Devil May Cry 2 Preview
The sequel to one of last year's most surprising action games is nearing completion. We go to Japan to get a first-hand look at its progress.
Mistakes sometimes find their way into games. In the realm of console gaming, it's an all too-common phenomenon that haunts--if not outright ruins--otherwise fantastic products. As illustrated by Enclave's half-finished animations and Army Men 3D's embarrassingly poor artificial intelligence, among others, even the tiniest gaffe can sink an entire ship. Only in certain cases, positive side effects may occur. Take, for instance, the case of the "body juggling" bug discovered early on in Onimusha's development cycle, which some at Capcom say inspired Resident Evil designer Shinji Mikami to commence work on last year's flashy Devil May Cry.
Despite hilariously humble origins that Capcom employees are quick to gloss over, Devil May Cry shipped to mass acclaim last holiday season and quickly reached million-seller status. Casting players as Dante, a half-man, half-devil son of the dark knight Sparda, Devil May Cry successfully blended the free-flowing action of 2D side-scrolling games with puzzle solving and adventure elements more common to products like Silent Hill. In doing so, the development team inadvertently ensured the product's place in history as one of the foremost franchises on the PlayStation 2.
Considering that no publisher knows the survival horror genre quite like Capcom, it was a match made in heaven--or hell, technically. Over the years, the company has had plenty of opportunities to become intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of this particular genre. It's a legacy that began with Biohazard, evolved into Dino Crisis, mutated to become Onimusha, and ultimately reached its peak in Dante's first outing. But fame has its price. Audiences now expect more than just the traditional shock-horror experience from this gothic-styled franchise--they expect a glimpse of raw terror the way John Woo might have imagined it. And that's a big responsibility. Thankfully, as a recent trip to Capcom's Japanese headquarters revealed, that's exactly what fans will be getting come the end of January 2003, when Devil May Cry 2 finally releases.
To call the token successor twice the game the original was is a bit misleading--it's much, much larger. In fact, producer Tsuyoshi Tanaka brags that environments are "nine times as big as in the first adventure." Although divided into distinct missions once again, a design detail Tanaka concedes was a point of contention among certain players, he feels that the adventure's all-new layout will atone for any conceptual failings. "The length of the initial game's missions was troubling...some were short, others lengthy," Tanaka said. "Here, we've created a game that you can play for hours or just a little bit, if you'd rather stop and watch TV instead." While the levels will still be monstrously large, they're being designed to offer quick routes through each scenario for impatient players (20 minutes, on average), with longer paths, shortcuts, and secrets available for experienced comers who'd rather kill entire evenings combing every nook and cranny for special goodies. Some stages are linear, others not. But however you look at it, there's no one set path to the game's finish.
Sinning in Style
Those aren't the only meaningful changes, either. For one, the button layout is completely configurable. Kiss the first game's ergonomic woes goodbye, as you can now create a control setup that suits your own needs. The puzzles have also been reduced in size and scope, whittled down to improve the action's flow. Expect a more combat-driven challenge this time, complete with healthy camera angle shifts that follow the game's antiheroes with remarkable accuracy. This is just one of many trouble spots patched by the development team, who passed out surveys all over the world following the launch of Devil May Cry in an effort to determine where the first game succeeded and where it failed. Surprisingly, recorded suggestions had a direct influence on the title's design. Hence the players who chimed in with their opinions have in a sense become project contributors themselves. Their greatest reward? A new difficulty modeling routine that scales itself to match your skill level. That's good news for newbies, as it means there'll be no more getting mauled by groups of Edward Scissorhands wannabes over and over again.
Point being, frankly, that most of the mauling will be done on your end. Dante is back, and he's returned in good company. In addition to shotguns, a gargantuan sword, and the signature pistols the gun for hire always packed, he'll also receive help from Lucia, a flame-haired femme fatale. Described by Tanaka as a "protector," Lucia is a fully playable character who can be selected instead of Dante at the story's beginning. While you stick with the same alter ego all the way through, both available personas feature a host of special moves, making them both viable choices for new fans and longtime series stalwarts.
Dante will have some new abilities in the sequel, including one that grants him the ability to run straight up walls, Matrix-style. He'll also have an improved flying combo system that lets you snipe away and juggle foes while bobbing up and down in midair for certain intervals. Being grounded is no less advantageous, as it's here he'll adopt amazing stances, cleaving enemies up close with a brilliant flourish or simultaneously shooting creatures behind him and in front of him. The gunplay isn't just effective, it provides great visual feedback too--tight leans coupled with horizontal "gangsta" finishes and quick leaps that see you fly heals over head while your upper torso remains targeted on the earth must be seen to be believed.
