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On Tim Schafer, Apotheosis, and Video Game Rockstars: A Brütal Legend Review [Game Overview]
Nov 20th, 2009 by Dan

Apotheosis
1. The fact or action of becoming a god; deification
2. Glorification, exaltation; crediting someone with extraordinary power or status.

Do you know who Tim Schafer is?

When I still lived at home, my dad used to ask me, “When are you gonna grow up and stop playing video games?” He tells my mother that he’s sure I’m addicted to the medium. It’s true that I spend the vast majority of my free time playing games. I can name developers, producers, writers, designers, and even composers for games from my favorite series of games. This vast information age enables me to know everything about a game, down to its minutia, just by checking an online database. If there’s not enough information there, I can almost guarantee there are five or six fansites devoted to uncovering every last detail. It must be daunting for developers nowadays to produce in this environment.

My dad says these things, but I’m not sure he understands that this is just the nature of hobbies nowadays. Not too long ago we could almost justifiably claim an unhealthy obsession with the works of Deepak Chopra and transcendental meditation. Eric’s life revolves around photography nowadays almost as much as mine involves interactive entertainment. This is what hobbies are like now. Think of an obscure hobby, like stamp collecting, and I’ll guarantee you that someone out there spends a couple of hours a week producing a podcast for tons of people to listen to.

The point is, there’s a growing number of people who actually know just who is behind the games they play, a huge contrast to the early Famicom days.

It’s not exactly the fault of the developers that we had no idea who was behind our games back in the day. Standard process for Famicom-era games was to credit oneself via a pseudonym to prevent talent poaching. How would you be able to tell that seeing Gondamin credited as a composer meant you were listening to Junko Tamiya’s music? Famed Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune still goes by INAFKING in some games.

Now that games are actually credited properly, it’s not uncommon for people to know that Bioshock was the brainchild of Ken Levine or that the wackiness of Metal Gear comes from Hideo Kojima. Nintendo actually keeps Shigeru Miyamoto’s hobbies on the down low because they don’t want people to speculate on what ideas his brilliant mind will come up with next. We’re talking a complete 180° shift here.

Eddie Riggs: “Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?”
Roadie: “Like the seventies?”
Eddie: “No. Earlier… like the early seventies.”

Embedded within all enthusiast cultures is the cachet that comes with either “being there first” or experiencing a unique experience that the ignorant masses overlooked. Go to Brooklyn, grab the first guy with crazy hair and skinny jeans you can find (protip: you won’t have a hard time finding one), and ask him what his favorite bands are. Chances are, unless you’re from the Brooklyn scene too, you won’t have heard of any of the groups he’s mentions. He will consider you a barbarian for liking commercial music and you will consider punching him in the face.

I think it’s clear where I’m going here, so I won’t belabor the point.

Have you ever played Grim Fandango?

We arrive at the natural conclusion: these developers, thanks to the power of the Internet and rabid fans like myself, are now legends in their own right. When Miyamoto talks, everyone listens and when Tim Schafer makes a game, I buy it (we’ll ignore the fact that I don’t own Psychonauts or Full Throttle). All this devotion and dedication to one man is based on the strength of four games: The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango, the last of which is the only one solely under Schafer’s artistic control (the true Monkey Island games were made by the holy trinity of Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer while DotT was a Grossman/Schafer collaboration). When I played Grim Fandango for the first time in 2002, it was on the strength of Schafer’s Monkey Island reputation, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you his name until 2007 when I started listening to video game podcasts.

The press gushed and gushed about how good Schafer’s games were and how Psychonauts was criminally under appreciated and created the image of a brilliant game designer whose games featured great comedy writing and stories, but mediocre gameplay. Think about this for a second: Tim Schafer is famous for being a commercial underdog whose games are only hampered by mediocre controls. Before Psychonauts, Schafer’s only games were adventure games. Controls are irrelevant in that context, so Schafer has a reputation based on one game.

What’s worse is that I totally bought into the hype. I found myself thinking, I hope poor Tim Schafer isn’t underappreciated yet again. Really? After one game? This is the industry. This is modern, enthusiast society. This is madness.

Did you buy Psychonauts?

I can’t say that it started there, but the first time I ever saw an editorial campaign intended to raise a game’s sales was back around 2003 at IGN. Matt Casamassina, a fellow fan of Eternal Darkness, was bummed about the lackluster sales of what was actually a really great game, but its downsides were twofold: it was a new IP and it was a dark, mature game launching on the Gamecube, clearly the wrong platform for the game. The point of the campaign was that mature games would not continue to launch on the Gamecube if no one bought it, so everyone should take one for the good of the team and play this game. As you might expect, the plan failed and, for all I know, Casamassina still does his best to drum up sales of mature games on Nintendo platforms (he was back in 2008 when I still listened to IGN podcasts) with the same results. The Internet’s a tricky place. Everyone will agree that these games are criminally underrated by their sales numbers, but no one is willing to actually open up their pocketbooks.

