Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review - Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3, 2013)

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a spinoff of Konami's Metal Gear series developed by Platinum Games. Announced in 2009 as Metal Gear Solid: Rising: Revengeance, the game went through development hell for a while, as a bit of footage was released early on but nothing came of it for years. Originally developed by Konami staffers, Revengeance was intended to tell a story that bridged the gap between Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4. It starred Raiden as he transformed from man to cyborg and focused on combat through precision swordplay. Platinum took over the project in late 2011, scrapping the story and instead rewriting it as a sequel to MGS4 set four years after the events of that game. "Solid" was dropped from the title, further emphasizing the game as a spinoff.

While I'm curious to know how things would have turned out if the game had remained an internal Konami project, I'm absolutely thrilled that Platinum of all developers were the ones to salvage it; the result is one of the most ridiculous, fun, and silly action games of the last few years, albeit one that lacks the polish found in some other Platinum titles.

Revengeance is a fast-paced brawler akin to the Devil May Cry series and Platinum's own Bayonetta. Like Bayonetta and Platinum's third-person shooter Vanquish, players have the ability to slow time under certain circumstances. Here, standard attacks build a Blade Mode meter which, when filled, allows the player to slow time and execute precision slashes on whatever enemies and objects they please. Whether you use this ability to dismember enemy cyborgs or to simply carve up watermelons is up to you. When not in Blade Mode, combat is pretty standard for this type of game; your basic weapon is a sword and you eventually unlock three supplemental weapons that work great in different circumstances. Unfortunately, there's no way to quickly swap weapons, and pausing to go into a menu is no fun in a tense fight.

What sets Revengeance apart from other brawlers is its absolute focus on offense. There's no block button and while there is a dodge move that you can and should unlock, it acts as a form of attack as well. Surviving enemy encounters relies of parrying their attacks and countering. Parrying is done by pressing your stick towards the enemy and hitting the standard attack button as the enemy is about to perform an attack. Parries can only be executed when an enemy is actually attacking, so you can't practice the timing outside of battle. This isn't really an issue for me, because the parry window is the largest I've ever seen in any game, but may frustrate some. On top of that, you can pretty much mash towards the enemy while hitting your attack button and continuously parry while mid-combo. This doesn't work so well on the upper difficulty levels, but it works surprisingly well on Hard and below.

In addition to its sword-play, there are numerous explosives that can be found, as well as Metal Gear standard items like cardboard boxes to hide in. Aiming grenades and missiles in this game feels awkward, but if you're already locked onto an enemy, you can just double tap the Item button to quickly launch one in their direction. On Easy through Hard modes, players won't really have to worry about using items. On the top difficulties, Very Hard and Revengeance, items are essential to disabling enemy groups, especially Electromagnetic Grenades which incapacitate enemy cyborgs for a few seconds.

After a certain point in the story, players can activate Ripper Mode by pressing L3 and R3. It's a super powered mode similar to the Devil Triggers in Devil May Cry, but less flashy. In this mode, Raiden gains a massive strength boost and can mow through enemies easily, which is essential on harder difficulties since enemies have a tendency to surround you from off screen and can stun-lock you if they get a hit in. Like missiles/grenades, this option can mostly be ignored on Hard and lower difficulties, though it does help on some bosses before you've got their patterns down.

There are a few tricky bosses, but overall I felt like the game was much too easy on Normal mode, and while Hard gives enemies more life and lets them deal more damage, it's not much of a step up. On the other hand, Very Hard and Revengeance mode are quite challenging, with more aggressive enemies, remixed enemy formations, and attacks that can kill you in just a couple hits, even with fully upgraded stats. The jump in difficulty between Hard and Very Hard was pretty huge for me; I'm still trying to survive the game's final boss on Very Hard. A more difficult Hard mode may have been a better idea for easing players into the higher levels. There are also twenty unlockable Virtual Reality Missions that are more challenging than the main game, especially if you're trying to get gold medals in each course.

When I said earlier that this game lacks the polish of some of Platinum's other titles, I mean that in a few ways. While the physics of slicing objects into tiny pieces is impressive and looks great, the objects themselves are generally unimpressive. There's no weight to anything aside form Raiden and his enemies; trees fall like paper, chandeliers drift slowly to the ground without a crash, and glass falls apart in wooden chunks instead of shattering. All objects in stages feel exactly the same, whether they're huge or tiny, and all fade out of the game world seconds after being cut. I tried standing on a platform and cutting it into progressively smaller pieces to see how little I could leave intact while still being able to stand on it when the whole platform slowly faded out of the game instead. I understand that this is likely a limitation of how many individual interactive objects the PS3 and Xbox 360 can keep in memory at any given time, but it still feels and looks cheap, even if the game's environments and animation are gorgeous.

This game is also very short, and is absolutely front loaded with its content. Much like Metal Gear Solid 4, the majority of Revengeance's gameplay takes place in its first couple of hours (not counting its prologue.) After the fourth chapter, the game repeats part of one stage in reverse and then consists of a series of boss fights, cutscenes, and one very small final location. The boss fights are all stellar, and are some of the most fun in the genre, but it absolutely feels like a game whose developer ran out of time. The first half of the game is so much more fleshed out that the second feels much weaker in spite of being great in its own right.

