The other day I bought Metal Gear Survive for zero dollars.
Although most of the internet would probably suggest that zero dollars is still too expensive for this game, I found it to be a rather fascinating experience.
Before I start, let’s address the elephant in the room: Konami sucks. Like him or hate him, Kojima is/was a ground-breaking (and budget-busting) designer and Konami will ultimately rue the day they let him go. That whole episode also marks the ignoble end to some of my favorite franchises too. So, in a way, Metal Gear Survive is a complete mockery of Kojima’s legacy – a survival game knockoff recycling the majority of Metal Gear Solid 5 assets in what is presumably a complete cash-grab.
That said… the MGS5 skeleton is better than most studios could dream of creating.
Metal Gear Survive surprised me right out of the gate with something novel. In the tutorial section of the game, your first weapon is a spear. Fantastic zombie-killing weapon, IMO, and I’m always surprised when no zombie game ever lets you craft one. Then you are introduced to chain link fences. And then they drop the bomb: you can stab zombies with a spear through the fence.
My amazement might sound factitious, but I’m being serious here. It’s a tiny, little thing that grounds the game in some sort of believability. It’s something you feel clever doing every time it occurs. There aren’t any spears in 7 Days to Die, and the only way you can attack zombies through something is if you build columns or have some kind of iron gate. I had been playing Metal Gear Survive for only an hour at this point, and already all future survival games will be judged based on whether I can attack through a chain link fence.
The boldness continued right on the second mission. The task itself was “download(?) the memory board” and the AI advisers warned me that “there will be some Wanderers (i.e. zombies) nearby.” Which, when I turned the corner and saw the building, happened to be a contender for understatement of the year.
It’s the second goddamn mission, I have zero weapons other than a spear at this point, and the ability to build chain link fences. And while that sounds like an unstoppable combo, let me just say the devs have specifically accounted for situations in which there are dozens of zombies being held back by a flimsy chain link fence.
Beyond that, the gameplay loop is… deceptively serious. Hunger and Thirst meters are present, and they dictate the maximum recovery level of your HP and Stamina meters, respectively. This means that if your hunger is at 25%, you can only ever heal back up to 25% HP. On top of this, food items are incredibly scarce. Animals will respawn, but it can take several real-world hours, which means you will spend the first dozen or hours of the game rather hungry.
On top of that, most of the game is spent exploring “the Dust.” The map is covered in a fog that requires you to wear an Oxygen mask to survive in, which is yet another meter to watch. Each time you are in a new area of the (Dust) map, your traditional tracking mechanisms, e.g. waypoints, will not work either. While there are distant lights you can use to kind of manually guide your progress, you can quite easily lose track of time or direction and otherwise get into a bad situation.
There is one final element that kind of brings this all together in a hardcore-ish way: Metal Gear Survive works on a Checkpoint Save system. Until you actually make it back to base camp, none of what you pick up or map or achieve counts for anything. If you die 5 seconds before the end of the mission, or if the thing you need to protect blows up, you start all over. While this isn’t too different from all the other survival games I have played, it certainly feels a tad more hardcore in practice, somehow. Possibly because in other survival games, you don’t necessary have to go into that clearly-dangerous area again.
In any case, I’m about a dozen hours into the game and continue to feel compelled to log in again and again. It’s not the best-looking survival game, and there are definitely pared-down elements compared to something like ARK or Fallout 76, but the combination of the formula and the MGS 5 vibe makes it very engaging to me. Even if everything else seems goofy as shit, on occasion.
I just completed the game this past weekend, with 28 hours played. My overall impression has soured somewhat in the meantime.
The first thing to note is that Konami didn’t just recycle assets, they recycled maps. I kinda already knew this heading into the game, but I found the experience rather jarring when a mission sent me to the mansion from MGS 5 for no particular reason. That is, there was a memory board located there that I needed to progress the story forward, but no actual storyline or plot purpose for the mansion itself to exist. There wasn’t even a boss fight or anything inside. Instead, it felt like the devs just said “oh, hey, there’s a mansion in these asset folders we haven’t used yet” and then slapped it in.
