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Digital Foundry: Hands-on with Bayonetta 2

Fan service.

It seems like ancient history now, but you may recall that Nintendo introduced Wii U as a system designed to appeal to both casual and dedicated players alike. One of its first moves in wooing the core player was to resurrect Bayonetta 2 - a game that was all but cancelled before Nintendo moved in to save the day. Calling to mind the Capcom 5 announcements for GameCube, the Mario maker commissioned Platinum Games to develop two new titles for its fledgling system: The Wonderful 101 released on Wii U last year, while Bayonetta 2 arrives next month, continuing the system's positive momentum that began with Mario Kart 8 and gathered pace thanks to a strong showing at E3. While Nintendo's own titles have a universal appeal for all players, Platinum's latest release is something very different, coming across very much like a love letter to the core gamer.

Here at Digital Foundry, we still have a way to go before completing Platinum's latest epic, but first impressions suggest that this sequel delivers. Gameplay feels instantly familiar to those who played the original, while newcomers and more casual players should be able to ease into the game thanks to the introduction of new touch controls. These new options won't distract those looking for the more challenging, hardcore experience though - they effectively replace the 'easy automatic' mode of the original Bayonetta. Certainly, Platinum's dedication to an insane gameplay experience remains undiminished: exploding angels, giant medieval torture devices and even a little dancing are just some of the things you experience within the first five minutes. Levels are larger and more detailed, set-piece moments are even more over-the-top, but crucially, the action is just as laser-focused as its predecessor.

The bulk of the game's technical improvements stem from those outrageous set-piece moments. While much of Bayonetta 2's underpinnings are shared with the original - right down to its native 720p presentation, lacklustre texture filtering and no anti-aliasing - the engine manages to deliver sequences more complex than anything the original had to offer. However, this decision backfires a little in some respects. At its heart this is a game that owes the roots of its design to classic fast-paced PS2-era 60Hz action games such as Devil May Cry. Those backgrounds racing by as you fight hordes of angels? They may as well be flat-shaded boxes without compromising the gameplay. Sure, all of those pyrotechnics and crazy levels are a core part of the experience but they're ultimately little more than fancy window dressing - and it comes at a cost.

That price is a hard hit to sustained performance and it's the one area of the game that didn't quite hit the target during our initial play sessions. Once again Platinum Games aims for a 60fps update, but similar to Metal Gear Rising, it struggles to maintain it. While it's certainly light years beyond the awful farmed-out PlayStation 3 version of Bayonetta, the overall experience isn't quite as smooth as the original Xbox 360 game. On the plus side, the irritating tearing of the original has been completely eliminated, but while it's still a fast and responsive game, the consistency in the update leaves something to be desired.

Performance analysis of Bayonetta 2 - Platinum Games aims for 60fps, but the unlocked frame-rate is a little too variable for our liking.

Still, the visuals themselves are often quite breathtaking and their impact on the atmosphere and design of the game shouldn't be underestimated. The great use of destructible scenery with pathways often ripping apart before your eyes is just one example of the many impressive sequences peppered throughout the game. Beyond that, it's hard not to be impressed the first time you effortlessly guide Bayonetta across a beautiful, reflective pool of water contrasting against a massive ancient city. The brilliant blue hues and vibrant effects have an almost Dreamcast-like quality to them at times - and the game works beautifully as a modern homage to a certain type of gaming experience that never quite transitioned across from the PlayStation 2 era.

Animation has also been given a nice overhaul with a completely new set of movements for Bayonetta, complemented by a new cast of enemies. Furthermore, refinements have been made to her outfit and general design with clothing (hair?) that looks more detailed and 'leathery' while her shorter haircut is well modelled and animated. These smaller details definitely add up across the course of the game and create a more refined visual experience overall.

Despite its high-intensity action, storytelling actually plays a huge role in the Bayonetta series. As with the original, cut-scenes come in two flavours - fully animated sequences and static filmstrip panels. Similar to the original game, the frame-rate drops to 30fps during these scenes, and a nice object motion blur effect is enabled, accentuating the over-the-top action. It does feel as though there are more fully animated sequences this time around with fewer of the filmstrip segments and the end result is tangibly improved pacing.

Bayonetta 2 represents Platinum's second outing on the Wii U and it's clear that the team has made significant strides in the intervening time. Since we missed it last year we've put together a performance analysis of The Wonderful 101 in order to chart Platinum's progress on Nintendo's latest hardware. Set apart from the varying performance levels inherent to both titles (and much worse on The Wonderful 101) there are interesting contrasts between the two titles.

Performance levels for The Wonderful 101 - Platinum's Wii U debut - fare much worse than Bayonetta 2, dipping dangerous close to 30fps far too often. These issues certainly detract from the already chaotic gameplay.

While Bayonetta 2 is a challenging game, it empowers the player with extremely fast and responsive controls that make each mistake feel like a miss on the part of the player rather than the game. The Wonderful 101, however, is a much more complex beast with its formation and grouping systems. Swapping between formations and assigning different formations to your crew requires serious practice. Enemies never take it easy on you either with major hits scattering your party across the level, forcing you to re-group and re-form. Once you get the hang of the game it can be a lot of fun but getting there requires a huge effort. The game's unstable performance definitely has an impact on the experience as well: when you couple an often poor frame-rate with extremely challenging gameplay the results prove highly frustrating.

It's fair to assume that some of the performance problems faced by The Wonderful 101 stem from the large crowd of characters that you're tasked with controlling but that doesn't always account for its more severe dips in frame-rate - simply moving from scene to scene can trigger massive drops below 60fps. With Bayonetta 2 the large crowd of The Wonderful 101 is seemingly traded for significantly more detailed actors, better shadows, flashier effects, more open stages with a free camera system and better overall performance. Both games put a lot of effects on screen but it's clear that they've found a better balance with Bayonetta 2 that allows for plenty of spectacle without tanking the frame-rate. Whether it's through more efficient coding or better management of performance bottlenecks, the result is a game that feels more optimised overall.

The Wonderful 101 was a unique experiment, but Bayonetta 2 is different. It feels familiar yet fresh, packed with frenetic, insane action and fun storytelling, always encouraging you to give it one more go. It's difficult to call this a technical showcase as such in the era of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and its highly variable performance clearly counts against it, but Bayonetta 2 still has a unique appeal - it's like welcoming an old friend home after they've been away for a few years.

And of course, it's just one part of the package - Platinum's latest ships in a double-pack with the original Bayonetta, a superb title in its own right, and with Platinum at the controls, we remain hopeful of a conversion that betters the Xbox 360 original. We plan to give the original game the full three-way Face-Off treatment it deserves - a great chance to compare the studio's Wii U polygon-pushing prowess with its prior Xbox 360 efforts, not to mention the infamous PS3 port...

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