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DmC: Devil May Cry brings the sexy back to demon killing (review)

Don’t ask me why the revised Devil May Cry comes with its own acronym attached to the title. More than anything, it looks like the new kid who’s trying to sneak a piggyback from the old soldier, and certainly that’s the impression DmC: Devil May Cry (available Jan. 15 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and Jan. 25 for PC) reinforced as I played through it.

Not that it’s a bad thing. Publisher Capcom brought in U.K.-based Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West) to reimagine its classic demon-smacking franchise, and that turned out to be a wise move indeed. The result isn’t so much a reboot as a do-over made by a very talented group of devoted fans. As such, DmC invites you to dish out a colossal helping of whoopass at supersonic speeds for nearly 12 hours straight, and I like that in a game. But you can’t say the 2001 original didn’t have a few kinks to work out, and unfortunately, Ninja Theory lovingly re-created those, too.

What you’ll like

DmC: Devil May Cry

Yep, it’s Dante

When the developers first unveiled their redesigned Dante, the Internet exploded with hatred. Dial it back, folks. Sure, he’s got a shorter, darker haircut, but nouveau-Dante swaggers with a nicely familiar, too-cool-for-you attitude that puts the “bad” in “badass.” Seriously, he even gets dressed with more screw-you style than every rock-band singer living or dead combined, and a fun visual gag early on nails home just how cosmetic the changes really are.

In fact, you can almost apply that thinking to the entire game. Ninja Theory made the smart decision to untether from the franchise’s twisty continuity for its remake, but the game fans remember is intact. Dante, the son of the demon Sparda, gets involved with his twin brother Vergil and a supernatural assistant — the witchy Kat, who replaces the demonic Trish — to whack archdemon Mundus for killing his parents. You collect red orbs, discover secret missions, activate Devil Trigger overdrive modes, and find your performance graded on total items collected and attacks chained. Your sword’s name is Rebellion. Your rapid-fire, no-reload shooters are Ebony and Ivory. You’ll kill scores of infernal bastards in brutally awesome ways almost nonstop for 12 hours or more, depending on your thoroughness. Just like old times.

And it’s still as good as I remember. DmC feels like what the original Devil May Cry would have been if Capcom made it in 2012 rather than 2001. It resets the stage but remains loyal to veterans while opening the door wide for newcomers. That’s a tough juggle. Ninja Theory pulls it off … with style.

Getting all shoot-stabby

The new spins on the old beast mainly happen in the combat, and they’re all geared toward dishing out constant pain in interesting ways.

Dante and Vergil aren’t just half-demons anymore — they’re Nephilim, demon/angel crossbreeds. That gives Dante access to a range of heaven and hell-based weaponry that unlock at a steady clip and, just like past Devil May Crys, the game highly encourages you to combine them and get experimental with your attacks. Switching weapons midcombo is as easy as pulling a trigger on your controller. I routinely swept an enemy into the air with Rebellion, shot him a whole lot, and then turned him into my personal pinata using a swirling angelic scythe before applying the beating of a lifetime with Satan’s own boxing gloves — all in the blink of an eye. A robust combo system rewards aggressive yet eclectic tactics while punishing button-mashers, particularly when you run up against baddies that only respond to specific weapon types.

Oh yeah, you get to tear it up in DmC, and it feels good.

But it’s the mix of heavies, soldiers, and armored soldiers — along with the various tools for dispatching them — that really elevates what’s basically a long series of locked-room arena fights. Ninja Theory threw in dozens of enemy types, and each combination made for a new problem I had to destroy in slightly different ways. That keeps the pace brisk (save for one late-game puzzle … the only one in the entire game) and the action engaging right through to the end.

It’s not all beatings and hell-axes, though. Frequent platforming and aerial maneuvers also key into the heaven/hell arsenal, either by yanking items and enemies closer or whipping Dante to them, often with the same thrilling rush of decimating armies of monsters. As an example, one major highlight sees Dante chasing and protecting Vergil and Kat’s getaway car as Mundus destroys the world around them. Escort missions generally don’t get my adrenaline pumping. This one did.

DmC: Devil May Cry

The social commentary

Plot? C’mon. It’s a Capcom game. Demons bad; shoot/slice them, bro. But inside that framework, the team at Ninja Theory got to play, and they didn’t feel compelled to play nice.

So Mundus cheerfully brags about ruling the planet through debt while his primary tools of conquest are junk food (laced with a fairly vile secret ingredient not called high-fructose corn syrup) and hysteria-fueled news media. Most of the action happens in Limbo, a surreal parallel dimension where Dante can see the demonic influence on our world, so in addition to some genuinely inspired visuals, we also get subliminal messaging from hell’s marketing department, They Live-style. Global warming … it’s as good as it sounds! Feel thin and sexy because you drink soda! Hate the poor because it’s their own damn fault for being poor! DmC riffs hard and heavy on themes of everyday excesses, shoving pure spite down your throat at every available opportunity with a mad twinkle in its eye. I can appreciate that.

