Some previewers unjustly passed Nero off as a simple Dante clone. Yes, it's not hard to see why gamers would confuse the two. Not only do they look similar, but their movements are seemingly identical. However, playing as Nero offers a brand new system for fans to master and enjoy. The addition of the Devil Bringer completely changes the way players will perform combos. No, it's not a subtle change -- rather, clever use of the arm introduces a whole new mechanic to the franchise, making this the freshest addition to the series so far.
Nero not only brings a new move set, but a new direction for the storytelling within the game. The opening moments are filled with a maturity the series is generally not known for. The cinematics are just as action-packed, but certainly feel much more "subdued," especially in comparison to the truly over-the-top style featured in Devil May Cry 3. Perhaps that's a good thing, because the story is surprisingly well told, with a good sense of drama and mystery throughout. From Nero's perspective, Dante's abrupt appearance provides tons of questions. Who is this mysterious figure, and why did he assassinate the leader of his church? The demon hunter is clearly powerful -- but what side is he on? Players will also be intrigued to find out more on Dante's involvement with the story.
Playing as Nero is a blast, and players may think that Nero is more powerful than Dante due to his new collection of moves. The Devil Bringer, an unexplained demonic arm Nero is possessed by, makes it easier to create visually stunning combos. With a press of the O button, players will be able to grab enemies from afar, throw them, or grapple behind enemies. This easily sets up chaining sequences, where players can grab enemies, throw them into the air, juggle them, and then slam them back down, before continuing to another hapless foe. The mainstay style meter returns, and the proper use of the grab opens the opportunity for players to fight as stylishly as possible.
The Devil Bringer is used in a number of creative ways, in and out of combat. Certain enemies will be vulnerable from behind, for example. Nero can grab the enemy, jump over him, and attack his weak point for massive damage. Other aerial enemies will still be prone to Nero's deadly grasp, as he uses other aerial enemies to propel himself forward. One of our favorite boss sequences has us grabbing enemies mid-air, throwing them at an energy shield to break forward. Players are encouraged to experiment with the arm, and see how it can open up new ways of defeating enemies. But, it's used for much more than combat. Players will see some clever timing-based platforming sequences, where Nero is able to use his arm to grapple across long distances. It's not too frequently used, but their few appearances can be quite clever.
Another large facet of the combat system is Nero's unique sword: it has the ability to rev up, akin to a motorcycle. He can charge his sword whilst standing still, enabling him to decimate enemies with a flame-engulfed thrust. However, if players press the button at the precise moment after each attack, his sword will power-up instantly, increasing his power perpetually in battle. It takes incredible practice to understand the nuances of the timing, but when properly executed, it can be incredibly satisfying.
Players will have their skills tested in a number of always-interesting battles. Regular encounters with enemies remain fresh and fun, thanks to the incredibly satisfying battle engine. Once again, Capcom shows their finesse in the genre, able to pack in so many moves for each button. Timing is key in the game, as subtle differences in pressing the same button can produce wildly different effects. Watching the animations of both Nero and his enemies reveals valuable clues to their abilities.
Boss fights are easily the highlight of the game, as they successfully combine puzzle solving, battle mechanics, and pattern recognition in fights of the most epic proportion. Weaknesses aren't necessarily obvious at first, but when players come to that moment of realization and successfully defeat a towering boss, there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction.
While combat is easily the game's strongest attribute, we find ourselves frustrated at the cumbersome level design. It's a far better game than all of the previous Devil May Cry games. Levels are far more focused and refined, and players will find themselves usually going in the right direction. However, objectives can be unclear at times, and the map offers little real help in guiding players to where they must go. Surprisingly, many of the puzzles found in the game are actually quite fun. One recurring puzzle utilizes one of our favorite tools in the game -- a high-velocity top-of-death, that spins and ricochets, destroying everything in its path. It's cleverly used, without overstaying its welcome.
The game doesn't force too much backtracking, but when it does happen, it can be quite annoying. Even more frustrating are the platforming sequences. Abrupt camera changes, for which the series is known for, still occur and can make even the simplest jumping sequences more annoying than need be. Nero isn't meant to platform -- his jumping style only looks good when in battle. One particular sequence is quite annoying, and we warn players to heed our advice: make sure you get the double jump before level 10, or you'll find yourself in a rather impossible situation.
Yes, there will be times where we found ourselves simply scratching our heads, wanting to give up. Strangely, this never happened because of a battle. Series veterans may be disappointed to hear that this new Devil May Cry abandons the almost absurd difficulty of the last iteration. Instead, the game's difficulty has been toned down, making it far more accessible than previous titles. At the game's launch, players have a choice of two options: Human and Demon Hunter mode. As a seasoned player of the DMC games, I personally found Demon Hunter mode a bit too easy, but rest assured that there are more difficulty options to unlock after beating the game.
The easier difficulty will come as a relief for players that may have been too intimidated by the franchise's dreaded hardcore appeal. It's a win for everyone: newcomers will be able to ease into the game, and start learning the nuances of the game's intricate combo system. Veterans will once again attempt to earn the highest ranks possible on each level, before destroying harder difficulties.
There is a lot to appreciate and enjoy in Devil May Cry 4. It is easily the most varied game of the franchise yet, going from modern villages, to gothic castles, to frozen tundras, lush forests, and creepy laboratories. There are a whopping twenty stages to clear in the game, each with four difficulty options, and an addictive online ranking system that will have perfectionists coming for more. Hidden within the environment are bonus challenges, timed trials that will push the skills of even the most seasoned DMC player. On top of all this, there are hidden items, unlockables, achievements and Dante as an extra playable character. There is a lot to enjoy in Devil May Cry 4.
We don't want to go into too much detail about Dante's playable sequences in the game simply because they are such a pleasant surprise. As much fun Nero is to play, it becomes immediately clear that Dante is a far superior fighter. His ability to switch styles, guns and swords in real-time gives him an unprecedented amount of versatility. Devil May Cry 3 players will feel at home, but newcomers will be overwhelmed by the number of possibilities that Dante provides. Remember, each of his four styles has its own intricacies to learn! Sections which were problematic with Nero become a breeze with Dante, and fans will truly appreciate the ability to play as the famed demon hunter. We won't ruin any plot points, but we will say that you play as Dante in the latter third of the game. Interestingly, players will find that the plot and cinema sequences revert to a more Spike TV-esque presentation in Dante's part of the game. We love the heavy amounts of cheese and charisma that man brings to the game.
We're already deep into our second playthrough of the story, and it remains just as entertaining as ever. Without a doubt, Devil May Cry 4 is the year's first truly great game. The combat system is deep and satisfying for both Nero and Dante, and the visuals are among the finest of this generation so far. The wider range of difficulties makes this game accessible for both casual and hardcore gamers alike.
Yet, there are a number of frustrating flaws here that tarnish the overall experience. Backtracking is never fun, and unclear objectives and level designs unnecessarily frustrate the player. A sometimes-problematic camera doesn't play nicely with platforming, but such annoyances are rather few and far apart. These problems have plagued the series since its inception, but DMC4 manages to refine the franchise to a new level of polish. At the end, as the credits roll (and ... well, we won't ruin it) -- you will want to see another Devil May Cry. We know we can't wait for the next installment.
PS3 Fanboy score: 8.5
P.S. The required installation of the game on PS3 is quite an annoyance, clocking in at about half an hour. Unfortunately, there are still visible load times in the game (although they are quite minimal, a second or two at most). The series retrospective that plays during the installation can be informative, and has some soothing music. We recommend grabbing dinner, and eating it while the game installs.