Discard the whirlwind of swords and bullets. Ignore the howling demons. Hang up the trendy red coat. At the heart of the Devil May Cry series the conflict between Dante and Vergil has always been the coolest part of the show.
While the relationship between the brothers hit a high in Devil May Cry 3, it takes a different form in DmC: Devil May Cry, a "rebirth" of the series from UK-based studio Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, Enslaved). This troubled brotherhood -- and the divine battle waging around it -- finds more realistic footing in DmC and gets a seething booster shot of style and substance. The result is a smooth, shocking, and supremely intelligent entry in this legendary line of demonic death dealing.
At the start of it all is DmC's much-needed departure from the universe built by Capcom over the past 10 years. Many lamented the shift, shouting of blasphemy and regret,but the change has only refined Devil May Cry's storytelling, as well as delivered us a more relatable hero that still swaggers like the best of them. Dante remains a badass. He still wields the iconic sword Rebellion and the twin pistols Ebony and Ivory. But this time, he's not half human.
He's half angel.
Born to a demon father and an angel mother, Dante and Vergil are Nephilim -- an ancient fusion of the two powers capable of slaying a sinister being like Mundus, the demon king. And from the beginning of DmC the two brothers work together to stop Mundus, who controls the world through contemporary means: debt, surveillance, and soft drinks. But underneath the human empire he's created bubbles a twisted, terrible realm of demonic influence, showcased by absolutely stunning visuals and environmental setpieces.
Vergil recruits Dante to help deal with Mundus. In the process, Dante uncovers the truth about his past, as well as his remarkable powers. Those powers drive the combat of DmC, which is where developer Ninja Theory exhibits some of its most intelligent design to date. From simple interface additions to brilliant combo structuring, elegance flows through DmC like rivers of demon blood.
In order to progress through each mission Dante fights in "human" form by default, wielding Rebellion and a selection of firearms in high style. Even if human mode was the only one available to players, Dante still has an ample supply of techniques at his disposal to dispatch opponents. Flurries of sword strokes and gunshots make every combo an exercise in extravagance, satisfying to execute but also easy to understand. The controller even vibrates to punctuate combo transition periods and help players decipher when to input the next command.
But Dante also has a demon form and angel form, both of which grant him instant access to a weapon other than Rebellion. While his demon weapons offer slow, powerful attacks, his angelic weapons provide fast, effective crowd control for larger groups of enemies. There's no limit to switching between these forms, and players need only hold a trigger to maintain them. This means that a single combo can not only incorporate every weapon in Dante's arsenal but also continue on endlessly, assuming he doesn't run out of demons to fight!
The intelligence of the DmC battle system doesn't end with enjoyable, intuitive combo creation. It also involves traversal, allowing Dante to pull enemies to him or grapple to them at will, eliminating the need to interrupt a combo and reposition mid-battle.
Combos fuel the ever-addictive style points system which returns in DmC and affects a player's overall mission ranking. But unlike the past Devil May Cry games the style system in DmC is transparent, displaying a live feed of moves and point values on the right side of the screen so players can better understand what they're doing to earn that coveted SSS rank.
Like the combat systems, enemies also exhibit intelligence -- but to the player's benefit. Every incoming attack is broadcasted in some way through either visual or aural cues (or both). This makes every fight fair -- or at least reasonable -- even during DmC's more difficult sections. Ninja Theory has even gone so far as to ensure that off-screen enemies reduce their aggression so as not to hit a player blind to enemy location.
This may sound like DmC is easy, but it's not. It boasts a stunning five difficulty levels, the first of which comes divided into three sub-difficulties for beginning players to select. Even the first unlockable difficulty level, Son of Sparda, enhances the challenge tenfold, hurling waves of more powerful legions at players within the first few minutes of the campaign. Battles may be fair and well designed, but they will not be easy.
Other elements to DmC's design help facilitate this fun and fair challenge. Pausing the game will reveal a timer which tracks how long players have been playing since the last checkpoint. This allows them to gauge their progress and decide if/when to use restorative items, or to suffer a score penalty and restart from a previous checkpoint.
Ninja Theory was also kind enough to provide a training mode in which an invincible demon bobs merrily on an all-white background, just waiting for Dante to pummel him until the world ends. This is a fantastic addition to the series, but a damage counter and other learning tools would have also been welcome here.
Despite the well-told story and brilliant combo system, DmC is not without a few minor faults. Without a dedicated lock-on button, dealing with large groups -- especially fliers -- and grappling specific enemies can be troublesome. And while the camera bravely attempts to keep pace with the action, it will fall behind or swing around to a poor angle on occasion.
These are mostly trivial complaints, however, and won't frustrate outside of a few discontented grunts. More concerning is the length of the story itself, which -- on the first run -- only takes 10 hours or less. During play this feels like a fine amount of time and DmC's pacing rarely falters. But in retrospect, DmC's narrative would have benefited from a little more meat. It's great and could have been further explored.
The PC version of DmC won't launch until later in January, but the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions contain identical content. Though it should be noted, with a certain severity, that the 360 version is clearly superior in this pair. Its PS3 counterpart struggles to keep a steady framerate which is sadly characteristic of PS3 games running on the Unreal Engine.