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Day Z Journal

I've been waking up along the coast, in a world full of the walking dead. It's a strange place, in a foreign land I think. In any case I don't recognize any of it.

It's not a big city, more like a bunch of townships connected by roads. It's an industrial and military area; big factories and bases are scattered around the countryside. But no real urban areas, so it has the feel of an outlying place that is used to peace and quiet.

The zombies are everywhere, making survival tough. Drawing too much of their attention will surely prove fatal given enough time, so it's a world for those with patience. One never knows which building will house which supplies, if any. Even for those who can hunt, it's a life of scavenging. But it's a life, and going after excitement or excess can quickly turn bitterly suicidal.

There are others in this world, of all sorts like in this one. Some are shrill, selfish, or psychotic. Others may be genial, generous, and just looking for a friend. Most are doomed....

Fooled Me Once...

The release of a 17-minute gameplay trailer for Battlefield 4 has everyone abuzzing about the upcoming game. Let me get right to the point: while the trailer is impressive on its own merits, a more historical view has me feeling a little more negatively about the whole thing.

What I'm referring to largely, of course, is Battlefield 3 and its own (impressive) pre-release marketing campaign. If you think back to those trailers, they likewise got a lot of mileage from the obvious TECHNICAL improvements made possible byt the new engine, Frostbite 2. I don't want to quash these or gloss over them, because the Frostbite 2 engine for the record is a beast. In fact, it took no more than the player's avatar running down a backstreet to make it obvious that "first-person" was being elevated in Battlefield 3.

But in the end BF3 ended up being a mess that missed greatness, and despite the advancements the technical aspects suffered too. The key to BF3's disappointment lies in the near-perfection of balance that was Bad Company 2 prior to BF3's release. When everyone saw the technical improvements, we immediately projected previous games' polish onto a future and untested product. Even during the beta, we overlooked glaring flaws.

Worst of all was the complete silence from DICE and EA, punctuated only occasionally by nonsensical statements that glossed over the truth. For months after release, the game was a complete broken pile of excrement, and the developers and publishers did nothing except push their garbage.

If you think back to BF3's release, about a week or less before, Patrick Bach came out in the press with a very unusual statement. At the time I took it as a perfectionist, an auteur, vainly fishing for compliments and veiling it as modesty on the eve of his opus' release. He said that as he looked at BF3, all he could see were the flaws and imperfections, that as a game designer he saw what he planned to improve the next time around.

I'm guessing most of the things he was referring to will be in Battlefield 4. I'm guessing they were quality-control issues he wanted to take time to fix but was forced to or willingly ignored to release the game and feed EA's corporate fantasy of competing with Activision.

It doesn't really matter whether Bach was a puppet/victim or accomplice, the point is a trailer means nothing because it does not represent the game it promotes.

It doesn't matter that BF3's trailers were single-player gampaign, and that they were running on the PC, and that in the end if you look at it through a very narrow lens they were somewhat true to the final experience you got.

The whole point is that even the campaign I played was misrepresented in those trailers. They chose moments that would seem chaotic, but in reality the entire game was that disorienting and sloppy. Not to mention the frame-rate and texture differences, or the A.I.

An argument can be made that we're talking about two different platform generations. The Playstation 4, after all, is promised to equal today's PCs and then some, so it would make sense that it could run anything you might be throwing at it and would level the playing field. But that argument misses another point: the sloppiness in BF3 wasn't just in the techs, it was the balance and game design.

DICE and EA might be working on something that is literally the perfect FPS. BF3 was very nearly there, and a bit more power could very plausibly be all that's need to provide gamers with an enticing shooter experience. Considering some of the sharing capabilities Sony has boasted for their new platform, that alone takes care of about 60% of BF3's hurdles in terms of THIS generation.

Unfortunately, the DICE and EA duo showed their colors to a lot of people during BF3's almost-two-years. I for one will not forget how we were treated, and what we had to play, and it will be very difficult for the Battlefield franchise to get me in the mood again.

