Games based on movies. They're all rubbish, right? There are obvious exceptions of course, but as a general rule, for every GoldenEye-style title which takes a film franchise and artfully applies it to a stunning example of its resident genre, there'll be a hundred uninspired but well made cash-ins like EA's Lord of the Rings games, and twenty outright stinkers like Shiny's abysmal Enter The Matrix.
So, if you play the averages game, Van Helsing probably shouldn't be on the top of your shopping list. It certainly doesn't help that the movie turned out to be a poorly acted, badly scripted and utterly mindless mess of a film - and whatever about good films turning into bad games, when was the last time that a bad film turned into a good game?
Monster May Cry
You have to give the boys and girls at Saffire Studios their fair due, though - they certainly worked out the key elements to fit into the gameplay right from the outset. For the purposes of the game, they decided, Van Helsing, monster hunter extraordinaire, is basically the half-demonic Dante from Devil May Cry, but with less fashion sense and a nicer hat - and it's a decision that works well, as our eponymous hero bounces, shoots and slashes his way through wave upon wave of evil creatures in an increasingly pyrotechnic fashion, complete with occasional bits of slow motion trickery.
The basic principles are lifted entirely from Devil May Cry, and shamelessly so. Van Helsing's weapons all have infinite ammunition, and he can switch with ease from melee weapons to ranged armaments; he can leap high into the air, double jump off walls, shoot in slow motion as he descends from a jump or lock onto an enemy and strafe around it, dispensing hot lead death from afar. Solving puzzles is a simple matter of walking up to a glowing switch and pressing the button - the most taxing puzzles in the game are the ones where you have to notice that your "grapple" icon is glowing to indicate that there's somewhere off-screen you can grapple onto.
So far, so familiar - and indeed, for the first few levels (which cover the fight with Mr Hyde in Notre Dame cathedral which forms the prologue to the film, and subsequently Van Helsing's arrival in Transylvania) the game feels like an extremely competent and quite enjoyable clone of Devil May Cry, which is actually a lot more enjoyable than Capcom's own official follow-up to the game, the sadly quite dreadful Devil May Cry 2. After you've ploughed through the first few levels, though, you'll start to notice a few key differences.
Van The Man
For a start, the team behind Van Helsing has tried to make the combat system more complex and responsive than Devil May Cry - and to some degree at least, they have succeeded. You can chain combination attacks together using both your ranged and melee attack buttons, and when combined with pushing in directions on the stick or using your grappling hook (which can grab enemies and drag them to you, as well as dragging you towards solid objects or larger enemies) you can chain together some very impressive sequences of your own design.
In effect, it's a bit like the kind of battle system you'd expect in a modern remake of Streets of Rage or Double Dragon - and there's a lot of fun to be had in the early parts of the game coaxing Van Helsing into finishing off creatures in as "cool" a manner as possible. There's a wide variety of different creatures to fight as well, ranging from skeletal zombies through flying gargoyles to ghosts, werewolves and, of course, a host of bosses such as vampires, powerful wolves and other such monsters.
So far so good - and when we first previewed Van Helsing, based on the early sections, we were certainly impressed with what we saw. Derivative, yes, but an entertaining and engaging game which was looking like it would be head and shoulders over its kin in the movie licensed videogame category - or so we thought.
Dracula Bites and Sucks
There are a few reasons why licensed titles often turn out to be rubbish. One of them is the fact that publishers often consider the license to be all the game needs, so they churn out a rubbish game; another is that the game often has to be produced to an incredibly strict deadline, and as a result can be extremely rushed, to the extent of damaging the quality of the title. The latter, we suspect, has taken its toll on Van Helsing.
The basic problem with the game is that once you get a few levels into it - say about an hour and a half through - you've seen the vast bulk of what the game has to offer, and in fact the gameplay takes a sharp turn for the worse from this point on. The polishing and balancing which is in evidence in early levels disappears later on. Although the basics of the gameplay, such as regular weapon upgrades, have been laid out, and some of the environments still look excellent, the actual game suddenly resorts to copycat boss fights and throwing wave after wave of weak enemies at you.
The clever combat system which you had access to earlier is still there, but it's worthless in the face of countless low-grade enemies, and the game turns into a completely repetitive button-mashing melee; by no means what we were hoping for from the first few levels. The attention to detail in general also disappears - poor camera angles start to hide the action, cut-scenes are badly directed and seem to skip around or miss out huge chunks in places, and in one particularly awful scene, a man changing into a werewolf is shown - on screen, no less - by simply putting a wobbly blur over that part of the screen and then flicking from the human model to the werewolf model. Which, needless to say, looks downright terrible.
Vampire Hunter D- Could Do Better
The simple failure to properly polish up the game, and make the later levels actually feel finished, is undoubtedly down to a lack of time in the production schedule to make the changes and adjustments needed - which is a terrible shame, because in places Van Helsing is excellent. The core ideas behind the gameplay are sound, the graphics are excellent for the PlayStation 2 (and even Xbox), and the dialogue and voice acting (much of it by the original actors, including Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing) are generally very good - better than the movie, in fact, and it's interesting to note that the game follows quite a different version of the story, and even reveals more about Van Helsing's back story than the film did.
However, it's let down dreadfully by the truly monotonous nature of the gameplay later in the game - and, perhaps most damningly of all, by the fact that the game is simply ridiculously short. We can't help but suspect that huge chunks of game were left out at the last minute, possibly explaining some of the deviation from the plot of the film - and some of the more gaping holes in the plot of the game, at that. The character of Anna, in particular, makes some fairly spectacular leaps from place to place in the plot, and we have a sneaking suspicion that at some point, Saffire intended for her to be a playable character with missions of her own which would fill in those gaps.
Whatever the truth of that matter is, the fact remains that we finished Van Helsing on Normal difficulty with a grand total of three hours on the clock - not much longer than it took us to watch the film. Admittedly, we certainly enjoyed playing the game - for all its gaping flaws - more than watching the movie, so this does indeed fall into the category of a game which is better than the movie it's based on.... But that's not saying a lot, sadly, and the overall feeling we took away from Van Helsing is that it's a wasted opportunity. A few months more in development could have yielded an excellent, stylish action title which would have been well worth the money; but the unfinished feeling and simple lack of content here make it hard to recommend this game over others in the genre.