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Top 3 Most Disappointing Games of 2012

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Now that 2012 has come and gone, I find it necessary to quantify the gaming experiences I've had throughout the year and list them in descending order, talking about how much I like or didn't like them rather than simply keeping such thoughts to myself. As is tradition, before I get to the good stuff with my Top 10 of 2012 list, I shall present to you my picks for the Top 3 Most Disappointing Games of 2012:

***SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't beaten Batman: Arkham City, then don't read my Number 2 pick... and go play Batman: Arkham City***


3. Alan Wake's American Nightmare

AWAN

American Nightmare does precisely what no sequel should ever do by magnifying and compounding the formerly small weaknesses that its predecessor suffered from. 2010's Alan Wake was the perfect epitome of a gaming experience becoming far more than the sum of its parts. Though the gunplay was rather rote, the visuals weren't the prettiest, and there existed a number of nagging design flaws, Remedy cofounder Sam Lake's smart script pulled all of these elements together to create a truly special game.

Unfortunately, the campy but captivating narrative the first Alan Wake delivered is nowhere to be found in American Nightmare. Without this strong foundation to support the rest of its merely passable components, the writer's return simply feels empty. There's nothing left to focus on other than the unremarkable: the substandard gunplay, for example, or perhaps the bland presentation and distinct lack of atmosphere. There's something pretty sad about playing a game that lacks cohesion, or even a single standout component, and the frustration is doubled when such a game has a much more self-assured and well executed predecessor.

2. Batman: Arkham City - Harley Quinn's Revenge

***SPOILER WARNING: BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY ENDING SPOILERS AHEAD***

Harley

It's a shame that all of this year's many conversations centered around DLC's capacity to devalue a game's artistry took place in regards to Mass Effect 3. Because, unlike that game, Batman: Arkham City's ending was a truly artful moment that I rank among the most striking story beats that I've encountered in the Batman mythos. And unlike Mass Effect 3's epilogue DLC, which commendably attempts to salvage some semblance of coherence from the game's original conclusion, Harley Quinn's Revenge effectively ruins the power of the Arkham City's haunting ending.

This is mostly because the new content is centered around needlessly exploring the aftermath of its incredible final sequence. Much of the DLC is spent detailing Batman's conflicted, and strangely sorrowful reaction to The Joker's death. The inherent problem with this narrative is that it never really needed to be explored; any fan with a remote familiarity with the franchise's iconic characters could've easily imagined what all the reactions may have been like. Thus, all Harley Quinn's Revenge does is affirm these assumptions in an exceedingly bland fashion; flat cutscenes are padded with the same old Arkham City gameplay, with no interesting new gadgets or environments to be found.

The note on which Arkham City leaves off embodies what a great ending should be. It's daring and definitive, but leaves ample room for players to ponder its many implications. A world without Mr. J is certainly an interesting concept, but it should've simply been left to the audience to mull over on their own. Unless, of course, they want to pay $10 to have the ramifications of The Joker's death interpreted for them in the most uninteresting, unsatisfying manner possible with Rocksteady's too-little-too-late epilogue DLC.

***SPOILERS OVER***

1. Diablo III

Diablo 3

Manipulative game design by way of randomized rewards? Check.

Real money bypasses for said randomized rewards? Check.

Paper-thin story? Check.

Dated presentation? Check.

Mindnumbingly simplistic gameplay? Check.

Overbearing online integration? Check.

With all this in mind, Diablo III, sequel to one of the greatest action-RPGs ever and a game that's been twelve years in the making, might as well have been a Facebook game rather than a long-awaited project from a supposed master developer.

That's it for now. Check back in a few days for the first part of my Top 10 of 2012 list.

Man and Machine - Halo 4 Review

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Halo 4 begins with a gorgeous CG cutscene that presents many of the series' key battles in a slick montage - the fall of Reach, the invasion of New Mombasa, you name it, it's probably there. Amidst all the jaw-dropping action and visual splendor, a comparatively low-key scene plays out: Dr. Halsey - the creator of the Spartan program, and thus the Master Chief, as well as his AI sidekick Cortana - sits in a shadowy room as an interrogator looms over her. This enigmatic figure half-heartedly accuses her of war crimes before revealing what he's really after - the keys to the Master Chief's success as an unstoppable killing machine. He explains that Spartans tend to exhibit sociopathy (though Noble team might have a thing or two to say about that), then asks a particularly juicy question:

"Do you think Master Chief succeeded because he is, at his core, broken?"

For a series that seemed to possess a steadfast determination to never address its numerous narrative criticisms, this single question presents a surprising moment of self-awareness. The Master Chief is indeed broken, not just in terms of personality, but in his general quality as a protagonist. It might always be a blast to take control of the series' signature 7-foot, impossibly strong android, but watching his story actually play out has long been an immense bore. Within this one small moment, newcomer developer 343 Industries sets a strong expectation - namely that, in the middle of the high-concept sci-fi grandiosity that fuels the franchise's muddled mythos, they won't forget to lose sight of the humanity that should be at the center of every great epic. This ambition is certainly striking, but 343's initial cognizance of the series' problems soon fades away, and the proceedings more or less revert to Halo as we know it. And while that may bode poorly for Halo 4's campaign and narrative, the franchise's mechanical perfection, along with immense production values and a great set of multiplayer options, allows the new team of creatives to get by with the series' exalted legacy very much intact.

MC

Still, it's very hard not to feel let down by the campaign that follows such a clever opening cutscene. Perhaps the most disappointing part is that, for its first few levels, Halo 4 successfully leads you to believe that it's bolder and wiser than any of its predecessors, as the game's first act sees the Master Chief and Cortana surrounded with enticing and menacing unknowns. After being rudely stirred from a four-year cryosleep, the Chief soon finds himself contending with a whole host of obstacles, including a fleet of rogue Covenant and the planet Requiem, a mysterious and truly alien environment the likes of which the series hasn't crafted since the original Halo. The conflict that takes center stage, however, is the onset of Cortana's rampancy - the height of an AI's aging process, and the time at which their systems begin to fail. With Cortana's "death" seemingly imminent, the long-understated relationship between the series' famed duo finally takes center-stage as the Master Chief finds himself struggling to balance saving his partner and confronting a newfound menace.

This all adds up to clearly indicate that 343 knows what needs to be done in order to not only put their stamp on the Halo series, but to make it better than ever. Unfortunately, it seems they lack the daring needed to execute on these concepts in a truly compelling way. The driving plot involving a new alien threat falls into the typical Halo series pitfall of becoming overblown and convoluted pretty much the very second additional plot elements come into play. Ancient evils, secret weapons, evolution and genetic modification, Halos, Forerunners, Prometheans, and a whole host of other topics work their way into Halo 4's narrative, but none of them come together to form an engaging, or even coherent plot. The more personal subplot centered on Cortana and the Chief's relationship should've fared better, but the repetitiveness of its key moments, along with a climactic sequence that falls completely flat, make it lose every bit of its potential poignancy.

The action that surrounds these story beats is entertaining insofar as any Halo game is, but there are clear signs that the usual campaign formula desperately needs to be reexamined. To start with the good - or rather, utterly fantastic - the mechanics are still as perfect as ever. Every gun has a weighty feel entirely of its own, and punchy sound effects do a lot to sell you on their raw power. Movement and aiming is slick and precise, and 343 does well to maintain series signatures like a subtle but finely tuned bit of aim assist, and the Master Chief's superhuman leap.

Beyond these core elements, moment-to-moment gameplay is most reminiscent of Halo: Reach, as dual-wielding remain out of the picture and Armor Abilities factor rather heavily into firefights. Unlike its predecessor, however, every one of Halo 4's batch of Armor Abilities is a hit. Abilities like Armor Lock that didn't quite work are gone, while old favorites like jetpacks and holograms return, and new additions like the Autosentry, a hovering robot companion who aids you in gunning down your foes, and the Hardlight (read: riot) shield further change the dynamic for the better.

The new breed of foe you'll face in the form of the Prometheans also help to keep things feeling relatively fresh. While the smaller enemies mostly behave like reskinned versions of older baddies, the daunting Promethean Knights offer an invigorating challenge. Decked out with a long-ranged weapon, shields, crushing melee, and the ability to teleport out of harm's way, these aliens are some of the toughest foes in series history, and facing them down is always a riot thanks to their unpredictability. The bright, bold colors and sleek chrome look that defines these new enemies, though very clearly influenced by Metroid Prime's iconic space pirates, still provide a wondrous departure from the typical Halo aesthetic.

Promethean

Unfortunately, the dynamism seen in this singular enemy type is nowhere to be found when examining the campaign as a whole. Though its reluctance to adhere to current development trends during this setpiece-heavy era of singleplayer gaming is commendable, the standard proceedings simply get boring after a while. As fun as the new weapons and enemies are, standard gameplay structures simply can't sustain an eight hour campaign, and repetitive objectives only exacerbate the feeling of sameness that sets in after the first couple of hours.

The game does subvert repetitiveness to some degree here and there. In Halo 4's most inspired bid at shaking things up, Requiem's bold, angular visual design is occasionally made a factor in gameplay. An early sequence, for example, sees players teleporting to different platforms in the middle of a vast, hollow globe of alien machinery is enthralling in its visual design to the point where the more immediate action almost becomes secondary. Beyond moments like this, the game also seems to acknowledge its relative lack of variety by including a number of vehicle setpieces in its last few missions. Aside from a gleeful rampage through a space station in the new Mantis mech, however, these moments are mostly retreads of old setpieces.

Though sandwiched between Halo 2 and ODST's more experimental campaigns, Halo 3 and Reach locked into similarly comfortable grooves with their singleplayer components. Halo 4 sticks mostly to their formula, offering a campaign built around the series' core gameplay and the long-running, immensely confusing narrative with a few decent setpieces and half-hearted appeals to emotion thrown in for good measure. The problem is that this setup works no better in this title than it has in the past, and while powering through the game's eight levels can be fun simply thanks to a set of thoroughly satisfying core mechanics, it's quite clear that a significant change must be made in order to craft a compelling experience once more. Halo 4's setting is the clearest indication of this notion; the metallic opulence of Requiem is pure, old-school sci-fi splendor that serves as a refreshing change of pace from the militarized planets seen in previous titles. In fact, this awe-inspiring new backdrop is realized so meticulously that it even serves to alter gameplay from time to time. Unfortunately, Requiem isn't a reflection of the rest of the campaign's ingenuity so much as a standout exception to its lack thereof.