If I Wrote MGS5... (Pt. 3)

WHAT I'D LIKE TO SEE IN Metal Gear Solid 5

The following would be the first level, or tutorial, in MGS5. For extra points, put it on the main menu under "Mission Briefing"

We open on a jungle military camp at night, bustling with activity. We see squads armed with assault rifles, lights, and dogs preparing to canvas the immediate vicinity, while another group is loading onto transport trucks to support other locations. As the trucks load up and depart, we see the station commander issue a familiar order to a subordinate, "Stay alert, he'll be through here. We're going hunting." The camera follows him as he boards the last truck, but as it departs the camera stays on a rack of shelves against the wall in the garage. The camera pans up, revealing Solid Snake calmly perched on a support beam. As he watches the soldiers nearby move away he reaches for his radio.

On the other end of the transmission is Campbell, and as usual he commends Snake on his sneakiness and urges him to get on with his objective: rescue Gray Fox and discover Outer Heaven's plans. We realize now this is a flashback to Snake's first mission. Snake proceeds to locate Gray Fox, whom he's tracked to this location. This opening scenario would be very basic, with Snake (clean-shaven and bandana-less) relying entirely on stealth and utilizing 1999-era equipment.

Only able to he approach the cell directly, Snake is spotted and captured. Gray Fox uses the commotion to put his own escape plan into motion, and intervenes to save Snake. However, immediately after he disarms and pins Snake, demanding his identity. After Snake credibly establishes they're on the same side, Gray Fox lets him go. He unapologetically looks him over as he hands back Snake's weapon. They introduce each other, with Snake revealing his name, David. Gray Fox sticks to "Fox". He says grimly, "You're pretty good. You'll need to be, to survive."

The scene now changes to Old Snake, reminiscing on his past as he transports to a monitoring outpost. He is about to oversee a crucial phase in the training of an operative. The exercise is a live one, with real consequences, and already Otacon's chatter is feeding hims the details. Despite his confidence in the subject and the operation, Snake has qualms about their overall goals, as well as personal doubts about his ability and worth as a mentor. All this is quickly sidelined, however, as the operation is beginning.

Now the perspective changes to the Operative, a young woman disguised as a townswoman in the Middle East. Dressed in a burka, she is able to move unnoticed in crowds and communicate via Codec. This allows her to transmit while remaining silent to those around her, but for now she is mute altogether. She moves to intercept a small group of men, two guarding a third, making their way across a square. A large number of security personnel overwatch from the surrounding buildings in key positions, making sure the target is extracted safely.

As the Operative prepares to plant on a tracking device, her own transmission is hacked and used to detonate an explosive placed on the target's route. The bomb explodes, killing the target and many others around him. The death toll is high. The Operative is undamaged by the explosion, but surprised and shocked at the scene. The hack creates some malfunctions, forcing her to abandon her disguise. She is revealed as human wearing an advanced infiltration suit, and she is now conspicuous and vulnerable. Furthermore, the surrounding security personnel are now learning from their people that the activation signal came from nearby. The Operative sees what's happening and takes off, with the security in pursuit.

She outruns all but one, a grizzled Vet who anticipated her escape route. He was a devoted follower of the target who was just assassinated, and he fights bitterly to capture the Operative to make her pay. The Operative is able to defeat him in combat, but only by nearly overloading her advanced hardware to disable his cybernetic body. As he writhes bitterly, unable to get revenge, the Operative stops and addresses him. And now we too hear her voice for the first time, a hardened voice that belies her youth. "You think I murdered your leader. You are wrong. Someone wants us to be enemies."

Wary and in pain, the Vet asks, "Who are you?"

The Operative gives a knowing and bitter smile and says, "I am like you. My name is meaningless." Then she escapes.

******

Well, I hope you enjoyed that. Or at least I hope I didn't make it too groan-inducing. But I wanted to present it like that, a little more cinematically, to get into the Kojima vibe. In any case, I just want to close by explaining why certain things made it into my Tutorial.