The second note is that the game’s cadence changes substantially in the latter half. Instead of survival, everything becomes long action sequences of surviving waves of zombie hordes. While this is not entirely out of character for the game, the fact that the last half-dozen mission are pseudo-time limited is. At no point did I feel the game adequately express the need to ensure that I had stocked up on enough ammo; that I managed to survive the onslaughts at all was a fluke of my hoarding nature.
Finally, speaking of hoarding, the “endgame” itself radically changes from a resource-gathering perspective. Essentially, instead of wandering around afield in new locations, the optimal method is to simply teleport to every waypoint and gather whatever is located there, then teleport back to base to offload it. This gives you enough material for damn near everything… except for bullets. Specifically, gunpowder can only be collected from specific items you pick up. You can convert materials in dozens of different combinations – turning Iron into Gears, Nails, Steel, etc, etc – but you cannot convert anything into gunpowder. Which is especially frustrating considering that you can convert gunpowder into TNT, but can’t down-convert TNT into anything.
The end result is that you basically can’t really use guns as your primary weapon. Which is fine, I guess. Other games like Dead Island really emphasized melee weapons too. But the fact remains that Metal Gear Survive allows you to farm this gunpowder over the course of several hours, such that you could use guns as a primary weapon if you put in enough mindless time. This ultimately just makes the entire situation feel worse though.
In any event, I do not necessarily regret my hours spent in Metal Gear Survive. If nothing else, it reminded me of how engaging Metal Gear Solid 5 was, and how cool the Fox Engine could be for use in other games. That will… never be made. Sigh. Fuck Konami.
Since this appears to be a Thing now, let me hand out a few awards.
Overrated Game of the Year: Witcher 3
Witcher 3 conclusively proves that all that particularly matters in gaming awards is that it looks pretty and has an interesting story; gameplay and rational design systems are 100% optional. Which, actually, is a fact that I should have already learned from Bioshock Infinite, which managed to bludgeon its way to several awards in 2014 based solely on its visuals and media narrative, not the garbage story or weak gunplay.
Seriously though, search your feelings on this – you know it to be true.
Actual Game of the Year: Metal Gear Solid 5
Yeah, I went there.
Look, the question you need to ask yourself is “what does Game of the Year even mean?” If that means “which game had the most engaging gameplay, the tightest game mechanics, and the elegance of harmonious, interlocking design,” then MGS 5 is Game of the Year no question. Go ahead and try to argue some other game got gameplay better.
Did MGS 5 go off the rails towards the end story-wise, when Konami presumably had Kojima’s balls in a vice? Yes. Would one final chapter mission DLC wrap everything up to a ridiculous degree and catapult the game into gaming legend? Absolutely. Does it immeasurably suck that none of this happened? Crushingly so.
But goddamn if the act of playing MGS 5 wasn’t the best game experience all year for me. Witcher 3 probably had better voice acting and a more coherent story, and I spent more time in Fallout 4 overall. Nevertheless, I feel MGS 5 deserves Game of the Year more than the others because it got the actual game bits so, so right.
Game of the Year after Mods and DLC: Fallout 4
Calling it now.
You Can’t Go Home Again Award: Pillars of Eternity
I remember having nothing but fond memories of the Baldur’s Gate series, playing them for many, many hours during a time period where I was otherwise beholden to JRPGs only. Pillars of Eternity was indeed a return to form, and I thought those same good feels would return.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, they did not.
As it turns out, the pseudo-real-time combat of PoE (and by extension Baldur’s Gate) isn’t actually all that fun to me. Back in the day, it was novel and interesting, but I just can’t stand the tactical sloppiness anymore. You can’t simultaneously make positioning super important and not allow me to fine-tune my character’s movement, especially when two pixels are the difference between your tank tanking and allowing the assassin to slip through the doorway.