Well, there is at least one. At some point I got it into my mind that if I wanted to keep seeing good games, I should support the ones that are trying to innovate in the field, regardless of whether I want them or not. It’s why I own Zack and Wiki and Little King’s Story, despite having no real interest in either. I just wanted to support good, non-minigame collections on the Wii. Lucky for me, nine times out of ten the stance that I want to support means that I’m supporting a game or series that I do truly love. Paying for the Day 1 DLC in Dragon Age: Origins is a hot issue for many who are morally opposed to content appearing on Day 1, despite the fact that this stuff probably wasn’t ready for a Day 1 launch. Regardless, I own both packs because I love Bioware as a developer and I want to see them continue to make good games. Likewise, it might have been a few parts my completist nature, but I used to buy every bit of DLC offered by Harmonix for the Rock Band series because I wanted to support their philosophy on music gaming over Activision’s (I also don’t buy used games for a similar reason).

It’s an attitude not limited to games either, I no longer pirate anything and actually buy CDs, .mp3s, and DVDs to support the artists that I treasure. It’s kind of foolish and I get burned sometimes with mediocre stuff, but I think it’s still worth it.

The take home message here is that my purchase of Brütal Legend comes from a complicated place. Tim Schafer, a man elevated to game-god status, a rock star, if you will, being the primary catalyst while the rest of my logic amounted to a combination of wanting Double Fine to find success in their game releases for once and rewarding EA for picking up this title after Activision so unceremoniously dropped it.

Was that a good idea?

It may not be the truth, but it’s the better story.

Brütal Legend is the worst kind of lie. It’s singing love songs with the girl of your dreams on a road trip, but you’re the only one who means it, while your best friend is sleeping in the backseat, blissfully unaware of the metaphor. That’s not to say it’s an evil, insidious lie, it’s just pretending to be one thing while slowly guiding you toward another. Boot up the game, watch Jack Black, go to the Land of Metal, and you’re expecting a 3rd person action brawler. Not too long into it it’s become an open-world brawler, complete with vehicle sections. An hour or two after that and you’re partaking in a hybrid RTS/3rd person action brawler/open-world driving game. It’s bait-and-switch executed marvelously. You might hate the RTS portions, but you’re already hooked on the story and you’ve got to begrudgingly see the rest of it through.

I’ll guarantee that most players didn’t even know that their game had RTS elements before purchasing it. How would they have when all the advertising campaigns featured only the 3rd person combat? Was this an evil move on EA’s part?

As a supporter of Tim Schafer, I say no. It’s a lie, no doubt, but it serves a greater purpose. This game cannot be distilled into its distinct parts in a 30 second action reel. Why not bring in the sales on the game on this promise? It’s not like it’s a total lie, it’s more like a half-truth. You will be fighting in the 3rd person for majority of the game, you’ve just also got to manage your troops well or you will lose. Then again, I have a hard time defending deception to the consumer on such a grand scale. Did Brütal Legend lie to all of us? No one went out and outright said it was one thing, but gave you another. There was even a demo out there. Is it really “Buyer Beware” to give the impression of one thing in your advertisements and deliver a slightly different thing? This isn’t like giving top billing to an actor who only appears for three minutes of a movie, is it?

“We say, over and over again, that the default player actions in a single-player game should be compelling enough to make you believe with all your soul that a two-player deathmatch situation using two player character clones and said default player actions would be at least as compelling as the actual game.”

– tim rogers in his Bionic Commando: Rearmed Review

tim rogers makes a point in countless reviews that a game’s core mechanic should be good enough that you can play it in multiplayer ad infinitum and have just as much fun with it. Brütal Legend takes that just a touch too literally. Double Fine so desperately wants you to love their multiplayer that the entire singe-player campaign is a training mission to prepare you for multiplayer. The final units and mechanics are all finally nailed down for the player in the penultimate battle. I’m not kidding, you can’t do everything until right before you fight the final boss. It goes against everything that “we,” the player, knows about games. When you play the campaign in StarCraft, haven’t you gained access to the entire tech tree after maybe four of the ten missions in the campaign? Maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t true, but it’s certainly not right before the final boss.

I see what the intention is. Strong multiplayer drives down the resale of games. Pre-owned game purchases are money lost to the developer. We’ve seen this trick already, EA, it’s why Dragon Quest made you grind for ages and why DLC and special pack-in unlocks are so prevalent in the games of today.

Back on message, the problem with this structure is that I didn’t want to play multiplayer once I finished. I’ve yet to boot it up once. That’s not to say that the game is terrible, it’s just not mechanically sound (and, lo, we now have a pattern that we can apply to Schafer).

