Gothic attire, floppy fringes and frowns as standard-issue. It's still entertaining, but perhaps not for the reasons intended. However, if you've played any of the others, you'll know exactly what you're in for, and there's no denying that the actual quality of the choreography, animation and detail levels are exceptional. But as much as Capcom likes to devote so much effort to creating quality FMV sequences, we're here for DMC's intriguing blend of swords and guns.
Strange, then, that Nero's Blue Rose double-barrelled revolver is actually a bit weedy compared with Dante's equivalent firearm. The emphasis here is much more on Nero's Devil Bringer attack, and its ability to project a spectral arm out ahead of him. As well as being able to grab hold of enemies in the air (and smash them down), you can use it to propel Nero around the environment at speed, although this is limited to a few pre-determined areas where you'll be able to grab onto glowing blue blobs. Another new addition is the 'Exceed' system - the ability to 'rev up' your Red Queen sword, charge it up three times and unleash a red-hot powerful blow, except despite much experimentation, frenzied combat reduced charging opportunities too much to get a handle on it. Your mileage may vary.
A better idea is switching between slashing with the uncharged Red Queen and using the grapple powers of the Devil Bringer, locking on, and varying attacks depending on the type of enemy. Some aerial enemies have to be grabbed first with the Devil Bringer, then slashed furiously once they're on the ground. Others, you might need to actually jump up first, grab onto the enemy, and then pull off a combo mid-air, perhaps before finishing them off in a flurry of slashing steel on the ground. If you've got enough magic charged up, you'll gain access to the Devil Trigger, which in simple terms makes Nero faster and more powerful for a brief period, and proves a useful way of draining enemy health quickly. As ever, it's satisfying once you become confident with the broader move-set. The greater emphasis on aerial combat, new weapons, a different upgrade system and different enemy types puts a newish spin on the combat, although repetition drags down some of the initial excitement relatively quickly.
Indeed, in many respects DMC4 is far too faithful to its existing design template. The game can't decide whether to opt for a fixed camera perspective or to give you freedom, and as a result you're often forced to run into the screen before the perspective switches arbitrarily. Suddenly you're pulling down on the stick, yet moving up the screen, causing all sorts of confusion as you force yourself not to change direction, even though logic holds that you should. If you do flick direction as the perspective changes, you'll run back onto the other screen. Sometimes the game wants to be modern and give you full camera freedom, but mostly you're treated like a child. During moments when you can't see what's arriving to attack you, it really does remind you of the bad old days when this sort of thing was routine.
There are other areas where the gameplay feels old - like the way you're penned into a predetermined area to fight demons, which respawn upon your return but with no requirement to fight them other than as a means to harvest more of the game's currency. Elsewhere, the accessibility doesn't extend to keeping you informed as to what to do or where to go next, so you're left to wander around until you find an arbitrary object. Then there's what to do with that, of course. A little mini-map on the bottom right of the screen helps slightly with navigation, but you get no Metroid Prime-style objective markers on it. Backtracking between areas (dodging the respawning goons) becomes commonplace when the smallest amount of prompting would have done away with it. When it does things like this, it just feels like a high-def re-skin of a 2001 game design.
Much has been said of the visual splendour, too, but it's a bit uneven. There are some stunning, picture-postcard moments when the game looks jaw-dropping, but many of these are in the early sections. Later on, you'll be watching Nero's lurching run animation and wonder how it all became so bland. At its worst, you'll see dreadfully blocky shadowing (check out the tree shadows), and areas with nothing to do other than run through them. Next to, say, Uncharted, it looks quite old-fashioned in places, like a scrubbed up version of what we used to think looked amazing. Under the harsh microscope of HD, there's sterility to a lot of DMC4, and when Capcom's not quite lavished the same level of detail in certain parts of the game, it really shows.
Overall, oddly, DMC4's approach isn't a million miles from Lost Planet's. Both games hinge upon spectacular bosses at the end of each level (check one of them out on Eurogamer TV), and both feature levels where you trudge from A to B and clear out the cannon fodder in-between. Worse still, DMC4 recycles not only the locations for the second half of the game, but most of the boss monsters. And then, just as you're zoning in on completing the game, it recycles a few more in a tiresome boardgame to pad things out. Few games I've played in the past few years have been this obviously padded, and it reduces the incentive to go and play it again.
If that wasn't disappointing, the role that Dante plays is little more than a bit part; a concession to appeasing the fans who would have been annoyed without him. But his inclusion is half-hearted and taints the latter third of the game. There's not even an unlockable option later after multiple play-throughs to play as him throughout. Again, with this knowledge, there's even less reason to invest the time and effort going through the game over and over again. On the plus side, the appearance of online leaderboards gives serious players the chance to compare their ranking performance with the best in the world, and on that level alone there will undoubtedly be a lot of players out there replaying the game purely to test their mettle against the community.
When we finished DMC3, we wondered what Capcom would do with new hardware. The answer is not an awful lot. The visuals are better, the combat's more accessible, the upgrade system's pleasingly flexible, but in practically every other sense Capcom has passed up the opportunity to do something new and exciting. After more than seven years, the Devil May Cry series finds itself in the same kind of safe, reliable trough that Resident Evil was in before Resi 4. DMC4 can still fall back on rock-solid combat mechanics and some standout moments, but it feels as though it's comfortable to slowly refine what was good about previous versions rather than evolve into something spectacular.
7 / 10