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At first glance, it's easy to think of Devil May Cry 4 as a soulless cash-in. Between its uninspired level design, confounding camera, and new protagonist who looks almost identical to series' hero Dante, it would seem as if Capcom had drawn too often from the same well. As Eurogamer pointed out in its 2008 review, DMC4 "feels like a high-def re-skin of a 2001 game design". It's no wonder Enslaved developer Ninja Theory has been hired to breathe some new life to Capcom's flagship demon hunter.
While Capcom was happy to continue pumping out sequels, series' creator Hideki Kamiya abandoned it soon after the first Devil May Cry. Not content to retread old ground, he sought to bring his madcap sensibilities to games like Viewtiful Joe and Okami.
It wasn't until 2010 that he returned to the third-person hack-and-slash genre with Bayonetta. Prior to its release I asked Kamiya what he felt the biggest difference was between DMC and Bayonetta, to which he replied, "With Devil May Cry we did everything we could do at the time - with Bayonetta, we want to make the best game we can now in this environment."
Bayonetta certainly felt more contemporary. Trimming the fat of unnecessary puzzles and fetch quests, crafting a camera that could keep up with the game's occasional liberties with gravity and the addition of slow-motion helped it scratch that progressive itch that DMC4 had seemingly abandoned.
But for all Bayonetta's razzle-dazzle, I felt like something had been lost along the way, and while DMC4 resembled an unimaginative iterative sequel - the kind Capcom is notorious for milking (cough Mega Man cough) - it unexpectedly withstood the test of time better than Kamiya's spiritual successor by ignoring more recent design trends.
Symptomatic of its time, Bayonetta was a more forgiving game overall. With mollycoddling checkpointing that respawned players midway through boss battles at full health, even the hardest setting allowed you to inch slowly forward.
Earlier Devil May Cry titles had the exact opposite problem, and dying on a boss would send you all the way back to the beginning of the level. You could buy continues to circumvent this, but doing this often required endlessly grinding for red orbs.
DMC4 struck a delicate middle ground, where checkpoints existed few and far between - though it at least had the decency to place them before boss fights. Revisiting it now it feels harsh losing 10 minutes of progress, but it toughens you up until sequences that you previously struggled through become a breeze.
At least when you did die it was a hero's death, for DMC4 was one of the last games of its kind not to have quick-time-events. You could only die in battle, and not just because you missed a button prompt during a cut-scene.
Ever since God of War and Resident Evil 4 adopted QTEs as part of the action game vocabulary they've become the norm. Their presence in Bayonetta was among its least appealing concessions to modern standards as one missed button press would result in an instant death, mucking up your score for the rather lengthy levels.
Going back to DMC4 today, it's refreshing to play an action game where whittling a boss' health down to nothing means your part is done. From there you can just lean back and bask in the glory of a cut-scene where your avatar does the rest. It may not be interactive, but it allows you to catch your breath after intense battles.
Since you're not on edge waiting for prompts, it's easier to appreciate the cinematics. The script may be drivel with acting that makes Brian Blessed seem subdued, but its choreography is inventive. There's an almost Fred Astaire-like quality to Dante and Nero's graceful moves and cocky taunts, as they express themselves better through fighting than talking.
While Bayonetta is also well known for expressing herself with her body, Dante beat her to the punch as a protagonist who flaunts his sexuality, especially unusual for male characters. Not aimed at anyone in particular, he just likes to make love to the camera. Upon getting a new weapon, he recites a soliloquy about his dick: "First I whip it out, then I thrust it, with great force. Every angle, it penetrates. Until, with great strength, I ram it in. In the end, we're all satisfied."
Despite this blunt innuendo, the game is surprisingly chaste with relationships and never gets past hand-holding. It treats sex like a child who doesn't fully understand what it is, but still likes to snicker about it.
Bayonetta adhered to the mantra of "bigger, badder, and more badass" taking not only the bombastic sexuality up a notch, but adding a dizzying array of weapons and moves at your disposal as well. This made it easy to feel overwhelmed and instead rely on the same few combos just as a tourist would only learn to say "Excuse me" and "Which way to the bathroom?" Even after beating Bayonetta on its hardest setting I never got the impression that I'd become fluent in her unique brand of combat.
DMC4 took the opposite approach and chose to scale its arsenal back considerably since its predecessor. Instead of dumbing things down, it makes up for it with quality over quantity. Primary player character Nero's sword, the red queen, comes equipped with a motorcycle engine (yes, really) which, if revved at just the right moment during a swing, glows bright red and deals extra fire damage for its next attack. It makes every slice a timing-based mini-game which makes Gears of War's similar reload mechanic feel lethargic in comparison.