“The road is fuckin’ hard,
The road is fuckin’ tough-ah”

-Tenacious D – “The Road”

Before I dive even further into the mechanics, perhaps a look into the raison d’être for Brütal Legend, its story, is in order. I should start by saying that the most surprising thing about this game is that the player is controlling Eddie Riggs, not Jack Black. Despite his tendency to be Jack Black in almost every role he plays, credit has to be given to Tim Schafer and Double Fine for writing him as someone completely different. There’s not one “skedoosh” uttered by Riggs in the whole game and even the part where Jack Black is Jack Black is decidedly restrained and non-Jack Black-like.

So the player controls this guy, Eddie Riggs, who is a roadie for a fictional metal band, Kabbage Boy, that’s all kinds of terrible in the modern, faux-metal, emo kind of way. The intro has this great part where the band starts off with an appropriately epic power cord, only to have a DJ break in with some scratches while the song devolves into a pop-nonsense song about the lead singer’s girlfriend. After saving one of the band member’s lives due to some reckless climbing (all while staying out of the spotlight), Eddie is crushed by some of the stage and his blood lands on his belt buckle, summoning the Metal god Ormagöden, who kills the members of Kabbage Boy and transports Eddie to a mystical world of METAL (if I could make flames burst out of this review, I would). For a guy like Riggs, this is a dream come true since the entire landscape looks something like the album cover to the metal records of old. Demons rule this world and enslave humans, but there is a small resistance group led by a man named Lars that Eddie joins to get closer to Ophelia, a woman he meets when he first teleports in.

The beauty of Schafer’s tale comes from the heavily enforced role of the roadie. Eddie Riggs is not out for glory and, despite the fact that he is the resistance and the main character throughout the entire game, he is not the hero. Maybe it’s Eddie’s personality, but he is firmly devoted to being a roadie and unused to the spotlight. It’s so ingrained in his character, that the narrative only addresses the discrepancy between what Eddie does and what he gets credit for maybe twice and both times he quickly brushes off. The story isn’t about Riggs becoming a hero in a world in which he belongs, which is strange, because it clearly features him uniting humanity and freeing mankind. Instead it’s a (METAL!) love story between Eddie and Ophelia and a damn good one at that.

Both the characters of Eddie and Ophelia are believable and both the dialog and voice acting between Eddie and everyone else is among the best I’ve seen in any game (top marks also go to the Uncharted series, the second of which I played right before Brütal Legend). The metal legends chosen to make cameos (Ozzy Osbourne, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister among others) do fantastic jobs of being both themselves and (especially in Ozzy’s case) fucking metal. Even the professionals like Jack Black and Tim Curry do some of their best work while industry veterans Jennifer Hale continues to prove that she’s one of the best in the business (don’t believe me? Check out her gameography).

At the end of it all, it’s clear what Schafer’s true strength is: world-building. Grim Fandango takes place in a wholly unique, single-serving world inspired completely by the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico with a dash of hell, demons, and the 1920s mafia. Psychonauts takes place within the brains of its cast of characters, with each mindscape inspired by psychology featuring wildly different neuroses, themes, and ideas. Brütal Legend, as you know, is inspired by heavy metal and creates a world where bass notes can heal, guitar strings are crafted by metal spiders, and guitar solos have the power to literally melt faces off. In each case his brilliance and creativity shines through and the player never wants to leave. He is unparalleled in this respect.

Brutal Legend draws itself up proudly. “I am a bastard child of the schizophrenic postmodern age. Know only that I am metal, and that I was forged from the raw materials of innumerable genres. No single acronym can contain my all. I am pure hybrid.”
-Chris Clemens. “At the Gates of Genre

Should Tim Schafer give up on games? I refuse to go on the record as saying that Brütal Legend is a bad game. Trust me, it’s not. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. It’s wild hybridization of multiple game styles and mechanics don’t combine for the better and the game winds up a jack of all trades, but, well, you know the rest. No one aspect of the actual game mechanics make me want to boot the game up again. Melee fighting is shallow because only two buttons can be allotted (you need to be able to control your troops and play guitar with the others). Driving is just a faster way of getting from point A to B and feels unsatisfying.

Quick Aside Time

I understand that this is hard and that resources are better spent elsewhere (not to mention that invisible walls serve to keep the player within them), but we, as gamers, need to take a stand against the goddamn trees in video games. How many fucking metal :throws up horns: nitro boosts did I waste because a thin, pathetic looking tree turned out to be The Epic Tree of Arrested Momentum. Seriously, if you’ve got small logs that I can drive through at low speeds, then why can’t I drive through a thin bit of underbrush? Then again, my car can fall thousands of feet and take no damage, so maybe my car and the trees are made of the same mystical, physics-distorting material.

Back to the review…

I can go on ad infinitum about every system in the game: the guitar solos are shallow, the RTS-style mechanics are frustratingly imprecise, the quest structure is repetitive, and the collectibles are annoyingly difficult to track and collect. Tell me Schafer, if I’ve got a map that automatically draws itself as I discover new parts of the world, why can’t it have a toggle switch to show me which collectibles I’ve already found? Ask my friend Ian how many hours I spent searching for the last (of 120) Bound Serpent in the game. It’s MADDENING.

