Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Xbox 360)

I’ve never been particularly good at fighting games, free-roaming or otherwise, but I dabble in the occasional novelty game or genuine classic that tolerates my lack of dedication. I don’t think I’ll ever have the chops to play something like Bayonetta properly, for example, but Devil May Cry’s free-flowing cool welcomed all comers. Metal Gear Rising Revengeance pulls off a similar trick, appropriately for a fighting game instalment in a stealth game series. The trick to Revengeance is an accessible but rewarding combat system in two parts.

Part one is how you respond to attacks. Tap block and a direction in the short window between an enemy readying an attack and its impact, and you will either stop the blow or counter attack outright depending on just how late you leave it. That’s enough to make the game tick, making the early game all about watching the enemies’ positions and timing responses. It feels skillful and cool, encourages you to stand your ground in engagements, and it teaches the importance of patiently managing and monitoring enemies.

The game’s then driven into motion by the second part, Zandatsu. A very successful counter or sufficient damage brings up a prompt that throws the game into slow motion and allows you to cut cyborg enemies into pieces and take the “electrolytes” (robot spine juice) within. In addition to shredding enemies into ribbons, this immediately fully replenishes health. This turns your normal response to damage on its head: take too many hits, and the best course of action is to charge into combat in order to pull off a perfect counter attack into Zandatsu, then restore your life force.

This core strategy of simple, productive blocking and health-restoring counter attacks results in a game where you’re constantly encouraged to fight and rewarded for playing intelligently when you’re there. It’s no longer possible to fall into a flailing mess of cheesy combos under pressure; fall back into your basic style of parrying attacks and you will prevail. As a novice who can’t keep on top of move sets this is a really encouraging play style.

It’s a great basis for a game that’s spectacularly mental, taking in MGS4’s war economy themes and telling a story about them at breakneck speed with a cast of rock-opera-level overblown characters.

There’s a lot of Revengeance that could use a little work. It’s not very long for one, with its final few levels being far shorter than the openers. The camera isn’t much cop, which is trouble in a game that’s all about situational awareness and directionality. Some encounters just aren’t much fun, such as a final boss that is uncharacteristically opaque. Yet Revengeance puts me in a fighting game that doesn’t make me feel like I need a training course to play well, which is real progress.

Now I’ve just got to get better at it.

Apparently the MGSV title screen takes place at a laundrette. Who knew?

Apparently the MGSV title screen takes place at a laundrette. Who knew?

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Almost forgot to sign up for Tumblr Pro before the free period ended. Phew.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker HD (Xbox 360)

If Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater refreshed MGS by finally providing a broad enough playing space for the series’ wonderful toys, Peace Walker shows that it has enough gameplay variety to afford to streamline things. If you subtract or simplify some of the clever little systems, refine the moment-to-moment gameplay, and reduce the scale of the missions into a series of episodes, there’s space to introduce a bigger picture above everything. That bigger picture is MSF, and it gives the franchise its first taste of the epic.

Peace Walker chronicles Big Boss/Snake’s effort to save Costa Rica from a CIA plot as commander of the mercenary company MSF. From “Mother Base”, a rotting old research platform in the Carribean sea, this “army without a country” lends a helping hand to whoever needs the aid. Its existence is a message to the dark conspiratorial forces of the franchise that military strength and martial dignity can be liberated from from the oft-inhumane political needs of the times. It’s great MGS lore in other words, filling in the space between Snake’s resentful departure from the US military and his rise as an antagonist while continuing to rehabilitate the character as something other than a warmongering fruitcake. MSF also introduces team-building and RPG aspects that unfold through hundreds of varied missions. This is MGS on a much larger scale than ever before.

The possibility of engaging in optional missions is the most important development, and provides some hints of the sort of gameplay we can expect in The Phantom Pain. The series has previously dabbled in a mission-based structure with the excellent VR Missions for the first game and the Substance re-release of the second. That was necessary given that those games’ potential was limited by a tendency towards cut-scenes and set-pieces in their final acts, and as a consequence there were no spin-off missions for Snake Eater. However Peace Walker shows that such a mission-based approach can still work wonders and even act as the backbone of a story-led Metal Gear game.