MP

It's rather odd that 343, despite showing a painfully apparent reluctance to break new ground with the Halo franchise's aging campaign formula, is willing to overhaul the series' exalted adversarial multiplayer offering in major ways. Taking cues from pretty much every major online shooter from the past couple years, Halo 4's suite of multiplayer options (dubbed Infinity) is exceedingly fast paced, and brimming with unlockable rewards. Though many fans have been skeptical, modern tweaks like killcams, split-second respawns, killstreaks, and a lengthy sprint ability fit quite naturally into the preexisting Halo dynamic. In fact, the healthy dose of twitchy freneticism they provide gives multiplayer matches a consistent energy and intensity, the likes of which wasn't necessarily accomplished in previous games' more emergent design.

Furthering this more structured approach is a swath of unlockables. Partaking in the matchmaking madness earns you new ranks, as well as Spartan Points, which then lead to the acquisition of a whole host of rewards. Some of them, such as new pieces of armor, are simply smoke and mirrors that seem to exist just to keep you hooked. Other unlocks, however, can be quite substantive. Perhaps the biggest revelation comes with the addition of loadouts. By allowing players to select their own starting weaponry, the usual lull that occurs as a game begins is entirely avoided. Having to dive into a match's first few firefights without any idea of what to expect from your opponents is immensely exciting, and helps rounds feel fresh and dynamic from the very second they start.

This chaotic and utterly exceptional combination of Halo multiplayer mainstays and post-Modern Warfare features is further amplified by Halo 4's ten incredible maps. At first glance, it might be hard to pick out one or two real hits out of the bunch, but it soon become apparent that each arena is a masterstroke of design. With varied visuals, perfect weapon and vehicle placement, and meticulously crafted chokepoints, Halo 4 features the best map lineup in the entire series. With any luck, this slew of fantastic arenas will cause the Halo community's usual tendency to favor one or two maps over all others to become a thing of the past.

Secondary modes like Theater and Forge, an accessible map pseudo-editor, make a return and provide pretty much exactly what fans would expect. Both features are as fleshed out and easy to use as they've always been, and sharing your works is quicker than ever. The Forge toolset has also seen a good bit of expansion, with three (rather than just one) base template to work with. At this point, it's likely that most players have made up their minds as to how much time they're willing to spend delving into these extras; some are devoted to building architectural wonders and Forge, some have turned the Theater mode into a sort of art form, while others ignore these features entirely. Players new to these features owe it to themselves to give them a shot, however, since the toolsets offered are among the best console gamers can get their hands on.

Perhaps the most radical upending of Halo tradition is the removal of the Firefight wave-defense mode in favor of a new beast: Spartan Ops. This new cooperative mode's main conceit is that it takes on an episodic format. A new episode is delivered each week, bringing with it five brief stages that can be cleared with up to four players. More surprisingly, however is that these pieces of content also provide gorgeous CG cutscenes that reveal new pieces of an overarching narrative. While these marvelous cinemas succeed in drawing you into Crimson Squad's perilous exploits, the ensuing gameplay doesn't do its part to support Spartan Ops' ambitions.

This is because, for the most part, stages are rather bland and unexciting. Players are usually tasked with shooting through a bunch of foes, accomplish a menial objective or two, then hold off as they wait for extraction. Though this might change down the line, Spartan Ops' first few episodes have clung to this ill-advised formula rather tenaciously, resulting in an experience that quickly runs out of steam. Compounding this issue is the fact that only the single most recent episode supports matchmaking. Thus, if you want to catch up on the story or play through more than just five fleeting scenarios, you'll be out of luck unless you can gather some friends together to power through the content you actually want to experience. This baffling choice to eschew easy connectivity for past episodes comes as a huge detriment to Spartan Ops, as it fails to incentivize experiencing the piecemeal narrative upon which the mode is predicated. Though 343 deserves some credit for trying to subvert the archaic blueprint laid out by Gears of War 2 a few years ago, the solution they've devised in Spartan Ops never quite comes together, and is ultimately less entertaining than a standard Horde-mode knockoff might've been.

Cortana

Taking an all-encompassing look at 343's attempts to put their stamp on Halo's three main pillars of play - those being campaign, coop, and adversarial multiplayer - yields an amusing result. The campaign formula, which is in desperate need for a change, ultimately receives the least improvement, even if a story expressly built to tug on your heartstrings might attempt to convince you otherwise; the action is still plodding (save for a few setpieces), and the narrative is still insufferably focused on needlessly fleshing out a mythos that has already way overextended any immediate narrative's ability to implement its innumerable and absurdly complex plot elements in an interesting way. The cooperative component does well to move onto a fresh format that has nothing to do with waves or hordes, but 343's innovation only goes halfway; Spartan Ops suffers a number of problems that keep it from being the phenomenon it has the capacity to become, the most notable of which being its exceedingly shoddy matchmaking functionality.

Where the new developers see the most success, however, is in their revamping of player-versus-player combat. Though this side of the Halo franchise has always been addicting enough to reduce a quietly humming, freshly powered Xbox to a loud, clunking jet engine, numerous smart design tweaks have been made to bring the action to even greater heights. Why it is that a mode that would've still impressed if left alone receives the most attention is beyond me, but that doesn't keep the proceedings from possessing an undeniable fun factor.

Halo 4 is, essentially, the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule gone horribly wrong. The facets of the series that have been, to a certain extent, broken for years (a few of which get pointed out by 343 themselves) are left in their faulty state. Meanwhile, the Halo franchise's more time-tested strengths receive major overhauls. Fortunately, this perfect storm of confusion as to how to iterate on a strong IP never leads Halo 4 to fully underwhelm. The presentation, complete with a wonderful score by Neil Davidge and the best visuals you'll find on the Xbox 360, is thoroughly fantastic, the multiplayer is endlessly entertaining, and despite their being rough around the edges, there's still quite a bit of fun to be found within the campaign and Spartan Ops.

Ultimately, however, Halo 4's perpetuation of the series' masterful set of core mechanics allow it to remain a damn good game. In this way, Bungie has equipped their best-known franchise with a comforting anchor; no matter what direction any new creatives try to drive their sci-fi opus, the moment-to-moment gameplay will never fail to entertain. 343 Industries may use this fact as a crutch too often, but it nevertheless acts as a potent assurance that this is a series that will always be worth players' while.

Live Free Or Die - Assassin's Creed III: Liberation Review

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After completing a playthrough of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation that I knew to be somewhere in the realm of 12 hours or so, I went to check my exact play-time in the game's stats screen. According to this submenu, my week's worth of multi-hour play sessions had, in truth, only lasted 42 minutes. As bizarre as this error was, I didn't think much of it as I had already encountered dozens of similar flaws by the time I had completed the campaign; in a game as sloppy as Liberation, the flaws are so manifold that it's hard to take particular note of any one of them by the time all's said and done. Whether its a chugging frame rate, an incoherent narrative, clunky combat, or serious glitches, there are more than a few punches to roll with while playing Liberation. Still, it's quite hard to call it a bad game, and this is simply because it manages to mimic the series' acclaimed ethos, even if it never fully captures it. The hugely inconsistent experience that results is generally a mess, but the mere fact that it achieves even the slightest success in upholding the franchise's stellar ideas and mechanics allows it to, intermittently, be quite brilliant.

One of the game's occasional bursts of cleverness comes in the establishment of its unique framing device. Instead of following the core console series' formula in which a modern-day protagonist straps into the Animus and lives out their ancestors' memories, Liberation's historical narrative is presented as a propaganda-laden consumer product released by the franchise's chief antagonists, the nefarious Abstergo corporation. If the game had executed on this concept with any grace, the adventures of 18th-century New Orleanian Assassin Aveline de Grandpre would have had an enticing air of deceit about them. Unfortunately, whoever's coming up with the slanderous propaganda over at Abstergo exercises surprising restraint, leading Liberation's narrative tone lacking in any sort of clarity; it's rarely apparent which sections are doctored memories and which are the real deal. What follows is a continuously off-putting plot that's wholly unreliable simply by accident and lack of foresight on the part of its writers.

The historical plot, even when distilled from its ill-conceived framing device, doesn't fare much better. The game's focus on the dichotomy between New Orleans' upper-class merchants and the suffering slaves that fuel their wealth seems like a promising setup. Similarly, the fact that Aveline is of mixed heritage, with one parent on either side of this class and racial divide, makes her a fitting anchor for this seemingly fearless tale. The fact that these themes are presented, however, doesn't mean that they're explored all that thoroughly. In fact, the plot largely glosses over its weighty subject matter in favor of a more straightforward whodunit mystery, thus completely squandering its impactful potential. Mostly good voice acting and memorable character designs keep story sequences from being a complete bore, but it's still unfortunate that the game doesn't capitalize on its fascinating foundations.

Aveline

It's odd, but no less impressive that the best realization of Liberation's thematic ambitions is achieved within a small gameplay subsystem. During the first half of the game, Aveline is often required to change into one of three different outfits: the Slave, the Lady, and, of course, the Assassin. Each Persona, as they are called, affects both Aveline's moveset and the way the world responds to her. The Lady costume's restrictive corset, for example, prevents Aveline from stashing very many weapons or from engaging in the series' signature free-running mechanic. To make up for this seeming disadvantage, the citizens of New Orleans are much less suspicious of her, and some particularly chivalrous gentleman can help her blend into crowds or assist her in dealing with muggers. The Slave costume has its own set of perks and pitfalls, and the Persona system as a whole provides a refreshing twist on the usual Assassin's Creed formula.

Perhaps the best part of this system, however, is in how efficiently it characterizes Aveline. Though the game's lackluster cutscenes fail to give her many defining traits, this system eloquently shows her resourcefulness and knack for assuming the various societal roles that comprise the world around her. The Personas thus video game storytelling at its most ideal, as gameplay actively enforces the narrative shown through more traditional means (never mind how poor that plot is in the first place).

