Stepping into the shoes of Peter Cushing and Anthony Hopkins might faze any other actor, but Hugh Jackman doesn't seem to be having any problems. Judging by the Van Helsing trailer and all we've read about Stephen Sommers' forthcoming action movie, the Australian thesp (probably best known for his work in the X-Men movies) has not only managed to create a believably remorseful anti-hero (torn apart by the fact that he rids the world of demonic monsters, but loses the repressed souls in the process), but he's even injected Bram Stoker's scholarly vampire hunter with a satisfying degree of Wolverine. We're certainly looking forward to catching up with him on the big screen later on this year.
However, getting the spin-off videogame right was always going to be a more difficult undertaking. Film licenses are traditionally greeted with cynicism, and it's little wonder given how badly burned we've been by the likes of Enter The Matrix or Minority Report in recent years. Saffire obviously feels up to the challenge, though, because - perhaps spurred on by Jackman's iconic-looking turn in the vacant shoes of Messrs. Cushing and Hopkins - the American developer has decided to try and fill the shoes of one of Capcom's finest creations in recent years, the sword-wielding half-demon Dante, star of Devil May Cry.
Devil May Inspire
Van Helsing is unmistakably inspired by Devil May Cry. The tall and spinning leap, the wall jumping, the way Van Helsing seems to be strolling around as he fires off round after round of unlimited lead from his dual pistols, the way his descent through the air slows if he starts firing, the way he only leaps off the edge of something if he jumps, the way he collects glyphs to buy items between levels, the rippling effect on doors you can't get through... Apart from the plot, which sees Jackman's character take a trip to Transylvania in search of a way to stop Count Dracula and his demonic brethren, there isn't much in Van Helsing that you couldn't trace back to Capcom's celebrated action game. Even the camerawork is unmistakably Devilish - shot from various fixed perspectives that switch as you move around each area, occasionally zooming in a bit or following the player briefly, and sometimes capable of playing its part in an unpleasant death.
However following a few hours with the VU Games-published Van Helsing, it's become clear that Saffire has done a lot better than we had any right to hope. For a start, the game is beautiful. Anybody familiar with the film's locations will be surprised at just how well they've been realised, from the reflective marble floors and cloistered ceilings of Notre Dame cathedral to the crumbling wooden sails of a rundown windmill creaking in the breeze on the edge of a snowy Transylvanian town. It's all been brought to life with an intricate attention to detail, and although the camerawork is a bit amateurish from time to time, Van Helsing is an unmistakably classy looking game.
Van Helsing himself is a tough looking individual, and although his hair is a bit blocky looking for this day and age (and not a patch on the sorts of effects we've seen in the likes of Metal Gear Solid 2), the use of individual eyes and moving jaw contribute to the character's believability, and allow Saffire to root all of the game's key cut sequences in-game, including some spectacular action set-pieces, like a rooftop encounter with a certain potion-guzzling doctor in the moody prologue.
Stake and flips
In combat, he's truly something to behold. His enemies may be largely identikit in each area - decaying zombies here, possessed gargoyles there - but they're satisfying to take down thanks to an impressive array of combat animations and a just-plain-enjoyable combat system. Like Dante, Van Helsing can rely both on guns (some, like his default pistols or sawn-off shotgun, with unlimited ammunition) and melee weapons, but it's a combination of the two that proves most interesting. Breaking from the DMC formula, Van Helsing can use his grapple hook to reel in an enemy like Scorpion from Mortal Kombat and send him hurtling up into the air on the end of an uppercut, before springing off the ground, landing another blow with his wrist-mounted tojo saw blades and then firing off a shotgun blast as he floats back to ground. It's an extremely dynamic and very rewarding system to play around with, and the semi-regular addition of new weapons to the mix keeps things fresh.
Another way Saffire varies the action is through finishing moves and special attacks. By pressing L1, Van Helsing is surrounded by a sort of blue aura, and his attacks become stronger as a result (but drain his little 'special' meter), allowing him to smash his way through certain marked doors if he has the right equipment. Finishing moves, meanwhile, are more like one-shot-kills - dispatch a series of enemies in quick succession and you'll be able to unleash a canister of instant death upon an enemy, and watch them stumble around as the light-of-good skewers them from the inside out - a particularly entertaining sight when it's a pesky gargoyle writhing and tumbling out of the air and then rolling along the ground and out of view.
Regular boss encounters also help to keep you interested, calling on similar combinations but different tactics. One early encounter with a mysterious hooded enemy (well, we know who he is, but why spoil it?) has you dodging ground-stomp attacks, charges, and having to duck in and out of his reach to attack and to avoid being caught and tossed through a bank of overgrown flowerpots. Then again, if you do get caught, at least you get the satisfaction of watching Van Helsing held up in the air while he fires his weapons downwards in a futile show of resistance.
Calling Dr Jones
In fact, there are very promising little touches like this, both graphical and otherwise, all over the place, and one of them is even a recurring gameplay mechanic. Some bosses can knock Van Helsing's hat off, see, and there's actually an entry on the end-of-level score breakdown which simply says, "Finished with hat on:" followed by a 'yes' or 'no'. We don't know if it's significant that you do finish with your hat on, but you'll definitely want to, and it's indicative of the level of fun Saffire has managed to imbue the game with - and recalls the antics of a certain Harrison Ford, whom many reckon Hugh Jackman is starting to emulate. Van Helsing the game is certainly that calibre of adventurer - serious, but not without moments of whimsical fun.
Equally whimsical is the way enemies and smashed crates drop special glyphs, which can be collected en masse and spent at a little between-level shop on extending the health bar, life-replenishing items, new weapons and other tools of the trade. Better still, the amount of glyphs dropped seems to be tied in to the quality of your attacks and combos - rather like the system in Devil May Cry, not exactly surprisingly - and enemies respawn if you decide to traipse back through previous areas looking for more glyphs. You can also expect to find a few spare enemies, glyphs and items hidden on rooftops and in other side areas. Observant players will definitely appreciate the level design we've seen to date.
Of course, enjoyable, DMC-inspired action is all very well, but movie licensed videogames have this tendency to fall down when it comes to actually living up to the movie. Enter The Matrix tried to dodge this completely by relying on extra scenes shot by the Wachowskis themselves using central characters, but they fell down when it came to the gameplay aspect. Van Helsing doesn't fail in either area from what we've seen, with impressive voice acting from many of the central film cast (including Jackman himself, thankfully. Kate Beckinsdale doesn't bother to join in, but she's not that hard for whoever-it-is to imitate), and dialogue and delivery to match. In one section, when Van Helsing first meets up with the frosty Anna Valerious, he says "I just saved your life, the least you could do is humour me with a little conversation," - it's a line that starts off clichéd and then dives into a sharpness all of its own. It's representative of our time with the game to date.
There are some issues we've been irritated by so far - the way the very detailed game world is actually artificially restrictive to a certain extent; a few awkward jumps and camera issues; a frame rate that dips below 30fps here and there; and the sometimes-ridiculous frequency of (individually brief) loading sequences, for example - but on the whole Van Helsing feels like a worthy successor to Dante, and this is certainly a cut some way above Devil May Cry's lacklustre sequel. Rather like Van Helsing the movie, Van Helsing the game is shaping up to be an entertaining example of solid action, and we're itching to get our hands on the full version ahead of its May 14th release date. At this stage, only a monumental lapse in level design and a drooping combat system could conceivably condemn this to failure. And if that does happen, Jackman's Wolverine won't be the only man going berserk. One to keep an eye on.