You'll notice I essentially have two playable sections right after one another. The thought behind this is to have a preliminary introduction that gets you used to moving and sneaking on its basic levels, without some of the more advanced gadgetry you'll use later in the game. The second section will be faster-paced, with some combat and set in the game's actual modern setting, so after the brief acclimation you get a taste of what the game has in store for you in terms of both story and gameplay.

On a story level it works because it starts with the familiar, Snake infiltratin' like he does, and a little bit of story-ground that hasn't been covered for a while. From there it moves those elements to the present and frames them in a new but relatable way. Most importantly, it ties the past to the new protagonist, in a personal way. This would be an efficient way to get started that hooks the audience and allows for details to be filled in later.

As for the Operative, our female protagonist, I left her name out because I'm not clear on who she should be. There's some options as to the Operative's identity. Sunny, grown up and fighting to protect what Snake and her mother fought for is believable, and her computer skills lend themselves for perhaps an evolution in the gameplay mechanics. It also occured to me that a clone of the Boss, recovered by Snake and Otacon would provide sufficient reason for Snake to feel like he has to do what he can to stop a new threat. It would also provide a compelling moral quandary for Snake to find himself training a clone of the woman who trained Big Boss, especially if at the start of the story Snake and Otacon have elected not to tell her her true origins. I think Meryl is a little played out at this point, besides she got hitched at the end of MGS4. But I wouldn't mind seeing her in a support role.

Also, I think that last line works because it sounds like Gray Fox's line to Snake in MGS1, but it's different enough to usher in a new era for Metal Gear. And I think Snake's relationship to Gray Fox is a good thing to explore for MGS5. There's a lot left to go over there, as Frank Jaeger was so central to Snake's coming up and the events that sealed his fate. It's always been hanging over the story, but it wasn't explicitly developed.

As for what the threat is? Well, Metal Gear was always a weapon that had far-reaching capabilities. First it was global first-strike capacity, then the ability to manipulate data. I think now we should be afraid of...Metal Gear Apollo, an orbiting system of offensive satellites able to target any point on the planet and set it ablaze with powerful energy weapons harnessed from the sun. Sure, it may sound a little hokey, but I think it'd be awesome for the last stage to have you pilot an experimental rocket to infiltrate the control satellite for Metal Gear (captured by the terrorrists, of course). Then you have to space walk and enter the facility, all to fight the last boss for control of the most dangerous weapon ever created!

In light of that, I think the villain should be a very straight-forward antagonist. Of course you want something like a Dead Cell/Cobra Unit to provide a cast of interesting bosses. I envision a group tied to global anti-terrorist activity but also plugged into heavy weapons. The leader of this group has seen the failure of anti-terrorism in a world where globalized nations are too greedy to open its doors to the rest of the world. He has become convinced that the only way to bring peace is to control the world. For that purpose he conspires to take control of NATO's new weapons system, Metal Gear Apollo. He secretly funds terrorist groups, amassing a secret army, while painting a dire picture of the situation. When frightened governments decide to gamble everything on Apollo, they play right into his hands.

I think this provides for a villain that is somewhat sympathetic.

The cherry on top would be in the end the Operative being granted the right by the United States to form the new Fox Hound Unit!

Okay, what do you think?

If I Wrote MGS5... (Pt. 2)

METAL GEAR TOMORROW

So what steps can Kojima take to keep the series fresh, to keep fans coming back to Metal Gear? And which steps will he take, given the many choices he has to make?

The first thing Kojima has to do is deal with the word "Solid". You may have noticed I've left it out of the series' name so far. The point I want to make is this: the Metal Gear Solid story arc, which began on Shadow Moses Island and ended in Arlington National Cemetery, should be put to rest. This may not seem that controversial, and I'm certainly not the firts person to suggest it. But I think it is crucial that this happen.

The series got off to a great start with a game that encapsulated and updated everything that made classic games great. But in terms of storytelling Metal Gear Solid was a success because it told a simple, very straight-forward story that had tangible stakes. Snake had a simple mission: get in the base, stop the terrorists. The story surrounding that very game-y objective worked because it molded itself to the game. But in each successive chapter the growing mythology came to swallow the player's role.