As fun as it is to experiment with the Slave and Lady costumes, the latter half of the game has you donning the Assassin's garb most frequently. It's here that Liberation returns to playing like Assassin's Creed as players know it, complete with death-defying platforming and swift, brutal combat. But while the series proper has perfected its core gameplay to the point of mechanical sublimation, a myriad of issues keep Liberation from attaining that same level of quality.

ACLib

Though the excellent ambient sound design and lush art direction that bring New Orleans and the surrounding bayou to life create a wondrous sense of place, the immersion is all but broken once things pick up speed. As powerful as the Vita is, it's still unable to handle quick movement through such a large and detailed environment while maintaing a steady frame rate. Thus, the sense of speed and effortlessness that gives Assassin's Creed's parkour its thrilling edge is more or less nonexistent once the game begins to frequently dip into lows of 15-20 FPS. Still, the series' free-running system have always succeeded in inducing a sort of trance-like state thanks to its combination of stunning environments and detailed animations, and this effect is nevertheless achieved despite Liberation's relative sluggishness.

Combat, similarly, can yield some satisfaction despite never quite feeling right. Fights control much in the same way they do in Assassin's Creed III proper; the old block-counter routine of games past have been removed in favor of an Arkham City-esque control scheme centered around aggressive attacks and rhythmic parries. While this might sound perfectly entertaining, the game is oddly inconsistent in registering your counter-attacks, and you'll often find enemies proceeding to successfully wounding you despite your best efforts to get the upper hand. The same goes for stealthy kills; the game fails to recognize up-close assassinations rather often, leaving you to fumble around for another way to quickly dispose of your foe before getting caught up in an all-out brawl.

Luckily, Liberation almost seems to acknowledge its problems, and quickly introduces you to a vast array of instant-kill maneuvers to ease the pain that accompanies its poorly made combat structures. A pistol, multiple poison darts, liberally dispersed muskets, and a mark-and-execute system lifted straight from Splinter Cell: Conviction provide Aveline with plenty of ways to end violent encounters quickly and decisively. It goes without saying that none of these elements bode particularly well for the game's core fighting system, but they serve as apt crutches for its shortcomings.

Liberation further suffers from the same sort of arbitrary integration of the Vita's many control options as Uncharted: Golden Abyss did earlier this year. Swiping the screen to paddle a canoe or open a letter, using the gyroscope to solve a digital version of a magnetic handheld maze (don't even ask), and pointing the camera at light sources to illuminate invisible ink are about yield no enjoyment, and are readily visible as the needless stopgaps they are between the moments of more meaningful action.

ACLib

The game also features a peculiar asynchronous, strategic multiplayer mode that plays out like an extension of the Brotherhood meta-game found in later console entries. You and your opponent vie for control of various cities across the world and achieve dominance by going on missions, and, of course, killing each other. All of this action takes place on a world map and within submenus with no real-time gameplay to be found. Though it's certainly atypical, this multiplayer mode simply isn't compelling enough to deserve much of your attention, and its social game trappings that limit the number of actions you can perform in one sitting lessens its appeal even more.

Though it's technically a spin-off of Connor Kenway's bloody campaign in Assassin's Creed III proper, Liberation is most reminiscent of the series' first entry. Altair's first outing is much like Aveline's in the degree to which it is defined by unrealized potential. Conceptually, everything is in place for one hell of a game. From a memorable protagonist and an immersive setting to a cool frame narrative and tried-and-true gameplay concepts imbued with a few innovative twists, Liberation has it all - on paper anyway. The slew of technical problems and ludonarrative inconsistencies that plague every facet of the game keep it from ever living up to its grand ambitions, and rather unfortunately renders the original Assassin's Creed its most fitting analog. All we can do is hope for a sequel that we might just as easily compare to Assassin's Creed II.

Dying City - Dishonored Review

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The developer diary has become an increasingly common pre-release marketing strategy amongst AAA game studios. Though they are, in essence, glorified advertisements, they represent something rather grandiose and self-important in that they show potential customers the meticulous inner-workings of a project that might not ultimately be all that special. Dishonored is a AAA game, and it did indeed benefit from a long string of developer diaries leading up to its release, but Arkane Studios' behind-the-scenes videos are quite unlike most; instead of inundating viewers with quick-edits of flashy gameplay clips and pithy talking-heads, their developer diaries are content to be unabashedly unhip. Instead of spoiling the story, tossing out overblown superlatives, and showing off cool kills like most others do, a lot of Arkane's diaries spend their running time talking about things like whales, rat plagues, and what goes into designing dystopian metropolises.

Oddly enough, these videos probably do the best job of capturing how Dishonored feels to play; just as they are bizarrely off the mark in order to be more honest and true to the game's ethos than most other dev diaries, the game itself adamantly - and sometimes sloppily - circumvents most staples of modern gaming in order to bring back the dynamism of the non-linear FPS classics of yore. The resulting experience is an engrossing love-letter to games like Deus Ex, and Thief, and though the game's execution doesn't always live up to its many ambitions, the degree of freedom it grants players is simply awe-inspiring.

Dunwall

The game doesn't start out by letting you loose, however; its decidedly dull opening moments are largely spent setting the stage for the cliched drama of betrayal and revenge. As Corvo Attano, bodyguard to the empress, you quickly find yourself framed for the monarch's murder at the hands of a shadowy band of assassins. Her assassination is, of course, done in the name of placing the egotistical, tyrannical second-in-command in charge until her daughter comes of age. This, in turn, leads Corvo to team up with a group of loyalists to the royal family, and hunt down all those behind the conspiracy. Unfortunately, the ensuing narrative is just as bland as its setup; there's not one interesting character or plot point in the entire game, and twists can be seen from miles away.

Luckily, this mostly becomes a non-issue as the game hands the reins over to you, letting you explore the twisted city of Dunwall to your heart's content. The city itself, with its many narratives both explicit and implied, is far more engrossing than the game's shoddy traditional storytelling. A rat plague sweeps the city, leaving its citizens dead, dying, or even zombified. A devastating flood leaves a good portion of Dunwall in ruins. Propaganda booms over loud-speakers and corrupt aristocrats surround themselves with armies of guardsmen while commoners die in filth. Learning about Dunwall's fascinating and horrifying issues is spellbinding, and will likely send you scouring the corners of its semi-open-world levels in search of more bits of lore, whether they come in the form of side quests, books, or audio recordings.

Furthering the macabre appeal of Dunwall is its masterful visual design, which comes from the mind of Viktor Antonov, the man who devised Half-Life 2's iconic style. Much like the imposing, police-state of City 17, Dunwall's looming, angular architecture is strikingly creepy, and contrasts nicely with the cartoony character models. The city's Victorian-meets-steampunk designs are a joy to behold and explore, and each new environment brings its own unique wonders. The tech that backs this all up isn't always up to the job - there are a number of pop-in issues, blurry textures, and poor graphical effects - but these issues are far outweighed by the bold splendor of the artistry.

Samuel

Of course, your primary means of exploring, and even shaping the city of Dunwall is through the game's litany of entertaining sandbox mechanics. Corvo, already possessed of superhuman agility and quite good with a knife, quickly becomes acquainted with a mysterious being who grants him magical powers and a genius quartermaster who supplies him with the latest in steampunk murder instruments. The result is an absolute glut of gadgets and abilities to toy around with that also manages to subvert feeling overwhelming. Taking the time to experiment with your massive arsenal can yield some shockingly brutal outcomes. Tricks like stopping time while you're surrounded, plopping a grenade amidst your frozen pursuers, then running to a safe distance and watching the ensuing bloodbath are vastly entertaining, and feel especially rewarding because the game gives you so few indications of how powers and gadgets can be used in tandem. You are given complete free rein over the use of your many powers and the game is balanced enough to make any play style viable, so whether you wish to take a completely non-lethal route through the game's 12-hour campaign, shoot everyone you see in the face, or simply mess around with your myriad of powers to your heart's content, Dishonored's exceedingly smart level design will ensure you can succeed.

On my first playthrough, I favored abilities like Slow Time and Blink that would allow me to traverse the environment fast, kill my targets even faster, and get out of Dodge before anyone caught on to me. Thus far, this play style has been the most satisfying; Dishonored features the best first-person platforming this side of Mirror's Edge, and once you get the hang of its movement mechanics, gracefully hopping and teleporting around the roofs of Dunwall is absolutely joyous. Taking both the non-lethal, or the head-on approach can be equally thrilling, but require an adept knowledge of the game's levels and mechanics; though these options aren't as accessible, they're ultimately just as fine-tuned as any more balanced play style, and the fact that Dishonored can support the myriad of potential approaches is immensely impressive.

Pendleton

Unfortunately, Dishonored's ill-conceived narrative rears its ugly head within the realm of gameplay thanks to the addition of a confounding morality system. Based on the number of people you kill, levels will be slightly (or in the case of the final level, significantly) altered to reflect the degree of unrest you've caused in Dunwall; shed too much blood and you'll be faced with more security, zombies and vicious, flesh-eating plague rats than those who prefer a more peaceful approach. While the idea of handling choice and consequence through the direct actions of players rather than gameplay-halting dialog trees is certainly a good one, it simply doesn't fit the game's essence; the bag of tricks Dishonored hands you actively encourages experimenting with different gameplay styles, so the decision to incorporate a restrictive morality calculus is truly baffling.

This system proves to be equally flawed from a narrative standpoint. Emily, the daughter of the deceased empress, looks up to Corvo, and her dialogue and behavior is thus influenced by his actions. While this is also a novel concept, it simply doesn't work within the greater context of the narrative for many reasons. For one, Emily's responses to Corvo's level of brutality are comically overblown; though her reactive dialogue is meant to instill in you a sense of pride or guilt, they'll probably end up causing you to chuckle more than anything else. Secondly, players are never given a reason to care too much about Emily. In fact, aside from the game's final sequence, there is only one other time at which the player is required to interact with her; I, for one, felt no inclination to check up on her between missions, so her heavy involvement in the endgame sequences never meant much. While this may sound somewhat inconsequential, it's highly indicative of just how poorly planned Dishonored's morality system is in the first place; not only is it contrary to its design philosophies, it also manages to highlight the many problems with the game's shaky narrative. Why, then, it is in place, is a true mystery. Ever since BioWare pioneered binary good/evil decision-making, similar systems have been arbitrarily tacked on to far too many games, and Dishonored is an unfortunately perfect example of why such gameplay conceits should be used far more sparingly than they actually are.

