If you look at the statistics it’s easy to conclude that most games that are based on Hollywood blockbusters tend to be rather bad. Plenty of excellent movies have had developers rush together a shoddy piece of software, just to milk that extra money. But what happens when you base your game on a movie that’s not really any good at all? It’s actually surprisingly decent, although far from a classic in its genre.
In Van Helsing you play as Gabriel Van Helsing, a character said to have killed Vlad Draculia (or Dracula, as he’s also called), some hundred years before the story in the game takes place. You’re called upon by the Vatican to kill a few very bad monsters, and a whole bunch of ordinary skeletons, imps, stone-knights, and so on. You begin the game hunting for Dr Jekyll, or Hyde as he prefers to be called in his not so human form. This hunt also serves as a tutorial for how most of the game’s mechanics work. Van Helsing is a third-person action game, with various platform elements. You start the game with only your two pistols, a couple of twirling saw-blade thingies, and a grappling hook. During the game you’ll get a handful of more powerful weapons, such as a shotgun, an electrical gun, a gatling gun, and more. Each of these has alternative firing modes, which you enable by pressing the left trigger. These alternative modes do considerably more damage, but can only be used briefly. The meter can be filled back up by shooting monsters using the normal firing mode, but you can also use ammunition refilling items, which can be bought, or found. Also, your maximum health and “alternative-mode juice” can be increased by purchasing or finding similar, more costly items. Van Helsing also features something called finishing moves. At first you can only carry three of these, which pretty much let you kill any non-boss monster in one shot, but the capacity can be increased later. Refilling this meter is done the same way as most of the things in Van Helsing; by blowing up more and more foes.
As you play the game you’ll often find green glowy thingies that seem to hover above the ground. This is essentially the game’s currency, which you use in-between missions to buy items at an armory. I already mentioned a couple of the things you can get there, but if you have enough “money” you can buy new moves, increase the finishing move limit, and more. The green thingies can be accumulated by killing monsters, destroying barrels, and just basically exploring the game. You also have red glowy thingies, but these replenish your health. What surprised me a bit about the game is that it actually has a fair share of secrets. To get these you have to be on the lookout for tiny paths, things that aren’t easily spotted, and so on. While some can be found by blowing up certain things using a specific weapon you can also get some by triggering special events, such as jumping to something at the right time. And finally, cheats can be enabled by finding other secret and rare items. Most of these are quite frankly useless, like enabling big heads, different skins and so on, but others enable you to access the armory at any time, or give you unlimited alternative fire juice.
I can’t think of a lot of games that have encouraged cheating in the same way as Van Helsing does, but I can assure you that if you’re not actively looking for these cheat items you probably won’t find many either.
Those of you who have seen the movie will undoubtedly recognize many things. The game doesn’t follow the story in every way, but the main elements are carried on nicely. This is good in a way, but also bad considering how lousy the movie was. I’m sure the developers’ sense of consistency will be appreciated by those who enjoyed the movie though.
You will for instance meet up with Frankenstein, Dracula, his three favorite women, your sexy partner Anna, her brother who has recently become a werewolf, and more. Oddly enough you have to fight many of the game’s bosses several times, as they tend to escape just as you are about to kill them. This is understandable considering the fact that the game shouldn’t be possible to finish in just a couple of hours. In terms of difficulty it’s fairly well balanced. You should be able to finish the game in somewhere between four and five hours, or maybe a bit less depending on whether you get stuck anywhere. A few of the bosses can be a bit challenging, and will probably have you cursing a bit, but it should be perfectly do-able for most gamers.
Van Helsing can in many ways be compared to games like Devil May Cry, and the likes. It uses several of the same mechanics, and should therefore be very easy to master if you’ve made it past some of the challenges in Devil May Cry. The controls are fortunately very responsive and intuitive, but there’s no way of controlling the camera yourself. The camera is controlled fairly well for the most part, but there are times when you can’t see any of the things you’d be interested in seeing, like the location of enemies, and whether they’re planning a special attack. By holding the right trigger you lock on to the closest enemy, and when you play the game you’ll probably learn to love that trigger, since it saves you again and again. Gabriel can also evade attacks much like you could in Ninja Gaiden, and do various melee attacks. Combinations can also be done, for added damage. To really get anywhere in the game you’ll have to learn what monsters are susceptible to what kind of damage. Stone knights can take almost limitless amounts of pistol fire, but the shotgun’s alternative fire (explosive rounds) will put them to the ground quickly. You also have to factor in the movement speed of who you’re firing at, so if it’s slow then you may want to use the weapon that shoots gobs of electricity, and if it’s fast then the pistols or the Gatling gun will probably serve you better.
I’ve already mentioned that Van Helsing has a decent amount of secrets, but if you want to do “side-quests” then it’s also possible to do so-called challenges, which may require you to blow up a certain number of things in a given scope of time. Doing this can be a nice break from the main storyline, but it’s not essential to Gabriel’s progression.
In terms of graphics the game isn’t too bad. It can look somewhat outdated at times, and it doesn’t exactly throw a lot of fancy pixel shaders in your face, but much of the movie’s atmosphere is captured. The texturing can be a bit dull and lifeless at times, but that’s forgiven due to the movie’s dark nature. Most of the objects are modeled quite nicely too, and most of the special effects serve well as eye-candy. The framerate is also quite good, with just a few slow-downs in my experience.
Van Helsing’s audio is actually one of its strongest sides. It’s not often I mention exemplary sound editing/mixing, but this time I should. Most of the sound effects are spot-on, and the cut-scenes in particular have plenty of bass, and are positioned very well in 5.1 surround. Many of the actors from the movie lend their voices for the game too, and even do a reasonably decent job of showing emotions. The cut-scene directing doesn’t allow for some of the more emotional scenes from the movie, and it leaves out certain details that I think would help a bit for those who hadn’t seen the movie before playing the game. The music is also perfectly acceptable. The musical score consists largely of orchestral music, of varying complexity, and changes somewhat depending on the situation. If I were to nitpick I’d have to mention that the change from combat music to no music is a bit off-key, but that’s far from a major issue.
There is unfortunately no way of playing Van Helsing with your friends. A simple deathmatch mode would’ve been enjoyable considering the game’s decent selection of ranged weapons and melee moves, but I didn’t really expect it either.
I may not be a movie critic, but to me the Van Helsing game is a better form of entertainment than the movie itself. It’ll take you a good portion of a day to finish it, but even though it has secrets and things you probably didn’t do the first time around there’s no good reason to play it again – unless you want the extra challenge of a harder difficulty setting. Van Helsing has surprisingly decent gameplay, but it lacks much of the complexity seen in other games in the genre. It also falls short in terms of graphics, compared to games like Ninja Gaiden, but it does quite well in the audio department.
If you liked the movie and want some decent action then this might be a decent buy, but if you didn’t exactly love the movie then I can guarantee you that a rental is enough.
Van Helsing is an okay way to spend a Sunday evening, but it’ll probably be forgotten in the sea of other third-person action games.