At the end of the game, when evil has been vanquished and all the credit and accompanying hero worship has fallen on Lars and his sister, Lita, we see Eddie drive away, content to be a mere footnote in history, despite being the only reason that the history of that world continues. I return to the question, should Schafer stop making games himself? Wouldn’t he be a much better world designer for other projects? Isn’t Tim Schafer a better Eddie Riggs than a Lars? On one hand, I want him to continue to have the freedom to make his own full, artistic visions come true, but with two consecutive commercial failures under his belt (Brütal Legend has reportedly sold only 200,000 or so copies in Rocktober, but we’ll see what Christmas brings), will the industry keep giving him a chance?

Lars: “What do you do with a bunch of kids that just wanna bang their heads all the time?”
Eddie Riggs: *tears in eyes* “You start a revolution Lars…”

Tim Schafer is a rock star. There are few people in the industry who get what it means to craft a world, but the staff at Double Fine, Schafer-included, need to sit down and think about game design a little more. It’s got to be hard to reign in Schafer’s monstrous creative energy, but it would be a good idea to try to focus on getting fewer things perfect in their next game. The sad truth is that they haven’t got many more chances. Most of them could probably find jobs elsewhere, but the only member of their team with absolute job security is Tim Schafer. He will always be a Lars in the industry. Developers would be nuts not to give him top billing of some kind (note that the boxart for Brütal Legend explicitly states “A Tim Schafer game” above the title) and he deserves that kind of praise. So, to answer my previous question, Tim Schafer should absolutely make games, but perhaps he needs to narrow his sights a little bit and focus more on his core mechanics. Less can be more when you have to sacrifice quality.

Furthermore, have I learned anything about hero-worship in the industry? If anything, I think that writing this review has caused me to reevaluate the stances I take for granted on game companies and the artists I love, in general. I still think that the most effective way to lobby for anything in this industry is with consumer dollars, but I’m finding myself increasingly disenchanted with how little the sales from a small, dedicated fanbase amounts to. I mean, look at what my money did for the MLB Power Pros series in America? Given the decision again today, I would still go out and buy Brütal Legend. I like it that much, game mechanics aside, but with only 200,000 in sales, I’m pretty sure it will be a while before Double Fine is able to round up as much capital as I’m sure they did for this game (which may be to their benefit). On the other, Dan-has-learned-something hand, I’m pretty sure that I’m no longer giving everyone a carte blanche license to earn money from me. Metal Gear Solid 4 was such a disappointment to me that it will take some prodding for me to really trust Kojima again. Nintendo has flip-flopped around so much with Mario that I’m unsure where I stand. Mario Galaxy was not the breath of fresh air I thought it would be, but New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a masterpiece of sharp, 2-D game design combined with the brilliant addition of 4-player co-op. I no longer buy mature titles for the Wii. DVD box sets of shows that I casually want to remain on the air no longer get bought. Some things have been learned.

Take Home Review Message:
Brütal Legend is a definite rental, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending that you buy it until you’ve tried out the multiplayer.

Beatles, Konami Discrimination, Uncharted 2, and, Oh No Mai! [Game Overview]
Jun 19th, 2009 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Let’s start with a little NSFW. Remember that game Left 4 Dead? Remember how Zoey was a great example of a non-sexualized hero, something Valve specializes? Remember no more, because diligent modders have released the Nude Zoey mod (Kotaku story mildly NSFW, but no actual nudity in it).

The designer of the mod wasn’t happy with just slapping on a nude skin, nope, apparently it wasn’t complete until Zoey featured realistic boob jiggle. Modders have too much time on their hands, perhaps?

Three Part Harmonix

Want to learn some interesting tidbits about The Beatles: Rock Band? Check out this interview, courtesy Gamasutra, with Harmonix’s Josh Randall for more.

!

Konami, developer of hits like Metal Gear and Castlevania, have come under fire for being giant jerks. Yoko Sekiguchi is suing the company because she took maternity leave and, upon return, found that she had been demoted and docked ~$2000 for her time off. She rightfully believes that this is discrimination and is now suing Konami for $344,000. Yep, that was brilliant Konami, you were assholes and saved $2000 only to have to pay legal fees and potentially $344,000.

Voice Talent

Interested in learning a bit about the two female leads in Uncharted 2? Here’s a longish interview by Sony with Emily Rose and Claudia Black:

No Mai?

Kotaku is reporting that Mai will officially not be in King of Fighters XII. I am announcing that I will not be buying KOF XII until/unless Mai Shiranui is added via DLC. So much for that…

Says Ignition Entertainment’s Shane Bettenhausen:

I think the thinking is that they are making you wait because you want her.

Looks like I’ll be making them wait because they want my money.

