If you don't fancy reading the review (we know reading can be a chore sometimes), head over to our Devil May Cry 4 video review, where you can sit back and let us do the reading for you.
Dante, lead demon slayer of the Devil May Cry series, is one hell of a bad ass. His sword slicing, gun-juggling, devil-transforming antics have made him a hero for millions of adrenaline junkies across the world. For three games now (first one wicked, second one disappointing, third one ultra hard) Dante has been laying waste to the demon horde like it's never gone out of fashion. And along the way he's accumulated a loyal following - a fan base if you will. His public adore him. And it's not just because he gets the job done - sending the evil minions of hell packing on a regular basis. It's because, in true Will Smith fashion, he makes it look good. He's a showman - when not nonchalantly sitting cross-legged a top a stone structure, oversized sword resting on his shoulder and a coy smirk on his face, he's taunting and wise-cracking his way into the bad books of the biggest, baddest bosses the bods at Japanese publisher Capcom can come up with. In short, Dante is one of the best, coolest video game characters ever to grace a game console.
Which makes Capcom's decision to replace him as lead playable character in the franchise's first next-gen outing with Nero, a sort of "Dante-lite" demon hunter from the corrupt religious cult The Order of the Sword, either incredibly brave or ridiculously risky. Fear not Dante stalkers! He's not been entirely banished. Dante turns up as a playable character for just under a third of the game, but Nero remains DMC4's central character, and one you'll be spending much more time with. For newcomers to the series it may be less of an issue, but let's be frank here, for serious, die-hard DMC fans, letting Dante go is a shocking decision.
Before the bitching, flaming and all that other horrible angry Internet stuff commences, let's give our Nero a chance. He's very similar to Dante - sort of like a younger, more brash and naïve version (and sans the stubble). He has silver hair, like Dante, wields weapons with funny names, like Dante - Nero has Blue Rose, a rapid-fire, double-barrelled six-shooter and Red Queen, a giant sword that can be revved like the handlebar of a motorbike - at his disposal. He can jump, dodge, air-juggle, infinite combo and, like Dante, generally make a mockery of any demons that might be stupid enough to cross his path. But there are a few key differences which combine to make Nero his own man.
Chief of these is the Devil Bringer, which grants Nero's left arm a blue glow grapple hook effect which he uses to drag himself towards enemies or drag enemies towards him. With it, Nero can initiate a combo string, air juggle and then drag himself towards the next target without pausing for breath. He also has special close range grapple attacks which are different for each enemy. These range for the spectacular and downright savage-looking to the mundane, but they do help to give Nero some individuality to his carnage repertoire.
Here's a few examples - early on in the game, you'll get to fight a boss called Berial, a giant fiery Balrog-type demon with a massive sword. Berial is your typical DMC boss - big, spectacular and predictable. Once you've worked the pattern of his attacks and adjusted to the timing of the required dodges, you should be ok, at least on the easy to normal difficulty levels. Weaken him with repeated slashes, and you'll be able to grapple and initiate a special attack - hurling the huge demon into the air then slamming him into the ground. It's amazing to look at, and heart-thumping to experience first hand.
Getting to a boss or a mini-boss demon and seeing what happens when you grapple them is what keeps Nero's combat interesting through the first play through. We won't spoil anything for you, but Nero brutally pummels one of the bosses during a mission about half way through the game in an attack that ends with a super-slow motion punch to the face that'll have you wincing every time you see it. This is what the DMC games are all about - over-the-top, brutal, Japanese-style violence. And we love it.
The great thing about DMC4 is that all the hallmarks of the series have been wonderfully recreated, despite the fact you'll for the most part be playing as someone other than Dante. You've got the most annoying hard-rock soundtrack in history to listen to every time demons start on you. You've got orb collection, to spend on items, and Proud Souls, earned through completing missions, to spend on upgrading Nero and Dante's weaponry, combos and abilities. You've got one of the most incompetent cameras ever to grace a videogame (what's up Capcom? Surely this should be fixed by the fourth game), and you've got gothic surroundings, a ridiculous plot, buxom women and hammy voice acting.
And you've also got the classic Capcom action game combat, as seen in the DMC and Onimusha series. People often look down their noses at these so-called button-mashing games and snort - citing the lack of skill required and the repetitive nature of the combat. We can certainly see their point - most of the combos in the game involve differently-timed presses of the same button combined with varied control stick directions - but there's an odd, addictive and totally rewarding nature to it all. Sure, you've just spent half-an-hour carving through similar-looking demons in a cathedral using the same combo string over and over again, but you know you love it. This feeling, a feeling unique to the DMC series, reassuringly remains in the fourth game, despite the switch up in main playable characters.
But, and this is a big but, Nero's fun to use Devil Bringer, and the spectacular special attacks it allows, is still no match for Dante's varied, quicker, more powerful attack style. Again, we're trying desperately to avoid spoilers here, but when you do eventually get to play as Dante, it's almost as if the game has been released from the shackles imposed by Nero's combat limitations. We've got nothing against the guy, but, at the end of the day, he's got nothing on Dante. As one of the game's chief baddies says of Nero: "he's not in Dante's league." He's right.
How much of a problem is this? Well it wouldn't be any problem at all, if it weren't for Capcom's almost inexplicable decision to regurgitate Nero's missions, and bosses, for Dante to traipse through. This is somewhat of a kick in the teeth - you work your way through the game, finally get the chance to give Dante a spin, and you find that you have to do it against enemies and in locales you've already seen. Dante himself feels fresh. Everything else, once you get to play him however, stinks.