Also? Sitting around and auto-attacking for days isn’t especially engaging.
I love tactical games, queuing attacks, and so on. Pillars isn’t tactical though, as you have no idea when an attack is going to fire, if a potion will be quaffed in time, or pretty much anything else. Not necessarily a deficiency in Pillars itself – it is true to the form it is imitating – but it represents a gameplay type that simply doesn’t work for me any more.
Best New Feature in a Game: Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl
I may have talked about Tavern Brawl from time to time already, but let me just say that Blizzard came up with game mode here that nobody asked for, but nevertheless ended up being exactly what the game needed. It’s hard now to imagine what Hearthstone was actually like without it. Did we really just grind Ranked or play Arena all day? Gross.
The brilliance with Brawl is actually manifold. Half the time you have to create decks from your own collection, but the other half of the time your collection doesn’t matter; this means that a new player has a shot to win against someone who has been collecting cards since beta. The weekly format means A) variety of play styles, and B) drives the Hearthstone conversation in interesting ways. On Blizzard’s side, Brawl also affords them the opportunity to playtest new cards, game modes, and receive real-time feedback on the same.
Of course, Brawl isn’t perfect. Some weeks, the rules are just crap. Brawls frequently jack up the RNG to insane levels. There have been quite a few repeats. The 2-3 day “cooldown” in-between Brawls doesn’t really need to exist, IMO.
But overall? Tavern Brawl is exactly what Hearthstone needed, right when it needed it.
Most Anticipated Game of 2016 (Thus Far): Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
I asked for this.
- Mass Effect: Andromeda
- No Man’s Sky
- Final Fantasy 15
- Star Citizen (?)
Game I Would Really Like to See Out of Early Access: The Forest
Oh, and Starbound. And The Long Dark. And Darkwood, which was a game I technically backed in goddamn 2013. Now that I think about it, there isn’t a game I want to ever see in Early Access anymore.
So, Polygon released the list of Game of Year 2015 contenders last month:
- Fallout 4
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
- Super Mario Maker
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
While I might be alone in railing against inexorable fate and media narratives, I will be very disappointed if Witcher 3 wins Game of the Year (again). But in examining the feelings that give rise to this disappointment, a question surfaces: what deserves to be a Game of the Year anyway?
When it comes to mechanics, systems, and everything that makes games games, it seems clear to me that Metal Gear Solid 5 deserves to be Game of the Year. Everything in MGS 5 simply works. The controls are tight, the stealth gameplay compelling, and the Fulton system synergizes brilliantly with every other game mechanic. You can kill people from afar, but you want to steal them for your base more, which leads to close-quarters sneaking and higher tension gameplay. The way all the pieces of MGS 5 harmonize with one another is simply a thing of beauty and elegance.
…which is a real shame, considering how much of a disaster the story ends up being. “Disaster” is a bit uncharitable, but the abbreviated ending leaves one with a sour taste in one’s mouth, making it easier to forget how ~60 hours of incandescent joy preceded it.
Then you have Witcher 3. Mechanically, the game is just bad; none of the various systems fit together, and often actively clash. You are encouraged to collect hundreds of different crafting components, including junk you can break down for parts, but the vast majority are completely pointless. Random loot will give you high-level blueprints for items you will never be able to use, while recipes for staple items are conspicuously absent. Everything about the first two games that established Witchers – and Geralt in particular – as a fantasy noir detective that needs to plan encounters ahead of time to survive, flies out of the window mechanically, as Geralt gets to pop infinite potions and bombs like they were MMO abilities with per-encounter cooldowns.
…but Witcher 3 will still likely win Game of the Year. Because of things like the Bloody Baron quest. Or when Geralt (spoiler alert) finds Ciri. Nobody will remember mindlessly pressing Alt and Left-Clicking a million times to snore through the combat even on the harder difficulties. Hell, nobody will even remember that, for however good the Bloody Baron quest was, how ridiculous it was in a narrative ostensibly about a race against time. Or how Novigrad was one giant slog through completely unrelated nonsense. Or how little sense it made, pacing-wise, for there to be an open world at all.
