DmC

I was expecting the worst from DmC. I love the pre-reboot series (I even like DMC 2), and I was nervous about seeing the game put in the hands of Ninja Theory, whose Heavenly Sword was very pretty and also very derivative and dull. I let myself be cautiously optimistic at the same time, because the DMC games have plots you could write on a postage stamp (Dante and pals fight monsters, Dante fights big boss monster, everyone goes home for tea), and all that could be done with the characters has probably been done. The series needed a reboot. (Plus, that nicely fixes the problem of ‘where exactly does DMC2 fit into the series’ timeline’.)

Fortunately, it’s a quite brilliant reboot. It’s got some comforting familiarity (Dante’s still a cocky cuntcake, combat still involves using a sword to twat enemies up into the air and ‘juggling’ them with gunfire, you still buy things from divinity statues using red orbs and look for secret missions), and some nice restyling. Vergil is now a cool (but silly-hatted) gunslinger, driver and hacker instead of a moody git who refuses to use firearms because they’re not the way of a true warrior. New character Kat (a witch who keeps her spells in spray cans for quick deployment) is probably vaguely based on 3’s Lady, and is a more interesting and likable character. The game has a less goff vibe, and feels like what DMC2 was trying to be. In particular, Noisia and Combichrist were excellent choices for the soundtrack. Devil May Cry with a dubstep backdrop? Oh hell yes.

I was impressed by the intro cutscene, in which Dante answers the door in the nuddy-pants and proceeds to get dressed in an unfeasibly dramatic way while running into battle. The whole time this happens, his bits are somehow obscured by a carefully-choreographed parade of dong-shaped objects (such as a flying baseball bat). That shows that Ninja Theory have the series’ innuendo and silliness down pat.
I have mixed feelings about the new sweariness. Old Dante was disappointingly unsweary, but a script peppered with ‘Fuck you!’ ‘Fuck YOU!’ comes across as written by someone in a hurry to get to the pub. As does this terrible bit of dialogue: ‘You’re going to die!’ ‘Oh really? Somehow, I doubt that.’ Seriously, Ninja Theory?

Play follows the action-adventure standard of ‘twat all the enemies in the area, then you can crack on with solving the environmental puzzle and move on to the next area.’ ‘Puzzle’ is probably too generous a term – most of it is easy platforming. It’s linear, but encourages you to revisit levels by having obstacles that you can only clear with a weapon you acquire later in the game. You can finish the game in one inexorable advance from intro to final cutscene if that’s how you want to play, or if you’re a completionist and like to explore and to collect things you can go back and do that too.

Combat is fairly formulaic, in that you’ll probably find a favourite combo and stick with that until you find an enemy it doesn’t work on. It’s annoyingly easy to fall off precipices when using the move to pull yourself to an airborne enemy, meaning that this move gets largely unused in favour of the equally-effective one to pull the enemy towards you. Your overall mission score is affected by the quality of your battle moves (avoid taking damage and avoid repetition), but it’s surprisingly easy to score highly in this area, meaning that you don’t really have to think that hard about finesse unless you’re going for an mission S rank or above.

The game has enough references to the previous series to please DMC wankers like me. A couple of times it does get a bit ‘Look! That was a reference, did you like it?’ Yes, ho ho, I see what you did there. Some enemy designs are reimaginings of monsters from past games, and the game has a battle mechanic similar to the brilliant Devil Bringer used by Nero in DMC4. Interestingly, there’s no title drop (all the previous games made references to the fact that devils never cry, and the title of the series was also the title of Dante’s business), making me wonder if the devs will make the letters DmC stand for something else.

I was bracing myself for a women-objectifying scene mentioned in another review. It’s there and yeah, pretty gratuitous, but fortunately it’s over quickly and happens right at the start. It’s almost as though the devs thought it was obligatory to have at least one pan over a woman’s knickered bum but didn’t really want to and shoved it in quick at the start to get it over with. I found myself thinking ‘that wasn’t so bad’, which is quite sad because it shows how ubiquitous this has become in mainstream gaming.
I’m more bothered by how Western-centric the plot is. An illuminati of demons have taken over the world by a combination of manipulating finances using possessed bankers (topical lols), a propaganda-filled news network (an obvious pisstake of Fox), and an addictive aggressively-marketed soft drink that makes its consumers subservient. Fair enough, but it’s not explained how this works in areas without television coverage or fizzy pop, or how a worldwide stranglehold can be broken by taking out one television station and one factory.

