It doesn't break the mould like Riddick, but Van Helsing is the latest movie licensed game that doesn't suck!
What is it with licensed games? Why is it that after years of releasing games featuring movie, comic book or TV characters, that reviewers and gamers alike are forced to approach licensed titles with a degree of caution more attuned to a lonely walk through the ghetto? Even worse is when we're gifted a crap game based on an equally crap movie, but hey, if that's the worse thing that can be said about this gig, we aren't complaining. Ok, we are, but just a tiny bit.
So in the wake of the critically mauled Van Helsing movie, we're given the game of the same name to chew on and spit out. But hold on - there's some flavour in this title worth savouring, even if it does taste a little familiar. Loosely following the events of the movie, the game mixes elements of Devil May Cry and... well, it's a lot like Devil May Cry actually, so much so that fans of Capcom's likable shoot em up will be surging through this title with little need to refer to tutorials or instruction manuals. It's a shameless ode to Dante, and if I were any less impressed by Van Helsing I'd swear I was controlling the white-haired one, only in a daft hat.
When you're a developer with a "license" to thrill you've essentially just been saved from doing a lot of the groundwork pertaining to games development - hurrah! You don't have character designs to work through laboriously, nor do you need to agonise over storyboards or artwork for half the development cycle. The bulk of development time is allotted to the game, and making it as pretty and playable as you can (well, that's the idea, at least), whilst still remaining faithful to the source material.
In Van Helsing's case, this example couldn't be truer, or anymore entertaining. Unsurprisingly, you are Gabriel Van Helsing - Vampire Hunter and all-round enigma - and your journey starts pretty much where the movie does. From here, you control Helsing through levels and monsters inspired by (for the most part) the movie. So when the game is taking its cue from the movie, you'd expect that Van Helsing himself is rendered accurately, to a degree of precision that makes you stand up and say, "Look! It's Wolverine!"
So it's with some surprise that on seeing the digital Jackman my first impressions weren't exactly what you'd call conventional. "His face is flat".
It sounded like him, it dressed like him, but if that is Hugh Jackman then somebody's been laying the foundations for a Children's Hospital on his multi million-dollar mug. In this generation of gaming, you expect something a little more convincing, in the same vain as EA's effort with Pierce Brosnan or the brilliant, brilliant rendering of Vin Diesel in the recently reviewed Chronicles of Riddick. Of course it isn't integral to the overall effectiveness of the graphics, but it does detract from it somewhat. Facial discrepancies aside, it's a solid effort on the visual front: varied and well-rendered environments veer on the generic side, but manage to appeal thanks to the film's Gothic and decadent flavour, which the game wisely borrows. Coupled with the use of the in-game engine to render cut-scenes rather than tailor-made FMV segments, the visuals stands up as being consistently functional throughout.
And much the same can be said of the gameplay portion of Van Helsing. From the range of melee attacks to the catalogue of weapons on offer, it doesn't add a great deal to the DMC formula it has "borrowed". In Van Helsing, you begin your murderous rampage with a couple of pistols and a pair of buzz saw-esque melee weapons. From the outset, any attempt to play Van Helsing in a similar fashion to DMC will result, for the most part, in success. Using your melee attacks to launch your enemy into the air, you can then proceed with blowing your chosen target to bits, and eventually you'll come across weapons that will allow you to do this in a slightly different fashion to before.
As you increase your arsenal, you expand on the potential for combinations, which is always something to be happy about. Even more promising is that Van Helsing has a few tricks of his own, namely the ability to increase the amount of damage your weapons can do for a limited period of time. Of more interest however is the "death" move, which when performed instantly kills the nearest enemy to you. When enemies surround you and your nervous twitch is kicking in, this becomes a lifesaver you'll be using more than once.
So considering that by and large Van Helsing "borrows" almost every game mechanic previously unique to Devil May Cry, you'd also expect them to cut out the stuff that doesn't work in DMC, elements of the game that have annoyed since the very beginning - but no. This is where Van Helsing is fundamentally flawed, simply for copying the DMC formula wholesale, with very little effort made to improve on it. The camera angle frustrations that have become a stalwart of DMC are seemingly magnified in Van Helsing, with boss battles becoming exceedingly and excessively tricky in certain instances.
As if to confound the issue further, the camera angles sometimes manage to be even worse than DMC's, with the view occasionally making a mockery of your depth perception. You'll often find yourself misjudging jumps and even melee attacks because of the sometimes inappropriate camera fixtures. Then there's the decidedly more crippling problem that makes the transition: tedium. DMC, for all its charm, could become very samey very quickly, with no amount of new weapons or environments compensating for the dull routines you're bound to fall into.
In a climate where licensed games are dreaded gamers, it takes something pretty special to dispel the myth surrounding them, and whilst Van Helsing doesn't quite prove to be the exception to this in the same way as Chronicles of Riddick, it's nevertheless a good game, with or without the license. By using an established and well-regarded game as a template, the developers of Van Helsing can lay claim to a game that, whilst not particularly original, manages to serve up something that most of us will enjoy.