Dishonour! How is it that a company as experienced at making games as Capcom can suppose that Western gamers are somehow superhuman enough to enjoy playing an already brutally challenging game on 'hard' mode by default? Hilariously, in this case that's exactly the gaff Capcom made when it elected to pitch Devil May Cry 3's default skill level at the same level as the Japanese version's unlockable 'hard' mode with its US and European releases. No wonder I was having a few issues. And there was me thinking I'd just become terrible at games overnight. ["Become" -Tom]
Like many Capcom games, you initially have no choice but to play the game as the designers intended, but after it hears your plaintive whimpering it almost apologetically offers you the olive branch of an 'easy' mode after you've had your backside handed to you one too many times. But by then you may well be sporting the biggest ego humbling gaming has delivered since Ninja Gaiden and simply want to run off and play something that makes you feel good about yourself again.
No such thing as Easy Street in Capcomville
But if you know Capcom, you'll also realise its interpretation of 'easy' differs somewhat from the rest of the gaming pack that would practically play the game for you if you asked them. When Capcom says 'easy' it's a bare-faced lie. This so-called 'easy' mode is still more than capable of putting up a sterner fight than most games you'll face this year, yet manages to stacks the odds against you almost perfectly, unlike the hilariously easy one-button-mashing travesty that was the second part of this topsy turvy series.
Enough whingeing about the difficulty issues that Devil May Cry 3 positively basks in; if you're prepared to endure an almost vertical learning curve (or are simply used to this) you might just stick with the game long enough to realise that Capcom's latest hackandslasher is easily one of the best of its generation, and a timely return to form for a series that was in dire danger of becoming an irrelevance.
The third in the series is actually one of those oh-so-fashionable prequels that takes us back to Dante's early devilry years, at an unspecified point of his brash young manhood when he was desperately trying to do the right thing and stop his hateful twin brother Vergil from opening up the rift between the devil world and the human world that their father Sparda thoughtfully sealed up thousands of years ago. It seems the less-cool Vergil is intent on unlocking his latent demonic powers for some slightly unfathomable reason (presumably to rule the world, get a better house, craft a better hairstyle, and maybe get laid).
Would Dante bottle a semi final?
No such problems for Dante, who would shame Jose Mourinho for his oceanic reserves of self confidence and shameless arrogant ability to laugh in the face of anyone or anything that gets in his way. The game kicks off, as we've described at length in our first impressions, like a TNT factory on fire with the blonde-haired goth performing all manner of improbable (and quite possibly ludicrous) stunts in the face of hell's minions simply because he can. At this stage the spectacle's all very impressive and balletically bombastic, but completely over the top to the point of self-parody. You half-wonder if Dante's going to jump aboard a passing nuclear missile and ride it into hell itself before the chaos ends, but thankfully after a somewhat over-enthusiastic opening salvo (with some absolutely cringe-worthy one liners) the game settles into its traditionally dark gothic groove - and is all the better when it stops trying to impress the kids.
Having inched my way painfully slowly through what seemed like an epic journey of well over 15 hours of button-mashing torment, it's fair to say that the gameplay remains pretty consistent throughout. It's not going to exactly win awards for breaking the mould, but in terms of building on what's gone before it's easily the best-realised DMC of the three by some margin.
But let's not lose sight of the fact that in essence it's the same game at its core, with many, if not all, of the main game mechanics reprised for a third outing. If you've indulged in a DMC (or the spiritual spin-off Chaos Legion) before, you'll know the drill; bunch of hellish creatures appear, doors lock, Dante pulls out his mighty sword and firearm and dispatches said hellspawn with a series of simple but effective combos. In this case, the basic melee moves are once again assigned to the triangle button, with the shooting taken care of on the square button, basic jump manoeuvring mapped to X and special move/use on the circle button. It wasn't broken, and Capcom really didn't need to fix it.
Slinger of guns
What it has done, though, is ratchet up the combat in a variety of other ways, from adding a slew of new firearms and melee weapons (all upgradeable to boot), and more cunningly by adding a number of combat 'styles' (the evasive Trickster, the firearm specialist Gunslinger, the defensive Royal Guard, and melee specialist Swordmaster), lending the game more of an RPG feel. Although you can switch between styles as you please, the general idea is to specialise in one particular area and really max out your abilities, giving you a chance to tackle the combat in the way you feel most comfortable. Allegedly the default 'Trickster' is your best bet on your first play through, but we ignored that and went in all guns blazing using 'Gunslinger' all the way. Sometimes that old school Track & Field training from 20 years ago still comes in handy you know.
In common with all the other DMCs, downed enemies spew forth various orbs for your pains. By far the most common are the red orbs which act as the game's currency, enabling you to trade them in and learn new combat skills and upgrade weapons, not to mention allowing you to buy health, smart bombs, continues and devil trigger recharges. Occasionally you might actually be rewarded with some of these for free, either by solving mini mirror-puzzles or hacking your way through the regular secret missions that you occasionally stumble across, but DMC 3 is never exactly generous with what it dishes out, and often you'll find yourself having to work extremely hard to level up to a point where you're capable of defeating certain bosses and other hard-as-nails enemies. By far the most effective means of doing so appears to be replaying certain secret missions over and over again until you've racked up enough orbs to buy that tempting new upgrade, or maybe something as simple as enough health to see you through one of the huge number of bosses you'll face along the way.
But while the core gameplay stays roughly the same throughout, the hook that drags you along is undoubtedly the heady combination of learning ever-more-powerful and spectacular moves, meeting increasingly challenging creatures and bosses, not to mention exploring some wonderfully detailed environments.