And it's a good thing that you'll have these moves as part of your repertoire, as enemies sport improved artificial intelligence and hunt in packs. Running vertically up the wall is as often a means of escape as it is chance to get the jump on foes. During battle, opponents strive to encircle the man, feinting and swiping as necessary to force openings in his guard before pouncing for the kill. All too often, confrontations see the lone swordsman squaring off against three or more rivals working in conjunction.
That said, be happy that Lucia is no less effective a contender from a technical standpoint. Though Tanaka confesses that she's in the game "to appease the loads of people who were upset Trish wasn't a playable character in the original game...and to make Dante more James Bond-like in nature" (in that he'll have a different female sidekick in each installment in the series), she isn't just here to serve as eye candy. Armed with twin, curved blades and an as-yet undetermined projectile attack, she plays more fluidly than her male counterpart. The lethal lady's move set is firmly ground in the martial arts, with handstand spin kicks and rapid, vicious thrusts. Unlike Dante, who survives mainly via brute force, Lucia should establish herself as a less robust yet swifter ally who powers up much like her masculine counterpart.
Selecting your particular combatant of choice also has a lasting effect on the storyline. Each character's tale features a unique beginning and end. During play, these plotlines will periodically coincide, giving you a sense that the other star isn't simply idling while you're doing battle with half the underworld's denizens. It also gives you incentive to go back and try the other character's portion of the game, as the other character will regale you with tales of his or her adventures when you meet in the game, and different NPCs will say different things based upon what's happened to Dante or Lucia. The gang at Capcom just can't envision anyone will play through the tale only once--it doesn't do their handiwork justice.
Devilish Good Looks
Clearly, a great deal of consideration has gone into redefining the first game's play mechanics for the sequel, but no less thought has gone into Devil May Cry 2's presentation. "The graphics have doubled in resolution," Tanaka said. "Usually, on the PlayStation 2, even if you do that, it doesn't mean much. But here we've used a special technique, making characters and environments look twice as pretty!" That's no mean feat, considering how creepy and atmospheric Devil May Cry's indoor environments were. Furthermore, not only has his crew upgraded the series' overall graphical presentation for the sequel, but they've also brought the action to entirely new outdoor scenarios.
Hacking into goblinesque creatures composed of what is apparently pure shadow under a sickly orange sky is truly surreal. A glimpse around the different environments, which range from rustic towns sporting spatially impossible construction and cobblestone streets to decrepit ruins with an Egyptian feel, can be unsettling. Even if the magic pentagrams glowing blood red inscribed on the floor, the sarcophagi that line the walls, and the regular attacks from golemlike monsters built from wood and bone don't tax your sanity, the aeons-old mysteries they hide surely will. Everything is beautiful--just in a way your psyche recognizes as inherently wrong upon some deeper level.
Disturbingly visceral, the game just loves wreaking havoc on your consciousness. Devil May Cry 2 uses a bizarre warping effect that accompanies sword swipes, periodic monster decapitations, and the almost parallax-scrolling skyline, which shifts to conform to your present viewing angle. Likewise, explosions of dust and metal that follow certain foes' demise, or the wisps of smoke that accompany successful hits upon incorporeal baddies, are impressive to behold. Additionally, rooftop chases reveal an endless sea of abysmal architecture stretching off into the horizon.
Of course, the staggeringly huge assortment of boss monsters might prove equally disheartening. As you progress through the game, you'll encounter both bosses and minibosses. "There will be tons of these guys...lots of variety," Tanaka said. "Some take up whole rooms, others are tiny." The lesser nemeses are troubling enough, but once you encounter the screen-size one-eyed freak who towers over the heroes while belching forth gouts of energy, it's hasta la vista, sanity. Multiple platforms, strike zones, and physical forms may be involved in each confrontation, rendering the task of slaying these beasties that much harder. Monstrosities based on natural creatures such as goats and vultures are terrifying in their own right, but it's the ones formed of living magma that truly embody the spirit of survival horror. Such creations are showcased in front of grandiose backdrops cluttered with crumbling columns, decaying wooden structures, and relics of an era gone by. Though Tanaka denies that any religious influences played a part in the formulation of game's aesthetic vision, it certainly seems like references to the Bible and perhaps even the works of noted author H.P. Lovecraft have somehow worked their way into the various featured locales.
Admirers of Devil May Cry will undoubtedly find this sequel as fresh and appealing as the original game. Our time with the sequel has revealed it to be technically dazzling, quite addictive in the gameplay department, and more disturbing than a Hellraiser marathon. Devil May Cry 2 won't be out in time for this year's holiday season, but gamers looking forward to this game can expect it to ship to the US in January 2003. We'll have more on this impressive game soon.
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