Game Overview: ABDN Reviews MGS4
Aug 29th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

(SPOILER NOTE: Tim’s review, my review, and some of this post have MGS spoilers. Read at your own risk)

I’ve taken a few excerpts from Tim Rogers’ brilliant review of Metal Gear Solid 4 and I’m going to talk about them a bit. He totally threw us for a loop, revealing the game that is NOT ABDN’s best game of all-time, but revealing a game he firmly believes not to be. Let’s get started:

“If it’s a fact that Metal Gear Solid 4 sucks on purpose, we can hardly blame Kojima for that, either. Given his previously well-documented disinterest in the series, its having been promoted as his “opus” must have turned his stomach. It’s clear that Kojima’s priority was the game’s plot, and making sure it “satisfied” fans: like the world’s fattest kid circa 1989 winning a Toys R Us shopping spree, Kojima struts zombie-like into the warehouse of his past work and proceeds to remove absolutely everything from the shelf, dropping one item at a time into his bottomless shopping cart. He eventually gets up to the cash register, leaves the cart unattended, pulls his smokes out of his jacket, and steps outside.”

In this point I can’t help but hope that Kojima was in fact making a disappointing game on purpose. Sure, MGS4 wasn’t terrible, but after all the hype, after Metal Gear fucking Solid 3, I found myself thinking “Really? After that, this is what you bring to the table?” MGS3 was so good that I suppose surpassing it was either impossible for Kojima or, as Rogers says, not even the point of what he was doing. He made MGS4 because he had to. He made MGS4 basically a checklist for unanswered plot points because he ultimately wanted to be DONE. May Hideo Kojima never have to have as much control over or make another MGS game. The man, despite what Rogers thinks, is brilliant. I like to think it’s just a question of him finding a project that truly interests him again.

“By act three, the game has abandoned its neat little idea in favor of a far neater one: we are now following a guy through a European city. Snake is wearing a trenchcoat, looking like Gillian Seed from Snatcher (the fans swoon), and it’s quaintly foggy. Ironically, this proved to be our Absolute Favorite Part of the Game. Since age nine, we have wanted to wander a European metropolis after curfew, letting a shady man obliviously lead us to his shady headquarters. This is the reason we studied Russian and Chinese in elementary school while everyone else was busy pretending they knew something about sex. We carried this dream in the palm of our hand until college, when it dawned upon us that we could Actually Die from doing Stuff Like This, so we started writing about videogames in the first-person plural instead. Metal Gear Solid 4 manages to get the mood and the pace of Euro-man-stalking just right. Our target is “Side A”, and the enemy troops enforcing the curfew are “Side B”. We are “Side C”. The level design in this part of the game is ferociously cute: both we and Side A are in violation of Side B’s rules; while avoiding Side A’s detection, we have to ensure that Side A avoids Side C’s detection. This ends up pretty fascinating, whether you have watched the opening cut scene or not. Eventually, you get to the goal, and suddenly you’re riding shotgun on a motorcycle in yet another ropey on-rails shooting sequence. It’s like waking up from a dream about the Bahamas to find out you’re actually in Bermuda. Instead of intimately sharing military secrets with a woman you picked up at a poker table, you’ve got your mother asking you to shoot a helicopter down.”

I feel the need to interject that, despite Europe being compelling to Rogers and the ABDN crew, it’s rather dull compared to the actual MGS gameplay that I wanted. The gameplay of MGS3 was not about following a dude, although it’s also not too far. The dynamic of hiding from two forces is decently interesting, but its perhaps marred by the game itself. You CAN just take off the trench coat and continue running around in your octo-camo. You can just stun all the guards instead of sneaking around. Hell, you can just kill all the guards, so long as your mark doesn’t see it happen. The gameplay isn’t quite as compelling as the other sections, to me, even if the locale IS. Wandering throughout a European city in actual MGS fashion would be quite fun and worth exploring in the inevitable, but hopefully not Kojima-directed, MGS5.

“We will disclaim, right here, that we have, for the past decade of jacked-into-the-netness, chuckled and rolled our eyes whenever anyone complained about the length of the cut-scenes in a Metal Gear Solid game. Some people said they just wanted to enjoy the “gameplay” (like that’s a real word); some people said they just wanted to enjoy the “atmosphere”. It puzzled us, to the point of rubbing our bellies in amusement, that someone would dare to want to play Metal Gear Solid with absolutely no invested interest in the characters. It’s not that the story and the characters are necessarily great literature so much as they’re insperable from the game’s progression and atmosphere. If you only like the game mechanics, you’d be better off playing Pac-Man — it’s basically the same thing. Conversely, if you only like the story, you’d be better off reading a book. (Crucial: notice how we recommended Pac-Man for players who only like Metal Gear Solid as a game, whereas we recommended any book in existence for those who enjoy it as a story.) If nothing else, the original Metal Gear Solid had a dignified flow to it: the characters were all rough sketches, all vaguely likable. Conceptual Bullshit was kept to a minimum, and by minimum, we mean “Maximum, in Hindsight”. There was a fucking “boss” who you didn’t fight, who you instead met and talked to, and he died six hours before you even knew he was a boss. The game shows you this level of virtuosity for a while without once flexing its muscles in the mirror; at a certain point, it starts delivering soliloquies about love blooming on the battlefield; by this time, we are so into it that we can’t give up now. The game has worked its spell on us.”