More innovative was Nero's "devil bringer," a glowing blue spectral claw that can be used as a lasso (sound familiar, Bulletstorm?). Being able to yank enemies towards you cuts down pesky walking time and drastically increases momentum in a series already known for its lightning fast action. Having such immediate access to the entire playing field was a masterstroke and it's a wonder why this hasn't caught on to other action games.
Comparatively, Bayonetta's major addition to the genre was "witch time", a period of slow motion triggered by successfully dodging at the right moment. It was a great mechanic, but was bewilderingly disabled from its unlockable harder difficulties. Crafting a harder challenge is admirable, but omitting the game's most notable feature took away much of what made it special.
Where Bayonetta lost its identity upon repeated visits, DMC4 reclaimed it. Perhaps the game's most criticized aspect was that a majority of its second half was a retread of the first. The primary difference was you played as Dante and the levels were structured differently, but environments, enemies and bosses were largely the same. Adding insult to injury, on the initially available difficulty settings Dante is grossly overpowered making the second half feel anticlimactic and half-assed. It's only upon a second playthrough on harder difficulty settings that these chapters come into their own.
Here, Dante's stages are significantly more challenging and it becomes apparent that you need to play vastly differently with him. Without the aid of the devil bringer, you must master the minutia of his move set to develop new strategies. It becomes clear that the first time around was little more than a tutorial to Dante's quickly expanding arsenal. Upon replaying these stages on harder settings, utilizing all his unlocked weapons becomes necessary. Once you realise this it no longer feels like lazy recycling, but instead makes you appreciate how well designed the enemies are to be balanced against two such different fighters.
DMC4 may not have been the bold step forward for the genre Bayonetta was. It lacked the latter's hyperbolic flair, wicked sense of humour, and insurmountable depth. Instead, it evolved along a different trajectory where its sophistication was obscured from plain view. Its harsh checkpointing, refusal to succumb to QTEs, and limited move set made it a curious blend of streamlined modern accessibility with vintage punishing sensibilities.
The first time I saw Dragon's Dogma, I thought that the creators of the recent Devil May Cry sequels were making a mash-up of God of War and The Elder Scrolls. And I thought that that was a bad idea, a bad use of the labor of the largest development team to ever create a game for Capcom.
The first time I played Dragon's Dogma, about four or five hours after I first saw it, weathering the dreary slowdown of a brief, rough demo, I discovered a game that feels fresh, that feels like a wonderful risk.
The game's top creators call it, "the greatest action game we've ever made" and "the type of game I've been wanting to make since I was in junior high."
It felt to me like the game that could make me feel like a great warrior-boss, the leader of a sword-and-sorcery fellowship, the captain of a crew of Dungeons and Dragons heroes, a man whose minions can help him topple great mythological beasts.
Dragon's Dogma is an early 2012 epic from director Hideaki Itsuno and producer Jiroyuki Kobayashi, who both led development on Devil May Cry 3 and 4. They've been planning the game for three years, making it for the last two, trying to create an open-world action game that Kobayashi believes is the best action game Capcom has ever created.
Capcom set up a countdown clock for the game last week, a clock that counts down to today. But last week in Miami Kobayashi and Itsuno were already showing the game in advance to reporters like me, who had to hold our impressions until now.
Their new game puts players in control of a male or female medieval hero who can be a strider, mage or fighter. The strider, who we were shown and who I later played, uses daggers for close combat and arrows at range. The hero gets four party members, all computer-controlled, who go to battle with him. Their adventure occurs in the rolling hills and amid the grand castles of a fantasy world full of ogres, dragons and cities full of merchants. At the beginning of the game, a dragon is reborn and forms some sort of bond with the lead character. That dragon is "whispering to his heart," Itsuno said through a translator, "'I need you to come to me. I need your services.'"
We didn't see the dragon in the interactive part of Dragon's Dogma on display in Miami. We got to see a fight against a griffin, a massive lion with the head and wings of an eagle. First, I saw the developers fight it. They started out in the countryside, briskly using their hero to kill a bunch of human-sized ogre enemies before the griffin swooped in for an attack.
Kobayashi is right to call this an action game and downplay any visual similarity it may have to fantasy role-playing games such as Oblivion. There is no evident math to the combat; it's all real-time swinging of sword, aiming of bow and casting of spells. You have heavy and light attacks and a grab move good for restraining an enemy or climbing onto a giant beast in order to crawl over it stab its weakest spots. The longer you prepare your attacks and spells, the more potent they are, he explained. Each character has special moves, such as the archer's charged arrow shot and his or her ability to rain arrows on one spot a few yards ahead. So in this one Dragon's Dogma fight shown in Miami, the strider hero, aided by a trio of computer-controlled minions, or "pawns," fought as a crew. The mage set up a healing spell limited to those standing inside a ring of magic encircling him. One of the other minions lifted an ogre enemy's carcass to use it as bait for the griffin.
