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Metal Final Gear Fantasy Solid

Has anyone else gotten a chance to watch that latest FF15 gameplay video? You know, this one:

It looks cool as shit… but I’m trying to imagine an alternate scenario in which it was just an untitled mystery video. And there wasn’t that demo released last year. Would anyone have believed it was the next Final Fantasy game?

Or perhaps more to the point: does it even need to be a Final Fantasy game?

I stopped playing the series after FFX-2 – not because of FFX-2, but simply because I transitioned away from console gaming in general – so perhaps it’s a natural evolution post-FF13 or whatever. I seem to remember FF12 having some kind of real-time combat system where characters basically attacked by themselves or something? Never played that one more than a hot minute, myself.

Ah well. We’re getting a FF7 remake, so Square can do what it wants.

Review: Metal Gear Solid 5

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

A serious game for serious people.

A serious game for serious people.

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.

The boss battles were a little weak, but no different than the other games.

The boss battles were a little weak, but no different than the other games IMO.

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.

What's in the booooox?

What’s in the booooox?

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.

Perfect grenade opportunity: ruined.

Perfect grenade opportunity: ruined.

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.

Review: Dishonored

Game: Dishonored
Recommended price: $20
Metacritic Score: 91
Completion Time: 18-20 hours
Buy If You Like: First-person Tenchu or Assassin’s Creed, sneaky Bioshock

Style over substance.

I have been hearing Metacritic, er, criticism for years now without really understanding what all the fuss was about. It is a useful tool, and I include it in my game reviews as a sort of “by they way, this is what other people are saying” disclaimer. But now? I understand why people complain. I have no idea how Dishonored got a 91 Metacritic score. It is a good game and probably worth your time depending on purchase price. But is it better than (or even comparable to) Fallout: New Vegas (84), F.E.A.R. (88), Deus Ex (90), or Fallout 3 (90)? Lord no.

Before getting into what Dishonored is not, let us begin with what it is.

Dishonored is a first-person stealth action game set in the highly stylized, steampunk (or whale-oil-punk) city of Dunwall. You play as Corvo, a counter-assassin of sorts, as he struggles with being framed for the murder of the Empress he swore to protect. Through the course of gameplay, Corvo is granted supernatural powers like the ability to teleport short distances, stop time, or possess animals/people. The game is roughly divided into “missions,” which can consist of multiple areas and be completed/traversed in several ways. Within each area, there is usually a side-quest or two that can be completed for additional rewards, along with a smattering of extra upgrade components hidden around the map.

Blink onto hanging speaker, Sleep Dart guard on balcony, Blink over and enter via 2nd floor.

One of the most vaunted and critically acclaimed features of Dishonored is the ability to overcome challenges multiple ways. This is, for the most part, accurate. The mission goal may be to assassinate a certain individual, and the game will overlay the location of said individual on your UI, and… that’s it. If you want to stroll in the front door with a blood trail, tripping every alarm along the way, you can do that. If you want to Blink your way from rooftop to rooftop, hop in through a window, and switch the target’s wine glass with one that he poisoned (or mix them to poison both), you can do that. If you want to body-hop your way inside by possessing rats, fish, and guards, all so that you can render the target unconscious and remove them from power in a nonlethal manner, you can do that too. Or whatever combination you choose.

The problem I have with the extraordinary hyping of this gameplay feature is twofold. First, the game is incredibly easy. Almost trivially so. After the first 2-3 hours, I decided that I needed to restart on the highest difficulty setting. So I did… and further decided on a 100% nonlethal route for my first playthrough. Less than twenty hours later, Mission Accomplished.

People have different skill levels, of course, but most of the supernatural powers you get (all six of them) are pretty ridiculous. The default power is Blink, a short-range teleport that effectively has unlimited uses provided you wait 4-5 seconds between them. Blink is definitely a lot of fun to use, but once you upgrade it to level 2 (increasing it’s range) the game is basically over – there are no “puzzles” that cannot be solved by simply finding higher ground, going through windows, etc. Indeed, on more than one occasion I accidentally bypassed damn near the entire level and all of the security inbetween by Blinking between buildings.

The very next power that the game strongly suggests you unlock is Dark Vision, which allows you to not only see enemies through walls, but also their cone of vision; like Blink, Dark Vision is a super-cheap spell that you can effectively chain infinitely. Other stealth games, if they offer this sort power at all, make it expensive or difficult to use precisely because of how difficulty-destroying it is. Dishonored lets you peek through keyholes or lean around corners while remaining hidden… but it’s moot considering you can see everyone all the time with a touch of a button. Perhaps the worst part of Dark Vision though, is how it destroys the visuals and ambiance of a very stylish game with its sepia-tone washout effect and dark whispers; once upgraded, it even highlights cash and other items, meaning you can go through an entire level with it on and miss nothing… except all of the artwork and nuance. Dishonored without Dark Vision is a 100% better game, but you shouldn’t feel like you need to handicap yourself by not taking it to have fun.

Between Blink, Dark Vision, and how absurdly easy it is to kill/incapacitate guards, I only used Bend Time or Possession out of a sense of guilt for having “skipped” the rest of the game.

Around 90% of the time, your screen will look like this.

The second reason I do not understand the hype is how most games do this sort of thing anyway. If I am playing Metal Gear Solid, the game asks me to get to a certain location and then sets me loose. Whether I get there by avoiding all the guards, or shooting all the guards via sniper rifle, or going through the vents, or using a cardboard box, or whatever, is irrelevant. Dishonored is really no different. It doesn’t matter whether you got into the building through the window or by possessing a rat, just like it doesn’t matter in MGS, or Deus Ex, or Tenchu, or any of the other hundred games released since 1998 that feature more than one path. This sort of thing is par of the course. If the critics are referring to your ability to take out “bosses” in a nonlethal manner as being groundbreaking… um, again, 1998 called and just filed an injunction.

All of this is not to say that I did not have a good time in Dishonored. The story is fairly predictable, the setting is bit all over the place, but the game is good at pulling you in two different directions when it comes to whether you should simply murder your target or show “mercy” (where mercy sometimes ends up as fates worse than death). And again, I had a fun time in the game sneaking around and feeling like the biggest badass in the place. I just do not have any notion that Dishonored, mechanically, was the one delivering that fun experience versus me reliving the joys of MGS, Tenchu, and Deus Ex.

Maybe that distinction is immaterial to you. Maybe it is enough that an off-brand experience is so similar to one you enjoyed in the past. In which case, by all means, have fun. I just do not see how Dishonored deserves a 91 for emulating actually groundbreaking games wholesale, minus their difficulty and nuance. I’m thinking it is an 81 at most. Which is still great!