Whatever else you may feel about the Devil May Cry titles, there's no denying the astonishing level of polish and style with which Capcom has executed each instalment in the series. With both environments and lead character dripping with near-fetishistic Gothic style - the former laden with brooding architecture and stained glass, the latter clad in rich leather and bondage-like straps - the series has sailed through all arguments about style over substance by simply providing so much style that you're not even sure you care by the time you get to the second clause.
For the PlayStation 3, many of whose titles still look a little on the rough and ready side, that could well be just what the doctor ordered - and despite the relatively lukewarm sales of Devil May Cry in much of the world, the release of early details of DMC4 about a week ago was pretty well received in most quarters, as was the news that the game was going to be playable at TGS. As such, it was an early port of call at the show today - but unfortunately, even my nimble feet couldn't make it there before the wily Japanese gamers had had time to form one of their beloved hour-long queues. Curses.
This did give me the opportunity, however, to study the trailer video in some detail (about thirty times or so, in fact). This short video reveals three things of major interest. Firstly, the characters look absolutely fantastic, with wonderful levels of detail on the facial features, flowing leather that glows with an authentic dull lustre, and of course, floppy white hair that somehow manages to look ridiculously cool and hard, rather than camp and effeminate. Don't try this at home, kids - things that look ace in videogames are just disasters waiting to happen in the real world. Like Ron "Mario" Jeremy's moustache, for example. Or John "Nemesis" Reid's home office policies.
Secondly, the combat in the game also looks absolutely brilliant - especially in the cut-scenes, where the excellent direction and choreography which was brought to the second game by the contribution of Versus action choreographer Yuji Shimomura has been retained (who's back at the helm here too) and put to great effect. There's a sequence where the new protagonist Nero and former main man Dante - back in this game sporting a lovely bit of bumfluff stubble and a bad attitude - go at it hammer and tongs (that's fighting, and not whatever you're thinking - down, Dante fangirls!), which wouldn't look out of place in any over the top Far Eastern action flick. Style, style, and more style.
Finally, fans of the Devil May Cry series can relax - the plotline is just as ridiculous and frankly rubbish as all the previous games, which should provide ample opportunity for loads of daft wisecracks and ensure that brilliant weapons and powers can be introduced with gay abandon, because continuity is for losers. As mentioned, Dante now sports some silly stubble (which oddly, makes him look a bit like Solid Snake in drag) and runs around the place menacing young Nero and generally being a bit of a git. Nero, meanwhile, looks exactly like a younger version of Dante, because having created one pretty cool character design for the series, Capcom is determined to get their money's worth out of it (and no, according to the chap I spoke to on the stand, Nero isn't just a new name for Dante's nasty-piece-of-work brother Vergil - although he did look pretty confused when I asked the question, which may indicate a fundamental Japanese failure on my part).
Okay, that's enough queue-based information. Let's play the game.
The demo scenario is a fairly simple and presumably typical one which feels like it's from very early in the game. Starting in an outdoor courtyard, full of pillars, wrought iron, fancy sculptures and so on, you move through a progressively grottier building before exiting into a dock area and then finally climbing up to a grim-looking village, where a large, unpleasant demon confronts you. Fin.
It gets progressively tougher as you go along, too, with more and more enemies appearing in each room - and while all of the enemies are variations on a theme ("burlap bags stitched together and filled with evil" is today's fancy dress rule, apparently), there's a fair bit of deviation from the stock design. One type of enemy holds a long blade; another has a scythe foot which drags along the ground; and so on. In a series which has previously suffered from a dearth of variety in enemies, that's a promising sign.
In gameplay terms, so much so familiar; you can attack with your sword, or fire with your guns, toss enemies into the air and shoot them there in slow motion, or carry out complex-looking air juggles using a few simple enough button presses. The R1 button acts as a modifier for your actions, essentially beefing them up to some extent - so a sword swing on its own will set you off on a simple button mashing combo attack, while when pressed with R1 it will power up and execute a forward lunge with a sword smash at the end, which scatters your enemies around the place and can hit several of them at once.
The chief new addition to the mix is something called the Devil Hand, which is - believe it or not - an enchanted arm. What on Earth is with the Japanese and magical appendages? The glowing limb in question has the ability to send out a spike of energy that grabs enemies and pulls them towards you - and also has a finishing-move style attack that picks up an enemy and slams them into the ground. It appears to form a major part of the plotline, too - the trailer video showed Dante growling something about "give it back and I'll let you live", to which Nero responds that the arm has been given to him to "send guys like you back to Hell!" Obviously a bit of an amateur diplomat, our Nero. A diplomacy enthusiast, in a sense. He dabbles.
Now, maybe it's a limitation of the demo we played - where the enemy types were all pretty simple - but at this point in time, the Devil Hand feels like a little bit of a gimmick in gameplay terms. There's not a lot you can do with it which you can't do perfectly well using the existing gun and sword combination, and in a game where many of your best moves are executed by powering up something at a safe distance from your foes and then jumping forward to unleash it, the ability to drag enemies towards yourself is, perhaps, less useful than it could be. However, we do have confidence in the team behind Devil May Cry - after all, two out of three ain't bad - so it's quite probable that as you go through the later stages of the game, new abilities or simply a deeper understanding of the combo system will make the Devil Hand more useful.
So... The graphics. On this front, well, Devil May Cry certainly looks nice. The environments are really detailed and beautifully designed, the enemies are pretty unique and well-designed, and more importantly, the game renders easily a dozen of them on screen without any sign of slow-down. Special effects in combat look great, and just to let you know you're on a next-gen console, there's a wonderful over-saturation glow effect from strong light sources or reflections which is common to many of the PS3 games on the show floor, but which is arguably used to a more subtle and attractive effect here than anywhere else.
However, there's a strong sense that Devil May Cry 4 is doing little to really push the PS3 hardware. There's certainly nothing in this game graphically that hasn't already been done on the Xbox 360, and although the level of detail is certainly far beyond the original Xbox, there are times when the comparison with games like Ninja Gaiden holds up reasonably well. In other words, this is no showcase for the PS3's graphics - but thanks to the talent of Capcom's artists and the fact that the developers of DMC4 have buffed even this TGS demo to a beautiful shine, the game comes out looking fantastic despite being technologically unambitious.
One other problem, however, is that all that style looks best in cut-scenes, rather than in gameplay - and in the demo at least, the designers seemed happy to wrest control from the player on a regular basis to show you a brief, and very pretty, but nonetheless jarring cut-scene. It's all in-engine and so on, but it still grates to have control removed from you almost every time you walk into a new room - we can only hope that Capcom thins out these scenes a little in the final product, giving people a chance to properly get into the flow of the combat system.
Walking away from the short demo, and dodging the inevitable leaflets and tat on the way out, Devil May Cry 4 had made a good impression overall. Of all the games on show for the PS3, it was definitely the most accomplished in terms of polish and presentation, and it kept up a solid, high framerate and a good graphical standard - although better anti-aliasing would have been nice to remove some of the more jagged edges. It certainly isn't revolutionary, however - there's nothing here in gameplay terms that you couldn't have done on the PS2 - but as an early next-gen update to an existing franchise, it certainly scores highly for looking nice and featuring tight, well-implemented game mechanics. Probably not a system-seller, then - but definitely one to look forward to for the prospective PS3 owners in the audience.
Devil May Cry 4 is due out exclusively on PlayStation 3 in Q1 2007.