Reviewed: June 19, 2004
Released: May 6, 2004
There is nothing like a movie tie-in game that releases before the actual movie. It used to be that movies sold games but now it appears that games might be doing the preliminary advertising for the feature films from which they are based, as is the case for Vivendiís latest title.
Van Helsing is the perfect movie to spawn a game (or vice versa) since the film is nearly 60% CG (computer generated) special effects, and most of the action sequences in the film look like they were taken right from a computer game design document. The intensity of the movie certainly spills over into the game design with blazing combat action, jumping, and grappling puzzles guaranteed to challenge gamers of all skill levels.
You play as the ultra-cool hat and trench coat-wearing Van Helsing as you monster-mash your way through 13 challenging levels that are a unique hybrid of Devil May Cry Meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There is a solid blend of action and combat with a few minor puzzles and more secrets than would fit in the largest hangar at Area 51. But much like the candle that burns the brightest, Van Helsing is a blazing ride that extinguishes itself long before the player is ready to move on.
Van Helsing is first and foremost a fighting game, whether you are using swords, shotgun, crossbow, knives, or those patented spinning hand blades you can launch at your targets. Many weapons feature alternate or enhanced modes. Ranged weapons become more powerful and melee weapons get a temporary infusion of elemental energy such as fire or ice.
Over the course of the game you will fight hundreds of enemies of all varieties, both classic horror creations and some interesting new creatures. You will also face off against movie villains, Wolf Man, Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, and the slouching Igor, all leading up to the climactic encounter with Dracula. The nice thing about all the monsters is that each has a unique fighting style so you are constantly forced to change your own combat style. The bosses are particularly challenging and will require significant mastery of your abilities.
When you arenít fighting you are collecting. Green crosses (spiritual energy) are found just about everywhere, either by killing the enemy or smashing anything in the environment that can be broken. Collecting these glyphs will allow you to spend them later in the armory where you can purchase new skills and special items like ammunition or character enhancements.
There is also an interesting gameplay feature that requires Van Helsing to keep tabs on his hat. Yes, much like Indiana Jones, Van is a stickler for keeping that hat on at all times and if it does get knocked off in combat you had better find it and put it back on before the end of the level since having your hat is part of your finishing stats for each mission.
There are also some intriguing navigation puzzles where you must use your grapple to reach certain locations like rooftops. Itís an interesting element to the gameplay but the glowing icons indicating a grapple point seriously take away from the challenge of planning your route. If you are ever stuck just move around until the camera changes and look for an icon near the top of the screen.
Control is sweet, with precise analog movement and unique buttons for aiming and firing. Van has a cool jump and double-jump and there is a quick weapon select button, aiming button, and a flashy finishing move to dispatch your enemies. By the end of the first level you will have mastered the subtleties of playing this game. I found the Dual Shock controller slightly more in-tune with the gameplay and offered a more enjoyable gameplay experience than the Xbox.
There is a pretty good balance to the gameplay and the difficulty ramps up gradually until the very end. Completing the game on the normal skill level unlocks a hard mode, and while this mode does offer a few new locations previously inaccessible, the addition of the ultra-powerful chaingun totally skews the balance of power, since monsters donít really get any harder Ė there is just more of them to kill.
Much like Resident Evil, Van Helsing is a 3D game shown from stationary cameras. You can move around any given scene and when you leave the border the next camera picks up the action from a new perspective. Often these cameras are used for dramatic and cinematic effect, and often these camera views just plain suck.
There are numerous encounters where the default camera angle simply does not work and you will be forced to retreat or run past enemies in hopes of finding a better angle with which to fight. Itís not a horrible system. The camera works about 70% of the game but that other 30% will have you cursing a random member of the design team (credits can be found in the back of the manual).
Even the boss battles are problematic, with unusually high or distance views that make it hard to get your bearings or develop any reliable strategy without a lot of trial and error. The camera always favors our hero so often you will not even see the boss and must rely solely on the target-lock feature and ďhopeĒ you are doing some damage until you can move to a new location with a better angle on the action.
Camera issues aside, the game looks fantastic with a unique visual style that mirrors the film. Everything is dark and gothic and the environments look fantastic. Character design is lifted right from the movie, and all of the monsters are as frightening as they are superbly animated. Van has some seriously cool moves and whether he is grappling, jumping, or juggling a creature with his sword, it looks very awesome.
The PS2 seems to choke on its own graphics at times, often when there is a lot going on or the camera zooms in close enough that more texture detail is forced to be drawn. For the most part the game flows smoothly enough and even when it does hiccup it doesn't detract from the gameplay significantly.
Hugh Jackman reprises his title role leaving the rest of the cast to be recreated with professional-quality voice actors. The story and script is tightly integrated into the movie plot and maintains the same theatrical quality.
Rather than taking a videogame approach to the music with techno or rock, Van Helsing relies on an orchestra-style soundtrack to fill your ears with complementary atmosphere that is both haunting and energetic. The music flows with the gameplay and changes to suit the environments and the situations.
Sound effects are pretty standard with all of the traditional sounds of combat, clashing metal, slicing flesh, splats, thuds, and anything else youíve heard countless times before. Itís all good stuff and the Dolby surround mix spreads it out nicely, but not nearly as nice as the 5.1 mix on the Xbox.
You can probably finish Van Helsing in 5-8 hours, which could very well be a single session for some diehard gamers. In that first pass you will likely unlock most (if not all) of the secrets available, or at least the ones you care about. The unlockable hard mode is hardly a reason to replay unless you really like the first trip through and want to kill about twice the number of monsters and visit a few new locations.
At $49 Iíd have to recommend this as a rental only. Perhaps when the game hits the budget bins it might be worth becoming a permanent addition to your collection. Itís a great ride and everyone who enjoys action games should play it at least once, but there are better and more substantial games to spend your money on, especially on the PS2.
Van Helsing does a good job of recreating the style and action of the film while creating a challenging game. Itís a shame the experience is over just about the time you are warmed up, and the fixed-position camera might work for movies but doesnít translate well into gameplay, especially in a 3D world.
If you are looking for a mindless adrenaline rush, a test of reflexes, or simply a fun afternoon of monster bashing then look no further than Van Helsing. He is more than up for the task, but his adventure is best served as a weekend rental rather than a purchase.