It’s so refreshing to see a game that hasn’t forgotten it is a game, and presents itself as such. Checkpoints are so frequent that you can stop playing pretty much wherever you want and not have to worry about losing progress when you resume play. If you’ve reached a level in any difficulty mode, you can try it at any other mode you’ve unlocked. Controls are remappable. Hard mode is the normal mode from the pre-reboot games, making it kinder to series newbies while leaving its trademark difficulty still in place for those who want it. You can try out moves in a training arena before committing to buying them, and you can respec whenever you want. Secret mission doors you’ve unlocked and lost souls you’ve found stay that way on subsequent mission playthroughs. DmC is a hard game only in that it’s tough to play – the structure as a game is engineered in such a way that you never have to think about it, and can get on with the business of enjoying the damn game. We need more of this.

If you’re new to the Devil May Cry series, this is probably a better purchase than the Devil May Cry HD Collection, which is a very soulless port, or Devil May Cry 4, which is buttock-clenchingly hard and makes you play as shitehawk Nero for the first half before you can be Dante. If you’re an established Devil May Cry fan, you must get this. It’s a worthy continuation.

Bonus: Here’s a Storify of my livetweeting the game when I first got it.

inFamous 2

It’ll do. That’s what inFamous 2 gives the impression of having as its design principle and intended player reaction. The first game was a fun if choppy-and-changey action adventure, and the sequel does very little to improve upon this. So little, in fact, that while the game engine itself is nicely polished, everything else feels like a first draft.

InFamous 2 carries on its predecessor’s cliffhanger: an enemy called the Beast is coming, and only Cole can stop it (of course). All Cole’s miseries at the hands of evil scientist Kessler were in fact a mentor’s exercise in preparing Cole for his inevitable showdown. Erm, thanks? You goit.
The game takes place in New Marais – a bonsai send-up of New Orleans replete with French architecture, swampland, a flood-damaged zone, and a tram service. It’s here that Cole must find six blast cores, which will amplify his powers and enable him to charge up a Beast-debuffing device. Wacky hijinks ensue as Cole searches for the cores, tangling with local crime bosses and swamp monsters on the way.

InFamous’s schtick is that you can choose whether to play urbexer-turned-electric-badass Cole McGrath as a goodie or a baddie – answering that old question of ‘why does everybody who develops superpowers turn into a vigilante?’ with ‘sometimes they don’t’.
The first game drew criticism for forcing the player down one path or the other and making it very hard to play a neutral Cole. 2 goes a little way to remedy this: far fewer powers are heroism/infamy-dependent, and while clearing a good mission still locks out an evil mission and vice versa, there is no longer any reputation requirement for taking a mission; so should you regret your wickedness, or want to turn infamous, it’s easier to start changing your ways.
Unfortunately, two sets of missions doesn’t come with two sets of cutscenes: Cole has the same dialogue in every cutscene regardless of karma, making for some sloppy characterisation and jarring gameplay/story segregation.

The electric man Cole is joined by new characters Nix and Kuo, who wield fire and ice and can even stack their powers with yours. This is pretty nice in gameplay, but is a poor piece of storytelling. The duo inexplicably hate each other – presumably the writers wanted to add a level of tension, but couldn’t be bothered to think of a reason for it. If feels as though there’s a missing cutscene in which Kuo trod on Nix’s jam sandwich. Just a couple of lines of exposition dialogue could have made this much more cohesive.
It’s also disappointingly similar to the first game, which has evil Sasha (cf Nix) trying to seduce you and goody-two-shoes government agent Moya (cf Kuo) directing your missions.

