Crispy Gamer

Devil May Cry 4

The Devil May Cry series stars a white-haired, annoying jackass named Dante. At least it did until this, the fourth installment in the series.

Nero is the center of attention in Devil May Cry 4, though if you squint at the game's screenshots, you'd swear you're looking at Dante. (When I saw the game in action at the Tokyo Game Show two years ago, I made that exact mistake.) Let's look at some of their similarities. Like Dante, Nero has snow-white hair, makes lame wisecracks, and apparently shops at the same Long Red Velvet Coats 'R' Us store as Dante.

Like Dante, Nero also carries a big-ass sword and a quick-firing sidearm. (Lest you confuse the two, the game's opening tutorial level has Nero and Dante squaring off.)

But unlike Dante, Nero has a scaly, lizard-like arm that glows. This is called the Devil Bringer. It can be used to grab enemies, even in midair, and toss them aside, and it brings a much-needed new dimension to the traditional, somewhat stale guns/swords DMC gameplay.

When the original Devil May Cry debuted in 2001, its benchmark-setting graphics on the PlayStation 2, jaw-droppingly huge bosses and gothic sensibility offered up an unprecedented mix of style and substance. The game was seriously hardcore. That lava-spider boss within the first hour of the game? Now there was a gaming moment that separated men from boys.

Capcom followed it up with 2003's double-disc sequel, Devil May Cry 2. With a new character -- the female Lucia -- and larger, more expansive levels, this game should have been great. But it really sucked. The lava-spider boss even made another appearance, but instead of pushing my gaming skills to the limits, this time he rolled over with his spider ass in the air.

By the time I unlocked one of the lamest unlockables in gaming history -- a pair of snazzy Diesel brand jeans for Dante -- devils weren't crying; I was.

Then something marvelous happened: Capcom, refusing to give up on the franchise, released Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening in 2005. A prequel to the series, this disc took the game, and the gameplay, back to its cheeseball, visceral roots. By the time that three-headed giant ice dog was kicking my ass all over the place in the game's third level, I knew this was the return to glory the series desperately needed. In short, DMC got its balls back.

Which brings us to number four, kids. Due in stores in a few short weeks, I recently got some hands-on time with a near-final build.

The results: So far, so good.

This is the next-gen debut for the series, and while it won't set your unibrow on fire with its graphics, the lighting effects and attention to detail is truly remarkable. Some of the game's vistas are absolutely gorgeous, including massive waterfalls, monolithic castles off in the distance and some of the most convincing snow this side of Lost Planet. That said, the series' unfortunate invisible barriers are still present and accounted for, a flaw that may have been forgivable on the wimpier hardware of the PS2, but one that's hard to ignore considering the ample horsepower of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. One other trademark DMC issue that once again rears its ugly head: the game's awkward camera angles. Though you can manipulate the camera on occasion throughout the game, for the most part, the camera stays fixed, and that means sometimes getting attacked by enemies outside of camera range.

Each of the game's missions is structured similarly to those in previous games. In other words, you blast/slice your way through enemy hordes, and most -- not all -- levels are punctuated with a boss fight of some sort.

You still collect orbs to purchase items, though upgrading your sword, gun or Devil Bringer requires the use of Proud Souls, which are much more difficult to come by than red orbs.

Gameplay mechanics feel nice and crispy. And with the Devil Bringer now in the mix, pulling off those Stylish combos is easier than ever. I started with a High Roller (uppercut slash), peppered my now airborne enemy with gunfire, then used the Devil Bringing to haul him/her/it out of the air and back to earth for more abuse.

Levels feel more open and less confined than they did in DMC 3, though some of the levels I've seen have been a little too open, resulting in some unnecessary wandering on my part. (A new map system does a decent, but not great, job of keeping me on the right path.) While the story doesn't have the compelling sibling-rivalry theme that DMC 3 had going for it -- I've always had a soft spot for Dante's brother, Vergil -- it does feature some nice twists and turns, and is probably the most cohesive narrative to date in the series. Granted, since the series isn't exactly known for its quality writing, I realize that's not really saying much...

Those in the mood for a challenge will certainly find it here. But hardcore DMC veterans looking for a hardcore challenge might be disappointed. I made it through much of the game on the default skill level without having to tap into my reserve of small, medium and large Vital Stars. None of the bosses that I've seen so far have resulted in the trademark white-knuckle controller death-grip that DMC 1 and 3 inspired. I, for one, hope that Capcom turns up the heat a notch or two before the game ships.

One more controller issue: PS2 veterans will find it difficult to adjust to the larger scale of the Xbox 360 controller. DMC games are always finger-busting affairs, requiring lots of quick-and-accurate button presses, and DMC 4 is no exception. That said, it'll take you a night or two to get used to using the bulkier Xbox 360 controller. Expect some sore digits, 360 owners.

But is DMC 4 the best DMC yet? Keep an eye on the site for my final verdict.

This preview is based off Xbox 360 and PS3 near-gold builds of the game provided by the publisher.