Rogers brings up a vital point about the REASON people play a Metal Gear Solid game. It makes sense that a blockbuster like the MGS series is not only attract people who firmly agree with the gameplay environment, but I too marvel at the people who complain about cutscene length, but claim to be fans. The game IS about long cutscenes. The game certainly has a specific aesthetic created by its controls and actually interactive portions (ie: the parts where there aren’t cutscenes), but without the context, I would think it’s quite boring. Then again, I’d say I’m a person who is mostly motivated by story. I’ve played abysmal games just to see their endings in the past and I continue to play mediocre and great games, like MGS4, just to see what happens at the end. It’s absolutely true that divorcing MGS from its cinematics is divorcing the entire reason for playing from the game. It just makes no sense otherwise.

“Hindsight will tell us that, in concept and execution and everything in between, Metal Gear Solid is better than Metal Gear Solid 4, though this hardly matters. What matters is that we have grown up, and Metal Gear Solid has grown down.”

This is absolutely true. I would have to take a second to very firmly point out that MGS4 is, by no means, a bad game, it does suffer from something no other Metal Gear game does: sequelitis. It tries too hard to be what is iconic Metal Gear for its fans as a conclusion to such a degree that it is less Metal Gear for doing so. Think of the Solid games starting with MGS. Sure, that wasn’t much more than a rehash of the elements of MG2 (in fact, elements of the MG games continually repeat, but that’s actually a major theme of the game (how brilliant is Kojima to make “laziness” translate into “artistic purpose”?)), but getting serious, it’s plain that MGS2 is radically different from MGS. You have a totally new protagonist running around through an environment that is fundamentally different from Shadow Moses. The game felt different enough to warrant significant fan backlash causing low sales of the third, also fundamentally different Metal Gear Solid 3, where you, the player, are now in the past, the tech is old and different, changing the game from Pac-Man to something slightly different. Snake is not the same Snake (although he arguably/genetically) is, you now have a camouflage system, you have to eat to maintain stamina, and you have to treat your injuries.

Meanwhile, here comes MGS4. There are some slight gameplay tweaks here and there with octo-camo and the Drebin weapon system, but you’re not doing anything fundamentally different from the past games. You even have a stage where you revisit an old locale. MGS4 suffers because it is too much like the MGS games of the past. Kojima should have continued to grow as he did with MGS3 instead of regressing to the asinine and stupid with monkeys in diapers and god-awful stupid cutscenes. See Rogers’ treatment of the fried egg dilemma in the same review for more on that.

“…the (seemingly) hour-long sequence in which Ninja Raiden Riverdance-Duels a gay vampire in order to buy Snake, Otacon, and their pet robot enough time to escape from the hell of South America via helicopter is a chief offender: look at those moves! The moment we, as a “player”, behold a scene in a “videogame” and think “Man, someone should make a videogame out of that”, the ghost is essentially given up.”

Also (mostly) a first for MGS4 is the sequence where we cannot control Snake’s (or Raiden’s) bad-assery. The only notably awesome action sequences outside of MGS4 I can think of that we did not, in fact, get to control happen in Twin Snakes (this was widely hated) and in MGS3 in one scene. There is ONE scene in MGS3 where Snake beats up on the Ocelots with CQC. Every other time Snake tries to be fancy with CQC in a cutscene, The Boss, Volgin, whomever, seriously kicks his ass and makes him look like a moron. EVERY OTHER TIME. The player should not ever wish to control a cutscene in a game. Games are created to allow us to control the cutscenes. This is the failure of Quick Time Events too, in my opinion. Too much abstraction involved with making the protagonist look amazing.

“Eventually, the game turned us off to the concept of entertainment in general. Eventually, the game makes us start drinking.”

While MGS4 was, by and large, a disappointment to me as I became a victim to hype and high expectations resulting from playing MGS3, it is not this bad. It’s got its rough edges and, as Rogers loves to state in his review, the cutscenes are a train wreck of awkward acting and dialogue that would make almost anyone embarrassed to be seen playing the game (I’m looking at you Johnny…while I’m at it, you too stupid monkey in diapers), but I still stand by my review stating that you should play it. I’m pretty sure that my review was full of disappointment over finishing a great series off with less of a bang, but more than a whimper, it’s definitely worth a play.

(Just when you thought they were over, welcome to another MGS-full post)

Embedded Reporter: Metal Gear Retrospective
May 19th, 2008 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

You may or may not realize that Metal Gear Solid 4 is a mere month away, but Gametrailers has and they’ve started one of their amazing Retrospective series last week about Metal Gear. Episodes one and two are up, so check them out below already!

