Hands-On: Devil May Cry's first 2 hours leave a strong impression
1st Nov 2012 | 15:00
'Demons aren't scary and Dante as we knew him just wasn't cool anymore,' Ninja Theory's creative director Tameem Antonaides tells us - in a more roundabout way. And he's right on both counts.
What made Devil May Cry special was that it brought everything great about action cinema, horror, fashion and music of that era to video games. As he so eloquently put it, the game "was like a cultural melting pot".
A lot has changed since its debut in 2001. Devil May Cry? Not so much. In a surprisingly astute move Capcom hit the big red button and signed up the Cambridge based developer of Heavenly Sword and Enslaved to bring it up to speed.
So what's scary now? What is 'cool' in the current day? Questions like these are what drive the radical reinvention of Devil May Cry. To make the waning franchise contemporary again Ninja Theory started from scratch, beginning by tearing down and rebuilding an icon.
Dante Must Die
Right from the outset of our hands-on it's clear the new Dante is all about raging against the machine, an attitude which his trusty sword 'Rebellion' served as the origin point of.
"We looked at all aspects of rebellion," Tameem tells us. "From the original Sex Pistols punk era in London - and what that meant - to different forms of rebellion going on all around the world: political rebellion, street art rebellion, music as a form of rebellion. We thought about what the rebel without a cause would look like now."
In redesigning Dante Ninja Theory ditched the anime influence and took its cues from modern Hollywood heroes instead. It traded the piecemeal flamboyant fashion of Japan for the downtrodden, too-cool-for-school look prevalent in the English punk rock era.
Ninja Theory's re-imagining is anything but a superficial makeover though, the studio has comprehensively deconstructed and reconstructed Dante, rationalising every change and idea to build a character that's cohesive in terms visual design and attitude.
"We went back to Dante's childhood and started to make a story about him. We had big discussions about what his favourite drink is, where he grew up, what happened to him when he was four or five. We imagined what he'd be like as a runaway escaping the violence around him, and being at the lowest rung of society. What makes him a brash asshole? There's got to be a reason he's cocky."
Dante has never exactly been prim and proper, but at the same time we can't say we've seen him wile out quite as hard as he does in the opening moments of DmC. Mission one begins with a blur of writhing ladies, flowing alcohol and implied sexual mischief that ultimately climaxes with a butt-naked teenager nursing a hangover and holding a 'Call me' note.
As Dante seemingly struggles to recall his night of debauchery in his pier-front trailer, an obnoxious TV news anchor brands a mysterious masked leader of 'The Order' a terrorist. A swig of whiskey straight from the bottle later and the almost-a-man about town is crotch to face with a girl who begins shouting about "leaving a trail for the Hunter demon" and doing her best to not stare directly at his junk.
The Hunter demon emerges from the sea moments later and proceeds to cut Dante's quaint little trailer in half, giving him the perfect opportunity to dive through it in slow-motion and dress himself. Don't worry; his package is obscured by a slice of floating pizza.
Much of the action in DmC takes place in Limbo, a parallel reality super-positioned over the real world. Limbo allows Ninja Theory to ground the game in an almost-believable modern setting, but also keep a foot firmly planted in the fantastical realm of demons and devils, where the studio's artists can thrive.
"A lot of time was spent making the game feel like it has a grounded nature to it," explains Stuart Adcock, technical art director at the studio. "There's a believable kind of story that goes on in the human realm. But as soon as we came up with the concept of Limbo, suddenly we were able to put what we do best into the game.
"We didn't want to go to a crazy level because we appreciated that it has a story that's grounded, based in a city that's believable, but in Limbo we definitely wanted to make it more fantastical."
Describing Limbo is one the few occasions we feel comfortable using the old "leaving, breathing world" cliché; because since it was constructed as if it were a living organism, it's apt.
"On Enslaved we had a lot of vegetation, so when we thought about a city environment we looked at it as if the outside walls were a shell that serves no purpose," Adcock continues. "In Limbo they don't need houses but it's there because it's a parallel world, but behind all that is blood that you'll see oozing out of places. Rocks are visualised as the bones behind the facade. We were thinking of it as a weird character in itself."
Limbo is tangibly antagonistic and exudes killing intent. Dante is treated like an invading parasite; his presence is met with the utmost hostility. The idea for what the developer calls 'Malice' was born from a request to find a reason for the 'Demon Doors', which were in the original series to trap players in a room until the enemies were cleared out or a puzzle was solved.
The studio's response was that the world is alive, and not keen on you being in it. Along with cornering you and dumping enemies on you, Limbo belittles you at every given opportunity, it tears and twists itself to stop you from progressing; the ground crumbles away at your feet, rooms fold in on themselves and what's familiar becomes deadly.
Ninja Theory's answer to that other question, 'what's scary now?', is manipulation and subversion. The thinking goes that since we've all got a pretty solid game plan for the inevitable zombie apocalypse and vampires are busy pining over dead-eyed broads, our idea of 'evil' is now the unseen puppet masters subjugating us from the shadows.
Returning arch-baddie Mundus does just that under the guise of 'Kyle Rider', a man presented by the media - which he controls - as a saviour and philanthropist. In reality he's tightening his demon death grip on the world through propaganda, debt and a tasty but totally spiked soft drink that keeps the populous oblivious to his machinations. Think Bilderberg, except with sharper teeth and longer fingernails.