About a third of the way through the game, after collecting most of my primary abilities and gadgets, I forced myself to stop caring about my moral standing; such delightfully weird powers were too good to not toy with. It was soon after that I came across the Golden Cat, a brothel which my two assassination targets were patronizing, and more importantly, the game's most open-ended environment. It was in this moment - what would turn out to be the first of many - I found myself stuck, not because of the game's difficulty, but rather due to the overwhelming vastness of options that lay before me: I could have easily gone on a rampage, killing anyone who stands between me and my marks, or I could perhaps have slinked through a few open windows, silently dispatching my specified targets and escaping without anyone knowing the difference. What's more, I could've done a separate favor for the local crime boss in exchange for the abduction of the corrupt conspirators. Considering these options isn't arresting simply because they are so manifold, but also because I know they'll all be gleefully entertaining. Not many games can support your every whim, and even fewer can ensure that your choices can yield fun and entertaining results, but such is the beauty of Dishonored. At a time when the design behind most action games sacrifices too much player input to mimic the straightforward thrills of a Hollywood blockbuster, it's nice to play a game that is willing to sacrifice flashiness for emergent gameplay and dynamic, player-authored fun. Games like Dishonored have been done before, and have been done better, but rarely in recent years have they been executed so effectively.

No Exit - Spec Ops: The Line Review

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Here's my review of Spec Ops: The Line. I tried to change up my usual review style a little bit, as talking about this game in ordinary terms probably wouldn't capture what it sets out to do. Note, however, that while I don't get into any specifics, some of what I talk about in the review can seen as **MINOR SPOILERS**, so proceed at your own risk.

A few weeks ago, Richard Pearsey, Narrative Designer at Yager Development wrote an interesting blog which ultimately and unfortunately way undersold the brilliance of Spec Ops: The Line. In his concluding paragraph, he states that "In the end, The Line is not about ethics and morality in war or war games," and then proceeds to explain that the game is more built around triggering emotional reactions in its players. Though it does seem unavoidable that any player would have a strong response to a playthrough of Spec Ops' campaign, the game's blistering narrative power comes from it being a stark and self-aware contrast to the clunky, behemoth franchises that typify the modern shooter genre. Despite the fact that Call of Duty 4 still seems genuine in depicting the horrors of modern weaponry, almost every big war shooter that's followed in its footsteps has awkwardly fumbled in continuing its trendsetting vision; Battlefield 3's campaign presented one laughable cliche after another with a straight face, Modern Warfare 2 & 3 featured tasteless and exploitative scenes of atrocities, like "No Russian," simply to brew up controversy, and the upcoming Medal of Honor: Warfighter has one of the most manipulative and irresponsible marketing campaigns games have ever seen. Despite the fact that it's been less than 5 years since Call of Duty 4, the subgenre it popularized has already gone awry in innumerable ways, with most of its flagship successors reducing themselves to uncomfortably mindless experiences. Spec Ops: The Line stands apart from its infantile yet self-serious brethren simply because it's reactionary; Yager had the good sense to step away from the games of its peers and cast a critical eye on them, shaping Spec Ops to be their opposite.

It's important to note that Spec Ops: The Line's antithetical nature isn't just skin deep because it doesn't try to merely be the anti-war counterpart to EA and Activision's war-glorifying franchises; the game isn't anti-war, it's anti-wargame. Despite the fact that Spec Ops' budget seems quite limited compared to other war shooters, it fires on all cylinders, going above and beyond expectations in almost every way in order to deliver a hard-hitting message about the nature of action games. I'll give you what I feel is a perfect example of the genius that fuels this game's forward-thinking narrative:

Spec-Ops-The-Line-008.jpg

The game at first seems to perpetuate one of my biggest gaming pet-peeves by featuring asinine loading screen messages that do nothing but insultingly point out the obvious ("Press X to reload," etc.). When I first played through the game and knew little about it, I merely took this as a sign that the game was willing to adhere to certain trends, no matter how stupid they are. To me, something as simple as a quick message during a load-screen can be surprisingly indicative of the design philosophy that governs a game's development, and Spec Ops: The Line's initial batch of load-screen "hints" seemed to say it didn't aim for much despite its potentially tacked-on connection to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Imagine my feeling, then, of dying partway through the game and getting hit with this loading message: "Cognitive dissonance is a feeling caused by holding two conflicting beliefs simultaneously." I won't divulge what narrative significance this line holds, but suffice it to say, it caused my jaw to drop much in the way an explosive setpiece would.

By the point in the campaign at which I read this, the game had already escalated beyond the mindless shooter fare it slyly pretends to be at the start into something truly remarkable, but this message sealed the deal. Neither the game's basis in Conrad's 1899 classic, and moreso in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, nor its intent to defy its peers is used as a mere gimmick or means of attracting an audience looking for a highbrow shooter; Spec Ops: The Line is a genuine, deftly-conceived exploration of the dark parts of the soul, and every facet of the experience is imbued with its core theme. But while its film and literary counterparts are grounded in exploring the dark and surreal within the harsh realities of war and colonialism, respectively, Spec Ops focuses purely on the fantastical. More specifically, it critiques the power fantasy associated with modern shooters. While playing the action game du jour, we like to envision ourselves as heroes ridding the world of enemies through all sorts of drastic means, free of any semblance consequence. Spec Ops: The Line flips that sense of empowerment on its head; the further you go, the farther you stray from both heroism and the illusion of it.

Spec Ops

Spec Ops casts you as Captain Walker, the leader of a Delta Force squad sent into a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai to uncover the truth about the disappearance of his former commanding officer, the not-so-subtly named Colonel Konrad, and the battalion he commands. The game's narrative is centered around a hellish downward spiral - the organized, routine mission that Walker and his squad sets out for at the game's outset soon turns toward complete and utter chaos. The game's constantly escalating narrative tells you to work through more than a few harrowing scenarios, and frequently shows you the consequences of the relentless force and power of your actions. The real kicker is that it then asks you if it was all really worth it; by the time all's said and done, you'll have treaded innumerable moral grey areas and committed one atrocity after another in the name of the "mission." After the credits roll, most games would give you a "congratulations" and 100 Achievement Points, but Spec Ops forces you to solemnly look upon the terrible things you've wrought.

Of course, I haven't even described what the game is in its most basic essence: a cover-based third-person shooter. And whereas most recent games of that ilk have augmented their core gameplay with setpieces, vehicles, or platforming sequences, Spec Ops sticks to its formula relentlessly; aside from a couple on-rails sequences, pretty much all you'll do in this game is get into cover and pop out every once in a while to shoot people. The shooting mechanics aren't even that remarkable either. Aside from a gruesome execution system that furthers the game's focus on moral grays, every aspect of the gameplay is rather cut-and-dry. The game's absence of variety and general lack of polish in terms of mechanics make it feel archaic, and furthering this feeling is the game's use of laughably old-school shooter conventions like bright red exploding barrels and mounted turrets that trigger massive enemy spawns. It'd be tempting to say the game uses its story as a crutch, but upon reflection, the unimpressive gameplay that serves as the venomous narrative's backbone seems apt; after all, Spec Ops sets out to critique shooters, so it's rather fitting that it almost feels as if the game's singleminded and mind-numbing mechanics were built to purposefully exaggerate and stereotype the gameplay found in war games of past and present.

Spec Ops

The sand-buried Dubai that the Delta operators find themselves in serves as a fitting and beautiful thematic backdrop for the campaign's action. Environments shift from grimy ruins, to lush opulence, and places in-between all at the drop of a hat. As the game progresses, the imagery becomes even more twisted; character models change to reflect their injuries, color-palettes become more defined and striking, certain ruins take on an almost fantastical vibe, and no matter where they may find themselves in the city, Walker and his men have seem to always be on the descent.

Beyond providing chest-high cover to duck behind, Spec Ops' environments do occasionally have a direct influence on gameplay. The most prominent example is the option to occasionally bury an ill-positioned enemy in sand by shooting out a vent or window. This isn't a terribly exciting feature, but it's still a nice permutation of the exploding barrels concept; the effect is ultimately the same, but it's integration is a lot less conspicuous. Far more entertaining, and far more underutilized, are the game's sandstorm sequences, which have you making a mad dash towards safety while contending with your remaining foes and poor visibility. As far as the action goes, these are the game's most intense and inspired moments, making the fact that there are only three or four of them throughout the eight-hour campaign rather disappointing.

Much like the visuals, there is an extreme attention to detail in the game's sound department. Most importantly, the voice-acting is phenomenal. Though it's become rather exhausting to hear Nolan North provide the voice for about half gaming's protagonists, he, and every other actor that lends their talents does a great job. The dynamic writing that fuels the script furthers the power of its dialogue; Spec Ops might be the first game I've ever played to feature ambient dialogue that changes based on the characters' state of mind. Initially, for example, characters will indicate that combat sections have ended by giving a simple "All clear." Conversely, later sections of the game will see the characters communicating the same ideas in much more blunt, brutal ways. This might seem like a small aspect of the game's presentation, and it admittedly is, but this sort of emergent and dynamic dialogue has never been done before, and once again, this minimal detail is just one more pillar that supports this game's grand themes.

Aside from your two squadmates, your most prominent companion in Spec Ops the Radioman. Having set up speakers all over Dubai, he provides a running commentary that's equal parts funny, intriguing, and disturbing. However, he also subjects you to his musical taste, which largely includes popular classic rock tracks from the 1960s and 70s. These are clearly implemented as a means of recalling Apocalypse Now's juxtaposition of cheery, sometimes angsty radio tunes with all sorts of bleak scenarios, but just doesn't work here simply due to the fact that Spec Ops doesn't actually take place in the 60s or 70s; death metal and hip-hop might not have the same sort of cinematic appeal, but they'd certainly be more fitting. Thankfully, in another film-inspired move (this time lifted from the works of Michael Mann), the game gets its act together towards the end switches its soundtrack over to some moody post-rock tunes.