Generally speaking, the writing sustains the thin storyline surprisingly well. It’s not as rich as what Ninja Theory did with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, nor do the characters come off as deep or (I’m suppressing a chuckle here) nuanced. But if you wanted subtlety, you came to the wrong franchise, bucko. Approach DmC as a popcorn flick with a particularly sick sense of humor, and you’ll enjoy the ride.

Mostly.

What you won’t like

DmC: Devil May Cry

Bad bosses

Out of 20 story missions, you come up against about six bosses, and they’re all lacking — not so much in imagination but in difficulty. Hit the glowy bit. Leap over the attack. Repeat. Done. Yawn.

In fairness, the visuals — often one of DmC’s strong points — still lend some interest. I particularly enjoyed the art direction while taking out Bob “Just doing God’s work!” Barbas, a thinly veiled Bill O’Reilly character who runs Mundus’s media empire. Parts of that fight happen inside his show’s title graphics, with asides shot in grainy black and white from a news helicopter. But Bob himself is a pushover. They all are.

I’ll note one possible exception. Your very last opponent counts as hands down the cheapest final boss in gaming since Street Fighter IV (also from Capcom). Once you see his patterns, it’s fairly easy to crush him even though all the special moves you’ve perfected over the game are largely useless. Then, you knock his life bar down to its final sliver, and he automatically turtles up, becomes completely invulnerable, and sends his shade out to harass you while he regenerates. And this happens every single time. The game gives no indication on how to beat him, so you can easily repeat the process 10 or 15 times without making any headway. The secret lies in using your Demon Trigger powers, but only at a very specific time, which I had to determine through sheer guesswork. That’s just poor design.

Regardless, the regular fights, which routinely throw multiple heavy enemy types at you at once, are tougher and better thought out than any boss in the game. Given the franchise’s past history of murderous big bads, that’s just not right.

DmC: Devil May Cry

A few technical fouls

It’s insane that I’m still suffering with the same bad camera in 2013 that Devil May Cry hit me with over a decade ago, but here we are. Honestly, doesn’t anybody think it’s important to put serious effort into letting me see what’s going on? Because DmC’s camera routinely doesn’t, especially if I’m packed into a small space or close to a wall. A few times, the camera even reoriented itself midjump, so instead of heading for a platform, I dashed out into the abyss. Thanks, stupid camera. You can move it manually, but doing so means taking your thumb away from all the attack buttons. In combat, that’s a fatal move.

For the most part, DmC sports a fun, supersaturated look with some amazing set pieces. A whacked-out neon nightclub and an upside-down corporate headquarters stand out in my mind. But you also get several distracting hiccups, like dynamic shadows that can’t decide whether or not to be dynamic — in cutscenes, no less — and, on my prerelease build, a few major incidents of stuttering and framerate slowdowns.

Scoring high on style and completion during the missions earns you upgrade points for Dante and his arsenal, but this system feels weak. Mainly, you’re unlocking new moves or more powerful versions of old moves, and it does feature a nice try-before-you-buy option where you can practice before you commit. But compared to other recent games — or even Devil May Cry 3′s skill pathways — it seems too grab-bag and unfocused. Midway through, I just started arbitrarily dumping points into whatever I wanted. Something that drove me to a clear play style, like a gun game or aerial-combat specializations, would’ve been much clearer and far more meaningful.

DmC: Devil May Cry

Locked replayability

Here’s one that just plain baffles me. DmC: Devil May Cry doesn’t have any online modes (save for leaderboards), so its longevity largely depends on you replaying the entire campaign on increasingly harder settings. Then it locks those settings. You’re expected to run the full 12-hour campaign twice just to open up intriguing options like “Heaven and Hell” (one-hit kills on everything) and “Hell and Hell” (one-hit kills only on Dante). Really?

Not crazy enough? Well, if you just want to play through a few quick challenge rooms without bothering with the entire campaign, you can always go straight to the secret missions. These hit you with timed exercises — races, killing anything that moves, killing everything with angelic weapons only, etc. Except you must literally unlock them by locating keys hidden in the campaign levels and matching them to also-hidden doors. Really?

Why would anyone think barring the value-add content was a good idea? Because more than anything, it encourages me to walk away after one playthrough, and there’s a name for games like that: rental.

DmC: Devil May Cry

Conclusion

The original Devil May Cry paved new roads in action gaming. As a remake, DmC: Devil May Cry largely repaves the same road, but a gleefully brutal combat system and the patented bad attitude bring the sexy back to mass demon extermination. Even better, the action endures throughout a lengthy campaign with few drops in the tempo — no small feat, that. A strangely onerous approach to replayability, a missed opportunity of an upgrade system, and bosses that come off more as unpaid interns detract from the experience, but overall the team at Ninja Theory did Dante proud. Here’s hoping they get a crack at perfecting the formula in a sequel.

Score: 85/100

DmC: Devil May Cry releases January 15, 2013 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and January 25, 2013 for PC. The publisher provided a nonretail Xbox 360 disc of the game for the purpose of this review.

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