The proof is in the pudding: a playthrough of MGS reveals a game where the long cutscenes can be skipped altogether without sacrificing the continuity of the immediate storyline; a game that can essentially just be played. Compare this to MGS2's or MGS4's stories, where skipping all the cutscenes leaves you with a confusing mess. MGS3 was a welcome return to a satisfying mission/story compromise. As a result, despite its weirdness and apparent triviality, it has become a fan favorite.

It doesn't mean that the story is unsalvageable. But Kojima should just start fresh with a central character and different setting. It doesn't mean we have to forget Snake, Otacon, and the rest of the cast. But since we love them, let's let them actually have a legacy, one that at this point we can say we respect, huh?

The second thing Kojima has to do is deal with the words "Metal Gear". Oh, poor Metal Gear. Once, even a single prototype threatened to destabilize global politics and send the world into chaos. Now, you don't even make an appearance in the games bearing your name. Rex was formidable, but Kojima seemed to take Liquid's comment that Metal Gear alone would not save Mother Russia to mean that Metal Gear should be sidelined. The anticipated Ray became nothing more than one of many boogeymen to guard a Metal Gear that crashes into urban centers, and the Shagohod was decent placeholder, but not quite the same. As for MGS4, if you want to count the fact that the A.I. that Snake destroys is the new Metal Gear, go ahead. I won't join you.

So what Kojima needs to do is rethink Metal Gear itself. What kind of threat makes sense today? Whatever you answered, eliminate anything resembling a "super-virus" because that's just not cool. There's no shortage of war in the world, so let's keep the ideas grounded, okay?

But that's all big-picture stuff. What about the actual story? What should happen in MGS5?

Like I said before, forget Snake as the protagonist. But there's no reason he can't be involved. In fact, I'd really like to see Kojima make the most of the character's "retirement" and show some real growth. Up until now, Snake's been learning a lot of lessons. Now I'd like to see him as a wiser person, having synthesized those lesson and learning instead to pass them along. To whom?

Hopefully, to the series' first female protagonist. I know, it's a trend that could be risky to follow. But I think the series is overdue. Not to call MGS mysoginistic per se, but the cast of female charcaters is short of grounded, relatable members. Strong ones, sure, but except for Meryl no one you can both respect and root for, for the most part.

But what does Kojima himself say about the future of Metal Gear? Very little definite, as usual , but in his sporadic cryptic messages he reveals a little a bout his method. Here's what we know:

Kojima's been working on a new engine, dubbed the Fox Engine. He's told very little about that as well, but it is widely assumed it was built to run MGS5. As for what that is, Kojima has only hinted that it will be very different, possibly with an MMO bent. He certainly seems to have some interest in taking Metal Gear increasingly online. But given the limited success of past online ventures and Kojima's penchant for maintaining control and breaking the fourth wall, I think it's unlikely he will completely abandon a narrative. Instead, I'm more interested in his comments about no longer developing games with exclusivity in mind, as this could affect what kind of games he has in mind.

So, what would I do if I had contol of Metal Gear Solid 5? Check the next post to see!

If I Wrote Metal Gear Solid 5... (Pt. 1)

I'm in the middle of playing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots again (for the sweet, sweet trophies), and thinking about the news that MGS5 is confirmed, with a big announcement from Hideo Kojima in two weeks, and the question just hit me, "What do I want out of a new Metal Gear game?"

It seems like a common question, of course, since Kojima and the series have no shortage of rabid fans who eagerly anticipate and speculate about the next installment in the series.

What I intend to do in this post is take a good look at the series as it stands now, and project where, in my idea, Metal Gear should go next. We'll see in two weeks if I get any of my wishes!

METAL GEAR TODAY

Going through MGS4 in the last few days, I had newfound appreciation for several things in the game, and three things became clear to me. First of all, the game is gorgeous; an artistic and technical achievement that not only holds up but puts some newer games to shame. After 10 continuous months of Battlefield 3 and its Frosbite 2 engine, I can honestly say MGS4 provides an intense and realistic shooter experience well on par with anything currently on the market.

