Devil May Cry 4 Preview

For a series with only three entries to its name, Devil May Cry has an awfully storied history. Originally developed as a spin-off of the Resident Evil franchise, a bug that allowed enemies to be juggled became the inspiration for one of the most entertaining "stylish action" games the PlayStation 2 had ever seen. Unfortunately, the second game--which, unlike the first, was not directed by series creator Hideki Kamiya—managed to step all over nearly everything that made the first game good. By the time the third game arrived, fans were cautiously optimistic--and with good reason: it was hard. This was remedied to a degree by a Special Edition release of the game, which toned down the difficulty and added in a better continue system.

So why the history lesson? Because the pitfalls and accomplishments of the past have all led to Devil May Cry 4, which when it arrives on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC may well prove to be the series' best game yet thanks to the mixture of tough-but-not-sadistic difficulty, some gorgeous environments and a tweaked combat system that feels fresh yet familiar for those who played the previous games. Oh, and the main character? Not the guy that you played in the first three games. Familiar but different.

Though series mainstay Dante is still playable (likely unlocked after you beat the game, accompanied by the four different fighting styles from DMC3, now freely selectable via the d-pad), newcomer Nero is the game's focus. Though details of the story have been kept intentionally nebulous, a recent press demo at least laid out the core mechanics of the game, not the least of which is learning to use Nero's Devil Arm ability to reach out and grab enemies to deliver a little more demonic beat-down than he could offer with his motorcycle handlebar sword the Red Queen (I wish I were making that up) or his double-barreled revolver, dubbed Blue Rose.

The hookshot-like Devil Arm, in its simplest form, is a means to grab enemies and drag them in to hammer out a little close-range damage, but when incorporated into specific combos, it becomes a way to mix and match different moves in more creative ways. On top of melee combat, the Arm can be used to traverse massive gaps at specific points by reaching out and pulling Nero across the expanse with a cool motion-blurred zip. It also means each enemy has a slightly different way of being dealt huge damage; one is a simple slam into the ground, another is swinging them around a few times before chucking them into a nearby column, and another is... well, I'll get to that soon. The point is that the fourth game in the series preserves the holy-crap-did-I-just-do-that-wow factor of the previous games, but introduces a new mechanic to broaden the suite of moves you can tap into at any one time.

Picture this: one of the stitched-together marionette enemies that appeared all throughout the first half or so of the demo rises from some inky void in the ground, and after locking on and peppering the cackling puppet with some revolver rounds, you uppercut them into the air, rising along with them, use the Devil Arm's Buster attack to slam them into the ground, then use it again to pull them back up before letting loose with a few powerful strikes from your sword. Now imagine all of that is something even newcomers to the series can figure out in just a few minutes.

The PlayStation 3 demo Capcom presented at its Spring Gamer's Day event here in San Francisco piggybacked off the material already seen at Tokyo Game Show last year, meaning the same sun-drenched seaside docks, the same gothic, cathedral-like castles and the same claustrophobic old world hamlets were rife with enemies just begging to be introduced to the business end of Nero's sword--a sword, it bears repeating, that can actually be "revved up" like a motorcycle throttle, to juice up attacks up to three levels. Shots from the Blue Rose can be charged up and held, increasing the power and kick-back and offering yet another way to pre-load moves in a combo for a nice, satisfying finish.

What's been added since TGS is a blustery mountainside battle with two of the frost enemies from the first game. It feels almost like a mini-boss fight, mainly due to how tough the enemies are. Their ability to fire long-range shots, encase themselves in an ice cocoon to regenerate health and teleport a couple dozen feet at a time leaving a trail of damaging ice all make for a lengthy, complicated fight. It wasn't until I learned I could grab the lizard-like creatures with the Devil Arm and twirl them around a few times (even in the air, which was fun) before launching them at breakable columns that coughed up green souls for more health that things started to click.

After putting the frosts on ice (I will never use that pun again, I promise), it was time to meet up with the Berial flame demon first seen at TGS. Unlike at TGS, we could actually fight him this time--but not before getting a taste of what kind of character Nero is. When Berial first appears in the abandoned mining town, tearing out of what looked like solid stone, he lets out a huge burst of flame, lighting all the nearby cabins on fire. Nero, in a fun little act of defiance (not to mention a show of strength), whips the Red Queen around and in a single swipe creates a gust of wind that extinguishes the fire.

This, not surprisingly, pisses the monster off quite a bit and, after exchanging threats and banter, Berial heaves his huge sword into the air and brings it down to swat away the smart-assed human in front of him. Nero wasn't having any of that and, in a fantastic show of strength, stops Berial's powerful strike with the tip of his sword, leaving the end glowing white hot. Why yes, yes it IS awesome, but it is merely the prelude to the actual fight.

It is clear that Capcom means the boss battle to be something of a showcase for the system hardware. With a single swipe, the massive quadrupedal cross between the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings and Ifrit from Final Fantasy can completely obliterate a whole shack, turning the building into a mess of physics-affected clashing timber. These decimated buildings cough up green souls, which are absolutely crucial to living through the full encounter. By the end of the battle, the entire surrounding town is laid to waste, with nary a shack nor outhouse left standing.

Actually beating the monster takes more than just colorful language and witty banter. Using the Red Queen's revved-up attacks and charged-up blasts from the Blue Rose, it is possible to actually weaken Berial enough to get in close and use the Devil Arm to--and, believe me, words fail to capture how badass this is--pick the towering creature up by the head, leap skyward and then smash his face into the ground. It is one of the most satisfying ways to deliver massive damage ever seen in a boss encounter.

It also serves as catalyst for a massive explosion that restores the wreathes of flame around the demon, with an epic, motion-blur-heavy cloud of fire and smoke that suggests that, yes, this is the same engine that powered Lost Planet (and Dead Rising for that matter), and it is more than capable of delivering similarly meaty clouds of smoke. It is a shame, then, that many of the other parts of the game are a little less visually impressive. Some of the textures in the environments are surprisingly low-res, though it is obvious plenty of time and effort went into making the creatures and heroes in those environments look and move wonderfully.

So far, Capcom has shown just a taste of the full game--and it is possible the build played at the event might make it out to the public as a demo, though that is not yet confirmed by any means. What Devil May Cry 4 does so well is what the series--even in the rough spots--has always done well: allow you to pull off moves that make you feel like a badass while mixing in light puzzle elements and a oft-corny but always entertaining storyline. Marrying the best parts of DMC3's combat with DMC1's pacing certainly looks like it might make the fourth game in the series the most interesting yet. We'll know for sure when the game ships later this year.

Capcom plans to ship Devil May Cry 4 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 simultaneously later this year, with a PC release to follow. PC gamers burned by the suspicious third-party PC ports of Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening and Resident Evil 4 will be comforted to know that all of Capcom's PC versions going forward will be developed internally.