Dante's efforts to bring down the Hunter takes him traipsing through a demon addled fairground. Pulled into Limbo the area's duller palette erupts into a rainbow of nauseatingly bright colours. Together with pulsing attraction lights the area becomes a kind of hell for someone coming off an all-night bender. Meanwhile attractions like a mini Ferris wheel are possessed and spin wildly out of control, inviting the player to make the silly mistake of jumping.
Following a quick brawl with the Hunter Demon Dante is whisked away by Kat, his new female companion, to meet her boss - the illusive leader of 'The Order'. The masked man reveals himself as 'Vergil' and forces an ambivalent Dante to experience some home truths in hopes that he will be more sympathetic to the underground resistance movement.
In mission two Kat, who as it turns out is a psychic/wiccan, opens a portal to Dante's old home, a stately manor ruined by years of decay. Upon his arrival it springs to life and pulls Dante into Limbo. Demons emerge from the dark corners and try to cut Dante down. They fail, thanks to his sword and trusty dual-pistols Ebony and Ivory.
It's at his home that Dante learns of his childhood, that he is 'Nephilim', the offspring of a demon and angel. He remembers his father was once the right hand of Mundus, but betrayed the demon overlord after falling in love with an angel. It's where he's alerted to the existence of his twin brother, and forced to relive the death of his mother at the hands of demons. It's also where the full extent of DmC's deep combat is revealed.
Any qualms about character re-imaginations and story deviations fall to the wayside once you get to experience the combat. While Ninja Theory was given carte blanche for the most part, Capcom's Japanese contingent have taken a hands-on approach when it comes to combat.
"There were vast tracks of the game where we'd just tell Ninja Theory to run with it," says lead producer, Alex Jones. "When it came to specifically redesigning, his motion, behaviour, actions, animation, style, responsiveness, the balance between animation fidelity and fluidity, it was almost co-development.
"We had Itsuno-san, who was lead creative on Devil May Cry 2, 3 and 4. We brought over animators, artists and character modellers from Japan to work intensively with the Ninja Theory design staff. It was frame counts, hit stops... It was a wholesale, multi-level wisdom transfer from people who have been doing this for 30 years to people who have an innate ability to do it, but probably didn't have the experience that these gentlemen had."
The core principles of the Devil May Cry combat remain intact; Dante uses Rebellion to slice and dice enemies and his dual pistols - though very weak - can be used for ranged damage and to interrupt enemy attacks. There's a greater emphasis on aerial combat this time around and as such a dedicated launch button has been included. Tapping it will send an enemy into the air to open follow-up attacks (pistol juggle still looks super-cool) while holding it will make Dante follow his victim up into the air to continue the barrage up close.
Angel and Devil weapons provide an additional layer of complexity. Osiris, a large scythe used for crowd control, and Arbiter, an axe used for dealing heavy damage and breaking guards, can be thrown into the mix by holding down the left or right trigger buttons. The combo potential these weapons and their various ground and air skills provide alone is dizzying, but they're just a small part of a much more complex framework.
During Dante's trip down memory lane he finds the family insignia and upon contact with it he is transported into another realm of floating platforms and mind-bending gravity. At the centre of this new world is an hauntingly odd statue of a figure held in place by chains. To get around this world without plunging into oblivion Dante is given the 'Ophinion Demon Pull' which - as the name implies - let's him lock on to far off grapple points and safely launch himself towards them. Later on in the game he also gains a similar grab ability that yanks enemies towards him.
Though they're used liberally to leap around environments and manipulate platforms, Dante's new tricks can also be used to extend combos during combat. DmC effectively marries Devil May Cry 3's weapons-heavy mechanics with Nero's Devil Bringer abilities from Devil May Cry 4. Sword swings seamlessly transition into axe launches, enemies can be sent crashing to the ground and then cruelly pulled back up for an encore barrage, and unsuspecting enemies in the distant can be riddled with bullets.
There's a wonderfully symbiotic dynamic between individual weapons and abilities that makes each encounter with an enemy a thrilling, hyper-kinetic explosion of bullets, clashing steel and over-the-top acrobatics.
The rabbit hole gets deeper still with weapon properties; Osiris for example feeds off felled enemies to become more powerful. Upgrades let you hit harder and launch higher. Abilities such as Enemy Step let you bounce off an enemy to reset the air combo. Defensive skills like Devil and Angel Evade give you brief power boosts and invulnerability, injecting a layer of strategy beyond how long can you combo.
All of this feeds into a seemingly intelligent rating system. Whereas in previous games players had to constantly cycle through the bewildering number of moves and weapons to progress through the style ranks, just keeping the combo going is enough to earn an SS rank in DmC. Of course to do this you'll have to make effective use of Dante's abilities, but it's not as demanding or as strict as it used to be.
Higher combo ratings in turn dictate how tough enemies are; if the player is running rings around everyone and racking up S ranks, enemies will begin to take more damage and put up more of a fight.
Based on our playthrough of the first few chapters we're very optimistic. One thing's for sure, DmC isn't the slapdash, ill-conceived reboot that disgruntled fans would have you believe. Everything from characters to the game world, mechanics to narrative has been carefully considered and thoughtfully crafted. This could be both the best game Ninja Theory has made, and the best Devil May Cry Capcom has produced.