It seems to me that what is really being voted on here is “Game Experience of the Year.”
Which is… okay, I guess? Hell, I’m usually the guy defending story over mechanics from the people who believe plot has no place in gaming. In this specific scenario though, I hate the idea that MGS 5 is going to lose because it lacked 1-2 missions to seal the deal, whereas Witcher 3 is going to win because it had a few bright spots in an ocean of bad design.
Ironically, Fallout 4 has thus far hit the sweet spot inbetween the two extremes for me, but I don’t believe it will win because it didn’t hit the sweet spot hard enough. Plus, ugh, that useless ass UI. How could they have they spent so much time coding in Settlements and approximately zero minutes giving us an interface worthy of that descriptor to interact with it?
I will say though, I’m happy to see Ori and the Blind Forest show up under four different categories. While there were some difficulty spikes in there, Ori is one of the best-looking, best-sounding, and more entertaining indie-esque titles I have played this year.
Have you ever finished beating a game, only to find yourself lacking all motivation to do anything else for days afterwards?
Yeah, that’s me right now.
In this particular case, the diagnosis is easy. The last game I played was Metal Gear Solid 5 on Sunday, two days ago. According to Steam, I logged 75 hours /played. The game was released on the 1st. I did not actually start playing until the next day, but that means I spent an average of 6.25 hours a day on this singular piece of entertainment. To speculate that there might be some sort of withdraw symptoms associated with such behavior is extremely fair.
It’s an interesting phenomenon to explore while mired deep in it. I knew it was coming with MGS 5, but I’ve experienced it even in games I haven’t mainlined to quite this degree. I’m even relatively certain why it happens: it comes from the sudden loss of a body of useful experience. Games are a system of rules and, over time, you come to absorb these rules into yourself in the form of knowledge and reflexes. You generally get better at the games you play. You understand them more. You begin to anticipate future actions. All useful things in the context of playing a particular game.
Then it ends.
All that gaming minutia forged in the fire of experience… becomes irrelevant. Sure, it will still be there for you should you ever turn the game on again. My memorization of all the pulls of every TBC heroic might come in handy should I reinstall WoW during a Timewalking weekend. But just like after a breakup, sometimes (most times) you just got to let things go. The memories will stay with you in all your new experiences, but the specific way their hand fit into yours will not. That special, secret knowledge no longer has an application, and your mind mourns as it reclaims the space.
I enjoy playing games and will continue to do so in the future. It is precisely the mechanic of learning new systems that I enjoy games so – finding the contours, the edge pieces, the optimization. I enjoy this in spite of knowing the inevitable end of this process, the returning to Square One with a new game and novel idiosyncrasies.
Titles comes and go, but the process, the root that generates joy, is eternal.
Still… the ennui inbetween, I could do without.
Game: Metal Gear Solid 5: the Phantom Pain
Recommended price: $35
Metacritic Score: 96
Completion Time: 50+ hours
Buy If You Like: Metal Gear Solid, Hideo Kojima, 3rd-person Far Cry
Metal Gear Solid 5 is one of the most engaging games I have ever played. The completion time up there is a general estimate, but I personally clocked in 75 hours before I reached the end. The core gameplay loop is incredibly tight, the visuals (with a GTX 970) are impossibly fantastic, and never before I have felt like such a badass, one-man infiltration army.
At the same time, I can empathize with those who feel this Kojima swan-song is the weakest entry in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Or simply an incomplete game.
As you will undoubtedly see in the weeks and months to come, a lot of people were incredibly disappointed with… let’s just say Chapter 2. The “first Chapter” comprises what felt like was the entire game – it is almost an entirely self-contained 40+ hour narrative, with a capstone boss battle and rolling end credits. When I saw “Chapter 2” flash on the screen afterwards, I was legitimately surprised. “What?! There’s more? Wow!”