The timer on my save file said 4 hours and 59 minutes when I first finished it, but this doesn't count time spent in cutscenes or in Codec conversations (there are an enormous number of these and they're among the funniest in the series.) After two more nearly complete playthroughs, skipping every cutscene and collecting every unlockable (95% are very easy to find, the other 5% I looked at a guide for and would have never found otherwise), my clock barely hit 13 hours. The content here is all good, but it feels so brief that I didn't really feel satisfied in the end the way I did after Bayonetta, Vanquish, or a good number of earlier Metal Gear games.

While this is a pretty minor complaint, it does disappoint me that this game has a simple, no frills credits sequence. A game this nuts deserves something as equally nuts as the dance off at the end of Bayonetta and God Hand or the corny shooting segment at the end of Vanquish in which the player is attacked by staff credits. Revengeance just has a rotating sword and a lot of names.

The last thing I want to nitpick is something that I fully accept I won't get much agreement on. This game's music is mostly solid, and I really enjoy most of its instrumental tracks, but I absolutely can't get into the vocal tracks that play during boss fights. I love that the songs get more intense and add more pieces to them as bosses progress through their phases, but while I appreciate how appropriately corny the game's vocal tracks are, I just don't like listening to them. It's not my kind of music, even if it does fit.

Something I do think is perfect are the game's alternate costumes. Raiden can wear a suit and somehow look even creepier, a DLC Gray Fox costume to bring up some strong MGS1 nostalgia, or a sombrero and poncho as part of an Authentic Civilian Disguise that fools no one. They're all good, but sadly the costumes do not persist during cutscenes.

Like all Metal Gear games, players are supported by a variety of allies via Codec. This game's crew is probably my favorite of any Metal Gear support staff; they're all interesting, have plenty of personality, and have a ton to say about absolutely everything if you ask them. It's a welcome change from Peace Walker's terrible, uninteresting support staff. Unfortunately, Revengeance doesn't take Peace Walker's best addition to the series, its ability to let Codec conversations play during gameplay instead of pausing everything to stop for a chat. There's a lot to say about the story, but I don't want to spoil any of it for players who haven't gone through the game yet, so take note:

From here on, I am going to discuss the game's story in depth, and I don't want to just blank out specific spoilers. If you haven't played the game yet, come back here after completing it, but otherwise, you should probably turn back now.

The story here is really a mixed bag of tones and messages. I love the over the top absurdities of Raiden picking up robots a hundred times his size and body slamming them. I love that he has a talking robot dog with a chainsaw tail as a sidekick. I love that the final boss is Senator Armstrong, a nanomachine enhanced Not Dick Cheney (complete with nanomachine pacemaker) with a love of war economies and bad jokes. At the same time, I find the more serious plot points really interesting. I like seeing the Metal Gear world after the fall of the Patriots in Metal Gear Solid 4. It's a harsh, dark look at the fallout of the end of MGS4, where our heroes attempt to free mankind by destroying their overbearing AI overlords. Turns out even without the Patriots, the world's a pretty awful place and people still do terrible things to each other.

Metal Gears are everywhere, culture is a mess, and PMC work is the go to job of the day. It makes everything Solid Snake accomplished in the rest of the series feel completely in vain, and I think that's an absolutely fascinating direction to take things. Raiden's PTSD caused by his abuse as a child soldier is also really interesting to me, and his killing spree being brought painfully to a halt by his opponent allowing him to hear the tortured thoughts of the enemy soldiers he butchers made me feel awful in a way similar to Metal Gear Solid 3's Sorrow encounter. The game's title is at first glance a badass nonsense word, but what it really says is Re: Vengeance, meaning Regarding, emphasized by the way the text is highlighted in the game's title. This is very much a story of vengeance and the way hunting down monsters turns you into a monster.

The big problem is that these two styles don't really mesh well. When the game tries to be funny, it's usually really funny; in fact, it's probably one of the funnier games I've played in recent years. When it tries to go to darker places, it does that well too. It's just that it's really hard for me to reconcile Raiden butchering cops just doing their jobs who absolutely don't want to be there at the same time his Robot Dog makes snide comments and Robot Gorillas pound their chests. There's an absolute disconnect here for me, because it really feels like the game was written by two separate teams and mashed together. The one part where both styles come together well is Senator Armstrong's monologue during his boss fight, in which he rampages in a very typical Metal Gear villain way while lampooning the series' more ridiculous trends; Raiden yells, "Why won't you die?" to which Armstrong responds, "Nanomachines, son!" after he punts our cyborg hero like a football. His whole speech feels like satire of Metal Gear's writing up to this point, and is the strongest moment in the game for me.

While it actually fits the game's satire well, it still feels weird to have characters openly discuss Occupy Wall Street and 9/11. The Metal Gear universe is very loosely rooted in reality, to the point that it broke my immersion a bit to hear characters discuss events in our world. It's just hard to believe 9/11 would have been quite as big a deal in a world where the ex-President of the United States dressed up as Doctor Octopus and rammed a giant robot fortress into the heart of New York. I actually can't recall if previous games discussed Iraq/Afghanistan at all, but it didn't really feel natural here at first.

