Devil May Cry might have redefined action gaming when it first stomped onto the PS2 in 2001, but since then the slashy-shooty series has fallen into semi-obscurity. Devil May Cry 2's unexpected crappiness cost the franchise some of its following, and although Devil May Cry 3 was mostly excellent, its crushing difficulty all but relegated it to hardcore niche status. It's now been three years since the last time we saw sword-swinging, gun-slinging demon hunter Dante, and if he's going to bring the fans back, he's going to have to do something special.
"Something special" in this case means stepping out of the spotlight and letting someone else take over for a little while. As you're probably already aware, the real star of Devil May Cry 4 is Nero, a smarmy little hipster who looks suspiciously like a younger version of Dante. Nero belongs to the Order of the Sword, a cult that worships Dante's demonic father as a god, and as the game begins he's running late for a sermon by its high priest - and more importantly, a hauntingly pretty aria sung by his love interest, Kyrie.
It doesn't take long for everything to go to hell, of course. But what's surprising is that it's Dante himself who sends it there, crashing through the cathedral's roof and delivering a bullet to the priest's forehead. You'll find out soon enough why he's acting all evil, but in the meantime, it's Nero's job to hunt him down, beginning with an explosive duel that leaves the cathedral a flaming wreck.
From there, the action is everything fans have come to expect from Devil May Cry, as Nero slashes and shoots his way through the hordes of demons infesting a city, an old mining site, a couple of castles and a dense jungle. The game still relies heavily on those slightly irritating sequences in which spectral barriers lock you in a room until you've killed a few waves of enemies, but these go by so quickly that they're only ever a minor frustration.
Besides, the combat itself is a lot of fun. It's worth noting here that the game's difficulty is nowhere near as ridiculous as DMC3's; if anything, it's too easy. If you still find yourself frustrated, though, you can simplify things by switching to an automatic combo system, or using three automated level-up paths instead of manually picking out improvements for Nero and Dante. The carnage here is the best and most over-the-top the series has pulled off to date, and whether you're playing as Nero or Dante (which you will for the last 40 percent of the game), each brings something new and cool to the table.
Nero, for his part, is in many ways the more fun character; whereas Dante tends to brute-force his way through every situation, Nero's a little more reliant on finding cool items, solving puzzles and busting out skillful sword combos to get ahead. He's also got something Dante's never had: the Devil Bringer, a giant, upgradeable spectral fist that can yank enemies toward him (or, if they're bigger than he is, to yank him over to them, which comes in handy during boss fights). He can also use it as an attack, which produces different results depending on the enemy; some simply get slammed to the ground, while others get swung around like ragdolls or stabbed with their own weapons.
Dante, meanwhile, plays a lot like he did in DMC3. He's a little tougher than Nero, and can switch between four upgradeable "fighting styles" (really just special moves) with the touch of a button. And while he doesn't have the Devil Bringer, he gets something just as good: utterly insane weapons that you'll earn by defeating bosses, all of which are good, hyperdestructive fun.
In addition to Dante's default sword, there's Gilgamesh, a suit of armor that enables him to bust out powerful martial-arts moves, and Lucifer, which tosses out glowing red spikes that stay stuck in enemies and can be exploded at will. And while Dante comes ready for action with a sawed-off shotgun and paired .45s, they're weak and piddly compared to Pandora, an attaché case that can turn into several varieties of superweapon (RPG, missile launcher, heavy machinegun, laser and Raiders of the Ark-style kill-everything briefcase) if you can input the right button codes.
Dante's new abilities mean you'll have to find new ways around obstacles, which makes it more forgivable that when he takes over, you'll have to backtrack through the game world - which is divided up into missions but is really one huge, semi-linear environment - from end to beginning. It's a design decision that could have been horrifically lame, especially considering that you have to re-fight all the bosses because Nero failed to kill them the first time around. But because Dante is so fundamentally different from Nero, without access to the same items or the Devil Bringer to help him explore, and because the game reshuffles things a bit on the way back, it doesn't really feel like you're just covering the same ground again, and things stay interesting as a result.
Also keeping things interesting is the upgrade system we briefly mentioned earler. Like in previous DMCs, you'll be able to unlock new abilities for the heroes, which range from cool acrobatic dodges and speed boosts to new sword combos, charged-up pistol shots and - in Dante's case - new fighting styles and special-weapon moves. Even better, when you switch from Dante to Nero, you'll be refunded all of the upgrade points you've spent, which can be then put toward new abilities for Dante - and Nero will retain all of his upgrades when you switch back to him later. You'll also retain your upgrades for subsequent play-throughs at higher difficulty levels, giving you an actual reason to play through a second time.
DMC4 isn't without faults, of course. Backtracking through the game might not be so bad by itself, but fighting the same huge bosses again as Dante - and then fighting them again as Nero, near the end of the game - gets to be a drag. (Granted, though, the final boss fight is one hell of an epic.) Also, the game is packed to the gills with cutscenes that feature dramatic, over-the-top action sequences, and while that sort of thing was great to watch in earlier DMCs, now it just sort of feels like watching someone else play. Maybe we're spoiled, but adding interactive, Resident Evil 4-style bits to the cutscenes would have gone a long way toward keeping us from skipping them the second time around.
Finally, there's the now-infamous install-time issue on the PS3 version of the game. Seeing as you only have to do it once, spending roughly 22 minutes watching a recap and listening to Kyrie's song isn't that big of an issue. But considering that the 360 and PS3 versions are essentially identical, and the 360 version performs almost as quickly with no installation, it's still an irritating setback that we can only guess has something to do with Blu-ray load times versus those of a DVD.
Installation or no, though, Devil May Cry 4 is overall a kickass action package that manages to look extremely pretty while still being a lot of fun. All of the elements that have made the series great are here - the sense of humor, the slick sense of style and the ridiculously over-the-top action - and the game is at once instantly accessible and surprisingly deep, thanks to a more-elaborate-than-it-lets-on combo system. Add a bunch of secret missions and a fairly compelling (if somewhat shallow) story, and Dante's fans won't come away disappointed.