Sony: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
May 4th, 2008 by Dan

SPOILER ALERT: This review may cover plot points that will spoil MGS3.

Whoever wins, the battle does not end. The loser is set free from the battlefield, while the winner must remain there. And the survivor will live out his life as the warrior until the day he dies.

-Big Boss to Solid Snake

The Story

Metal Gear’s story completely revolves around the subjects of loyalty and betrayal. From the absolute first game for the MGX all the way to Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake is always manipulated and even betrayed by the very people he has put his trust in. MGS 3 explores what is probably not the first betrayal in the MG canon, but the first important one. Kojima hops into his way-back machine to take us to 1964, the height of the Cold War. Our protagonist, the man who started it all, the man who will become Big Boss, the man who is the genetic father to Solid, Liquid, and Solidus, and the man who first takes the codename (Naked) Snake. It turns out that the Cuban Missile Crisis was not really averted at all by removing missiles from Turkey. No, it was a direct result of the US returning a valuable weapon’s scientist to the USSR. Well guess what, the US wants Sokolov back and so begins the Virtuous Mission.

Naked Snake is air dropped into the heart of the Soviet jungle and instructed to keep a low profile as he recovers Sokolov. On his support squad are Major Zero, the movie-loving Para-Medic, and last, we have Snake’s mentor, The Boss. If you’ve been reading this review at all, you can probably guess what happens to Snake as he begins his escape from Russia with Sokolov. The Boss betrays Snake, her team, the Cobra Unit, abducts Sokolov, and Snake is hurled off a bridge with a broken arm by The Boss where he is eventually recovered by US forces and taken home.

On their way out, the main antagonist, Colonel Volgin, nukes the former research facility that Sokolov was working at using missiles The Boss gave him as goodwill gifts, steals the Shagohad super weapon, and flees with Sokolov, the Cobra Unit, and Ocelot. Snake is debriefed by Major Zero a week later. Both Snake and the Major are in danger of being executed for treason. Khrushchev is not happy about the nuke going off and the US government does not believe that Snake was not involved with the defection of The Boss, his former mentor. Major Zero, Snake, and Para-Medic have one last chance: Snake must infiltrate Soviet Russia yet again, rescue Sokolov, destroy the Shagohad, kill Colonel Volgin, and, to prove his loyalty, kill The Boss. Because The Boss leads the elite Cobra Unit, the mission is given the name Snake Eater and the main game begins.

In many ways, this story is truly the masterpiece of MGS to date. Big Boss was a character born out of the 8-bit days, so his personality and his motivations seem very one-dimensional to anyone who remembers Metal Gear. Naked Snake’s (the future Big Boss) betrayal at the hands of The Boss is absolutely meant to parallel Solid Snakes betrayal at the hands of Big Boss and shows the unfortunate and inevitable chain of events that plagues every protagonist of Metal Gear games. Naked, Solid, even Raiden have all had to murder their mentors and masters as a final test to prove their worth. The final battle between Snake and The Boss gave me chills, I could not believe how well-acted and well-put together it was. MGS3’s ending is also amazing. You honestly have no soul if the end of this game, from at least the fight with The Boss onwards does not touch you in some way.

I raised you. I loved you. I’ve given you weapons, taught you techniques, endowed you with knowledge. There is nothing more for me to give you. All that’s left for you to take is my life, by your own hand. One must die and one must live. No victory, no defeat. The survivor will carry on the fight. It is our destiny… The one who survives will inherit the title of Boss. And the one who inherits the title of Boss will face an existence of endless battle.

-The Boss to Naked Snake

Gameplay

If you thought MGS2 had its gameplay down to a science, wait until you boot up Metal Gear Solid 3. The camera, I think, should be the first things we talk about. MGS and MGS2 featured fixed cameras that restricted your view to preset, dynamic camera angles (less dymanic, more static in MGS) that oftentimes concealed guards, but was assisted by the super-accurate radar, complete with vision cones. Well Metal Gear Solid 3 takes place in 1964. There are no nanomachines or soliton radars to show you where all the enemies are. You have sonar and a motion detector. One makes an audible beep, the other is only useful when enemies are moving. Both can also pick up wildlife. If you haven’t yet figured this out, MGS3 takes out a large degree of the guard stupidity where you would be able to tell exactly how far a guard could see based on his vision cone. It’s another added bit of realism that is quite difficult to get used to at first, but eventually really adds to the game as it starts to feel like less of a game.