What becomes immediately clear across the half-dozen or so story missions though, is that Chapter 2 is more Epilogue than anything. Or, if I’m being honest, a desperate last-ditch attempt by Kojima to throw in plot material he wasn’t able to work into the main narrative before the release deadline. Which is really a goddamn shame, because Chapter 2 has some of the most emotional missions in the entire game.
I am mentioning all of this at the beginning because it’s important to ask yourself what kind of gamer you are. If you are a diehard MGS/Kojima fan who bought into the trailer hype, you’ve memorized the lore, and are looking forward to having this 5th (and presumably last) game wrap everything up in a manner consistent with the other games… you will be disappointed.
The spectacle is there. The ridiculous plot points are there. The zany scope is there. What’s missing is at least one critical story mission (which was included as a video in the Collector’s Edition, but can also be viewed on Youtube) and some filler missions to coherently link together what exists in Chapter 2. This isn’t like the end of MGS 2 where you’re wondering what the hell just happened, or the 2nd disc of Xenogears when the team apparently ran out of money. The Chapter 2 missions feel like they were created first, and awaiting a context in which to place them later, but it never arrived.
Indeed, they are missions that in all likelihood should have been cut out altogether, until and unless they could be finished as DLC.
On the other hand, if you are a gamer capable of enjoying a game for what it is, or otherwise have few expectations coming in, MGS 5 is going to blow your mind.
As I mentioned before, the core gameplay loop is incredibly tight. You might be tasked with rescuing a prisoner for example, but are otherwise left to your own devices (literally) as for how to accomplish that. Binoculars will tag enemies and allow you to track their movements through walls, so scouting is encouraged. Mother Base is always in need for more and better-skilled recruits, so tranquilizing and extracting enemies soldiers is encouraged. If you manage to get in close-quarters with the enemy, you can interrogate him into telling you where prisoners and resources are located, so getting real close to enemies is encouraged. It is a hell of a lot easier to do all of those things when the entire base isn’t trying to kill you, so stealth is encouraged.
Note how all of this is “encouraged” as opposed to being required. You can absolutely run and gun your way to S-rank level completion if that’s how you want to play. Or, you know, if someone raises the alarm when you’re 80% done with the mission every goddamn time and you can’t be asked to reset it yet again.
There have been some complaints for how much of the story was relegated to cassette tapes. As someone who attempted to complete MGS 4 before the release of this game, all I can say is: thank Christ. Having the plot mechanics tied to cassette tapes instead of the Codec system allows the player to A) listen to them at their leisure, including while on Side Missions, and B) opens up the ability to hear historical information, including conversations in which Big Boss was not present. Removing the Codec system might have contributed to the looser overall narrative of the game, but honestly I’d take that over the awkward, rambling Codecs of titles past.
Since I played this on the PC, I just want to take a moment to talk about my experience playing exclusively with the mouse & keyboard. For the most part, it worked well. The two specific issues you will encounter is with sneaking and throwing grenades. The default crouch speed is fast enough that guards can hear you with 5-10 meters, unless you hold down Ctrl, which is agonizingly slow; with a controller analog stick, you would be able to hit a sweet spot between the two speeds while remaining undetectable. That said, you can unlock a Sneaking Suit fairly early on that will allow you to move around a maximum Crouch speed with no issue. With grenades, there is an overhand and underhand throw option, supposedly determined by tapping the left-mouse button versus holding it down. After having enough perfect grenading opportunities foiled by this finicky detection system, I resorted to overhand throws always.
There are some additional mouse & keyboard unfriendliness in the many menus – mouse scroll doesn’t work, you need to press 1 & 3 to navigate menus, etc – but it’s not disruptive enough to forgo mouse aiming IMO.