In terms of the moves the game offers, it would take a feature all of its own to run through even half of them, given how many weapons and stages of upgrades there are. The most impressive facet of it all is that it never overwhelms the player with pointlessly elaborate multi-button combos, but keeps them mapped to one or two buttons in conjunction with the desired direction or rapidity of the button presses. For example, our favourite move in the entire game (and arguably one of the most consistently effective) is to simply do an Air Hike (jump and jump again when in mid air), followed by a hail of bullets. Used with the game's lock-on function it's a move that takes care of practically anything and has the added benefit of firing at objects off-camera. If you're a 'gunslinger' like us, doing the same thing but pressing the circle button performs an even more spectacular downward spinning assault, raking anything below you with lead in the process.
Not everything works like that, though, and if there's one thing you quickly learn about DMC 3 is that you can't simply monotonously use the same combo ad infinitum. Changing tactics to suit the enemy is key, and while some succumb easily to a quick slash of your favourite melee weapon, others require you keep your distance and time your assaults with the utmost care. Some even require a combination of the two before they'll shuffle off, and it's a game where you'll really enjoy getting to meet specific enemies and trying new things out. That moment when you discover their Achilles heel is truly satisfying, even on occasions when you're forced to battle through respawning creatures that fill corridors for no other reason than to hold you up.
The bosses, though, are the game's real highlights, and it's no exaggeration to admit that some of them held us up for hours. Not since the glorious Metroid Prime 2 (my personal favourite game of 2004) have we been forced to battle such challenging and ultimately satisfying bosses. While DMC can't really lay claim to being in the same league as that, it's still a glowing testament to the game's carefully balanced strength that we stuck with the game even when it presented something of a brick wall to our progress. Even the wasted hours felt somehow satisfying, because all the while we were busy levelling up and basically making Dante into the biggest badass we could, arming ourselves with extra health and continues in case it all went tits up - which of course it invariably did. Even so, the core gameplay - the combat - was somehow entertaining enough for it to not bother us that we weren't making progress off level sodding nine. Of course, once we'd conquered it we couldn't work out what was the big fuss. Sometimes it's just sheer panic, sometimes the burden of fatigue. Sometimes you're just plain ill-equipped, but it always felt enjoyable.
Gamer May Cry - if they don't buy yellow orbs
Well, almost always. For a while we didn't realise that we could continue after we died. The game simply doesn't offer continues by default, and it's up to you to buy yellow orbs to get yourself out of such trouble. If we could level one complaint at Devil May Cry 3, it'd be that Capcom really should point out how crucial it is that you do this. Fail to do so and you're basically left to play the level in question from the very beginning - and without any of the thousands of red orbs you'll have picked up along the way; very frustrating indeed. You can admittedly save your 'status' at any point (which will save your newly bought moves and so on even if you do get killed without a continue left in the bank) but it's still a drag being forced to replay an entire level when you probably came so close to killing the boss in question.
But once you accept that this is the way the game is designed you do everything to prevent it happening again. After 10, 15 hours of the game, you'll probably be numb to a lot of the little quirks and flaws and just get on with it. Having said that, it's clearly not perfect. It's a game that evidently starts off way too hard for most people's tastes, and then follows that up with a harsh lack of automatic continues, and a gameplay experience that's hardly what you'd call varied. You'll do more of the same pretty much all the way through, but that's okay, because once you're in that jump and move combo groove it's entertainment all the way.
And for once the cut-scenes and storyline are worth paying attention to. Okay, the storyline's still your typical teenage-fantasy guff, but the cut-scene direction is easily up there with the best we've ever seen in any game, with undoubtedly the most acrobatic animated scenes witnessed outside of The Matrix. Delivered with hugely impressive technical skill and visual pyrotechnics they're something to behold whenever they pop up, and they are usually long enough and sufficiently arresting to feel like a real reward for your efforts - not to mention a rest for your aching thumbs.
The rest of DMC's visuals are pure class, too, with an engine that has improved yet again to really come good on what the game promised when it first appeared back in 2001. Although we still have some fairly hefty reservations about any camera system that consistently fails to show the player what they're fighting against and has an alarming tendency to flick perspective at the most inconvenient of occasions, you can't argue that the spectacle itself is a fairly glorious one. Indeed, the backdrops are possibly among the most stunning the PS2 has managed, although arguably still some way behind The Sands Of Time and God Of War for all out gob-smackery, while the characters are as perversely sick and twisted as they've always been, appearing half reanimated puppet, half Satan's finest. A perversely intriguing blend, by anyone's standards.
As far as the audio goes, though, there's no doubt our opinion of the young Dante's quips and electro Goth music taste softened as the game wore on, from outraged Oh-my-god-it's-Warrior-Within-all-over-again to actually smiling at some of his cockier outbursts later on. Besides, the music - while still vile to these ears - does wash over you after a while. It's not truly objectionable, just mildly so. We'll move on.
So, after 2003's 4/10 debacle, to find ourselves wanting to double that score has to be considered a comeback of Norwich City proportions in the light of what could have happened. Sure, Capcom has completely over-compensated by making the game initially too hard, but once you get over this frightful difficulty hump, one of 2005's most accomplished and enjoyable games emerges from the fug. For all its new tricks, there's really not enough that's new here to command the 9/10 it might have otherwise been granted if it had been a new kid on the block, but in terms of being rated as a worthy sequel it's comfortably the kind of game you'll happily add to your collection if you were one of the many that saw much potential in the 2001 original, and one that you'll welcome into your home even if you kicked the 2003 sequel onto the bonfire. At the very least rent it, but bear in mind you'll probably need more than a few days before you'll get the most from it. Now let's see what Capcom can do with the series in the next generation...