Second of all, MGS4 is a great game. This one may seem obvious, but given the mediocrity of most modern fare and especially their stale campaigns it has to be made clear that this is an entertaining game. The levels are unique, the boss fights are too. There is variety in weapons and tactics and consequences affecting both the story and your gameplay options. The challenge is generally fair, with clear objectives and available, optional, clues. In short, MGS4 creates an inviting experience that keeps you in the control seat, while using realistic touches to immerse you in its world. Not least, the game actually has replay value, which at least makes you feel like you didn't waste your money.

Thirdly, MGS4 is both helped and hindered by its place as the conclusion of the series. Before I get into the meat of this, I want to parse that controversial statement to make absolutely sure it is clear.

The first controversy I want to clear up is that yes, indeed, in the following paragraphs I will be posing MGS4 as both one of the best and one of the most flawed games ever made. I think I make a pretty good case for it, so I hope you'll read on. The second controversy is that MGS4 was the conclusion of the series. Kojima has always been iffy on the series' overall arc and backstory, and he always says each game is the last before returning yet again. Now we have an announcement of MGS5, so it seems the series isn't over. In any case, it doesn't seem too important now but keep it in the back of your head because I'll return to this when I discuss the future of Metal Gear.

MGS4 is definitely one of the best games ever made. In general, the polish of almost every aspect of the game is impressive, but perhaps most astounding is that it manages to take an already ground-breaking series even further in terms of novelty and innovation. But why is it, then, that I get embarassed playing it in front of most people?

The answer is a little complicated, but mostly it has to do with the big, fat "4" in the title. The series had a lot of baggage coming into this chapter, and unfortunately in lots of little ways it held the whole thing back.

And I really do mean little things. The nit-picker's list contains things like having to sit through Screaming Mantis re-enact Psycho Mantis' tirade from MGS. Yes, the first game. Sounds cool on paper, maybe, but hours into the game and its endless cutscenes, after a particularly difficult (read: cheap) boss fight, and given the cinematics' strange (read: Japanese) tone throughout the story, was anyone really impressed by this over-long encounter?

This was symptomatic of the game's general flaw, which was too much story. Too, too much. And then some.

Listen, I get it. You're wrapping up your series. You wanna tie up all the loose ends, and leave it nice and tidy. Maybe you'll pick it up again, maybe you'll let someone else do the heavy lifting. Believe me, I get it. Problem is, you lost us all a long time ago, with MGS2.

There's that controversy again. I'll put it to rest by saying this: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is a fine game, even a brave and visionary one, but it was not the sequel the series needed. And even if you can't agree with that, you have to concede that its ending concerning the Patriots and Raiden's fate is confusing. Worse, Kojima did not address it in the next chapter, which took us backward in the timeline. So going into MGS4 the audience had loads of pressing questions left hanging from MGS2, now muddied by the back-backstory provided in MGS3.

In any case, MGS4 found itself with a lot of story to cover, and collapsed under the weight. Not only does the story still not make any sense, or become comical at too many points, but even with brushing aside major questions the only way to get it across is by using what has to be a record-setting amount of expository dialogue.

Remember, I say all of this as an avid fan of the series, one who has sat through all this dialogue many, many times. I even enjoyed a majority of it, most of the times I was watching it. But I really cannot imagine what someone who never played the previous games thought of MGS4.

There's where that embarassment thing comes from: I wince at what people who aren't gamers think when they see MGS4. Which is really too bad, because when MGS4 is in your hands and in action, it is a glorious, exhilirating experience which in its own way justifies the application of the word "art" to videogames.

So Metal Gear stands today as one of the world's premiere video game franchises, known for pushing the boundaries of what gamers can do and what they will tolerate. Its creator is an eccentric man, whose aesthetic can sometimes border on the sadistic toward his audience, but who undeniably presents the most through-provoking and mature (not to mention verifiably prescient) themes in modern culture in products of astounding quality and, let it be said, **** coolness.

So what's next?