The player is absolutely meant to feel uncomfortable with Raiden's violence, as everyone, both allies and enemies equally, points out what a monster he's becoming. In spite of the game's extremely violent scenes, I wasn't really bothered by what was happening on screen at first, because I said, "Well, they're just cyborgs." I was shocked when Raiden gave that exact justification (along with "Well, they're terrorists") and it really made the scene in which he gets to hear his victim's thoughts hit me hard. I'm always impressed when a game can make you question what you think and feel while playing it, and because of this the violence here actually serves a purpose and is infinitely more effective than just flagrantly cramming in gore for the sake of gore as too many developers are apt to do. The player and Raiden are absolutely meant to be as one here, simultaneously reveling in and being horrified by what's happening. I think this would have been even stronger if the game wasn't so funny the rest of the time, but I wouldn't really want to give up its humor.

There are a couple other tonal oddities at play here. The game's first major boss, Mistral, is designed in an extremely sexualized way that's over the top in the same way the rest of the game's content is. It fits, and at the same time felt like satire of the ridiculous outfits Kojima stuck the female bosses into in MGS4. I thought this worked great. However, I could have done without literally every member of your support staff commenting on her body, down to Doktor (a pretty funny guy who revels in being this game's Needless Tech Exposition Guy to Raiden's disapproval) talking about the wobbliness of her breasts telling him everything he needs to know about her. Her design works as satire, but these (optional) conversations and the fact that she gropes herself in battle kind of push things a little too far into creepy territory. Being able to cut clothes and censor tape off of sexy model posters in the game's third chapter feels very tame and harmless in comparison. As an inversion of a typical trope, I think it's pretty great that Raiden, the male hero, is the one wearing high heels into battle and has armor sculpted to show off his pecs and crotch. It's just as ridiculous as every female hero stuck in that kind of costume, and feels like a very self-aware wink to the audience.

I'm also unsure how to feel about the character of George, an orphaned child that Raiden rescues from a program designed to create more child soldiers. He speaks in a very thick Guyanese Creole accent and has a lot of really great lines. I love that his reaction to seeing a cyborg ninja in the sewers is to drop Ninja Turtles references. He's such a natural goofy, kind of dumb kid in a way that children in video games rarely are, and I enjoyed his scenes. His dialogue all has two sets of subtitles, the first being his actual Creole dialogue and the second being satirical, drier versions of what he's saying in Regular People English. I do think the intentional discontinuity between what he's saying and what it's translated as is pretty funny, but at the same time it feels uncomfortably like the main joke is "People with accents sure are weird!" I don't think George is a racist caricature, but it does feel a little weird at times.

I'm impressed at how much this game reveres its Metal Gear lineage while at the same time poking fun at its dumber parts. Like many Metal Gears, one of the final encounters is a fist fight on top of the ruins of a giant machine. In a minor fan service sense, you have things like your Data Save Expert, Courtney, drinking from a coffee cup whose handle forms a ? or a ! depending on the camera angle. In a more significant sense, it continues the series' theme of everything working in a cycle; Jack (Big Boss) begets George (Solidus Snake, George Sears), George begets Jack (Raiden), Jack begets George (Orphan.) While I kind of doubt we're going to see a future game in which the new George grows into a ruthless warrior, I do like this detail. Monsoon, one of the game's bosses, rants about societal memes, one of the big focuses of MGS2, and this adds an element of sadness to George's character. Raiden has saved his life, but at what cost? I'm also glad to see Sunny return, since she was such a big part of Raiden's life and why he's the robo-man he is today. She is the only returning character aside from Raiden himself, and while she's not necessary to the narrative, I do think she's important in grounding Raiden as a human being.

Weirdly, Raiden's wife and son are mentioned very, very briefly but serve no role in the story. I expected Rose to call him during his rampage in the game's third chapter, but she is never heard from. They're both fine, living in New Zealand, and that's all we get. With them being so absent, it feels like the resolution of Raiden's arc in MGS4 never really happened. Solid Snake is also absent, and possibly dead, given that the only Codecs about him refer to him in the past tense. As much as I love Snake, this is the perfect way to handle him, since having him be more present in the story, alive or dead, would have distracted from its point.

On a final note, I want to point out my two favorite visual gags in the game: First, while Raiden is remotely controlling a tiny Dwarf Gekko robot, he attempts to plug a cable in by USB and screws up, putting it in upside down. I know it's a joke that's been make a million times, but the execution here is subtle and perfect. Second, when Sunny meet the Blade Wolf, she offers to shake hands as one would a real dog. He obliges. Raiden then tries to do the same, getting as scornful a look as a robot dog can give before turning away. Raiden briefly flashes into Ripper Mode over the rage of being rejected by his dog buddy. This game is absolutely full of little moments like this that give its cutscenes a ton of life, and there's really no major company today that does this as well as Platinum.

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