There are some problematic stereotypes in inFamous 2. Kuo is an Asian businesswoman who wears a modest business suit, and Nix is a black woman who wears very revealing clothing. There are two layers of tropes here. One is that (in the US at least, where this game was developed), Asian people are often portrayed as the ‘good’ or ‘ideal’ minority (stereotyped as being hardworking and intelligent) and black people are often portrayed as the ‘bad’ minority (stereotyped as being aggressive and uneducated). Kuo and Nix fall right into these categories. Nix is a particularly lazily-written character; chaotic neutral bordering on chaotic evil with no motivation for her destructive actions.
The characters’ clothing also falls in with the idea that ‘good’ girls are modest, and women who are open and comfortable with their sexuality are evil. Even their powers reflect this: Kuo uses ice (cool, suave, maybe even frigid) and Nix has fire (passion, anger, volatility). Ploddingly unoriginal.

InFamous 2 gives you some new abilities, including picking cars up with telekinesis and chucking them at helicopters. (Which means there’s no need to play Prototype any more; inFamous now has the best thing from that game.) It’s also got a little easier, and not to its detriment – checkpoints are denser, and the vehicle escort missions have been downgraded from buttock-clenchingly hard to a nice challenge.
Climbing is still an annoying endeavour, considering how much the game relies on vertical space as a player stratagem and to give the illusion of the city being much bigger than it is. Cole’s moves are slick but trying to get him to climb up a piece of scenery instead of magnetically pinging back to the previous hand-hold is sometimes ridiculous.

The game’s minimap is still really tiny and dark, and blast shards (power-up nuggets) still show up as indigo dots on the dark grey background. Amazingly, there’s no longer any altitude indicator for the enemy radar: enemies now always show up as red squares, instead of changing to indicative triangles pointing to enemies above or below. That was really useful and there’s no reason to have taken that out. The dead drops (exposition nodules) are now carried by messenger pigeons instead of being stuck to satellite dishes, and there’s no means of homing in on the birds like the dishes. You just roam around hoping to find a pigeon on your travels. Rubbish.

The user-generated missions are a lovely idea; it’s just a shame that they’re all a bag of wank. Sucker Punch have made the same mistake as Media Molecule, creators of Little Big Planet: assuming that people who aren’t actual developers have any level of game design ability higher than ‘suck’.

inFamous 2 is… good. You can’t say it’s not, and you can’t say it warrants a more exciting word. Its gameplay is more polished than its predecessor, but its story and characters feel like placeholders whose final versions were never implemented. Too often inFamous 2 feels like ‘I’m having fun pressing buttons’ rather than the ‘I’m immersed in this adventure’ it’s trying to be.

Darksiders

Most reviews seem to fall into either ‘this game is excellent; get it now’ or ‘this game is atrocious; don’t bother with it’, because no-one really finds a mediocre review that interesting. Just as well, then, that Darksiders is hard to describe without resorting to taking any word, adding ‘ing’ on the end and following it with ‘awesome’.

Darksiders is an unashamed rip-off of God of War (itself something of a blend of Devil May Cry, Onimusha and Prince of Persia), with a few elements ‘inspired’ by Zelda and Portal. Yes, Portal; Darksiders’ portals are even blue and yellow. In fact, it seems as though THQ were either calculatedly trying to pick out all the aspects of these games that make them enjoyable in an attempt to create a bestseller-by-numbers, or trying for an homage and hoping to escape ‘derivative’ status with immunity through excess.

Whichever it is, it works. There may be nothing new in Darksiders, but what it does do it does very well (with the exception of the storyline, which is pretty much an excuse plot). You’re War, you’re after revenge, and woe betide any angel or demon who stands in your way. War is nothing if not an equal-opportunities destroyer; he answers only to the Charred Council, who are a band of universal arbiters keeping the kingdoms of Heaven, Hell and Man in check.

Yes, that’s War as in the Horseman of the Apocalypse. (Though disappointingly for someone who is being constantly addressed as ‘Horseman’, for over the first half of the game you’re on foot.) Due to a cosmic administration foul-up, the Apocalypse has been called too soon – before the Kingdom of Man is ready for it – resulting in Darksiders taking place in a literally post-apocalyptic world, whose few human survivors exist only as zombies. The game world consists of ruined human cities punctuated by lava-filled castles, jungly ruins and ash-filled deserts.