Spec Ops

Having gone over basically everything else, I've inevitably arrived at having to talk about Spec Ops: The Line's critical flaw. Whereas its campaign sets out to display and critique the machismo-driven, single-mindedness and manipulation that underlies a number of modern action titles, Spec Ops' multiplayer wholeheartedly embraces the development philosophies its other (and better) half demonizes The litany of unlocks and character customization options are uninteresting and the game modes are all similarly bland - not that it matters since everyone just plays team deathmatch anyway. It all feel like what a less daring developer would see as requisite - a series of boxes that needs to be checked in order to have their game achieve success in today's military shooter market. The problem is that Yager have proven themselves to be quite daring, and considering the singleplayer portion of their game is highly confrontational toward its peers, the inclusion of this sort of multiplayer is extremely problematic. All might've been forgiving if the game's mechanics were as slick, fun and satisfying as, say, Gears of War, but they aren't. Looking at Spec Ops purely as a shooter, with it's immense narrative and superb presentation torn away from it, the experience is rather substandard. The audacious craftsmanship that allowed its singleplayer campaign to be intense and memorable despite not being traditionally fun simply isn't present in the game's multiplayer component.

I've heard some critics say it's unfair to have the game's multiplayer weigh down its significance and meaning as an overall package, but as much as I'd like to focus purely on Spec Ops' singleplayer portion, its overly-traditional and thoroughly unimpressive multiplayer experience provides quite a conundrum. In any other game, this exact online component could be written off as forgettable or tacked-on, but its inclusion in Spec Ops is so contradictory that it comes as a notable detriment to its developer's vision. Long story short, when a developer refers to their own multiplayer mode as a "cancerous growth," you know it's not worth playing.

Spec Ops

Whether or not a video game needs to be fun to be great is a topic that been long debated. It's easy to be inclined to lean towards the side of letting games remain the only purely fun popular entertainment medium, since no doubt most of the images that pop into people's minds when they think of their favorites are some immensely entertaining games. But as incredible as titles like Ocarina of Time, Half-Life, or San Andreas (or what have you) are, they don't provide much diversity in terms of core concepts and design. Though each game features wildly different aesthetics and narrative, they, and most classic games, are built around exploration, triumphing over obstacles, and providing players with a sense of empowerment and accomplishment. Distilling these games down to this formula certainly doesn't capture their quality, but it easily demonstrates how few alternative ideas and designs the gaming industry has tapped into.

Spec Ops: The Line is one of a select group of successful attempts to break free from the mold, and it does so namely by flipping the aforementioned formula on its head; the game features little-to-no exploration, overcoming the game's twisted challenges will make you feel terrible rather than rewarded, and it actively disempowers you in ways that would be to spoilerific to delve into. Add to that a set of core mechanics that aren't all that engaging, and Spec Ops is a thoroughly unfun game. But that doesn't stop it from being one of the most striking, riveting and memorable singleplayer gaming experiences out there. This is simply because every facet of the game (save its disappointing multiplayer) is built with the express purpose of crafting an excellent narrative, and even though traditional fun is sacrificed in the name of driving home its central themes, the message that Spec Ops ultimately delivers hits hard. I, for one, will likely never look at a shooter in the same way again, and that's as good an indication as there could possibly be of Spec Ops' success.

Spinning Off Into Nothing

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The concept of the expanded fictional universe is something I've long been of two minds about. On one hand, when a solid storytelling foundation can inspire authors to build upon and transform the original lore in their own ways (and in their chosen medium), the result can be a truly rich and engrossing mythos. The Star Wars series is perhaps the ultimate example of this in popular fiction. In spite of the fact that the "core" series devised by the original author is only made up of six films (at least half of which are poorly regarded), there exists a vast collection of works that expand upon, and sometime trump, George Lucas's original vision; though the original trilogy may be the Star Warsseries' most quintessential work, it might not hold such an exalted place in modern fiction without the likes of The Thrawn Trilogy, The Clone Wars and Knights of the Old Republic to further support it. A more enduring and classical example would, of course, be Vergil's Aeneid. His epic poem focused on Aeneas, a character of Greco-Roman myth mentioned briefly in Homer's Iliad, and continues and fleshes out his story after the siege of Troy. Being that it is of the world's greatest books in addition to being one that might not exist were it not for a preexisting work, The Aeneid is the perfect example of just how much potential for classic art resides in the spin-off (admittedly, classifying The Aeneid as such seems quite strange, but I guess it's true).

Video games, however, have no Aeneid. They don't have a Star Wars either. In fact, almost no video game mythos, no matter how interesting or well-realized, has ever reached out to another medium with all that much success. Sure, books and comic series based on franchises like Halo, WarCraft, and Mass Effect might provide a simple sort of fun, but they're hardly what I'd call enduring works. This brings me to my second opinion about novelizations, spin-offs, and expanded universes: video games simply aren't suited to them. In most games, players take on the role of a "chosen one" of some form or another, and thus becomes the most important and capable character in the story. The practice of focusing narratives around this particular character archetype isn't all that uncommon across any media, but video games often take the significance of their protagonists to an even greater level for the sake of giving players ultimate agency. Take Mass Effect series for example. Almost no one in the entire mythos does anything significant except for Commander Shepard (and in turn, the player); no one else can solve the galaxy's problems, rally its species and save the day. It's for this reason that book spin-offs are of no use when they originate from a video game's fiction; games go out of their way to empower (and perhaps pander to) their players, and this enabling often makes the rest of the narrative too dull to warrant cross-media expansion. The story worlds of games like Half-Life, Mass Effect and WarCraft simply seem to stand still until players enter them and act as their sole catalysts for change. As such, any sort of narrative expansion that focuses on non-player characters will undoubtedly start to shoehorn in flimsy new plot elements in an effort to make them seem more productive, even if there's little to no indication of their effects on the overarching narrative within the proper games. The Diablo series, for example, is padded with a series of novel tie-ins, but considering just how much players' demon-slaying crusade in the name of loot defines the overall plot, they all feel unnecessary.

MED

Thus far, video game literature, at its pinnacle, reaches a middling level of significance, at best able to be deemed throwaway fun or solid-but-needless filler. It can get much worse from there, however. A number of books have infamously contradicted the narratives of the video games they're based on; the recent Mass Effect: Deception novel has spawned a massive Google Doc dedicated to listing its numerous plot holes and inconsistencies, and Halo: The Fall of Reach was significantly retconned by Halo: Reach. This kind of sloppy writing and poor coordination between author and developer shows a concerning willingness to manipulate franchise fans. The devoted audience will purchase whatever expanded universe stories come their way in hopes of learning more about the mythos they love. In turn, IP rights-holders and authors know this diehard fandom can be easily exploited, and are thus willing to churn out cheap, lazy tie-ins to grab a few extra dollars from the people that are invested in their works the most. In my mind, that sort of business practice crosses the line from the aforementioned realm of "harmless fun" to unethical profiteering; if artists allow others to expand their story, they have a responsibility to make sure the spin-off is executed to a reasonable level of quality before they give their stamp of approval. That's not to say that the spin-off has to be truly great, but it at least has to match up to the core fiction that fans connect to in the first place.

An equally bad practice is when a game with a shoddy story uses its tie-ins as a narrative crutch. I've picked on the Halo franchise quite a bit here, but once again, it's the perfect example of the laziness that expanded universes can allow for. The story, as presented in the games alone, is messy and convoluted. Many fans, however, will tell you to read through all the novels in order to clarify the plot. This is simply absurd. If a game can't tell a good story in the first place, it doesn't deserve to be saved by different authors creating narratives in an entirely different medium. This could all tie back into the nasty business tactic mentioned in the preceding paragraph; the more expansive an author makes their universe, the more potential there is to craft a behemoth franchise, even if the sheer scope of the mythos comes to the detriment of whatever more immediate story is being told.

Fall of Reach

Big-name gaming properties have been trying to imitate the success of the Star Wars series in terms of building a compelling expanded universe for a while now. Unfortunately, such attempts have mostly failed. I suppose it took movies as a medium quite a while to build their way up to a franchise like Star Wars while video games thus far have only had a fraction of the time to work their way into popular consciousness, but the fact is: this medium may never see a similar IP. Modern game design seems to have an unshakeable focus on building mechanics and narratives with the express purpose of creating a fantasy of power and control for the player, and that type of story world - one that revolves entirely around the player character - isn't conducive to expansive stories that warrant further exploration. If the character I control is all-powerful, while almost everyone else is entirely incompetent and incapable, what motivation do I have to learn about their stories through a tie-in novel? If video game novels (or other kinds of spin-offs) are to be truly meaningful, then the games themselves will have to sacrifice a certain amount of player agency in an effort to make the rest of their respective story worlds more interesting. As it stands, games that are overly focused on pandering to their audiences are among the most well-received and highest-selling releases of each year, so the industry probably isn't going to make that change any time soon. Until they do, however, cross-media tie-ins, spin-offs, and expanded universes simply won't work.

In Washington's Shadow - Dead Cell Analysis Continued

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Note: This is the second part of a blog series that was intended to be read as one post. So, if you haven't checked out the first part, I strongly recommend you do so before reading this one. Click here to read part one.