In the final analysis, a day or two removed from the end of the game, I still feel like Metal Gear Solid 5 is an incredible experience. There are people out there with completely legitimate grievances with the game, both mechanically and narratively, and I empathize with them. At the same time, I feel less that MGS 5 “doesn’t fit in” with the rest of the series and more that the rest of the series would have been better off being more like MGS 5. You know, minus the rushed, unfinished nature of Chapter 2.
There is a lot to say about Metal Gear Solid 5 – or at least there would be if it were not consuming all my desire to do anything else – but today I wanted to talk about what it perhaps does best. Which is this:
Just look at that. Look at that and realize exactly how much you don’t see.
For comparison purposes, here is MGS4:
The narrative just writes itself, doesn’t it?
The elegance of the entire setup continues to blow my mind every time I play MGS5. Much as with MGS3 before it, removing the mini-map forces the player to redirect their attention to their surroundings. But in another design coup, MGS5 will give you the same functionality as an omniscient radar… provided you tag enemies with your binoculars. Just having that exist as a mechanic pushes players into wanting to scout bases ahead of time, without necessarily requiring them to do so. Which, of course, further immerses players into the game space as they try to determine where guards are likely to be, which approach has less coverage, where the escape routes are, and so on.
But more than that, the UI really speaks to what a given game is about. Is there tactical stealth in both examples above? Sure. But latter screenshot speaks of a game in which you need to manage health, psyche, stress levels, utility items with battery power, a back pocket filled with 8 different weapons (not pictured), and finally a mini-map in which you need to rectify advanced information about enemies with what you can actually see around you. Actually being stealthy is important, but it is only one of many concerns.
Now contrast that with the former. What is important there, based on the UI?
The definition of good UI is that which both accentuates player gameplay and does not detract from it. In many ways, I feel that the UI in Metal Gear Solid 5 takes it a step further in that it generates gameplay in a way that so many other similar games have tried and failed. And while MGS5 is not the first to use such a brilliant mechanic, this is the first game I have played in which everything just feels so right.
As it turns out, Metal Gear Solid 5: the Phantom Fulton is a lot of fun. Like, a lot lot.
The proper tone is set from the very beginning:
Like, it’s funny, right? But even crazier is when you think about A) who would come up with this, B) who would allow this to occur, and C) am I actually seeing this? I guess it’s tame in comparison to that one Raiden section in MGS2, but still! This is the sort of esoteric goofiness that is so endearing of Japanese videogames, and the Metal Gear Solid series specifically.
Also, holy shit, 60 FPS on super-max settings. My recently-acquired 970 is smoking this game so hard, it can apparently bump the resolution higher than my monitor can support, and then downscale it to 1080p to cram in more shinies.
Here is a picture of me kidnapping a puppy:
Analyzing my own experience playing this game has also been amusing. The MGS series has always had this weird dichotomy in which it gave you 30 weapons to play around with, but made you feel bad for using anything other than the tranq gun in every scenario. Now in MGS 5, they give you the same plethora of guns and frequently tell you to go nuts. Grenade launcher by the 5th mission? Go for it.
In spite of getting the OK for GTA-levels of mayhem though, I’m playing this game like Tenchu.
It’s pretty clever design, I must say. Because while it is certainly worlds easier just sniping everyone from a million miles away, pretty much the entire reward structure of the game encourages sneaking and getting up close and personal. Since you are rebuilding Mother Base, you want to keep the place as fully stocked with brainwashed troops as possible. So instead of killing them, you can knock them out with tranq guns to the face and Fulton them out. But if you managed to sneak up on someone, you can interrogate them into putting resources and other goodies on your map, including diamonds which represent enough currency to make up ~10% of a research upgrade. Once you get the info, you are free to kill them or knock them out at your discretion.
I really do enjoy this sort of design tension, as it is all carrot and no stick. In a hurry? Blow them up. Want to actually play a stealth game? Go ahead and have all the rewards.
In any case, no doubt you will be hearing more about this game in the following week(s).