The player can give some directions to the pawns, but they mostly do stuff for themselves — and they like to shout suggestions. Those suggestions are shouted through the TV's speakers and filled the left-hand side of the TV during the demo. As the developers played and the griffin battle intensified, I transcribed each shouted pawn comment, which you'd best read vigorously aloud without pausing, to get the full effect:
"Take the offensive!"
"Don't let them surround you."
"I'll draw it near."
"Aim for their backs."
"Take the offensive."
"Slay them one by one!"
"Take the offensive."
"I'll draw it near."
"I'll aim for its wings."
"I'll aid you at once."
It was at the moment when I completed those notes that my optimism for this game reached its nadir.
I would have to play that griffin battle to understand its potential. When you're in control, the pawns' words are annoying — due to be dialed back, a Capcom rep said — but they are also helpful. The fight against the ogres, which turns into the fight against the griffin is hectic. There are ogres everywhere and your allies, as best they can, are trying to help set up the best strategies to win the fight. The shouting mage is alerting you that he just cast a healing spell and that you can rush to him for a recharge. The pawn yelling that you should "aim for their backs" is wrestling with an ogre and ready for you to rush up behind and level a killing blow. The sense I got was that this was my team, that these people worked for me and were doing their best to support me to victory. They identified the griffin's weakness — its wings — and then started trying to toss fire at it. They held up an ogre body to draw the griffin to them. One of the pawns crouched down and exhorted me to run to her so she could launch me in the air, and, at the height of my jump, I just barely missed grabbing the griffin's foot. It would have been great if I did.
I envy the millions of people in Japan who enjoy Monster Hunter. These people know the pleasure of teaming up with just a few friends to slay a big monster. It struck me that the griffin battle in Dragon's Dogma was a single-player simulation of that. It's faster paced than a Monster Hunter, but it is designed to evoke the same thrill of a band of heroes slaying a larger foe.
The game isn't all monster-fighting. We're not always tackling the biggest beasts. Itsuno told me that the pawn system is the biggest new thing in Dragon's Dogma. It's a more complex element than simply having a trio of partner characters. You can recruit the best ones from town and send them on missions to gather intelligence, affecting what you'll know. They're also the feature I'm most optimistic about. They declined to say how, if at all, the pawn system will support multiplayer, but it doesn't appear that players can band together in Dragon's Dogma for co-op. Itsuno promised some other "spin" on multiplayer.
Dragon's Dogma includes more conventional elements. It has a town full of up to 200 non-player characters, some of whom will improve your weapons or revive your health. Beyond the town the game is supposed to be open-world, which means that just as you run your way to one mission you may be distracted by an enemy attack on some other town and run to it to be the savior there instead. The game's got a day-night cycle, with new enemies showing up when it gets dark. I'm not sure how grand the game will actually be. The developers boasted that any place you see on the game world's horizon is a place you can visit, but when they zoomed out above the game's castle town, for example, it appeared to be maybe twice as big as Ezio's villa in Assassin's Creed II, the full game world we were shown grander than that but not, say, as vast as the terrain of Red Dead Redemption.
While many action games are about being a hero or anti-hero, Dragon's Dogma appears to be a stab at creating a game that lets the player feel like a leader. It doesn't seem like it's intended to make us feel like a king but rather like the best knight in a band of chatty monster-slayers. That's an experience worth watching develop, especially if it's the biggest game Capcom's ever made.
Wait longer for the reinvention of the Devil May Cry series in the form of the game DMC. But wait only until the end of the month to see 2008's Devil May Cry 4 turned into an iPhone game.
Website Slide To Play says the game, Devil May Cry 4 Refrain, will have 10 levels, cost $6.99 and will be out this month. It'll star Nero when it comes out on the App Store, but the other DMC4 protagonist, Dante, will be added at a later date. The console game was a full-scale 3D action adventure with constant, crazy combat. The iPhone version is simpler in presentation, as you might expect, though it's designed to imitate the controls of a device other than the iPhone via a virtual analog stick and four "buttons." Watch the video to see how the game plays.
It sure sounds like the game has the kind of metal soundtrack that helped give DMC4 its hell-raising style.
Devil May Cry 4 Refrain Hands-On Preview and Video [Slide to Play]