***WARNING: METAL GEAR SOLID 2 SPOILERS AHEAD***

Solidus Snake

Solidus

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Metal Gear Solid 2's main antagonist, Solidus Snake, is the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, he's the lesser of two evils. Or five, to ditch the expression and be more accurate; compared to the nefarious plans of the Patriots, Liquid Snake, the US Navy' with their army of Metal Gears, and the rest of the unleashed Dead Cell freaks, Solidus's intentions are rather noble. Being that he is a former United States president (under the name George Sears), he is one of very few people who is aware of the Patriots' existence. In fact, there are only four characters, including Solidus, who seem to know of the Patriots - the other three being Solid Snake, Otacon and Ocelot. Ocelot, of course, works for the Patriots, but unlike Snake and Otacon, Solidus is the only one willing to do what he feels he must in order to stop them. In fact, by analyzing the character purely for the purposes of seeing what archetypes he most closely matches, Solidus doesn't seem to be a bad guy at all. He was formerly a soldier during the Liberian Civil War, but he (rather inexplicably) overcame his shady history and became President of the United States. However, upon realizing how little power he had, he left his office and made it his goal to find and kill the Patriots. So, here we have a guy with a dark past who decides to live unconstrained by rules and makes it his goal to take down a corrupt power structure - given how many classic anti-heroes this general description matches, from Rorshach to The Man With No Name, John Marston to Han Solo, Solidus doesn't seem so villainous after all. Sure his methods could be seen as extreme, but given how urgent and important his mission is, the debate as to whether or not the ends justify his brutal means simply adds another layer of discussion to this already fascinating story. The game itself almost seems to imply that Solidus is justified; between him and the game's two other main heroes, Snake and Raiden, he's the only one who's ready and willing to confront the Patriots head-on.

However, one of Metal Gear Solid 2's cruel twists is the way he's shaped into a villain merely through manipulating the player perspective; since the Plant chapter is experienced entirely from Raiden's point of view, and Raiden is in turn being mislead by Solidus's nemeses, the Patriots, it becomes easy for players to accept Solidus's role as the antagonist. He's labeled a "terrorist" early and often, and, without having examined his role in the game in a more objective manner, he's made out to be a complete psychopath; before his full intentions are made known in the game's final moments, the disjointed glimpses of his past and present players receive throughout the game seem to indicate depravity rather than humanity. When he pops up during gameplay before Metal Gear Solid 2's climactic moments, it's usually to kill someone or display his power in an overblown manner (his fast-acting steroid-infused suit is particularly absurd), and the bits of information we receive about his past, notably that he was ousted from the Presidency and used Raiden as a child soldier, don't do him any favors. However, during his final monologue, he reveals his purpose in full:

"All I want is to be remembered. By other people, by history. The Patriots are trying to protect their power, their own interests, by controlling the digital flow of information. I want my memory, my existence to remain. Unlike an intron of history, I will be remembered as an exon. That will be my legacy, my mark on history. But the Patriots would deny us even that! I will triumph over the Patriots, and liberate us all, and we will become the 'Sons of Liberty!'"

Of each of Metal Gear Solid 2's major characters, the plight of Solidus Snake is by far the most noble and human. His desire to live free of oppression, protect his legacy, and make a difference in the world is an instantly-relatable, innately human aspiration. To put it in context, let's compare his objectives to those of the game's other major players: Ocelot, Olga and Raiden all serve the conniving Patriots (unknowingly, in Raiden's case), Snake and Otacon seek to investigate Arsenal Gear, Fatman and Vamp merely want to kill and destroy, and Fortune wants revenge. At best, some of these intentions are merely free from any overwhelming sense of morality, at worst, they are downright heinous. Though, again, the justness of his methods can be questioned, Solidus comes closer to any other character in the game to being truly righteous.

Solidus is something of a tragic hero, victim to Metal Gear Solid 2's success in player manipulation. The game does exactly what it needs in order to trick you into killing him, and you'll always comply. The image of his death is a striking summary of his tragic arc. After defeating him in a duel atop Federal Hall, Solidus falls to the ground, and in his final moments, reaches towards the statue of George Washington established in front of the building. All George Sears desired was to claim the same legacy that George Washington did before him. He wanted to be remembered as the same quintessential, idealized American hero who fought bravely for liberty and justice. However, his revolt against the tyranny of the Patriots is put to an end by the player, of all people. Indeed, Solidus Snake seems to be the ultimate deconstruction and reexamination of the boss. Though he is presented as a foe, and players are meant to kill him, he is not the antagonist and the player is not the hero. If anything, the two roles are reversed; the murderous, submissive Raiden comes much closer to fitting an antagonist archetype than the freethinking, honorable Solidus. What greater restyling of the role of the video game boss could there be than to have said boss be heroic, and the player be villainous?

"The most impressive collection of freaks outside of FOXHOUND."

Dead Cell

Each member of Dead Cell represents a reinterpretation of the characteristics and tropes that typify video game villains, and boss characters more specifically. There's Fortune, a seeming badass who's really a whiney pushover, Fatman, an utterly ridiculous, almost comic character who proves to be the game's most persistent threat, Vamp, who seems to belong to an entirely different genre of fiction and gets the better of players despite their best efforts, and finally, Solidus Snake, who isn't much of a villain at all. In order to accomplish these clever twists on the usual video game rogue's gallery, Metal Gear Solid 2 goes to the extremes; the game sacrifices tone and genre consistency, defies player expectations at nearly every turn, creates moments of undue frustration to get its characterizations across, and has a general feeling of self-awareness that's rarely found in AAA video game sequels. While these qualities might not seem like something a highly-anticipated action game should've aspired to, they're exactly what makes Metal Gear Solid 2 such an enduring title. In the context of the series, Sons of Liberty's villains seem to be a response to its predecessor's cast of bosses. Taking down each member of FOXHOUND one by one dominated the original Metal Gear Solid. Despite the fact that the game is only around six hours, there are nine or ten massive boss battles, and at around the halfway point, the game ditches its core gameplay almost entirely in favor of pitting you against one big baddie after another. Sons of Liberty seems to pull away from that dependence on boss battles, giving Dead Cell only a small amount of screen time and comparatively few chances to fight them. The fact that their personalities are so odd and out of place seems to further indicate Kojima Productions' hesitance to become overly-reliant on boss characters. The likes of Psycho Mantis and Revolver Ocelot are generally revered as some of gaming's greatest villains, complete with equally stunning boss encounters; Vamp, Fortune, Fatman and Solidus, on the other hand, aren't remembered quite so fondly. That, however, could be the exact point of these characters. Even at the risk of having the members of Dead Cell not register with gamers as FOXHOUND did, the developers still went ahead and made them as strange, singular and deconstructionist as possible.

In the context of modern pop fiction as a whole, the Dead Cell freaks represent something even more significant than they do merely in the context of the Metal Gear series. In recent years, many landmark pieces of art/entertainment have introduced audiences to monsters, madmen and masterminds who have an unflinching air of gravity and terror about them despite their belonging to stories that inherently lack a certain degree of seriousness; the upcoming Black Ops II has already begun to boast about its frightening and charismatic antagonist despite the rest of the game's cartoonish spectacle, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy has given us more grounded interpretations of the classic villains of the Batman mythos, and the lifeless menace of the Reapers looms over the entire Mass Effect series. These are but a few examples of the many villains who, acting as unknowable harbingers of death and chaos, are more or less tailor-made to chill audiences to the bone. Obviously, fiction has a necessary place for these types of characters - classic bad guys are often more enduring than the bland heroes that face them. However, more room needs to be made for the likes of Dead Cell and the rest of the villains out there who ditch self-seriousness in favor of something more. Too often do villains seem to be created to be mythicized in their own right, almost entirely separate from the fiction they originated in (recent movie-stealers like Heath Ledger's Joker and Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa are prime examples of antagonists who dominate conversations pertaining to their respective stories). Metal Gear Solid 2, conversely, demonstrates that creating antagonists simply for the purposes of furthering a work's narrative and thematic intentions, free from the burden of trying to be iconic enough to be commonplace in cosplay or best-of lists, can yield equally fascinating results.

The Freakshow - An Analysis of Dead Cell

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Note: This essay was originally written as one long piece. However, due to character limits, I'll have to publish it as two parts. I'll probably just post the second half tomorrow so as not to flood people's Tracked Blogs boxes.

***WARNING: METAL GEAR SOLID SERIES SPOILERS AHEAD***

The villains and boss fights found in recent video games often give off the impression that the developer was as intimidated creating them as the player should feel facing them. Games like the Mass Effect trilogy, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Deus Ex: Human Revolution all contain curiously terrible boss fights within otherwise well conceived experiences. Many have argued that bosses have become a tired trope that shouldn't be used as often as they are, and while that's quite a valid assertion, there's no denying just how thrilling a truly great boss fight can be. The Metal Gear Solid series is a perfect example of just how much a compelling rogue's gallery can add to a gaming experience. Whether through a description of their supernatural powers, or via a well-choreographed cutscene, each Metal Gear Solid title gives a menacing introduction for their respective big bads early on; catching a glimpse of your biggest foes so early makes finally facing off with them feel that much more momentous, and the fact that the fights themselves are usually quite well designed (and sometimes truly innovative) makes them that much more engaging.

In terms of their impact on the narrative, most of the series' villains are pretty self-explanatory: the original's FOXHOUND unit, Snake Eater's Cobra Unit, and Guns of the Patriots' Beauty and the Beast Corps are all demonstrations of the horrors of war. The members of FOXHOUND and the BB Corps all suffered some traumatic childhood event (usually involving a war of some kind) that turned them into the freakish, supernatural soldiers that players have to take down. Similarly, the members of the Cobra Unit base themselves and their battle techniques around the negative emotions brought by conflict. Note, however, that there are a few exceptions, The Boss and Revolver Ocelot being the most notable. The Boss is one of the most complex characters in the whole series, and I'll discuss her role in the franchise in a later blog. Ocelot, meanwhile, is something of a free-agent throughout his appearances in the series; he seems willing to work with, and double-cross just about anyone in order to further the aims of the Patriots.

That, of course, leaves one major set of villains unexplained. Like most of Metal Gear Solid 2's narrative elements, the members of Dead Cell seem anomalous, and ultimately require close analysis if one wishes to uncover their true meaning. Even compared to the rest of the franchise's grand roster of weirdo villains, Fatman, Vamp, Fortune and Solidus feel especially abstract. Partly, this is simply because they don't have much screen-time; even though there are much fewer nemeses in Metal Gear Solid 2 than there are in any of the other titles, they rarely take up much time or space during cutscenes, and players have even fewer chances to do battle with them. Partly, however, the thematic qualities that accompany each member of Dead Cell indeed aspire to much greater commentaries than those that can be attached to the series' other villains. On the surface, these baddies might seem too out-there for their own good, but upon further examination, they're some of the most fascinating characters the Metal Gear series has to offer. So, let's break them down in further detail:

Fortune

Fortune

Out of Metal Gear Solid 2's entire cast of villains, Fortune's role in the proceedings may be the most difficult to ascertain. This is mostly because she's probably the least dynamic character in the entire game. Her desire to avenge the deaths of her loved ones is rather cliche, players never have a real chance to fight her, and when she does make the occasional cutscene appearance it's almost always to do the same thing: cheat death and dispatch her foes, wallowing in her sorrows all the while. However, this leads us back to Sons of Liberty's chief narrative concern - the circumvention of player expectations. It's not very often that a big bad villain the audience assumes they should feel intimidated by is really just a detached, self-pitying crybaby.

