Friday, December 18, 2009

Heaven or Hell

With console shooters really having come into their own this generation, more traditional third-person action games have seemingly become a little less relevant. 2008 gave us Devil May Cry 4 and Ninja Gaiden II, but reception for those entries was less warm than for their immediate predecessors, and the general opinion seemed to be that the hardcore combat action genre had grown stagnant. This year's best combat action game was Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2--really a rather sad comment on the state of the genre. Next year, however, we will be getting three major new releases by the end of March. I tried out the demos for all three recently. Here are my impressions:


Based on the gameplay footage I had seen previously, I was expecting just a faster version of Devil May Cry, and that is essentially what the demo feels like, though I wasn't quite prepared for just how fast the game really is. That blistering speed, combined with some crazily over-the-top effects, makes the action pretty hard to follow, but I suppose it will just take some adjusting to.

Like Dante, Bayonetta fights with a combination of melee attacks and guns. She is able to switch weapons in real time, and with the added ability to pick up enemy weapons, the impressive branching combo system eclipses even Capcom's recent entries in approaching the depth of a fighting game. Some vaguely God of War-esque prompts for execution sequences adds some cinematic flair.

Right now, I just have two major concerns.

First is the art. Bayonetta herself is certainly one of the more original designs in a long while, but I can't say I'm particularly a fan. She's not cool like Dante, and her looks and speech are too overtly freaky to be attractive. Enemies and locations, meanwhile, seem much more generic in that Japanese CG way, and the angelic motif seems a little too close to Devil May Cry 4, which is comparatively more elegant. Looking at DMC4, Ninja Gaiden II, and now Bayonetta, I'm beginning to think, more than anything else, it's really the stylized art that is growing stale in this HD generation where more realistic aesthetics are in vogue.

I'm more anxious about the camera, though it may well prove to be the most evolutionary aspect of Bayonetta. Unlike Devil May Cry and every other top tier entry in this genre, Bayonetta utilizes a user-controlled camera. With the action being so intense in these games, I think most developers have concluded that it's asking a bit much to have the player operate the camera in addition to their character.

I'm not sure Bayonetta offers any new solution, but the more dynamic camera seems justified once into the final stage of the PS3 demo, which introduces the "Witch Walk" mechanic. As characters walk on walls, it is the entire room that seems to rotate. Transitioning from floor to wall feels surprisingly natural, yet the visual effect, highly evocative of a stage from The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for SNES, keeps the concept as exciting as it should be.

God of War III

My only previous experience with the God of War series was my having played the demo for the first game. My impression of it was that it was a more mainstream version of Devil May Cry, and that more or less describes the God of War III demo as well.

It's fun, but the combat does feel much simpler compared to Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. It trades the deeper combo systems of those games for the variety of more immediately gratifying gimmicks like being able to ride and command a giant. Both of the melee weapons in the demo seem designed for flailing around in all directions, and I don't think there is even a way to target a specific enemy, but most of them arrive and die as packs anyway. It almost feels more like Dynasty Warriors than Devil May Cry, but it avoids feeling repetitive by mixing in some non-combat gameplay moments.

The demo ends with a flying sequence that plays out very much like the Death Star trench run from Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, where you just constantly progress forward at high speed while steering clear of oncoming obstructions. That was a technically problematic sequence back on the GameCube, and the more powerful PS3 hardware can't really fix the inherent difficulty with that design. Kratos at least doesn't explode immediately on impact, but the close, behind-the-back angle presents serious depth perception issues--it's very difficult to gauge the distance to the nearest oncoming object, as well as the distance between that and the next closest object. This is one mechanic that I think could work beautifully, however, with that future 3-D (I mean the glasses, not polygons).

Dante's Inferno

EA's series of questionable marketing stunts has barely kept on the radar what has otherwise largely been dismissed as a shameless God of War ripoff.

Dante's Inferno wears its inspiration on its sleeve, sporting familiar combat and enemies, a similar grab maneuver, dodging with the right analog stick, the same style of cinematic QTE executions, and even a sequence in the demo that has you riding a giant enemy. I also find it hard to believe that, when this game was pitched, nobody stopped to point out that there was another well-known, mechanically similar title starring a popular character by the name of Dante.

So Dante's Inferno offers nothing new or better, and its hero may not be winning any "best new character" awards, but, based on the demos, I would not exactly consider Bayonetta or God of War III revolutionary either. Clone though it may be, EA's game is at least well-produced and very convincing in its exhibited understanding of the formula. As one more title to occupy the most ravenous of action fans, it won't have much of a lead against God of War III next year, but it will have a huge advantage in being a multiplatform title.

My concern is that it may be just another Rygar: The Legendary Adventure.

The first really accomplished Devil May Cry clone, Rygar had high production values, rock-solid frame rate, and the same perfectly responsive controls as its obvious inspiration. It was a very fine game, but I bet it made for a great demo. At first glance, Tecmo had almost flawlessly replicated the basic mechanics of Capcom's seminal hit, but the difference between an original and a knockoff became apparent as you got further into the game. As you whaled on the same caterpillar enemy over and over again for the adventure's meager five-hour duration, it was clear that the developers, driven by the motivation just to ape an existing title, had gotten only the skeleton but lacked the vision to layer on meaty substance. Hopefully the Dante's Inferno team can do better.

No, not one of these games actually seems any better than Devil May Cry 4, which wasn't much different from Devil May Cry 3. I'm still waiting for one of these games to include a full-on co-op mode, which would constitute real progress in my opinion. I mean, in the 2-D era, a one-man beat 'em up would have been considered worthless.

Nevertheless, playing these demos reminded me how much I personally still enjoy this formula. I came away feeling very good about all three games, and it's just a shame that they are all being released in such close proximity to one another. I don't know that even my interest will last through all three of them.

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