Devil's Third seduced us in 2014, trumpeted as a mature exclusive that would change the way we think about action shooters, promising to be a system seller. Tomonobu Itagaki prepared us for a game changer, an experience to thrill - after spending some time behind the curtain, however, we're left sorely in need of a boost in confidence that, to be blunt, probably won't be found within this title.
Devil's Third is a game that's had a difficult history, of course. It's the first title from Valhalla Game Studios but has been over five years in the making, apparently changing game engine three times and originally being planned for publication by THQ on PS3 and Xbox 360. THQ went bust, it's now running on Unreal Engine 3 despite that engine's lack of formal support on Wii U, and Nintendo surprised everyone by picking up the publishing slack in 2014.
Having spent time with the final retail build of the game we are, at this stage, talking only of the single player campaign. That's an intriguing caveat, as with any shooter the inclination is to dive into the online play and ignore the campaign that sits lonely on the front menu, yet here it's our focus. The variety of modes and customisation promised in the online segment will need to wait for a later day.
To the story, then. You play as Ivan, a muscle-bound tattoo-lover with a Russian accent that has us baffled, unsure of whether it's accurate or a parody. In any case, he was formerly part of a deadly crew of mercenaries but is now carrying out operations with the U.S. of A. Naturally we have macho posturing that turns to respect with a US special ops crew, a feisty communications lady with an old man in a suit as her boss, and an ongoing terrorist plot to do something bad to the world.
It's full of cliché and ripe for a spot of '80s action movie script bingo, and that's fine by us. It's utterly dumb - early on Ivan shoots a target with a 'tracking bullet', and then there's some surprise when it's removed (though it's helped the mission's cause a little) because nobody's supposed to remove bullets from wounds. The silliness is part of the charm and fits the gameplay - it's goofy, brainless action designed to entertain.
The mindless approach plays into the general design, too, with stages - those we've tackled so far, in any case - being constructed of linear paths, regular checkpoints and oodles of combat. It's in that combat that Valhalla Game Studios believes it has its hook - standard FPS gunplay is combined with brutal melee combat.
The melee is designed to be simple and, ultimately, a vehicle for gory and stylised death moves. Using standard swords or limited use weapons that are lying around - a favourite of ours is the sledgehammer - you can dish out light or heavy attacks with X and Y, while blocking and evading with the L button. You can also charge the 'Enbaku Gauge', a limited time power up that makes you faster and more powerful for a brief period. It sort of works but is painfully lacking in fluidity, while the transition from melee to gunplay is awkward at best. Fiddling with settings makes it easier to effectively lock onto an enemy, ignoring the wonky camera to land hits more frequently. It feels particularly rough, though, and as a result becomes awkward and frustrating button mashing.
The problems bleed into the entire gameplay, due to surprising and extremely disappointing performance issues. The aiming crosshair with the gun is stiff and unreliable, with tweaked settings doing little to resolve the problem, forcing us to ramp up aim assist and drop to 'Casual' difficulty. Those won't be options online, of course.
The sad thing is that, actually, the combat - melee and gunplay - could be enjoyable, but the concept is betrayed by shoddy technical execution. A key sinner is the woefully erratic framerate, which dives in outside areas or in the presence of explosions, while ticking along bearably in less intensive sections. Even when performance is tolerable the animation, transitions and general gameplay are scruffy and frustrating, making us feel like we're battling the mechanics in addition to hopelessly dim enemies.
Shooters and action games thrive on solid performance, and what makes the issues here even more frustrating are the low-level visuals, which would feel at home on the Wii if they were running at 480p. We're not obsessed with visuals when playing on Nintendo systems, but with only basic graphical fidelity we reasonably expect rock solid performance; considering what some games have achieved on the Wii U, this is a poor effort.
In fact, we think Tomonobu Itagaki has an entertaining game crying to get out here, but Valhalla Game Studios is clearly lacking in technical expertise, money or possibly both. When playing the campaign this feels like an earnest Indie title rather than a retail release - the effort, ingredients and intention are in place (hats off to music that keeps the adrenaline pumping, for example) but it falls down with rookie errors and programming issues.
Not that the levels and mechanical design aren't without flaws; they contribute to the struggles of Devil's Third too. So far we've encountered a 'boss' that involved dodging maniacally in a locked off area with around 20 minions (one with a rocket launcher) and a cowboy-hat-wearing idiot shooting at us, which was pure button mashing nonsense. We've been locked in an area with a tank, running around looking for another rocket launcher as our original disappeared when we accidentally dropped it. Too many times 'lots of enemies' is the answer when increasing the challenge; combine that with the problems mentioned above and we were driven to the easy difficulty and auto-locking just to make progress.
We still have a little way to go in the campaign, but so far it's been a messy, frustrating experience. There's a place in the world for dumb and linear action games that try to recreate an '80s action movie vibe - our complaints aren't about the superficiality of the experience. We enjoy some mindless fun, but it still needs to be well designed, polished and a pleasure to play. We don't feel like a modern day bad-ass Dolph Lundgren when playing Devil's Third - it doesn't draw us in. We feel like an irritated gamer who realises they could do something more productive with their time.
Perhaps the multiplayer will be the saviour here, or the campaign will suddenly be well optimised and enjoyable in its latter stages. We're doubtful on both counts and, to answer the inevitable GamePad question, it just offers Off-TV play and nothing else in single player. The controller seems to do a lot more in multiplayer, to be fair, and we'll see whether the allure of score chasing and rankings will add more lustre to the solo experience.
Back when we played Bayonetta 2, we thought we could get used to exciting and exclusive action games. That was good. This isn't but, hey, at least it's on Wii U.