During the game's earth-shattering climactic sequence aboard Arsenal Gear, her role as a villain is truly flipped on its head. Not only does she learn from Ocelot that her special power (invulnerability) is merely provided by a not-so-special piece of technology that can be found elsewhere throughout the game (including, of all things, a parrot cage), she also gets shot and mortally wounded as soon as all this is revealed. The ensuing moment in which she saves the remaining characters by deflecting a barrage of missiles unaided by her invulnerability device before succumbing to her wounds is the only one in the entire game that makes her feel like an important and intimidating presence. At long last, the strength and mysticism that defines the Metal Gear series' other villains finally appears in Fortune, but the cruel irony of it all is that she dies mere seconds later. In terms of her narrative significance, Fortune is something of a non-entity. She doesn't say or do anything interesting or memorable, but perhaps that's the point. Traditional film, comics, literature and video games have all brought us to expect villains to be as charming and compelling as they are conniving and evil, and that level of dastardly charm is usually doubled when it comes to the Metal Gear series' iconic nemeses. Yet by presenting a villain like Fortune - who's about as interesting, scary and charismatic as a blank piece of paper - we're shown once more how far this game is willing to go to stray away from convention.

Fortune has an equally odd and insignificant role in terms of gameplay as well. Gamers are trained to assume they'll eventually have an epic showdown with any enemy that has a standout look about them, and again, this expectation is toyed with. Raiden and Fortune face off about a third of the way through the game and their battle is anticlimactic to say the least. After a lengthy cutscene that sets up their duel, players are dropped back into gameplay only to be unable to dish out any damage thanks to Fortune's bullet-redirection device. Thus, all they can do is crouch behind some boxes, hoping to avoid being fried by Fortune's railgun until an elevator that they can flee to arrives. The sole purpose of most boss fights is to empower players as they triumph over their most dangerous enemies, but Kojima's take on the familiar scenario is delightfully twisted; the fight against Fortune is not one you struggle through against all odds, it's one you're forced to flee from altogether.

The circumstances surrounding Raiden's escape from Fortune serve as equally clever distortions of the boss fight trope. For one, the cutscene that occurs as Raiden boards the elevator doesn't do much to salvage any semblance of heroism from his actions. This instance isn't the only time a Metal Gear protagonist has faced down a boss without being able to defeat them right then and there; in the original Metal Gear Solid, for instance, Snake has to run away from Sniper Wolf and gets saved by Gray Fox numerous times, but his getaways were always handled in flashy ways that seem to befit a great action hero. This time however, Raiden was able to retreat by way of a mere fluke; as Jack shoots at Fortune, one of the bullets gets redirected and hits Vamp right in the head just as he enters the room. Fortune then stops to mope around for a while, allowing Raiden to get away in the meantime. The reason behind why Raiden was in such a hurry to leave in the first place is also a brilliant way of devaluing this seemingly menacing villain. More or less as soon as the boss battle begins, Raiden receives word that he has to defuse another one of Fatman's bombs before the timer expires. In essence, the game skips over fighting with Fortune because there are more important things to be done.

Fortune represents a great moment of self-awareness for Kojima Productions; though boss fights would remain an undeniably huge part of the series, the brief savaging of the concept done through this character is highly entertaining. There aren't many developers who'd be willing to relegate a villain as outwardly distinctive and imposing as Fortune to such an unremarkable role within their game, but it's yet another one of the brilliantly off-kilter decisions Kojima and company made in order to truly distinguish Metal Gear Solid 2 from not only its predecessors, but from most other games out there.

Vamp and Fatman

Vamp

Metal Gear Solid 2 remains gaming's only postmodern masterpiece. This is a game that's extremely self-aware, constantly willing to test and confronts its players, has almost nothing in the way of tonal stability, and blends elements of various genres on a whim. In many ways, Vamp and Fatman are the perfect summations of Metal Gear Solid 2's nontraditional narrative. The absurdity of these characters is readily apparent in their physical appearances alone. Even in a series known for its odd characters, an obese man with a full bomb-disposal getup who skates around and sips wine through a straw and a super-powered vampire feel more than a little out of place. Strictly in terms of character design, Fatman is more or less the opposite of Fortune; he's physically unimposing to a humorous degree, but he ultimately proves to be one of the game's more prevalent challenges. Vamp, on the other hand, is a perfect example of the game's penchant for genre-blending; vampires are a mainstay in horror stories to be sure, but he's perhaps the only bloodsucker to ever appear in a cyberpunk thriller. It's a shame to see these characters' striking strangeness so often get chalked up to the eccentricity that pervades a number of Japanese games. Vamp and Fatman are undeniable oddball villains, but they aren't merely indicative of the goofiness and whimsy of their creators; their off-putting nature is absolutely integral to furthering the game's postmodern qualities.

In terms of their role in the standard gameplay proceedings, Vamp and Fatman continue to serve similar ends: player annoyance and disempowerment. During the first third or so of the game, players spend the majority of their time hoofing it across the Big Shell to disarm several bombs placed by Fatman. Not only is this sequence frustrating because some of the hiding places for the C4 are so devious, but the overall feeling it gives off is oddly analogous to meaningless fetch-quests housed in many RPGs; the scenario is devoid of any meaningful sort of gratification, and feels slightly artificial in the way it orders you to retread one area after the other. Facing off with the mad bomber is an even more potent mix of surprise and irritation. The staging for the fight against Fatman is, at its core, almost exactly like the duel against Vulcan Raven in the original Metal Gear Solid. Players find themselves in similar, grid-like battlefields and have to figure out how to overcome the boss despite their limited line-of-sight. However, this basic formula is subject to a few notable changes in the fight against Fatman, all of which serve to ramp up the challenge significantly. For one, Raiden doesn't have the Nikita at his disposal at this point in the game, whereas Snake did during his fight with Raven. Without guided rockets to do much of the heavy lifting, damaging Fatman comes down to using the game's imprecise targeting system with small arms, making for a much longer fight. To complicate things further, Fatman occasionally takes the time to plant a few more bombs that require quick defusing. Lastly, right before being dying, Fatman leaves players a cryptic clue about a final bomb having been planted somewhere on the Big Shell. Players who've bested him before will likely move his body to find the last bomb underneath without even thinking about it, but there's no denying the panic it can cause for those who have no knowledge of his final trick. Given Metal Gear Solid 2's seemingly insatiable need to deconstruct almost every trope and gameplay element that defines the franchise, as well as action games in general, it seems fitting that such a complex and challenging battle be designed around one of the most absurd, laughable characters in the game. One could even argue that this unassuming villain is the most significant out of the entire Dead Cell crew; no single enemy has as much direct influence over gameplay objectives as Fatman does thanks to all of his hidden bombs.

Fatman

Vamp largely takes on the same role as Fatman, though in a less pervasive way. Much like the rest of Dead Cell, Vamp doesn't make many in-game appearances, playing a major part in only two brief segments about three quarters of the way through Sons of Liberty. The first time you confront him is in a lengthy boss battle that's often considered to be among the most difficult in the entire series. With a vast set of attack patterns, numerous unexplained damage immunities, and a pit of instant-death water right smack in the middle of the battle area, it's unlikely that any player would be able to beat Vamp on their first go-around (provided they aren't playing on an easy difficulty setting); I've played each Metal Gear Solid game numerous times now, and Vamp is the only boss fight that still gives me quite a bit of trouble. Vamp reappears to haunt Raiden yet again at a most inconvenient time. After an intense shooting gallery style sequence in which players must protect Emma Emmerich as she crosses Big Shell's oil fence, Vamp pops out of the ocean and holds Emma as a human shield. Players must quickly kill Vamp (again) before he stabs EE. The cruel catch, however, is that Vamp will mortally wound her even if players complete this sequence perfectly. Vamp exists solely to taunt players and rub their faces in their inability to stop him.

Vamp's part in Metal Gear Solid 2 presents a rare idea in the world of gaming: a boss that can't be killed; a problem that, no matter how hard one might try, can't be solved. In many ways, he displays the sort of menace a true boss character should. After taunting players through numerous cutscenes and surviving both the Harrier fight and the one-on-one duel, he reemerges one last time to thwart our heroes' plan before slipping away again. Despite there being three separate encounters in which killing him off is the primary goal, such a result can never be managed. In Metal Gear Solid 4, when many assumed that we'd finally have a chance at taking down everyone's least favorite vampire, his eventual death was at the hands of a non-player character. Vamp, it seems, is too good for us.

Check back tomorrow for my analysis of Solidus Snake and my conclusions as to the significance of Dead Cell.