By providing such a broad range of objectives, and making them relatively short and self-contained, Peace Walker (paradoxically) encourages the same sort of creativity that Snake Eater’s freedom also cultivated. How best to take out an attack helicopter: chew through its cargo of shock-troopers, or loose a volley of missiles? Is the best approach to stealthy document retrieval a good offence, or judicious use of the classic cardboard box? What do you do when your mission area is packed with literal, supernatural ghosts?

The missions would just be so much fun stuff to do if it weren’t for the larger RPG structure that they tie into. The need to build the team turns Peace Walker into a sort of “MGS manager”, where Snake must constantly scout out the best soldiers in an area and abduct them in the hope that they can be recruited to work for MSF. Once so compelled, they can be assigned to various teams with direct benefits to Snake and indirect benefits to the army. New cooks are needed to keep the growing army well-fed and high-performing, but also produce better rations for use in missions. A well-stocked R&D department will produce dozens of weapons and gadgets to take on the road, while soldiers can simply be sent out to undertake AI-controlled battles in return for bonus cash. Closing the loop, time at Mother Base only increments when you play missions of your own.

You’ve got to get into some of this content simply to earn your way to the game’s ending, but that’s just the tip of an enormous stealth game iceberg. A thirty-six hour play-through to the game’s second, essentially definitive ending takes in about one fifth of the available missions, much less the unlockable content. If you have ever finished an MGS release and wished that it was ten or twenty times larger, and took in this or that clever idea (“oh, I wish I could fight this”, “it would be fun to use that”), well, consider your prayers answered.

The counterpoint is that the moment-to-moment gameplay has been daringly streamlined. The dual-stick controls introduced here, which will be familiar to players of Ground Zeroes, make the series more manageable in more modes of play. Transitions between stealth and combat are seamless and effective, and equipment can be deployed without the kind of three-shoulder-button finger gymnastics that Snake Eater frequently demanded. The well-intentioned but slow mechanics around camouflage, feeding and healing are practically eliminated, but because of the new complexity offered by Mother Base, it never feels like anything has been lost.

The upshot of all of this is that Metal Gear gained a non-linear structure, with a variety of possible objectives at any given moment, which feed back into each other through interesting large-scale gameplay mechanics. If you can picture a version of this where the goals are switched between by travelling to the right areas of an open world at the right times, rather than through a menu screen, then I dare say you’ve got a glimpse of what’s in store when The Phantom Pain arrives.

I’m excited.

Touch My Katamari (PS Vita)

A little while back I wrote that Waking Mars and Gene Effect had pleasingly idiosyncratic control schemes: a little bit weighty, and a little bit out-of-control. This sort of indirection can give a game a lot of character; I’ve misplaced a quote from one of the Animal Crossing staffers about that. Katamari Damacy thrives on this sort of flavour.

As a game about rolling a big ball around and things sticking to it, a dual-stick control scheme isn’t terribly obvious, but that sort of distance maintains the idea that you’re the little guy moving the katamari around, and not just the ball itself. The next level of complexity comes from the uneven-ness of the surfaces you roll over and the way the ball becomes uneven as it picks up objects. It’s a challenging and rewarding system to get to grips with that makes the game world feel tactile.

Up above this is a great puzzle-game structure where you have to try to optimise the route from small items to bigger items to even bigger items within the time limit. It’s satisfyingly balanced, so that the first attempt at a level normally ends in a close failure, then the second is just about doable, and later efforts reveal that it’s possible to complete the game in a fraction of the original time limit.

And of course it’s Katamari, so it’s slathered in absolute insanity. A great diversion.

Skill is still rewarded, but lack of skill isn’t so harshly punished.

36 hours into Peace Walker and I’ve finished it with the “real” ending. And an overwhelming sense that I have only scratched the surface. I’m going to give it a rest until after Ground Zeroes or I’ll still be playing this next year.

It is really satisfying to see Kojima Productions put out a game that’s not only enormous, with systems working at all sorts of scales of complexity and time, but still unmistakably a Metal Gear game. I am excited to see what they accomplish with a free roaming approach.