We'll go into a bit more detail, since the backtracking is perhaps the one that prevents DMC4 from being a nine-out-of-10 in our opinion. As you work your way through the game you'll solve puzzles in creepy castles, battle countless demons in war-torn city streets, uncover insane experiments in an underground laboratory, work out how to escape a forest maze and defeat ice creatures on the wind-swept cliffs of snow-capped mountains. You'll face some truly spectacular, and sometimes frustratingly difficult, bosses in encounters which require much more skill than anything else in the game, too. And then you get to play as Dante, and instead of the game presenting you with new locations and enemies to kill, DMC4 does a kind of loop, forcing you to go backwards through all the areas you've already spent hours traipsing through until you end up at the beginning. You fight the same bosses too, with little or no variation on the first time. After the elation of getting your trigger finger firmly poised to fire Dante's amazing death-bringing weaponry, it's all a bit of a letdown.
What's not a letdown but a complete pain in the ass is the fact that once you get control of Nero again, for the game's home straight, you have to fight the bosses all over again in a roll the dice snakes-and-ladders style puzzle that's so frustrating it makes you want to gauge your own eyes out with a spoon. Once with Nero was cool. A second time with Dante was a drag. But a third time? That's just taking the piss.
There are other problems. We've mentioned the camera but we'll mention it again, it's that bad. In one puzzle section you need to hit spinning blades along corridors in order to smash down doors. It's almost impossible to aim accurately because of the constantly shifting camera, which automatically changes what up, down, left and right is on the control stick. There are odd moments when enemies will get stuck in walls and on ledges too, but these are rare and largely forgivable. And the game doesn't do anything to help you work out where to go (some players will actually prefer this), meaning you'll need to accept that for extended periods of time, sometimes as much as 30 minutes, you'll just be running around like a chump trying to work out where to go next.
All this negativity is rather unfortunate, because, in our view, the game's failings were totally avoidable and come across as lazy game design for the most part. Bad form Capcom. But that doesn't stop us believing that the game is the best in the series since the first one - yes, despite all these problems, it's that good.
DMC4's plot, bafflingly Japanese as it is, revolves around Nero's love for Kyrie, a damsel in distress in every sense of the phrase. The game opens with the assassination of Sanctus, the head of the corrupt Order of the Sword religious cult, by Dante during a sermon in a cathedral. Then, in the chaos, demons attack. Eventually, when the dust settles, Nero is sent to sort out Dante. We're under orders to keep the story under the most secure of wraps, but what we will reveal is that Nero eventually uncovers some nasty stuff within the Order itself, Kyrie is kidnapped and, as you'd expect, there's more than one face off between the two white-haired demon hunters. But what are Dante's motives? Why did he kill Sanctus? And exactly why does Nero have a glowing, demon arm in the first place? We know some of these answers because we've finished the game. But there are still tonnes of unanswered questions left posed following its completion. Perhaps too many for our liking. Still - the story, told through gorgeous rendered in-game cut scenes, won't win any Oscars, but is everything a DMC fan could want.
Have we mentioned the game's graphics? Shame on us. DMC4 is a next-gen master class, effortlessly whizzing along at 60 framers per second at all times. The characters are gorgeous, the environments wonderfully detailed and the bosses breathtakingly realised. It's super slick on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 - we didn't notice any discernable graphical difference between the two, and is a game you'll want to show off that HD television you got cheap from the New Year sales (we did notice the odd graphical blemish in both versions of the game, but nothing to worry about). We know this kind of graphical level is easier to achieve in a game of DMC4's type - that is linear, with self contained areas loaded within the same level - than a game like, say Halo 3, with massive, open ended levels, but it's impressive nonetheless. A minor difference between the two versions is the inclusion of Sixaxis motion control on the PS3 game, but it's nothing more than a pointless alternative for camera control.
We finished the game in just over 16 hours on the Devil Hunter (medium) difficulty. Expect some rock hard difficulties to follow if you're so inclined. There's tonnes of replay value too, including earning enough Proud Souls to unlock all Dante and Nero's abilities and combos, beating your level scores, which can be uploaded to online leader boards, and generally just having a load of fun trying to improve your timing, combos and stylish ratings. It's densely packed for a modern action game, that's for sure.
In many ways, we think DMC4 could be one of the games we end up coming back on and off throughout 2008. It's got a strange addictive quality to it in that way, and, once completed, has a lot in common with the pick up and play for a quick 30 minutes feel that something like PES 2008 has. Capcom has done such a wonderful job recreating what makes DMC great, it makes all the game's failings a much harder pill to swallow.
Here's a theory - DMC4's game world feels like it was built from the ground up for Nero, with bosses and level design tailored to his Devil Bringer attacks. Perhaps Capcom, at some point through the game's development simply thought they couldn't release it without having fan favourite Dante playable at some point. And so, rather than redesign the game, they had our stubbly anti-hero thrown into environments and facing enemies that weren't designed to get the most out of him.
It's a crying shame, because with a little more effort, DMC4 could have been a genuine contender for 2008 game of the year. As it is it's a brilliant, addictive, just plain cool hack and slash action game which goes some way to bringing the series back to its initial lustre. There are some high quality contenders to the throne - the God of War and Ninja Gaiden series' spring to mind - but there's something uniquely appealing about DMC. Capcom has done nothing to make it more appealing for those who have passed on the series in the past, has been very brave with its decision to replace Dante with Nero, and, in many areas, been extremely slack in terms of game design, but, on the whole, DMC4 will leave fans with a smirk the great demon hunter himself would be proud of.