Devil's Pie - Diablo III Review

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I'm still writing up plenty of Metal Gear musings, but I wanted to post my review of Diablo III first. I actually wrote this review about a month ago, but was hesitant to post it because I felt it might've been unnecessarily harsh. However, the recent news of a teen dying after playing the game 40 hours straght has reignited my strong dislike for this game. I'll get back to the MGS-related posts later this week, but for now, here's my review of Diablo III:

The left mouse button has long been relegated to performing PC gaming's most important actions. It pulls the trigger of a gun in shooters, selects your armies in strategy games, and inspects your environment in adventure games. For whatever reason, players and developers alike have fostered a deep connection to this click-centric control style for decades now. And in no series of games is the left mouse button more paramount than in Diablo. It (with the help of right-clicks and some numbered hotkeys) is the center of the universe when you dive into a Diablo play session; it kills your foes, grabs your loot, and moves your character. With Diablo III, Blizzard proves yet again how the simplest of control schemes and premises (the rather brutish cycle of killing monsters and upgrading gear) can reach deep into the reward centers of our brains to provide endless hours of entertainment. But, like a reality TV show or a phoned-in summer blockbuster, this kind of fun lacks any kind of heart and soul. The atmosphere, the tension and the thrills of its predecessors have been stripped away in favor of focusing the experience solely on the popular interpretation of its ethos: spamming the aforementioned few buttons and picking up loot. The game does house a story and some interesting visuals, but they are flimsy beams supporting one sole mechanic - looting enemies. Ultimately, Diablo III represents a wild misinterpretation of what makes video games such a superb medium; a single mechanic does not make for an engrossing experience, no matter how exalted the series' loot-grind has become. A truly great game is one that combines compelling design, aesthetics and narrative to create a rewarding experience - one that captivates you with its world and atmosphere, that makes you think and empowers you, forces you to change your perceptions and gives you something you can take away from it. Diablo III tosses all this away in favor of its randomized loot bonanza as if to say all the aforementioned elements are flimsy pretexts that disguise the true purpose of a gaming experience. Bad move. The false assumption that addictive mechanics are the true meat of a game is what positively ruins this game.

Describing Diablo III's superficial entertainment value is a tricky endeavor; the basis for the entire game is killing monsters to upgrade your character's gear and abilities. Of course, once you upgrade your gear and abilities, you'll no doubt want to kill more monsters to see the satisfying payoff for all your grinding. Yet, as soon as you start killing more monsters, more and better gear drops for you to outfit your character with. And thus, the cycle continues. As you may have noticed, the game is entirely illogical in its most basic essence. It's a digital Ouroboros. Yet despite how fallacious this game's premise is, it's utterly addicting. There is something endlessly entertaining about becoming stronger and stronger and being able to best tougher and tougher combat encounters. The problem, however, is that if one were to think for just a minute about whether this experience is entertaining or enriching in any substantive way, Diablo III's paper-thin, lazy fun-factor all but disappears.

D3

Even if improving your character to face tougher enemies provides a depthless sort of entertainment, it doesn't really build up to much of anything. The crux of Diablo III's replayability is running through the game again with more challenging opposition (and, of course, better loot). Though the game's harder difficulty settings provide a steep challenge, the fact that frustrating instant-kills are implemented to artificially boost difficulty does little to provide either a sense of empowerment or dread. What's more, the game ships with nothing in the way of PvP, and there's no way to show off your character to the Battle.net masses as there was in Diablo II. Further bogging down the fun of Diablo III's character advancement is the new Auction House. Though an integrated method of selling items is a neat idea, it makes finding an exceptional piece of loot rather unimpressive; if you're particularly proud of a certain piece of armor, chances are you could go on the Auction House and find that exact item, if not a better one, for sale. While working through tough combat scenarios to acquire loot can provide some mindless fun, actually getting your hands on good gear is surprisingly devoid of any sort of gratification, especially once you approach the endgame and realize just how little there is to show for all your hard work.

While Diablo III mostly rests on the laurels of its tried-and-true gameplay formula and largely fails to revolutionize the genre in any meaningful way, I must yield that it does feature some interesting new ideas. The biggest change from its predecessors is the way in which the game handles leveling up and picking new abilities and specializations. Gone are the days of freeform character customization; stats are leveled up automatically and by the time you reach level 60 you'll have acquired all available abilities and modifiers. Though old-school purists may cry foul, this less stringent system ultimately allows for deeper customization. The biggest advantage is that it encourages players to experiment. Instead of running to the forums to check out the recommended specialization for your class, you can simply pick and choose different combinations of abilities to see for yourself what set of moves best suits your play style. By simplifying the game's behind-the-scenes stats and damage calculus, as well as giving the players the ability to change specializations on the fly, Blizzard has expertly crafted an immediately accessible, yet deceptively deep approach to character-building.

There are also several smaller tweaks the bolster the game's overall playability. Pesky Scrolls of Identification, Scrolls of Town Portal and Horadric Cubes have all been replaced by basic abilities that don't require inventory space or excessive fiddling. For the newcomer to the series, these changes will likely mean nothing, but veterans will find these improvements very welcome.

Diablo 3

Blizzard applies a lot off MMO sensibility to Diablo III, but unfortunately, it doesn't work all that well. I've already mentioned the inherent problems of the game's Auction House, but there are many more beyond that; always-on DRM has lead to flooded servers (which in turn can cause lag and server crashes), player accounts (including mine) have been hacked into already, and there's no PvP to be found. These problems will likely be addressed down the road, and Diablo III might be all the better for it, but it's undeniably frustrating that issues like this exist within a 1-4 player game. Though Blizzard's goal of building a better, more connected community is admirable, Diablo III's online gameplay is only marginally more accessible due to its online connectivity, and that does little to justify all the heavy detriments of Battle.net's thorough integration. Between its manipulative gameplay and intrusive online components, this is an anti-consumer game through and through.

In the world of gaming criticism, the words "addicting" and "immersive" both imply the same result: the loss of hours upon hours at the hands of a game. However, the experience of spending that time is entirely different based on which word is used. A game that's immersive pulls you in with its clever design, gameplay, story and audiovisual wonders; in short, it provides an experience you can truly luxuriate in and inhabit. A game that's addicting merely does whatever's necessary to keep you hooked. Whether its through experience points, loot, devotion to your guild/clan, or tempting microtransactions, these games know how to pull players in, even agains their best interests. At best, a game that's addicting can also be immersive and wondrous despite its cheap tricks. At worst, an addictive game is downright nefarious in the way it demands tons of time and effort from the audience and gives nothing back in return. Diablo III is one such game, and is thus one of the lowliest kinds there is.

A Time To Expand

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Here's yet another blog of Metal Gear musings in honor of my series playthrough. Once more, I'll be focusing on Metal Gear Solid 2's incredible narrative. I still have at least a couple more MGS-related blogs planned out, so stay tuned for the next few weeks.

The original Metal Gear Solid doesn't shy away from dabbling in some very high-concept themes and narrative devices. Huge plot twists abound, and the game's tone is generally quite out-there; Snake's encounters with his FOXHOUND nemeses feel surreal and the game often indulges in long-winded (and poorly scripted) monologues about the role of nuclear weapons and genetics in warfare. Despite this, the game is clearly still grounded in the straightforward narratives that drive big-budget Hollywood films. When examining the game purely in terms of its adherence to action movie tropes, it seems to have them all: Solid Snake is a badass man-on-a-mission who has to face off with a few dastardly villains to save the day. Along the way, he encounters a love interest (Meryl) and a sidekick (Otacon), and with their help, succeeds in saving the aforementioned day. Looking at the plot from this standpoint, it's something that would probably feel quite comfortable on the back of the DVD case for a summer blockbuster.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, on the other hand, features a story that just barely fits well within the confines of a fourteen-hour, cutscene-driven game. The game hands in its Hollywood inspiration for a heavy cyberpunk influence. In fact, it incorporates almost every major theme cyberpunk stories are known to utilize: meme theory, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, information monitoring and control, and political conspiracy theories all play into Metal Gear Solid 2's narrative in big ways. With a plot dealing in so many abstract and theoretical themes, it's easy to see why Sons of Liberty ditched conventional storytelling almost entirely. A plot that deals in so many speculative ideas simply wouldn't be supported by a standard plot structure; it would be hard for a story to go from huge discussions of personhood in the age of information control to falling back on the save-the-day, get-the-girl tropes that defined its predecessor without feeling a bit jarring.

MGS2

Metal Gear Solid 2's shift in tone was highly divisive; many gamers were frustrated by the convoluted plot while others wrote it off entirely by theorizing that the events of the game actually took place within a bizarre VR exercise, and thus never actually occurred (which was later disproven by Metal Gear Solid 4's continuation of the near-future story arc). However, as deep and cryptic as the result was, Sons of Liberty's stylistic shift was ultimately for the betterment of the series in a number of ways. For one, it gave gamers a break from Solid Snake and his family drama; there are only a few passing mentions of Big Boss, Liquid is out of the picture until the game's climactic scene and Snake himself is relegated to a supporting role. Though some didn't find it a welcome change, seeing a new side of the Metal Gear universe from a fresh perspective brought the series to a whole new level in terms of ambition and scope; the fact that the game also strayed so far from the original's set of influences and conformed to an entirely different genre fiction is further proof of just how humble Metal Gear Solid 2 made its predecessor look.

Another important justification of the game's colossal narrative is the fact that it was unafraid to take risks by introducing story threads without tying them all up by the game's end. Though many of the game's major story arcs are wrapped up by the time the credits roll, there are more than a few that are simply left hanging; of particular note is the game's massive post-credits revelation that each member of the Wisemen's Committee has been dead for a century, the fake Colonel's cryptic explanation of a non-human force governing American politics, and the ultimate fate of Liquid Snake. By allowing these narrative elements to linger rather than finding ways to force their immediate explanation, the continuity between future releases that Metal Gear Solid 2 allowed for made the series that much more compelling. Later entries like Snake Eater, Peace Walker, and in particular, Guns of the Patriots would lose a good deal of their entertainment value if they didn't answer the many fascinating questions that Sons of Liberty left us with.

That is, of course, disregarding all the narrative wonders Metal Gear Solid 2 achieves beyond its surface-level storyline, but that's for another blog. Though not everyone looks back fondly upon Metal Gear Solid 2, it ultimately would've been a greater shame if Kojima never sought to experiment with his mythos. If every entry in the series featured a self-contained story with the same set of characters, themes and aesthetic as Metal Gear Solid, this franchise wouldn't be nearly as remarkable as it is. The 8-bit Metal Gear games and the first Solid title were, in essence, all quite similar, and it took the huge creative gamble that was Sons of Liberty to break the series away from a feeling of sameness. Since then, each big Metal Gear release has continued in the spirit of constantly changing up the proceedings in significant ways; perhaps we would never have seen Solid Snake as an old man in Guns of the Patriots, taken control of his namesake as he crawled through the jungles of Snake Eater or played cooperatively with a few friends in Peace Walker if Metal Gear Solid 2 never dared to give us an overabundance of cyberpunk influence, existential dread and brand new protagonist.