On the topic of realism…Snake now has a stamina bar that determines how well he can aim, how long he can hang, and will, I believe, begin to drain his life bar if fully depleted. Stamina is recovered by eating the food scattered throughout the jungle, from snakes to frogs to mushrooms to flying squirrels and more. These animals can be shot dead (or knifed dead, exploded dead, punched dead, etc.) and stored in that way or tranquilized and stored in cages to keep fresh or even use as weapons (ie: throwing a poisonous snake at a guard to freak him out and/or poison him) Food can spoil and actually give Snake indigestion, which brings us to our next point. Snake’s health bar can be artificially depleted through injury. Bullet wounds, cuts and gashes, broken bones, poisonous animals, leeches, and indigestion can all afflict Snake and he must either repair his maladies in the CURE menu or you can also just save and quit and let time do the healing for you.

Even more controversial than the stamina meter is the camouflage system. At any given moment in time, Snake has a percentage bar in the top right corner telling the player how well Snake is blending in with his surroundings. High camo ratings means the enemy cannot see you, even if you are on the floor right in front of him. Of course, if he runs right up next to you and you’re not 100% camo-ed (which is impossible with included camo) you will be spotted. It doesn’t sound all that bad at first pass, but since camo options are handled in the pause menu, it amounts to a whole lot of pausing and unpausing just to swap face paints or camo suits. The new system does help add to the realism and make for smarter guards, but your willingness to suspend disbelief can be tested when, like I said, a guard is standing right next to you, but your forest colored pants are preventing him from seeing you.

The same basic weapons and accessories/items are included, but with a 1960s twist. There are no laser sights and there is no C4, but you get dynamite instead. Included is a new “Backpack” system, where Snake can only hold eight items and eight weapons accessible from the in-game menu, each with individual weights. The more weight he’s carrying at a given moment, the faster his stamina depletes. Items and weapons are swapped using an option in the pause menu.

Snake also still has the option to go through the entire game without specifically killing one human being through his own actions (mostly). As you all know, this is one of my favorite features of the Metal Gear series and it actually made me start GTA IV this week wondering if I could get by without killing anyone (you can’t).

One last word on the setting. MGS has typically had Snake infiltrating modern facilities and bases, not traipsing through the jungle, which I feel is a bit weaker of a locale. Hiding in the grass is cool and all, but I just love sneaking through futuristic settings instead of through the jungle, where I get bit by leeches and have to burn them off with a cigar. MGS4 should include a nice mix of both the more open jungle environments and the typical closed MGS locations, which should be a nice change of pace.

Liquid and Solid hunted down Big Boss, trying to sever the tie that bound them to him. Unless you kill me and face your past, Jack, you will never escape. You’ll stay in the endless loop — your own double helix.

-Solidus Snake to Raiden

Graphics

As mentioned before, MGS3 instead deals with a jungle setting, which means that we get a nice green, damp, jungle-y look. The color is a bit washed out on my PS3, but I’m wiling to forget that. The character models all look superb and only showed their last-gen limitations sparingly. This is one of the best looking games on the PS2 though, it’s not to be missed.

You’re a soldier! Finish your mission! Prove your loyalty!

-The Boss to Naked Snake

Sound

Jungle sounds! Birds, frogs, snakes, etc. They all sound about right. The strength of MGS3 lies in its superb soundtrack. If you ever go to my last.fm page, you may have noticed that I very recently received about six CDs worth of Metal Gear Solid soundtracks, which I am loving to death. The music in this game continually wows me as I listen to it.

The voice acting in this game continues to hold up to the high levels of quality one would expect. Snake, still voiced by David Hayter, is still the man and his team is still funny, if not just a wee bit less interesting this time around. There are still funny moments though:

“Sigint: Uh, Snake… What are you doing?

Snake: I’m in a box.

Sigint: A cardboard box? Why are you…?

Snake: I dunno. I was just looking at it and I suddenly got this urge to get inside. No, not just an urge – more than that. It was my destiny to be here; in the box.

Sigint: Destiny…?

Snake: Yeah. And then when I put it on, I suddenly got this feeling of inner peace. I can’t put it into words. I feel… safe. Like this is where I was meant to be. Like I’d found the key to true happiness.

Sigint: …

Snake: Does any of that make sense?

Sigint: Not even a little.

Snake: You should come inside the box… Then you’ll know what I mean.

Sigint: Man, I don’t wanna know what you mean! Between you and Para-Medic, is everyone but me that is hooked up with the Major strange!?

Snake: …

Sigint: Yeah, well, anyway, I suppose even that dumbass box might make a decent disguise if you wear it inside a building.”

Overall

I’m still absolutely in love with the Metal Gear Solid series, even after three games. The characteristic humor is still there (when you die you get a message that fades into “Time Paradox.” this message can also be prompted by killing Ocelot, a character in the later (chronologically) MGS games), the gameplay is still 100% superb, and the stories all get better with each game. I’m starting to approach a bit of a bittersweet point with MGS4, since I’ve heard it’s the pinnacle of the series, but I don’t want it all to end. Should you play Metal Gear Solid 3? Absolutely.

There’s only room for one Boss… and one Snake…

-The Boss to Naked Snake

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