War fails to be a very likeable character, both in terms of aesthetics and personality. His armour is suitably tank-like, but his hair is long and not tied back, and his head-wear is a cloth hood, neither of which strikes this reviewer as practical for a warrior. Furthermore, his face is that of a normal human man’s, excepting his glowing blue eyes. Surely a fiery red would be more appropriate for War? While his lines aren’t quite as unsophisticated as Hulk-speak, they’re pretty plain-spoken, lacking the badassery of characters such as Kratos, without going far enough to be appealingly beige prose.

Overshadowing War’s character design is that of the Watcher, a servant of the Charred Council to whom War is bonded. He acts as your exposition provider and occasional helper (hold down your select button to hear a hint from him), and while he resents having to babysit you he delights in tormenting you. His acerbic personality combined with his sinister and ethereal appearance have the odd effect of making this reviewer like him and yet be hugely pleased when War finally breaks free of his hold and wrenches him limb from limb.

Darksiders follows the Devil May Cry/God of War pattern of fighting baddies interspersed with solving environment-based puzzles (including the classics ‘redirect the energy beam with mirrors’ and ‘activate a bunch of switches in logical order’). Like both these games, it includes some pretty amazing set pieces: riding a griffin with what amounts to a holy machine-gun in its mouth; riding your flaming horse, Ruin, while you shoot a giant sandworm in the face with a bloody big handgun; portal-jumping onto a huge robot’s head; and racing a giant to see who can slaughter the most angels. Aren’t you interested already?

Combat is pretty simple to get the hang of: to begin with, you have only one attack button, with which you wield your blade Chaoseater. Another face button is later assigned to your secondary weapon; a choice between a scythe and a slow but powerfully punching gauntlet. On one of the shoulder buttons is your currently-equipped gear: either a giant shuriken-like boomerang, a Zelda-esque grappling hook, a portal-making device, and a couple of others needed to open doors and see hidden structures. You can change any of these on the fly by assigning them to the d-pad, but as there are only four slots it can get a little annoying in the more puzzle-y areas, which will necessitate frequent re-assigning. Another on-the-fly menu is opened by a shoulder button and the d-pad, to which you can map items and War’s wrath abilities. As you have only four slots, this too requires juggling if you use all four wrath powers and are a frequent item user.

Despite its simplicity and relative ease, combat manages to be fun in the same way a B-movie is fun, and it’s pleasingly graphic without going quite as far as the grotesquery seen in God of War. And being able to pick up and throw cars at baddies is always a plus. The boss battles manage to be fun in part due to their sheer over-the-top-ness, and all require a bit of ingenuity. How can I hit that giant angry bat? Throw a sticky bomb at her, then throw your crossblade (shuriken) through one of the flaming torches to set it on fire and onto the bomb. The lack of health bars is a gripe, as the bosses take a while to down, leaving the player wondering if it’s actually working.

Along your adventures you’ll find, buy, and win enhancements for your weapons. Each weapon can have one enhancement equipped, and you can swap and change these at any time. Such effects include increasing the weapon’s power, the speed of its levelling, the speed at which your chaos meter fills up (the game’s beserker mode), or number of blue souls acquired (the game’s currency, coveted by the merchant Vulgrim – who also provides quick transport around the world by letting you teleport between his shops). It’s a nice little piece of customisation, though you’ll likely be slightly annoyed about having to choose which three you want the most.

As well as enhancements, you’ve also got hidden pieces of armour to find, in addition to health- and wrath-bar extenders, and demon artifacts you can sell to Vulgrim. While those who hate exploring and collecting will be glad to hear it’s feasible to progress without these, those who enjoy exploring game worlds will find that Darksiders’ excellent map system makes this a pleasant break from the action.

Darksiders is derivative and its lead character makes a bland avatar; its graphics are unobtrusively good – you won’t be jarred by pop-up but neither are they anything to write home about; and its environments are varied but fall just short of being properly atmospheric. But the gameplay experience itself is grand, and so much plain unputdownable fun that the game’s negatives feel unimportant. Oh, just get it.

Originally published July 2011, written sometime in 2010.